Confronting Gender: Material Lesbianism as Liberation

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Monique Wittig’s The Straight Mind: And Other Essays 

The first half of the collection looks at the category of sex as a political category. Specifically, it is concerned with ”[m]aterialist lesbianism.” Wittig “describe[s] heterosexuality not as an institution but as a political regime which rests on the submission and the appropriation of women (p. xiii).  The second half of the collection is concerned with writing. For instance in “Mark of Gender,” Wittig examines the original meaning of gender and how it represents the linguistic index of women’s material oppression (xvii).

Though Wittig criticizes all possible approaches concerning the dominance of women (metaphysical, scientific, Marxist), she mostly uses Marxist language in her argument about “the compulsory reproduction of the ‘species’ by women, which is “the system of exploitation on which heterosexuality is economically based,” (6). The capitalist-industrial complex relies on the social contract of marriage, which uses a language of “individual” and “free will,” but in reality relies on the reduction of women to instruments of labor and producers of the labor force. The system is fairly straightforward: “For there is no sex. There is but sex that is oppressed and sex that oppresses,” (2).

But, it isn’t merely the material that tramples on the humanity and dignity of women. It is also even the most basic building block of civilization – language. From The Mark of Gender, 1985:

American feminists use gender as a sociological category, making clear that there is nothing natural about this notion, as sexes have been artificially constructed into political categories – categories of oppression. They have extrapolated the term gender from grammar and they tend to superimpose it on the notion of sex. And they are right insofar as gender is the linguistic index of the political opposition between the sexes and of the domination of women….Gender, as a concept, is instrumental in the political discourse of the social contract as heterosexual (77).

Wittig incorporates this analysis of linguistics to illustrate another way that the category of gender even as an abstract concept “acts upon the real as social,” (78). “It is important to consider how gender works in language and how gender works upon language,” (78). Our concept of gender becomes so ingrained in us from the get-go through culture, through language, and it in turn reinforces those categories.

In terms of the topic of psychoanalysis and sexual subjectivity, Wittig’s work suggests to us that the material is not mutually exclusive from the psychological/conceptual/symbolic. She writes, “It is we who historically must undertake the task of defining the individual subject in materialist terms,” (19). And, “The symbolic order partakes of the same reality as the political and economic order. There is a continuum in their reality, a continuum where abstraction is imposed upon materality and can shape the body as well as the mind of those it oppresses,” (58).

Her method is rooted in subjectivity and materialism, and so the emphasis on the political problematizes the assumptions of the general public, which brings to the forefront questions about the origins and originators of the categories, ideologies, and structures that we navigate as individuals and communities. The social reality relies on symbolic language, as Wittig elaborates on in The Straight Mind, and that social reality centers heterosexuality, which itself relies on the dominance of one sex over the other, and is further reinforced through the marginalizing of, using Freud’s language in The Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, those whose sexuality does not fall under the norm.

To enact genuine social transformation Wittig says, “Our survival demands that we contribute all our strength to the destruction of the class of women within which men appropriate women. That’s one of my favorite lines. “This can be accomplished only by the destruction of heterosexuality as a social system,” (20). By defining “woman” in political terms, Wittig wishes to dissociate ‘women’ (the class within which we fight) and ‘woman,’ the myth” (15), and subsequently “suppress men as a class…[through] a political struggle” (15).

For Wittig, the key is the lesbian: “The lesbian has to be something else, a not-woman, a not-man, a product of society, not a product of nature, for there is no nature in society….The refusal to become (or to remain) heterosexual…is the refusal of the economic, ideological, and political power of a man” (13). For Wittig, it is solely the lesbian that is the key to liberation – not only for women but for men, too. The lesbian defies category and definition. This echoes much of liberative theory and theology, that the oppressor and oppressed are tied together, and it is not only the oppressed but ultimately the oppressor that is in need of liberation despite the material benefits that are afforded the oppressor. It’s resisting appropriation – the ways we appropriate words, stories, bodies – and how “the least of these” are often the objects of appropriation and the machines and tools for capitalism.

Lesbianism as liberation. In other words, liberation means dismantling categories especially those that are mandated and regulated by the state for the purpose of benefiting one group of people. What would this look like in and through our churches? Our schools? Any institution? What would it mean to stop trying to define each other by sexuality or gender? What would it look like to be together in this way?