By Linda, Asha – Lesbians for Liberation
There is no doubt that women face oppression in society today. The perpetuation and normalization of women’s oppression, however, could not have been accomplished without the universal framework. The “universal” is a framework which centers men as the standard and anyone who deviates from it as “different”, or inferior. It is a framework that is ubiquitous in nature, and very effectively naturalizes women’s oppression. From the universal framework stems justifications for women’s place under patriarchal capitalism: women are biologically inferior to men; women are innately more “feminine” and “inclined” to be domestic housewives; women are naturally subhumans in need of paternalism—the woman must serve and center men until her death. These are the obvious examples of misogyny that have been and continue to be permeate and drive society today.
The universal is a framework that shapes the consciousness of society—compelling the mind to center men as the norm and women as the supplemental. This framework for understanding society has great impact on how women are treated in organizing spaces and liberatory movements. When there have been movements to liberate workers, the male worker was the subject to be liberated. When there have been movements to end racism, it was the man of color who took center stage—the women of color, in this case, were not “marginalized” but entirely erased. Adhering to the universal framework, women are an afterthought at best—their struggles either reduced to the bourgeois/proletariat antagonism or wholesale invisibilized. In each of these cases, there is a failure to clearly and ruthlessly critique how the universal framework has tainted the consciousness and as a consequence, revolutionary movements.
Monique Wittig said, “One is not born a woman.” (1) Through this quote, Wittig drives home the point that nobody is innately a “woman”—this quote proves especially salient in the face of the “universal”. The “universal” centers men as the natural superior to women, and women’s place in society as a natural consequence of their biological difference from men. Liberal feminists claim to care for women’s liberation yet adhere to the very framework that propagates women’s inferiority as a natural result of women’s biological difference from men.
But if one is not born a woman, how is one made into a woman? “Woman” is engendered upon women as a class via the violent enforcement of all the roles and expected behaviors of womanhood. Womanhood is defined by the forced subordination to and centering of men in women’s lives. All the labor roles, norms, and standards which accompany womanhood serve the material interests of patriarchal capitalism and benefit men as a class. The woman must cook, clean, and rear because it is the labor that maintains and reproduces society. Furthermore, the woman must always be for male consumption—every action she takes must be carried out with the man’s interests at heart. She can be hypersexualized and objectified by men, but she can never possess true autonomy over her personhood. A woman’s body is for the consumption and gaze of men—and never should she believe that she owns it or has autonomy over it. Rape, understood through a materialist lens, is an institution. Marital rape, for example, remains legalized and normalized in most countries in the world. Outside of marital rape, rape victims rarely (if ever) find justice and rapists are glorified; their violence justified. Through rape, women are controlled, dominated, forced into obedience—through rape, womanhood is enforced upon women as a class. Womanhood necessitates the fear and submission of women, always. Through fear of poverty, women are forced to stay in abusive relationships. Through fear of worthlessness, women are compelled to be on the constant lookout for a man to center in their lives. Through fear of rejection, women are made to dehumanize and hyper or desexualize themselves for male consumption and validation. The fear that permeates womanhood perpetuates the subordination of women to men. Never does a woman have autonomy or power over her own circumstances within this vicious structure. These are the tenets of womanhood.
The “universal” portrays womanhood as “innate” to women as a class via the propagation of women’s supposed biological difference (read: inferiority) from men. The “universal” not only erases trans women, but naturalizes the subjugation of womanhood and violence of patriarchy. If women are “innately” inclined to be “passive” or “fearful”, then the logical conclusion is that women’s oppression is natural and the rape of women justifiable. This is the violence of the universal framework.
There are many supposed “revolutionaries” who implicitly and explicitly, through their actions, support the universal framework and all its violence. These “revolutionaries” care about women only insofar as women can be tools used to further their own cause. These “revolutionaries” view women’s liberation as supplemental and secondary; as reducible to the bourgeois/proletariat antagonism and therefore depolitical. These “revolutionaries” patronize women and treat women as children who need to be “empowered”, rather than comrades they should actively be listening to and working in solidarity with. These revolutionaries don’t explicitly state their hatred for women or their support for the rape of women, but in practice participate in the perpetuation of this violently misogynistic framework.
“This thought which impregnates all discourses, including common-sense ones (Adam’s rib or Adam is, Eve is Adam’s rib), is the thought of domination.” (2)- Monique Wittig
Womanhood’s complement within the “universal” is manhood. Womanhood would not exist without manhood, which requires the domination and control of women. These two interlinked modalities within patriarchy are cemented by the universal framework. Together, womanhood and manhood create the structural gender binary, which is violently enforced upon every subject of patriarchy—women and LGBT people in particular. Manhood, commonly referred to as “toxic masculinity” by radical liberals, is inherently violent. There is no man who does not benefit materially from manhood, similar to how there is no white person who does not benefit materially from whiteness. Manhood entails the abuse and control of women, lack of emotional empathy, the construance of the man’s most irrational and illogical emotions as “rational”, and the general entitlement to women’s labor and time. Manhood stunts men and prevents them from ever becoming worthy comrades or reciprocatory human beings. Manhood is detrimental to men’s psyche but beneficial to all men materially—at the expense of women as a class. Manhood is unequivocally incompatible with liberatory revolution.
The “universal” centers manhood as the norm and naturalizes manhood and womanhood as essential to men and women as classes. The “universal” violently reinforces the dominance and abuse of women via the stigmatization of empathy and kindness as unnatural traits in men. All men who cling to manhood are misogynists and actively perpetuate the oppression of women. It is only through ruthlessly interrogating and betraying the “universal”, manhood, and all that they entail, that men can become traitors to the class of men and join women in fighting for liberation from patriarchal capitalism.
Women who transgress the requirements of womanhood face unique forms of marginalization, stigmatization, and dehumanization. Monique Wittig said, “Lesbians are not women.” While lesbians are surely classed as women and face violent misogyny and homophobia under patriarchal capitalism, lesbians are not considered “women”—they are considered “spoiled goods” in need of “disciplining”. This is because lesbians subvert the central core of what it means to be a “woman”: centering men in their lives. As a result of this transgression, lesbians face forced conversion—often manifested in corrective rape; sexual and domestic violence driven by misogyny and homophobia (lesbophobia); and disproportionately high rates of poverty and homelessness. Since lesbians are considered “spoiled goods”, they are not considered objects worthy of the social contractual “protection” given to heterosexual men’s objects, heterosexual women. In this sense, lesbians are not only fugitives of womanhood—lesbians are not women.
Here again, liberal feminism fails to interrogate the root causes of women’s oppression. In fact, through adhering to the universal framework’s conception of women as “biologically different than men”, liberal feminism effectively perpetuates women’s oppression. It is unstated, but the meaning of difference within the “universal” is one which necessarily renders women to be naturally inferior. There is no such thing as “equality” or “agency” within a framework that entails the violent subjugation of women—a reality which liberal feminism actively obscures. In addition, via the propagation of bioessentialist rhetoric, liberal feminists actively participate in the transmisogynistic erasure of trans women.
Take for example trans women’s overrepresentation in sex work. Sex work is a gendered form of exploited labor based on the violent commodification of women’s bodies for male consumption. As a result of the systematic exclusion in the labor market and disproportionately high rates of evictions, homelessness, and poverty trans women face, they are often driven to the only work available to them for survival: sex work. The overrepresentation of trans women in sex work speaks to the violent material oppression and feminization of labor that trans women face under patriarchal capitalism, which is naturalized by the “universal”. Similar to how any form of paid work outside the home was criminalized and violently suppressed (whilst the destitute conditions which drove women to seek such work in the first place were maintained) during the era of primitive accumulation (3), trans women forced into sex work face “…high levels of interaction with the police. (4) In addition, the intense pressure foisted upon trans women to adhere to heterosexuality and dehumanize themselves for male consumption parallels their overrepresentation in sex work. It is clear that any “feminism” which adheres to the universal framework is violently transphobic and unequivocally counterrevolutionary to women’s liberation.
The failure to properly critique how the universal framework continues to be adhered to and perpetuated within supposedly “revolutionary” political movements have had dire material consequences. Spaces that claim to advocate for “liberation of oppressed peoples” in practice reproduce the very axes of oppression—patriarchy, racism, ableism—they claim to fight against. The general lack of effort to engage with understanding how axes of oppression target specific identities via capitalism has resulted in supposedly “revolutionary” spaces being dominated by overwhelmingly white, heterosexual, and male voices. This chauvinism has resulted in the rampant rape, abuse, and violence against the very women, BIPOC, and disabled people whose liberation these movements claim to fight for.
Self proclaimed “revolutionaries” who eschew identity politics—in the process completely failing to understand what they are even denouncing—hold an idealist and anti-Marxist understanding of how the numerous axes of oppression work via capitalism. Ultimately, these “revolutionaries” in practice adhere to the violent universal framework, and fail to understand that identity is not an “aesthetic”, but materially constructed.
There is no hope for liberation using the oppressor’s framework. Just as revolution can not be achieved via the bourgeois electoral system, adhering to the violently oppressive universal framework will never bring true liberation. One needs only to look at the history of liberatory struggles to understand that oppression will not simply cease because marginalized peoples learn to speak in the oppressor’s language.
This is why Materialist-Feminism is not just important, but necessarily central to any movement that claims to be “liberatory”. Materialist-Feminism subverts the violent naturalization of the “universal”, instead presenting a different framework—a liberatory framework. Through Materialist-Feminism, the root of women’s oppression can be understood as not “biological”, but rooted in the material structures of patriarchal capitalism. Through a dialectical materialist lens, the gendered division of labor and construction of the antagonistic classes of men and women can be understood as the material roots of women’s oppression under patriarchy. Materialist-Feminism is ideology and praxis; it is the active effort to center women and dismantle bioessentialist notions of gender which naturalize women’s oppression. Materialist-Feminism refuses to speak on the oppressor’s terms, instead offering a framework which understands “women” as a socially constructed class antagonistic to the class of men—and the destruction of patriarchal capitalism as integral to the liberation of all subaltern women.
1. Wittig, Monique. “One is not born a woman.” The lesbian and gay studies reader (1993): 103-109.
2. Wittig, Monique. “The category of sex.” Sex in question: French materialist feminism (1996): 24-29.
3. Federici, Silvia. Caliban and the Witch. Autonomedia, 2004.
4. Fitzgerald, Erin, et al. Meaningful work: Transgender experiences in the sex trade. National Center for Transgender Equality, 2015.