About “One is not born a woman” by Monique Witting Essay
About “One is not born a woman” by Monique Witting
Monique Wittig was born in July 3, 1935 in the Haut Rhin department in Alsace. She moved to Paris in the 1950s, where she studied at the Sorbonne. Her first novel, L’Opoponax, published by Minuit in 1964, immediately drew attention to her when it was awarded the Prix Médicis by a jury that included Nathalie Sarraute, Claude Simon, and Alain Robbe-Grillet. Praised by such influential writers, the novel was quickly translated into English, where it also won critical acclaim.
Wittig became very involved in the events surrounding the revolt of students and workers in May of 1968. Like many others, she realized that the radical men leading the revolt were not inclined to share leadership. Wittig was one of the first theoreticians and activists of the new feminist movement.
It was in this atmosphere of radical political action that she completed what is often considered her most influential work — Les Guérillères – published in 1969. Revolutionary both in form and content, this novel has been widely translated, debated, and used as a source of ideas by many major feminist and lesbian thinkers and writers around the world.
In May 1970, Wittig co-published what can be described as the manifesto of the French feminist movement. Ever since, Wittig’s works have included both fiction and non-fiction essays evolving an ongoing dialogue between theory and literary practice. Throughout the early ’70s, Wittig was a central figure in the radical lesbian and feminist movements in France. She was a founding member of such groups as the Petites Marguérites, the Gouines rouges, and the Féministes révolutionnaires.
In 1973 she published Le Corps lesbien (translated into English in 1975 as The Lesbian Body), and in 1976 Brouillon pour un dictionnaire des amantes (translated into English in 1979 as Lesbian Peoples: Material For A Dictionary), co-authored by her partner Sande Zeig. In 1976 Wittig and Zeig moved to the United States.
From that time on, Wittig turned her attention increasingly toward theoretical works, and a number of her most famous essays date from the late ’70s and early 80s. In a variety of genres ranging from the philosophical essay (“The Straight Mind”) to the parable (“Les Tchiches et les Tchouches”) she explored the intersections of lesbianism, feminism, and literary form.
Most of these essays were published in two journals. She became part of the editorial collective of France’s major theoretical journal, Questions féministes, and she was advisory editor to an American journal, Feminist Issues, founded in part to make available in English the important works being published in France, notably in Questions Féministes. Her work became truly bi-lingual, as she translated her own work from English into French, and vice-versa.
She also translated Djuna Barnes’s Spillway as La Passion. Earlier translations include Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man and the Portugese The Three Marias’ Nouvelles lettres portugaises. She was a professor in women’s studies and French at theUniversity of Arizona in Tucson, where she died of a heart attack on January 3, 2003. Monique Wittig called herself a “Radical lesbian.” This sensibility can be found throughout her books, where she depicted only women.
To avoid any confusion, she stated: “There is no such thing as women literature for me, that does not exist. In literature, I do not separate women and men. One is a writer, or one is not. This is a mental space where sex is not determining. One has to have some space for freedom. Language allows this. This is about building an idea of the neutral which could escape sexuality”.
A theorist of material feminism, she stigmatised the myth of “the woman”, called heterosexuality a political regime, and outlined the basis for a social contract which lesbians refuse: “…and it would be incorrect to say that lesbians associate, make love, live with women, for ‘woman’ has meaning only in heterosexual systems of thought and heterosexual economic systems. Lesbians are not women.” (1978)
For Wittig, the category “woman” exists only through its relation to the category “man”, and “woman” without relation to “man” would cease to exist. Wittig also developed a critical view of Marxism which obstructed the feminist struggle, but also of feminism itself which does not question the heterosexual dogma. Through these critiques, Wittig advocated a strong universalist position, saying that the rise of the individual and the liberation of desire require the abolition of gender categories.
Simone de Beauvoir said: “One is not born, but becomes a woman”. Wittig states that there is no “natural woman” and that the idea of being feminine is created by society. She also notes that since a lesbian society does exist, this defeats the idea of “natural woman.” However, Wittig recognizes that many people still believe the oppression of women is “biological as well as historical”. Wittig explains further that this could never be a lesbian approach to women’s oppression because it is based on the idea that the beginning of society is heterosexuality.
Also, biology or the capability of having children is not enough to define Woman. Wittig also discusses the idea that sex is like race in the sense that it is visible and therefore seems to belong to some kind of natural order. This leads to the lesbian perspective that this perception of Woman is very “unnatural” because it was created and based before the women’s liberation movement. Wittig states: “To refuse to be a woman, however, does not mean that one has to become a man” .
Meaning, that refusing to “be a woman” is simply just refusing to accept imposed ideas of femininity. She also clarifies: “Thus a 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 is society” It is not enough to simply promote women (“woman is wonderful” concept); it is the idea of being a man or a woman “which are political categories and not natural givens” that needs to be rejected.
A materialist feminist approach sees women and men as separate classes. Therefore, the goal is “to suppress men as a class, not through a genocidal, but a political struggle” . This means that if there was no longer a class called “men,” there would no longer be a class called “women.” The first step would be to dispel the myth of Woman. Wittig states that “‘woman’ is there to confuse us, to hide the reality ‘women’” . She believes that the new focus would be on personal identity.
Wittig also presents a Marxist perspective. She states that Marxism lead to two results for women: the order of men and women was assumed to be natural and the conflict between men and women was hidden behind a “natural division of labor”. Also, if women united it would threaten the strength of the people in a Marxist society.
Wittig concludes by calling attention again to the rejection of the myth of Woman. She believes that the categories of sex must be destroyed and that all sciences that use these definitions should also be rejected. She again comes back to the model of lesbianism; she states that this is the only category that goes beyond woman and man currently. So, in order to reject this myth of Woman we must destroy “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”
Her discussion is based on Simone de Beauvoir’s quote: “One is not born a woman, 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 (a man who has been castrated), which is described as feminine”. “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 is what defines a woman”
“Before the socioeconomic reality of black slavery, the concept of race did not exist, at least not in this modern meaning, since it was applied to the lineage of families” “But what we believe to be a physical and direct perception is only a sophisticated and mythic construction, an imaginary formation, which reinterprets physical features (in themselves as neutral 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.” ….said to belong to a natural order.” “To refuse to be a woman, however, does not mean that one has to become a man [referring to lesbians]……. Thus a 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 always meant to refuse to become a man or a woman, consciously or not. For a lesbian, this goes further…. It is the refusal of the economic, ideological and political power of a man.” “… 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….. 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.”
Feminist- “Someone who fights for women as a class and for the disappearance of this class… Someone who fights for woman and her defense-for the myth, then, its reinforcement.” Early feminism – “…for them these features where natural and biological rather than social. They adopted 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…” “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”. “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.”
“There is no possible fight for someone deprived of an identity…” Speaking of Marxism – “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 into a natural relation… 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.”
“The opposite is also true; without class and class consciousness there are no real subjects, only alienated individuals….. The advent of individual subjects demands first destroying the categories of sex.” “We are escapees from our own class in the same way as the American runaway slaves were then escaping slavery and becoming free” “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 sexes to justify this oppression.”
Reference to previous readings
Women’s Time – Julia Kristeva (giving birth as a realization of womanhood) The Laugh of the Medusa – Cixous (beauty myth)