Nicola Stott argues that "woman" is a label well worth keeping

This is a guest post by Nicola Stott. Nicola is studying for a PhD at the Centre for Women’s Studies, York University. Her focus is upon women’s friendships and radical feminism. Her background is in social work.

felt female symbol.jpgDeconstructing women – it sounds painful, and in my opinion it very well might be. Postmodernist and poststructuralist theorists argue that the category of “woman” is entirely socially and culturally constructed, and as such wish to “deconstruct” the category. In denying any essential sense of self or identity they are consequently no longer concerned with speaking of “women” as a group. Similarly the postmodernist theories of feminism seek to explain the oppression of women in terms of gender relations rather than overarching theories of patriarchy. I want to explain why I am worried about the move towards such fluidity and transiency that the term “woman” will soon be entirely redundant.

In the heyday of “women’s liberation”, the term “woman” was flung about with enthusiasm and pride; feminists were busy reclaiming our solidarity and our sisterhood. With hindsight it was far too narrow in its understanding of women’s experiences. But, I can forgive this. It was new and it was learning on the job. I don’t really buy it was entirely white and middle class but there’s no denying it was not inclusive or diverse enough. Critiques developed and this early feminism was challenged and it responded.

Feminist theory is now more inclusive. We’ve still a long way to go in understanding the diversity of experience that exists across the globe and still many women have no voice and are yet to have their narratives and experiences heard and understood. But we are trying and we are listening.

Feminist theory has progressed even further. We are now in danger of falling off the opposite end of the spectrum. In their postmodernist deconstructing of the category of “woman” some feminist theorists are seeking to do away with the category altogether. I am not advocating a naive essentialism or biological determinism but I do think there is a half-way house. As women we have, although to differing degrees, a shared history and culture, a shared relationship with oppression in its various forms. I think there is strength to be found in uniting within the category of “woman”. It is an important label, it has a history of struggle and it links us to our foremothers. Of course our sense of self is extremely complex and ever evolving; it intersects with a great number of other ideas of self. However, for me being a woman is the defining identity, it cuts across other areas of my life. That does not mean those other areas do not exist – just that being a woman is my primary identity.

I like the category of women and the idea of womanhood. I don’t want to pull it to pieces until there is nothing left. I want to be proud to be a woman. I am happy for it to be a diverse category, and I am really happy for it to be debated and challenged. I accept its limitations. But, let’s not give in yet, let’s not be so “fluid” and so without a conception of “woman” that we can’t find any commonalities at all.

As a feminist I want to find shared experiences between women, I enjoy being with women and I want to live a life which encompasses friendships with other women. I am happy to celebrate difference and diversity. I am keen to debate the concepts but I really want to remain a “woman”.

Photo of a venus/female symbol made out of yellow felt stitched on to a pink and red background by incurable_hippie, shared under a Creative Commons licence.