Sexmat, revisited

Sexmat, revisited

Stella sandford

As a genre of intellectual production, ‘feminist theory’ emerged in the 1980s, hot on the heels of the criticisms of the white Eurocentrism and heterosexism of classic second-wave writing. The conjunction of these criticisms and the growing influence of various philosophical and psychoanalytic theoretical elements developed, in one strand of feminist theory, into a questioning of the foundational categories of feminist theory and politics itself: ‘sexual difference’, ‘woman’ and ‘man’. In particular, under the influence of Lacanian psychoanalytic theory in specific fields – notably film theory in the UK – the role of the ‘representation’ of reality in the constitution of reality itself became a central concern. In feminist theory, then, this meant a concern with the constitutive role of the ‘representation’ of sexual categories and a denial that these categories – ‘man’, ‘woman’ – referred unproblematically to a pre-linguistic, pre-social reality. ‘Woman’ was not to be taken for granted; the construction of ‘woman’ as a category was, instead, to be explained. This position was retrospectively characterized as ‘constructivist’ or anti-essentialist, though feminist anti-essentialism is by no means reducible to this strand of feminist theory. [1]

Despite the unsurprising scepticism, if not hostility, of some Marxist and socialist feminist theorists (for example, Michèle Barrett – at least for a while – as discussed below) to these allegedly idealistic new developments, many of these ‘constructivists’ conceived of their theoretical project as part of the ongoing attempt to bring Marxist and feminist theory together. In the UK the relatively short-lived but academically high-profile journal m/f was for a while the main place of publication for this strand of feminist theory. In the first number of the journal (1978) its intellectual-political raison d’être explicitly concerns the development of Marxist feminism. [2] Even so, by the mid-1980s, the first introductions to ‘feminist theory’ were distinguishing between Marxist and socialist feminism, on the one hand, and psychoanalytic and ‘poststructuralist’ feminisms, on the other. Radical feminism and liberal feminism were the other two main strands identified, though radical feminism, identified with its US variant, was already generally seen as a thing of the past. With this distinction, theoretical innovations concerning the basic categories of feminist theory – man, woman, male, female, sex, gender – were mostly presumed to be the preserve of psychoanalytic and poststructuralist (including Foucauldian and Derridean) feminists.

This categorization overlooks the fact that the most far-reaching attempts to reconsider the foundational categories of feminism came – in the 1980s, continuing into the 1990s – in the work of the French materialist (and methodologically Marxist) feminists, most famously Christine Delphy and Monique Wittig. [3] In contemporary anglophone feminist theory the dominant reception of one of the most important aspects of this work – its systematic questioning of the category of sex – has been mediated through its transformation in the work of Judith Butler. [4] This questioning is now usually framed, in a predominantly philosophical debate, in the following way: Is there such a thing as ‘sex’? Does sex exist?

This article revisits some emblematic moments in the short history of the relations between Marxist and feminist theory to reconsider the pertinence of the questioning of the category of sex for that relation. It aims to clarify the specificity of the French materialist feminists’ part in this questioning in order to criticize the form that the debate over ‘sex’ now tends to take and to explain some of the problems with it. [5]

The reproduction of sex

The problems for a Marxist feminism are well known. Can historical materialism give an account of the specificity of women’s oppression? Relatedly – to the extent that the sexual division of labour founded on the different roles of men and women in biological reproduction is part of women’s oppression – what is the relation between social and biological reproduction?

Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex, first published in 1970, proposed bold answers to these questions. Although it is little read today, aspects of The Dialectic of Sex are, surprisingly perhaps, instructive as a way into the contemporary debate about ‘sex’. Firestone addressed the problem of a properly feminist materialist analysis of sex by reformulating it. Rather than asking how to fit sex and biological reproduction into materialist analysis, she asked how materialist analysis must be adapted when sex is prioritized analytically. Firestone’s aim was ‘to develop a materialist view of history based on sex itself’, a project she conceived as a transformative expansion of historical materialism, claiming to follow the analytic method of Marx and Engels. ‘We shall need a sexual revolution much larger than – inclusive of – a socialist one to truly eradicate all class systems’, Firestone wrote, and as the theoretician of this revolution she claimed to take the class analysis of Marx and Engels one step further, ‘to its roots in the biological division of the sexes’. [6] There is, Firestone claimed, ‘a whole sexual substratum of the historical dialectic’ that Marx and Engels perceived only dimly, if at all. Reformulating Engels’s definition of historical materialism, the main thesis of The Dialectic of Sex is thatThe sexual-reproductive organization of society always furnishes the real basis, starting from which we can alone work out the ultimate explanation of the whole superstructure of economic, juridical and political institutions as well as of the religious, philosophical and other ideas of a given historical period. [7]

The ‘dialectic of sex’ is the ‘great moving power of all historical events’. [8]

For Firestone economic class analysis needed to be given its basis in what she called ‘sex class’ analysis. Unlike economic class, sex class – by which she seems to mean the oppressive social form of relations between men and women – ‘sprang from a biological reality’, ‘the sexual division itself’. [9] Radical feminism, she argued, was the first truly materialist analysis of socio-economic forms and their forms of oppression because it was the first to acknowledge this real basis. And although this insistence on the analytic priority and explanatory function of sex is typical of certain radical feminist accounts of women’s oppression, what follows in Firestone’s account is not. On the main points that constitute her distinctive contribution to feminist theory she finds herself in opposition to the mainstream of US radical feminism.

The biological reality of sex division is, she argues, in itself fundamentally oppressive: ‘men and women were created different, and not equal’, and ‘[t]he immediate assumption of the layman that the unequal division of the sexes is “natural” may be well-founded.’ [10] Women’s role in reproduction is fundamentally oppressive; that is, nature is woman’s first oppressor. The reproductive functions that define sex division necessitate the development of a sex class system based on domination – what others called ‘patriarchy’ – until such time as women are freed from this role. This natural-biological problem becomes a political problem – as it is now – when our capacity to overcome it exists but is not exploited. Sex is a natural material condition constraining and limiting human possibility, but ‘now, for the first time in history, technology has created real preconditions for overthrowing these oppressive “natural” conditions, along with cultural reinforcements.’ [11] Existing (natural) relations of reproduction will soon be in conflict with the material (artificial) means of reproduction at our disposal, creating the conditions for a sexual revolution, the transformations of which are necessary for the liberation of all, not just women. Thus Firestone’s first revolutionary demand is ‘the freeing of women from the tyranny of reproduction by every means possible [ultimately, artificial, ex-utero reproduction], and the diffusion of the child-rearing role to the society as a whole, men as well as women.’ In the post-revolutionary period, when we will discover whether such a thing as the ‘instinct for pregnancy’ really exists – Firestone doubts that it does – ‘pregnancy … would be indulged in, if at all, only as a tongue-in-cheek archaism’. Let me be blunt, Firestone writes: ‘Pregnancy is barbaric … the temporary deformation of the body of the individual for the sake of the species.’ For this reason revulsion at the sight of the pregnant female body, the waning of male sexual desire for the pregnant woman, is, she says, a wholly natural phenomenon, not a cultural habit. [12] If, for Marx, the human species first distinguishes itself from other animals through the social production of the means of subsistence (social-historical reproduction), for Firestone women are effectively still animals until biological reproduction, a merely natural phenomenon, becomes social through its being technologically mastered. Biological reproduction is part of the prehistory of the species.

Firestone is a fascinating anomaly in the history of feminism. Although she saw Simone de Beauvoir as her closest theoretical co-worker, the status of The Dialectic of Sex today is closer to that of Valerie Solanas’s SCUM Manifesto, rather than The Second Sex. And it is not hard to see why The Dialectic of Sex became, in Ann Snitow’s phrase, ‘a demon text’ [13] of feminism. Criticism tended to focus on Firestone’s account of women’s role in reproduction and its misogynistic and/or masculinist assumptions. In the context of the Marxist and socialist feminist debates over the nature of women’s oppression and its relation to capitalism, especially in the 1970s at the height of Firestone’s notoriety, the more typical radical feminist claim of the analytic and explanatory priority of sex was also attacked.

And yet Firestone was worth taking seriously.

According to Michèle Barrett (in her 1980 Women’s Oppression Today), ‘Attempts to combine an analysis of social reproduction with an analysis of patriarchal human reproduction represent the fundamental problem Marxist feminism faces.’ [14] Firestone at least tackled this head-on. She also correctly identified the family as the central locus of women’s oppression, [15] although for Firestone this means the ‘biological family’. The family is, according to Firestone, the ‘basic reproductive unit of male/female/infant’, a biological reality prior to any particular, historical ‘form of social organization’ and from which women’s oppression naturally springs. The biological family is ‘an inherently unequal power distribution’ constituting a natural but oppressive division of labour on the basis of ‘the natural reproductive difference between the sexes’, a division of labour in which women and children, via women, are dependent on men. [16] These claims represent, for Barrett, the clearest example of the tendency in radical feminism to biologism, the reactionary retreat into the naturalization of historical-cultural forms posited as causes. [17] As such, we may add, Firestone has not expanded historical materialism, as she claimed, but moved onto an altogether different theoretical terrain, and despite the title of her book there is no more a ‘dialectic of sex’ than there is a merely natural dialectic.

In fact we may distinguish two separate claims in Firestone’s analysis so far. First, the claim that there is a natural, biological division of the sexes, easily identified; second, that this division is inherently unequal and, as the foundation of the biological family, is the basis of the oppression of women. It is this second claim that sets Firestone apart from the mainstream – indeed, the central and defining thrust – of most second-wave feminism, and that is most at odds with the radical feminism with which she is nevertheless often grouped. For Barrett, as for so many feminist theorists, ‘one of the early triumphs of feminist crosscultural work’ was the establishment of the distinction between a biological category of sex and a ‘social’ category of gender. [18] In identifying a causal link between sex division and social oppression Firestone’s analysis undid this distinction, Barrett argues, and fell back into pre-feminist assumptions, speaking against its own professed feminist aims. For Barrett, the fundamental problem for Marxist feminism – the combination of ‘the analysis of social reproduction with an analysis of patriarchal human reproduction’ – must, contra Firestone, be addressed through the category of gender, analytically distinguished from sex. [19]

Now Barrett is surely right to question Firestone’s category of the biological family – at best an illchosen metaphor, at worst a vicious contradiction in terms. But Barrett’s position has its own problems. Her focus on the category of gender, consequent upon the enthusiastic embrace of the sex/gender distinction, leaves the question of the status of sex unasked, allowing various untheorized assumptions about sex to stand. That is, Barrett questions Firestone’s second claim, but not her first. Barrett attempts to chart a path through Firestone’s biologism and what she sees as the idealism of the kind of feminist theory that collapses sex difference into the social construction of gender. In Women’s Oppression Today Barrett explicitly refers to the feminist theory propounded in the pages of the journal m/f. [20] Had Barrett’s book been written fifteen years later, Judith Butler would have been identified as the main anglophone exponent of this tendency. In contrast Barrett, like Firestone, identifies sex difference – or biological differences more generally – as simply existing at a level of reality not open to question. For Barrett, following Sebastiano Timpanaro, sex differences, along with other biological characteristics of human beings, … form part of the raw material on which social relations are constructed and which they transform in the course of history. …[B]iology, the realm of the naturally given, [i]s Lafita Echakhch, Pin-Up (Self-Portrait), 1999–2000the infrastructure on which human social relations must necessarily be built. [21]

Thus Barrett asserts her materialist credentials, accepting, further – rhetorical hesitations notwithstanding – the idea of the ‘biological liabilities’ of the ‘female condition’. [22]

In her basic ontological commitment, then – the naturalistic presumption about the being of sex – Barrett completely agrees with Firestone. For Barrett, as for Firestone, sex just is nature and natural-biological facts are, in themselves, unavailable for analysis or further consideration. Thus Barrett’s ‘materialism’ on this question, because of her reliance on Timpanaro, reduces to a crude naturalism. Although her antiidealism allegedly consists in insisting on the relation between the natural and the social, the natural – sex – is merely mentioned, and then completely subsumed in the analysis of gender relations, such that it is difficult to see, in the final analysis, how her account is effectively of a different type to the ‘idealist’ ones she dismisses. Thus, there is no analysis of sex in Barrett, and – despite her claim that it constitutes the most important question for Marxist feminism – no account of the relation of social reproduction and patriarchal biological reproduction, qua biological reproduction. If this, at least, is not an accusation that could be levelled at Firestone, it is because she, on the contrary, foregrounds sex in an analysis that seems not to recognize a distinction between sex and gender.

Barrett saw very clearly that the distinction between biological and social reproduction, which is necessary for any non-reductive account of the relations of women’s oppression to capitalist relations of production, brings with it its own problems. In particular, the need to include alternative or supplementary categories of analysis, or even systems of relations – such as that of ‘patriarchy’ – leads to conflicts over analytic priority and to difficulties, which even after 1980 Barrett still saw as insuperable, in theoretical harmonization. [23] She did not, however, see the extent to which her embrace of Timpanaro’s naturalism replicated and intensified these problems at a deeper level. Her reliance on Timpanaro leads her to the contradictory position of claiming that a materialist analysis of women’s oppression must ‘take account of the relationship between the natural and the social’ [24] (here, the relationship between biological and social reproduction), whilst simultaneously having nothing to say about it beyond assertions of the explanatory irrelevance of nature (biological reproduction). [25] But this is not an oversight. It is because there is nowhere else to go with a naturalistic concept of sex in the attempt to say something about the relation between social and biological reproduction, or nowhere that does not, finally, concede the assertion of a causal relation between sex and gender, however tenuated. As Barrett admits, at the end of her brief discussion of Timpanaro: ‘in so far as the social oppression of women rests – in however small a way – on biological difference our task is to challenge and change the socially wrought meaning of that difference.’ [26] In the end, then, Barrett does not really contest Firestone’s second claim either – the claim that the appropriation of women has a natural-biological basis.

Politicizing sex

In the context of her criticism of Firestone’s biologism, Barrett acknowledges the ‘major achievement of the work of Christine Delphy and others … the development of a more properly materialist analysis of women’s oppression’. [27] Ironically, from the perspective of Delphy’s later work, Barrett’s naturalistic presumptions about sex are as ‘reductionist’ as the biologism Barrett herself criticizes, and for exactly the same reasons: ‘they subsume complex socially and historically constructed phenomena under the simple category of biological difference’. [28] Indeed, Barrett occupies precisely that position on sex against which Delphy and others – to the extent that they constitute a recognizable theoretical grouping, ‘French materialist feminism’ – seem to constitute themselves.

For Delphy and Monique Wittig, for example, the ‘traditional’ concept of sex as a natural, biological given (contrasted with the ‘social’ category of gender) is revealed as an ideological misconception masking the socio-economic nature of the relation of oppression called ‘sex’. Delphy and Wittig redefine sex in an avowedly materialist way as social sex hierarchy and social sex opposition, refusing not only the traditional concept of natural, biological sex as the determining basis of gender relations, but also the sex/gender distinction in so far as, they argue, it cannot but reproduce the traditional concept of sex. These accounts are ‘materialist’ to the extent that ‘sex’ is thought as a particular social relation enabling the reproduction of the means of existence in a particular social form.

In ‘Rethinking Sex and Gender’ Delphy argues that ‘sex is a sign’ – not a natural fact preceding the hierarchical division of gender but the marker of this social division. Sex ‘serves to allow social recognition and identification of those who are dominants and those who are dominated’. [29] This marker ‘is not found in a pure state, all ready for use … [T]o be used as a dichotomous classification, the [several and variable] indicators [of sex] have to be reduced to just one.’ Although there exist ‘anatomical sexual differences’, [30] it is a social act to reduce these to the existence of an irreducible dichotomy (the production of the sign) correlating with the functional differences between participants in biological reproduction. Thus even ‘male’ and ‘female’ (and not only ‘man’ and ‘woman’, as Colette Guillaumin seems to argue31) are social categories denoting membership of a class – a sex class – which is both constituted by and maintains a relation of exploitation: the appropriation of the labour of one group (‘women’) by another (‘men’).

Even more explicitly – and in direct opposition to Firestone’s fundamental presupposition – Wittig famously claimed that ‘there is no sex. There is but sex that is oppressed and sex that oppresses. It is oppression that creates sex and not the contrary.’ [32] For Wittig the apparently natural fact of sex is rather an ideological production of social life: the effect, masquerading as the cause, of the exploitation of the compulsory domestic and reproductive labour of women – women who are at the same time defined precisely as women through the social obligation to perform this kind of labour. As such sex is, for Wittig, ‘a category of dominance’, [33] naming an oppositional relation between socio-economic groups (or classes), the reality of which is masked by its naturalization.

Delphy’s and Wittig’s achievement here is the formulation of a properly political concept of sex. Their materialist feminism is thus a form of analysis in which ‘sex’ and ‘the social’ already exist on the same analytic plane, such that sex is not a problem for materialist analysis, as it was for Barrett. Sex division or sex class is a political category referring to a specific form of social relation, such that it makes sense to urge its abolition. [34] It does not, on the other hand, seem to make sense that Firestone, with a conflicting conception of sex and a reversed claim about the relation between sex and oppression, should also end up with the same aim: ‘the end goal of feminist revolution must be, unlike that of the first feminist movement, not just the elimination of male privilege but of the sex distinction itself’. [35] This reveals, however, both the fundamental strength and the fundamental weakness of The Dialectic of Sex. Its strength lies in the systematic insinuation of sex as a fundamental category of analysis. But with no distinction between a political and a biological concept of sex, Firestone’s thoroughgoing and often pitiless account of how sex matters in every aspect of social and economic life, its structural importance, falls, disastrously – and, it must be said, sometimes comically – into the grounding thesis of the inherent inequality of biological sex difference and its primary explanatory importance and the proposals for the abolition of biological reproduction. The contradiction between the assertion of the ‘biological reality’ of sex division and its eventual disappearance36 is in fact the dialectic of The Dialectic of Sex, the exposure of the error of its starting point.

The fact that the concepts of sex in Delphy, Wittig and other French materialist feminists refer to a constituting social relation leads Alison Stone to the conclusion that the concepts are, in fact, reconfigurations of the anglophone concept of gender. [37] As this posits a certain shared theoretical concern between the French materialist feminists and the anglophone tradition of gender theory, the specificity of the former, according to Stone, lies not in the form of their concepts of sex (i.e., for Stone, gender) but in their additional, and in Stone’s view analytically independent, denial of the traditional biological concept of sex. Stone then defends a biological concept of sex against Wittig et al., and claims that such a concept is in fact, after all, presupposed by their own non-biological concepts of sex.

Stone is right that the French materialist feminists’ concept of sex is not the ‘sex’ of the anglophone sex/gender distinction, but this does not mean that it is therefore a concept of gender. For there is something specific about it as a concept of sex, distinguishing it from the prevailing anglophone concept of gender. The French materialist feminists’ concept of sex is the central element of a specific political analysis of society, outside of which it is meaningless, whereas the prevailing anglophone concept of gender is the name for a social-psychological set of injunctions, behaviours, identifications and so on, basically a sociological concept which may or may not be part of a political analysis of society. It is precisely this – the relative theoretical autonomy of the concept of gender – that caused Barrett and others so many problems in the attempt to produce a historically materialist account of women’s oppression. According to Barrett, Marxist feminism ‘must identify the operation of gender relations as and where they may be distinct from, or connected with, the processes of production and reproduction understood by historical materialism’. [38] The fundamental theoretical gap between classic historical materialism and a feminism based on the concept of gender – an ad hoc concept in relation to historical materialism – is encapsulated in this ‘as and where … distinct from … connected with’. This does not mean that feminist analysis must bend its will to historical materialism, meekly accepting its terms and conditions. It means that feminist analysis needs a new concept in the formulation of a new materialism. For the French materialist feminists that concept was, precisely, ‘sex’. ‘Sex’ is thus not the disguised object of a gender theory, or the disguised name for the socialpsychological phenomenon of gender, but a conceptual innovation that avoids the theoretical impasses of a Marxist feminism based on the concept of gender.

The French materialist feminists’ political concept of sex is a conceptual innovation intended to displace, through the revelation of its ideological functioning, the reign of the traditional biological concept of sex. This does not, however, equate to a simple denial of biological sex. It is therefore regrettable that Wittig should have said, in ‘The Category of Sex’, that ‘there is no sex’, for this obscures the nature of the problem, allowing (indeed encouraging) the terms and domain of the debate to shift unhelpfully. It allows attention to be diverted from the political analysis, with its political concept of sex, to a problem couched in the terms of a natural-realist ontology: do we, or do we not, find a thing called ‘sex’ in nature? Does sex (by which is meant ‘biological sex’) exist, or does it not? In response, texts like Stone’s ‘The Incomplete Materialism of Materialist Feminism’ reassert the privilege of the biological concept of sex in setting the naturalist, realist terms of the debate – terms, according to which, only a naturalist, realist concept of sex can be defended.

Wittig’s claim that ‘there is no sex’ is, however, followed immediately by an assertion of its existence: ‘there is but sex that is oppressed and sex that oppresses.’ This parallels her claim that ‘“woman” does not exist’, while ‘women’ – ‘the product of a social relationship’ – do. [39] Wittig’s point in both cases is that the dominant biological category of sex and its terms ‘man and ‘woman’ are not ‘eternal’ categories, existing ‘a priori, before all society’, [40] although they function as if they are. The denial of ‘sex’ is really the denial of the legitimacy of this function.

Again, it is regrettable that Wittig should have chosen to explain this with a distinction between ‘being’ and ‘social relations’: ‘The category of sex is the political category that founds society as heterosexual. As such it does not concern being but relationships (for women and men are the result of relationships), although the two aspects are always confused when they are discussed.’ [41] This means: the function of the dominant, biological concept of sex is premissed on an idealist, metaphysical ontology, according to which the ‘being’ of sex and man and woman is determined outside of social relations. Wittig’s political concepts of sex, man and woman, on the other hand, afford them no being outside of their constituting social relations. But it is not therefore necessary to claim, as Wittig does, that the political concepts do not ‘concern being’, as this illegitimately presumes that all ontological claims are metaphysically ideal, that all claims about the being of sex must be claims about its natural being. On the contrary, the possibility of a social ontology of sex is attested in the very definitions of sex provided by Wittig and Delphy, definitions that, precisely, make claims about the social nature of its existence. [42]

Sex matters

The French materialist feminists claimed that the functioning of the biological concept of sex masked the socio-economic nature of the relation of oppression called ‘sex’. The misinterpretation of their work as a denial of the existence or reality of sex has the same result: it masks the political form of their concept of sex. In the context of the wider debate in feminist theory, this suggests that the question of sex ought not to be either that of whether it exists (though it is now predominantly presented that way), or whether and how it can be identified. It ought to be the more precise and extremely difficult question of the character of its existence.

As I have said, a political concept of sex need not involve a denial of biological concepts of sex, in the sense that such a denial would refuse the discourse Milena Dopitová, Dance, 2003of biology the right to its own concepts. The political concept of sex is political in the strong sense – both constitutive of and constituted by the context of a political analysis. As such, the introduction of the political concept of sex is, though, a criticism of the ideological functioning of an uncontested biological concept of sex, in which the latter is itself revealed as political, in the weak sense of mattering politically.

Can there be a biological concept of sex that does not matter, politically? Perhaps, in another world. But the point is: there is no biological concept of sex that does not matter politically so long as the common biological concept of sex continues to perform the ideological function that Delphy and others have identified. Under these conditions, any biological concept of sex matters politically, regardless of the claims made for its neutrality and its analytic independence from gender.

The political concept of sex does not entail a denial of anatomical differences, including anatomical differences relevant to biological reproduction. But part of the work of the political concept of sex in Delphy’s and Wittig’s analyses is to reveal how the acknowledgement of anatomical differences is overdetermined by the ideological function of the biological concept of sex. That is, ‘anatomical differences’, which are multiple and various, are overdetermined as ‘the anatomical differences between the (two) sexes’. Strictly speaking, any further claims about anatomical differences, just like any further claims about the biological concept of sex, are outside the remit of these analyses. However, in relation to the concept of sex at the most general, transdiciplinary level – which is only mistakenly equated with a biological concept of sex – the political concept has the following virtue. It exemplifies the way in which the question of sex in which feminists have a stake does not concern opposing knowledge claims. The struggle over the meaning of sex is not a dispute to be settled; the struggle over ‘sex’ is part of its meaning. [43]


1. ^ For example, the influential anti-essentialism (and anti-biologism) of Lynne Segal’s Is the Future Female? (Virago,

London, 1987) was not exactly ‘constructivist’.

2. ^ Some of the best known of the papers, and some of the editorials, from m/f are collected in Parveen Adams and Elizabeth Cowie, eds, The Woman in Question: m/f, Verso, London/New York, 1990.

3. ^ Delphy led the French challenge to the anglophone category of ‘French feminism’, a category which tended to include Hélène Cixous, Luce Irigaray and Julia Kristeva to the exclusion of all other French feminists. To the extent that its reductive, homogenizing gesture made these theorists exotic to their Anglo-American readers,

Delphy sees the category as imperialistic. It is worth noting that the category of Marxist feminism is also an anglophone one. Delphy and Wittig identify themselves instead as ‘radical feminists’.

4. ^ Of course some anglophone feminists were propounding and defending the French materialist feminists’ work before Judith Butler hit the big time in 1990 (Stevi Jackson, for example.) But Delphy’s and Wittig’s historical presence in anglophone women’s studies and other disciplines is now overshadowed, in contemporary internationalized feminist and queer theory, by their mediation via Butler, for good or for ill. See Stevi Jackson, Christine Delphy, (Sage, London, 1996) for an account of the reception of Delphy’s work (passim) and Butler’s non-materialist appropriation of Wittig, in particular (pp. 136–7).

5. ^ This article is a revised version of a paper given at the Radical Philosophy Conference, ‘Materials and Materialism’, 12 May 2007, incorporating a response to Alison Stone’s paper ‘The Incomplete Materialism of French Materialist Feminism’, which is also published in this issue of Radical Philosophy, above.

6. ^ Shulamith Firestone, The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution, Paladin, London, 1972, p. 20. See also pp. 12,

15. ^

7. ^ Ibid., p. 14.

8. ^ Ibid., p. 21.

9. ^ Ibid., p. 16.

10. ^ Ibid.

11. ^ Ibid., p. 183.

12. ^ Ibid., pp. 193, 216, 224, 188.

13. ^ Ann Snitow, ‘Feminism and Motherhood: An American Reading’, Feminist Review 40, Spring 1992, p. 34.

Mary O’Brien’s The Politics of Reproduction (Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1981) is another interesting anomaly. A Marxist like Firestone, O’Brien valorizes the female role in reproduction and sees the oppression of women as a reactive result of men’s alienation from this natural process.

14. ^ Michèle Barrett, Women’s Oppression Today: Problems in Marxist Feminist Analysis, Verso, London, 1980, p. 29.

15. ^ Ibid., p. 152.

16. ^ Firestone, The Dialectic of Sex, p. 17.

17. ^ Barrett, Women’s Oppression Today, p. 195.

18. ^ Ibid., p. 13.

19. ^ According to Barrett, Marxist feminism ‘must identify the operation of gender relations as and where they may be distinct from, or connected with, the processes of production and reproduction understood by historical materialism’ (Ibid., p. 9).

20. ^ Ibid., p. 87. Barrett singles out one of Parveen Adams’s essays from 1979, ‘A Note on the Distinction between Sexual Division and Sexual Differences’, reprinted in Adams and Cowie, eds, The Woman in Question, for particular opprobrium.

21. ^ Barrett, Women’s Oppression Today, p. 74.

22. ^ Ibid., p. 75. Again, Barrett takes the idea of ‘biological liabilities’ from Timpanaro.

23. ^ See ibid., pp. 10–29.

24. ^ Ibid., p. 74.

25. ^ See ibid., pp. 76–7.

26. ^ Ibid., p. 76.

27. ^ Ibid., pp. 13–14.

28. ^ Barrett, Women’s Oppression Today, p. 12. This criticism of Barrett is explicit in Christine Delphy and Diana Leonard, ‘Parts of Capitalism: Accounts of Women’s Oppression in the Family by Traditional Marxists’, inFamiliar Exploitation: A New Analysis of Marriage in Western Societies, Polity, Cambridge, 1992, pp. 46–7, 48 fn

7. ^ In the second edition of Women’s Oppression Today, with the new subtitle The Marxist-Feminist Encounter (Verso, London, 1988), Barrett acknowledges criticisms of the sex/gender distinction but maintains a common-sensical attachment to the evidences of biology (p. xxv). She did not, however, maintain her attachment to Marxist analysis. Barrett’s ‘traditional Marxist’ criticisms of Delphy can be found in Michèle Barrett and Mary McIntosh, ‘Christine Delphy: Towards a Materialist Feminism?’, Femimist Review 1, 1979. Delphy replied with ‘A Materialist Feminism is Possible’, trans.

Diana Leonard, Feminist Review 4, 1980.

29. ^ Christine Delphy, ‘Rethinking Sex and Gender’ (1993), trans. Diana Leonard, in Kelly Oliver, ed., French Feminism Reader, Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham MD, 2000, p. 69.

30. ^ Ibid., pp. 69,

71. ^

31. ^ In ‘The Question of Difference’ (in Oliver, ed., French Feminism Reader) Colette Guillaumin argues that the categories of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ are ‘social groups which maintain a determined relationship’ (p. 114) in concrete forms – her example here is the hierarchy of wages – which guarantee ‘the physical material maintenance of one class, that of men (and the children of men), by another class, that of women’ (p. 112).

Like Delphy and Wittig, Guillaumin claims that the social form of the sex group or class is masked by its ideological confusion with the biological category of sex.

32. ^ Monique Wittig, ‘The Category of Sex’(1976/1982), in The Straight Mind and Other Essays, Beacon Press,

Boston MA, 1992, p. 2.

33. ^ Ibid., p. 5.

34. ^ See Wittig, ‘The Category of Sex’, p. 3: ‘The class struggle is precisely that which resolves the contradictions between two opposed classes by abolishing them at the same time that it constitutes and reveals them as classes.

The class struggle between men and women, which should be undertaken by all women, is that which resolves the contradictions between the sexes, abolishing them at the same time that it makes them understood.’ See also p. 8, where, it is claimed, it is about time to abolish the ‘declaration’ of sex.

35. ^ Firestone, The Dialectic of Sex, p. 19.

36. ^ See ibid., pp. 16, 180–81. On the goal of the abolition of sex in Firestone see Mandy Merck, ‘Prosthetic Gestation: Shulamith Firestone and Sexual Difference, New Formations 46, The Prosthetic Aesthetic, Spring 2002.

37. ^ Stone, ‘The Incomplete Materialism of French Materialist Feminism’, p. 20. To be fair, Delpy, at least, has often proclaimed the usefulness of the category of gender, and on occasion even her preference for it. See Delphy, ‘Rethinking Sex and Gender’; Jackson, Christine Delphy, Chapter 5, ‘The Question of Gender’, p. 115 ff.

38. ^ B

Arrett, Women’s Oppression Today, p. 9.

39. ^ Monique Wittig, ‘One is Not Born a Woman’ (1981), in The Straight Mind and Other Essays, p. 15.

40. ^ Wittig, ‘The Category of Sex’, p. 5.

41. ^ Ibid., p. 5.

42. ^ The same kind of formulation of the problem occurs in Colette Guillaumin’s ‘The Question of Difference’: ‘[T]he idea of characteristics “appropriate” to a group relies heavily upon a completely mythic belief in the independence of the opposing groups, in their existence per se. As if the groups of men and women could exist in themselves and show a permanence which would allow them to be defined outside of their relationship to each other. . In summary, somewhere behind all that there lurks a conception of the sexes in terms of BEING’ (p. 107). Guillaumin also supplies the reply: ‘human societies consider themselves to be divided into men and women. In this they are not wrong, without, however, being right about the mode of existence of the two groups. For there do exist in fact two groups in the heart of society in which we live, two classes which are born of a social relationship, and whose social existence is masked by anatomico-sexual division’ (p. 108). For an argument for the cogency of a non-essentialist existential ontology of sex, see Stella Sandford, ‘Contingent Ontologies: Sex, Gender and “Woman” in Simone de Beauvoir and Judith Butler’, Radical Philosophy 97, September/October 1999, pp. 18–29. On the material reality of gender categories see Jackson, Christine Delphy, pp. 116–7, 137–8.

43. ^ See Isabelle Stengers, ‘Diderot’s Egg: Divorcing Materialism From Eliminitavism’, Radical Philosophy 144, July/August 2007, p. 7. subscribe online at