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One Is Not Born A Woman

by Monique Wittig

One Is Not Born A Woman is the text of a speech given at the City University of New York Graduate Center, September 1979. It was first published in French as « On ne nait pas femme » in the journal Questions Féministes, no. 8, mai 1980. The english version was first published in Feminist Issues vol. 1 no. 2 (Winter 1981).

A materialist feminist [1] approach to women's oppression destroys the idea that women are a « natural group » : « a racial group of a special kind, a group perceived as natural, a group of men considered as materially specific in their bodies. » [2] What the analysis accomplishes on the level of ideas, practice makes actual at the level of facts : by its very existence, lesbian society destroys the artificial (social) fact constituting women as a « natural group. » A lesbian society [3] pragmatically reveals that the division from men of which women have been the object is a political one and shows that we have been ideologically rebuilt into a « natural group. » In the case of women, ideology goes far since our bodies as well as our minds are the product of this manipulation. We have been compelled in our bodies and in our minds to correspond, feature by feature, with the idea of nature that has been established for us. Distorted to such an extent that our deformed body is what they call « natural, » what is supposed to exist as such before oppression. Distorted to such an extent that in the end oppression seems to be a consequence of this « nature » within ourselves (a nature which is only an idea). What a materialist analysis does by reasoning, a lesbian society accomplishes practically : not only is there no natural group « women » (we lesbians are living proof of it), but as individuals as well we question « woman, » which for us, as for Simone de Beauvoir, is only a myth. She said : « One is not born, but becomes a woman. No biological, psychological, or economic fate determines the figure that the human female presents in society : it is civilization as a whole that produces this creature, intermediate between male and eunuch, which is described as feminine. » [4]

However, most of the feminists and lesbian-feminists in America and elsewhere still believe that the basis of women's oppression is biological as well as historical. Some of them even claim to find their sources in Simone de Beauvoir. [5] The belief in mother right and in a « prehistory » when women created civilization (because of a biological predisposition) while the coarse and brutal men hunted (because of a biological predisposition) is symmetrical with the biologizing interpretation of history produced up to now by the class of men. It is still the same method of finding in women and men a biological explanation of their division, outside of social facts. For me this could never constitute a lesbian approach to women's oppression, since it assumes that the basis of society or the beginning of society lies in heterosexuality. Matriarchy is no less heterosexual than patriarchy : it is only the sex of the oppressor that changes. Furthermore, not only is this conception still imprisoned in the categories of sex (woman and man), but it holds onto the idea that the capacity to give birth (biology) is what defines a woman. Although practical facts and ways of living contradict this theory in lesbian society, there are lesbians who affirm that « women and men are different species or races (the words are used interchangeably) : men are biologically inferior to women; male violence is a biological inevitability ... » [6] By doing this, by admitting that there is a « natural » division between women and men, we naturalize history, we assume that « men » and « women » have always existed and will always exist. Not only do we naturalize history, but also consequently we naturalize the social phenomena which express our oppression, making change impossible. For example, instead of seeing giving birth as a forced production, we see it as a « natural, » « biological » process, forgetting that in our societies births are planned (demography), forgetting that we ourselves are programmed to produce children, while this is the only social activity « short of war » [7] that presents such a great danger of death. Thus, as long as we will be « unable to abandon by will or impulse a lifelong and centuries-old commitment to childbearing as the female creative act, » [8] gaining control of the production of children will mean much more than the mere control of the material means of this production : women will have to abstract themselves from the definition « woman » which is imposed upon them.

A materialist feminist approach shows that what we take for the cause or origin of oppression is in fact only the mark [9] imposed by the oppressor : the « myth of woman, » [10] plus its material effects and manifestations in the appropriated consciousness and bodies of women. Thus, this mark does not predate oppression : Colette Guillaumin has shown that before the socioeconomic reality of black slavery, the concept of race did not exist, at least not in its modern meaning, since it was applied to the lineage of families. However, now, race, exactly like sex, is taken as an « immediate given, » a « sensible given, » « physical features, » belonging to a natural order. But what we believe to be a physical and direct perception is only a sophisticated and mythic construction, an « imaginary formation, » [11] which reinterprets physical features (in themselves as neutral as any others but marked by the social system) through the network of relationships in which they are perceived. (They are seen as black, therefore they are black; they are seen as women, therefore, they are women. But before being seen that way, they first had to be made that way.) Lesbians should always remember and acknowledge how « unnatural, » compelling, totally oppressive, and destructive being « woman » was for us in the old days before the women's liberation movement. It was a political constraint, and those who resisted it were accused of not being « real » women. But then we were proud of it, since in the accusation there was already something like a shadow of victory : the avowal by the oppressor that « woman » is not something that goes without saying, since to be one, one has to be a « real » one. We were at the same time accused of wanting to be men. Today this double accusation has been taken up again with enthusiasm in the context of the women's liberation movement by some feminists and also, alas, by some lesbians whose political goal seems somehow to be becoming more and more « feminine. » To refuse to be a woman, however, does not mean that one has to become a man. Besides, if we take as an example the perfect « butch, » the classic example which provokes the most horror, whom Proust would have called a woman/man, how is her alienation different from that of someone who wants to become a woman ? Tweedledum and Tweedledee. At least for a woman, wanting to become a man proves that she has escaped her initial programming. But even if she would like to, with all her strength, she cannot become a man. For becoming a man would demand from a woman not only a man's external appearance but his consciousness as well, that is, the consciousness of one who disposes by right of at least two « natural » slaves during his life span. This is impossible, and one feature of lesbian oppression consists precisely of making women out of reach for us, since women belong to men. Thus a lesbian has to be something else, a not-woman, a notman, a product of society, not a product of nature, for there is no nature in society.

The refusal to become (or to remain) heterosexual always meant to refuse to become a man or a woman, consciously or not. For a lesbian this goes further than the refusal of the role « woman. » It is the refusal of the economic, ideological, and political power of a man. This, we lesbians, and nonlesbians as well, knew before the beginning of the lesbian and feminist movement. However, as Andrea Dworkin emphasizes, many lesbians recently « have increasingly tried to transform the very ideology that has enslaved us into a dynamic, religious, psychologically compelling celebration of female biological potential. » [12] Thus, some avenues of the feminist and lesbian movement lead us back to the myth of woman which was created by men especially for us, and with it we sink back into a natural group. Having stood up to fight for a sexless society, [13] we now find ourselves entrapped in the familiar deadlock of « woman is wonderful. » Simone de Beauvoir underlined particularly the false consciousness which consists of selecting among the features of the myth (that women are different from men) those which look good and using them as a definition for women. What the concept « woman is wonderful » accomplishes is that it retains for defining women the best features (best according to whom ?) which oppression has granted us, and it does not radically question the categories « man » and « woman, » which are political categories and not natural givens. It puts us in a position of fighting within the class « women » not as the other classes do, for the disappearance of our class, but for the defense of « woman » and its reenforcement. It leads us to develop with complacency « new » theories about our specificity : thus, we call our passivity « nonviolence, » when the main and emergent point for us is to fight our passivity (our fear, rather, a justified one). The ambiguity of the term « feminist » sums up the whole situation. What does « feminist » mean ? Feminist is formed with the word « femme, » « woman, » and means : someone who fights for women. For many of us it means someone who fights for women as a class and for the disappearance of this class. For many others it means someone who fights for woman and her defense — for the myth, then, and its reenforcement. But why was the word « feminist » chosen if it retains the least ambiguity ? We chose to call ourselves « feminists » ten years ago, not in order to support or reenforce the myth of woman, nor to identify ourselves with the oppressor's definition of us, but rather to affirm that our movement had a history and to emphasize the political link with the old feminist movement.

It is, then, this movement that we can put in question for the meaning that it gave to feminism. It so happens that feminism in the last century could never resolve its contradictions on the subject of nature/culture, woman/society. Women started to fight for themselves as a group and rightly considered that they shared common features as a result of oppression. But for them these features were natural and biological rather than social. They went so far as to adopt the Darwinist theory of evolution. They did not believe like Darwin, however, « that women were less evolved than men, but they did believe that male and female natures had diverged in the course of evolutionary development and that society at large reflected this polarization. » [14] « The failure of early feminism was that it only attacked the Darwinist charge of female inferiority, while accepting the foundations of this charge — namely, the view of woman as 'unique.'  » [15] And finally it was women scholars — and not feminists — who scientifically destroyed this theory. But the early feminists had failed to regard history as a dynamic process which develops from conflicts of interests. Furthermore, they still believed as men do that the cause (origin) of their oppression lay within themselves. And therefore after some astonishing victories the feminists of this first front found themselves at an impasse out of a lack of reasons to fight. They upheld the illogical principle of « equality in difference, » an idea now being born again. They fell back into the trap which threatens us once again : the myth of woman.

Thus it is our historical task, and only ours, to define what we call oppression in materialist terms, to make it evident that women are a class, which is to say that the category « woman » as well as the category « man » are political and economic categories not eternal ones. Our fight aims to suppress men as a class, not through a genocidal, but a political struggle. Once the class « men » disappears, « women » as a class will disappear as well, for there are no slaves without masters. Our first task, it seems, is to always thoroughly dissociate « women » (the class within which we fight) and « woman, » the myth. For « woman » does not exist for us : it is only an imaginary formation, while « women » is the product of a social relationship. We felt this strongly when everywhere we refused to be called a « woman's liberation movement. » Furthermore, we have to destroy the myth inside and outside ourselves. « Woman » is not each one of us, but the political and ideological formation which negates « women » (the product of a relation of exploitation). « Woman » is there to confuse us, to hide the reality « women. » In order to be aware of being a class and to become a class we first have to kill the myth of « woman » including its most seductive aspects (I think about Virginia Woolf when she said the first task of a woman writer is to kill « the angel in the house »). But to become a class we do not have to suppress our individual selves, and since no individual can be reduced to her/his oppression we are also confronted with the historical necessity of constituting ourselves as the individual subjects of our history as well. I believe this is the reason why all these attempts at « new » definitions of woman are blossoming now. What is at stake (and of course not only for women) is an individual definition as well as a class definition. For once one has acknowledged oppression, one needs to know and experience the fact that one can constitute oneself as a subject (as opposed to an object of oppression), that one can become someone in spite of oppression, that one has one's own identity. There is no possible fight for someone deprived of an identity, no internal motivation for fighting, since, although I can fight only with others, first I fight for myself.

The question of the individual subject is historically a difficult one for everybody. Marxism, the last avatar of materialism, the science which has politically formed us, does not want to hear anything about a « subject. » Marxism has rejected the transcendental subject, the subject as constitutive of knowledge, the « pure » consciousness. All that thinks per se, before all experience, has ended up in the garbage can of history, because it claimed to exist outside matter, prior to matter, and needed God, spirit, or soul to exist in such a way. This is what is called « idealism. » As for individuals, they are only the product of social relations, therefore their consciousness can only be « alienated. » (Marx, in The German Ideology, says precisely that individuals of the dominating class are also alienated, although they are the direct producers of the ideas that alienate the classes oppressed by them. But since they draw visible advantages from their own alienation they can bear it without too much suffering.) There exists such a thing as class consciousness, but a consciousness which does not refer to a particular subject, except as participating in general conditions of exploitation at the same time as the other subjects of their class, all sharing the same consciousness. As for the practical class problems — outside of the class problems as traditionally defined — that one could encounter (for example, sexual problems), they were considered « bourgeois » problems that would disappear with the final victory of the class struggle. « Individualistic, » « subjectivist, » « petit bourgeois, » these were the labels given to any person who had shown problems which could not be reduced to the « class struggle » itself.

Thus Marxism has denied the members of oppressed classes the attribute of being a subject. In doing this, Marxism, because of the ideological and political power this « revolutionary science » immediately exercised upon the workers' movement and all other political groups, has prevented all categories of oppressed peoples from constituting themselves historically as subjects (subjects of their struggle, for example). This means that the « masses » did not fight for themselves but for the party or its organizations. And when an economic transformation took place (end of private property, constitution of the socialist state), no revolutionary change took place within the new society, because the people themselves did not change.

For women, Marxism had two results. It prevented them from being aware that they are a class and therefore from constituting themselves as a class for a very long time, by leaving the relation « women/men » outside of the social order, by turning it into a natural relation, doubtless for Marxists the only one, along with the relation of mothers to children, to be seen this way, and by hiding the class conflict between men and women behind a nat ural division of labor (The German Ideology). This concerns the theoretical (ideological) level. On the practical level, Lenin, the party, all the communist parties up to now, including all the most radical political groups, have always reacted to any attempt on the part of women to reflect and form groups based on their own class problem with an accusation of divisiveness. By uniting, we women are dividing the strength of the people. This means that for the Marxists women belong either to the bourgeois class or to the proletariat class, in other words, to the men of these classes. In addition, Marxist theory does not allow women any more than other classes of oppressed people to constitute themselves as historical subjects, because Marxism does not take into account the fact that a class also consists of individuals one by one. Class consciousness is not enough. We must try to understand philosophically (politically) these concepts of « subject » and « class consciousness » and how they work in relation to our history. When we discover that women are the objects of oppression and appropriation, at the very moment that we become able to perceive this, we become subjects in the sense of cognitive subjects, through an operation of abstraction. Consciousness of oppression is not only a reaction to (fight against) oppression. It is also the whole conceptual reevaluation of the social world, its whole reorganization with new concepts, from the point of view of oppression. It is what I would call the science of oppression created by the oppressed. This operation of understanding reality has to be undertaken by every one of us : call it a subjective, cognitive practice. The movement back and forth between the levels of reality (the conceptual reality and the material reality of oppression, which are both social realities) is accomplished through language.

It is we who historically must undertake the task of defining the individual subject in materialist terms. This certainly seems to be an impossibility since materialism and subjectivity have always been mutually exclusive. Nevertheless, and rather than despairing of ever understanding, we must recognize the need to reach subjectivity in the abandonment by many of us to the myth « woman » (the myth of woman being only a snare that holds us up). This real necessity for everyone to exist as an individual, as well as a member of a class, is perhaps the first condition for the accomplishment of a revolution, without which there can be no real fight or transformation. But the opposite is also true; without class and class consciousness there are no real subjects, only alienated individuals. For women to answer the question of the individual subject in materialist terms is first to show, as the lesbians and feminists did, that supposedly « subjective, » « individual, » « private » problems are in fact social problems, class problems; that sexuality is not for women an individual and subjective expression, but a social institution of violence. But once we have shown that all so-called personal problems are in fact class problems, we will still be left with the question of the subject of each singular woman — not the myth, but each one of us. At this point, let us say that a new personal and subjective definition for all humankind can only be found beyond the categories of sex (woman and man) and that the advent of individual subjects demands first destroying the categories of sex, ending the use of them, and rejecting all sciences which still use these categories as their fundamentals (practically all social sciences).

To destroy « woman » does not mean that we aim, short of physical destruction, to destroy lesbianism simultaneously with the categories of sex, because lesbianism provides for the moment the only social form in which we can live freely. Lesbian is the only concept I know of which is beyond the categories of sex (woman and man), because the designated subject (lesbian) is not a woman, either economically, or politically, or ideologically. For what makes a woman is a specific social relation to a man, a relation that we have previously called servitude, [16] a relation which implies personal and physical obligation as well as economic obligation (« forced residence, » [17] domestic corvee, conjugal duties, unlimited production of children, etc.), a relation which lesbians escape by refusing to become or to stay heterosexual. We are escapees from our class in the same way as the American runaway slaves were when escaping slavery and becoming free. For us this is an absolute necessity; our survival demands that we contribute all our strength to the destruction of the class of women within which men appropriate women. This can be accomplished only by the destruction of heterosexuality as a social system which is based on the oppression of women by men and which produces the doctrine of the difference between the sexes to justify this oppression.


[1] Christine Delphy, « Pour un féminisme matérialiste, » L'Arc 61 (1975). Translated as « For a Materialist Feminism, » Feminist Issues 1, no. 2 (Winter 1981).

[2] Colette Guillaumin, « Race et Nature : Systeme des marques, idée de groupe naturel et rapports sociaux, » Pluriel, no. 11 (1977). Translated as « Race and Nature : The System of Marks, the Idea of a Natural Group and Social Relationships, » Feminist Issues 8, no. 2 (Fall 1988).

[3] I use the word society with an extended anthropological meaning; strictly speaking, it does not refer to societies, in that lesbian societies do not exist completely autonomously from heterosexual social systems.

[4] Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex (New York : Bantam, 1952), p. 249.

[5] Redstockings, Feminist Revolution (New York : Random House, 1978), p. 18.

[6] Andrea Dworkin, « Biological Superiority : The World's Most Dangerous and Deadly Idea, » Heresies 6 :46.

[7] Ti-Grace Atkinson, Amazon Odyssey (New York : Links Books, 1974), p. 15.

[8] Dworkin, op. cit.

[9] Guillaumin, op. cit.

[10] de Beauvoir, op. cit.

[11] Guillaumin, op. cit.

[12] Dworkin, op. cit.

[13] Atkinson, p. 6 : « If feminism has any logic at all, it must be working for a sexless society. »

[14] Rosalind Rosenberg, « In Search of Woman's Nature, » Feminist Studies 3, no. 1/2 (1975) : 144.

[15] Ibid., p. 146.

[16] In an article published in L'Idiot International (mai 1970), whose original title was « Pour un mouvement de liberation des femmes » (« For a Women's Liberation Movement »).

[17] Christiane Rochefort, Les stances à Sophie (Paris : Grasset, 1963).

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