Title of the Paper - Intertwining: Contributions of a Feminist Pragmatist Framework to the Metaphysics of Sex and Gender.


Type of Submission SAAP 2009 Discussion Paper Submission.




              Feminist theory needs a non-essentialist and historically grounded understanding of the category of “woman”. A dominant strand of Anglo-American feminism since the 1960s tries to theorize this category by relying on the sex/gender distinction. While exposing certain problems with this paradigm, poststructuralists like Butler propose making gender the major theoretical category and collapsing sex to gender. This project too comes under criticism. In these circumstances, feminists need an alternative framework for theorizing the sex/gender distinction. In this paper, I develop a pragmatist framework for the sex/gender distinction by using the insights of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, whose work manifests both feminist and pragmatist commitments. I show how such a pragmatist account of the sex/gender distinction is able to attend to the materiality of the sexed body in a non-essentialist way, and account for the cultural level of meanings and the effects of power circulating on these bodies at the same time.  (150 words) 

SAAP 2009 Discussion Paper Submission

Intertwining: Contributions of a Feminist Pragmatist Framework to the Metaphysics of Sex and Gender.


“What we need today more than ever is a feminism committed to seeking justice and equality for women, in the most ordinary sense of the word.”[1]


              In “What is a Woman?”, Toril Moi makes this assertion concerning the prerequisites for motivating a feminism committed to justice. While acknowledging that the category of “woman” itself needs a proper, materially grounded definition, she also cautions feminists against lapsing into any essentialist account of sexual difference. Instead, she calls for a “... non-essentialist, concrete, historical and social understanding of the body that so many contemporary feminists are looking for.”[2]

              It must be pointed out that the category of woman has often been understood within Anglo-American Feminism since the 1960s through the sex/gender distinction. Theorizing the relationship between sex and gender therefore, is a key issue for feminist metaphysics. Although the distinction has been a major theoretical apparatus for Anglo-American feminists, it has come under severe criticism from the poststructuralist camp. However the solution proposed by the poststructuralist paradigm to do away with the distinction by reducing sex to gender in turn, seems to entail new problems. In these circumstances, there is an urgent need in feminist theory to come up with better frameworks for theorizing the sex/gender distinction. In this paper, I will develop an alternative feminist pragmatist paradigm for the sex/gender distinction by using the insights of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, whose work manifests both feminist and pragmatist commitments.

              Gilman’s work interestingly, predates the systematic formulation of the sex/gender distinction in feminist theory. My claim that Gilman provides us with an alternative way of thinking about this distinction will therefore, be developed by first showing that Gilman recognizes something like the sex/gender distinction in her work and second, by outlining how her pragmatist commitments can enable the development of a framework that affirms both embodied sexual differences and gender as a cultural phenomenon without creating a rigid line of separation between the two, reducing one to the other or lapsing into biological essentialism. There is significant potential in a feminist pragmatist account of the sex/gender distinction like Gilman’s, to support some of the theoretical underpinnings of feminist liberation praxis by providing a non-essentialist and yet historically situated view of women’s embodiment that Moi calls for. For the purposes of this paper, I will mainly focus on Gilman’s much neglected work, The Man-Made World (originally published in 1911). However at the very beginning I will demonstrate the importance of the sex/gender paradigm in the context of feminist liberation projects, which in turn, will highlight the need for preserving it.

The Sex/Gender Distinction in Feminist Theory

              The western philosophical tradition’s association of women with nature and the biological realm of necessity, have historically been important means for perpetuating patriarchal structures of exclusion and oppression. Against this backdrop, the introduction of the sex/gender distinction becomes an important resource for feminists to theorize the possibility of freedom and resistance. Sara Heinamaa claims that in Robert Stoller’s work, Sex and Gender: The Development of Femininity and Masculinity, there is a clear distinction between the biological realm of female and male beings and attributes on the one hand, and the social realm of the feminine and masculine on the other.[3] Again feminist thinker Gayle Rubin writes, “[A]s a preliminary definition, a “sex/gender system” is the set of arrangements by which a society transforms biological sexuality into products of human activity, and in which these transformed sexual needs are satisfied.”[4] On her definition too, sex is the biological raw material on which social conventions and practices operate to produce gender. Gender norms in turn, result in the oppression of women. Of course the sex/gender distinction in feminist literature usually entails the nature/culture distinction, where biology or nature is the realm of necessity as opposed to culture which is the realm of freedom. In fact, numerous other binaries like passive/active, being/doing, fixed/variable, presocial/social, prediscursive/discursive, etc. are considered to be entailed by the sex/gender distinction in the dominant strands of feminist scholarship that assume it.[5] This reading of the sex/gender distinction precisely becomes a source of worry for poststructuralist theorists like Judith Butler.

              The poststructuralists question the logic of limiting the idea of production to gender, and not extending it to sex at the same time. For Butler in Gender Trouble, human bodies are not naturally sexed but are formed in a crucial sense within the context of discourse. Butler suggests that gender is constructed on the surface of the body through behaviors and appearances that create the effect of a private gendered center.[6] However, the genesis of the idea is subsequently forgotten thereby, creating the illusion of a natural sex. The idea of a natural sex then, is used to conceal the character of gender as performance and to preserve the idea of compulsory heterosexuality. The consequence of this analysis is that sex is ultimately collapsed to gender in so far as sex itself is gendered. On a poststructuralist account, theorists embracing the sex/gender distinction are accused of ultimately embracing a kind of essentialism with regard to sex since it still remains an ahistorical, acultural entity that serves as the raw material for the production of gender.

              The poststructuralist’s denial of a single unified subject leads to the conclusion that the category of “woman” is a product, and is constrained by the very political structures from which emancipation is sought. In fact, Butler boldly declares in Gender Trouble,

“[T]he identity of the feminist subject ought not to be the foundation of feminist politics, if the formation of the subject takes place within a field of power regularly buried through the assertion of that foundation. Perhaps, paradoxically, “representation” will be shown to make sense for feminism only when the subject of “women” is nowhere presumed.”[7]


This assertion on Butler’s part renders a severe blow to the theoretical underpinnings of a feminist politics. If everything is thoroughly gendered to the skin and the stability of the category of “woman” is dependent on the fragile framework of repetitive performance that has the potential to be disbalanced with even the slightest disruption, then the crucial question arises: whose rights is a feminist movement fighting for? Moreover, the materiality of the human body somewhat gets lost in Butler’s analysis. If everything is produced and sustained purely by discourse, then it would be nearly impossible to demand social and political rights based on the possession of certain kinds of bodies like reproductive rights.

              The various problems with the poststructuralist attempt to do away with the sex/gender distinction, bring to light its significance for feminist theory. However the value of the poststructuralist analysis lies in its exposure of biological essentialism and strict dichotomization present within the dominant strand of scholarship that assumes the sex/gender distinction. The crucial question then becomes: is there a way of preserving the material body and talking about sexual difference in a way that is not essentialist, does not create the rigid binaries of “sex” and “gender” but also does not end up reducing the one to the other? I think that a feminist pragmatist articulation of the sex/gender distinction can address some of these concerns and I will now outline such an account by developing ideas present in Charlotte Perkins Gilman, whose work strongly exhibits a commitment to Pragmatism.[8]

Unravelling the Sex/Gender Distinction in Gilman

              In her treatment of sex, Gilman was influenced by the thought of the reform Darwinist and neo-Lamarckian sociologist, Lester Ward in important ways. Among other things, she borrows the phrase “androcentric” from Ward’s Pure Sociology.[9] This in turn, is one of the key-concepts in understanding the ways in which sex and gender operate in her work. Gilman begins her analysis with the distinction between male and female functions and does not want to commit the poststructuralist error of losing the embodied distinctions between females and males. Gilman agrees with Ward in considering the female as the “race-type” - the one responsible primarily for perpetuating the species and representing the center of gravity of the biological system. The male element on the other hand is centrifugal, that is, it is the dynamic force. The male as the father, is primarily responsible for introducing variations. Gilman clearly reiterates this difference in function in The Man-Made World when she writes, “In the very nature of the sperm-cell and the germ-cell we find this difference; the one attracts, gathers, draws in; the other repels, scatters, pushes out.”[10] Functionally therefore, the future of the species is primarily located in the mother and not the father. The latter’s importance is subordinate to the former. In the light, of this Gilman justifies the choice of mates being the prerogative of the female in the animal world. The males in various species in turn, develop in physical beauty, strength, and other qualities that the females admire in them.  

                Gilman defines life as growth[11] and the chief characteristic of “growth” according to her is that it is promoted by factors like rest and nourishment. Gilman’s agreement with Ward on women being the race-types therefore, makes her privilege the female standpoint in several places as being more conducive to the conservation and growth of the species. In fact through the story of the Queen-Priestess-Mother who was able to start a race and the figures of the innumerable mothers of Herland in her novel Herland, the “mother” is given a social position that she has been historically denied within patriarchal culture. As a result motherhood becomes, “... a site of biological value, positioning women at the center of national progress – at the center of the birthing of history....[12] Finally, according to Gilman, the embodied acts of carrying a pregnancy through its term, the lived experience of nurturing the new-born and then raising the child provides women with a privileged standpoint of looking at the world, and make them the bearers of certain values. Gilman writes, “... the mother, is the first co-ordinator, legislator, administrator and executive. From the guarding of her cubs and kittens up to the longer, larger management of human youth, she is the first to consider group interests and co-relate them.”[13]

              As opposed to the importance of nourishment, etc. for the purpose of growth, Gilman states that, “[C]ombat is a minor incident of life; belonging to low levels, and not of a developing influence socially.”[14] Combat is subservient to growth, useful only insofar as it transmits the physical superiority of the victor. Gilman locates the predominance of this instinct in the male since he represents the centrifugal force within the biological system. She writes, “[V]ery early... man voiced his second strongest instinct – that of combat. His universe is always dual, always a scene of combat. Born with that impulse, exercising it continually, he naturally assumed it to be the major process in life. It is not.”[15] This instinct of separation and antagonism is opposed to the female instinct of conservation and coordination. Moreover through the picture of the male fighting for female attention in the animal kingdom, the two other male instincts of desire and self-expression are brought to light. Gilman writes, “The... male trait of self-expression we may follow from its innocent natural form in strutting cock or stamping stag up to the characteristics we label vanity and pride.”[16] The male is not satisfied when he gets what he wants easily. He delights in the “pleasure of the chase”[17] and wants to hunt down whatever he wants. All these lead Gilman to conclude that the basic masculine impulse is, “... to scatter, to disseminate, to destroy.”[18] And of course, Gilman develops her account of the instincts peculiar to the male sex, from observing the embodied encounters of the male in the material world from lower animals to human beings.

               In a certain sense therefore, the mother-instinct and that of preservation in the female and the instincts of self-expression and combat in the male, become sex-instincts. Gilman thinks instincts like these that are peculiar to the male and female sexes, are more natural or “essential”[19] and are not mere consequences of the “artificial positions of men and women”[20] in the world. Through assertions like these, she starts gesturing towards a subtle distinction between natural sex-instincts and social constructions of gender. She analyzes the latter in The Man-Made World, especially in the context of what she calls, an “androcentric culture”. The hint of some kind of divide between the natural and the social seems to become clearer when she asserts, “[S]ocial functions are developed under natural laws, like physical ones, and may be studied similarly.”[21] For Gilman sometimes these social functions or what we understand as “gender norms” are excesses of natural sex-distinctions, while at other times, they arise due to a perversion or distortion of the sex-instincts. I will now analyze both these strands of defining “gender” in contrast to “sex”. In each of these cases though, gender seems to get its start from sexual difference which it then heightens or distorts.

              The gendered male and the gendered female emerge in interaction with the androcentric world, and then become a part of that world. One important thing that has happened within androcentric culture has been the heightening of certain sexual characteristics and therefore, such a culture is marked by excessive sex-distinctions. Gilman writes, “Our androcentric culture is... masculine culture in excess, and therefore, undesirable.”[22] She then discusses the nature of this excess through an analysis of different spheres of human action. The male instincts of desire, combat and self-expression have a marked manifestation for instance, within the sphere of art within androcentric culture. Dancing that is supposed to be a beautiful art and a medium for the expression of emotions, has steadily become more a matter of display of one’s physical agility, a form of exhibition in which the sex-element is increasingly emphasized. In its most degenerated form, we get the figure of the dancing-girl who is a product of the dominance of the so-called male instincts of desire and self-expression. Gilman points out that even painting has been affected by an excess of masculinity in its methods and spirit. Painting has become a mode of mere self-expression, that is, a medium for the artist to express his personal viewpoint. An excess of the male sexual elements in the field of literature within androcentric culture, has defeated the purpose of the field itself which according to her, is to strengthen the bonds of communication. As a result of the domination of the male-instincts of desire (love and hate) and combat or war, both historical and fictional writing is dominated by stories of violent love and eroticism, adventure, murder, war, and death. These as Gilman points out, “... do not touch on human processes, social processes, but on the special field of predatory excitement so long the sole province of men.”[23] In the field of sports, events like the ball game to prize fights are again the result of an excess of the male sex-instincts of desire for the prize through pursuit and competition. In the field of politics and international affairs, the principle of all being fair in love and war, prevails. Deceit and cruelty have become characteristic features of military endeavors and any effort whatsoever to outwit the enemy is sanctioned. Religion is another field that is severely affected by the heightening of what Gilman calls the ‘conflict stimuli”.[24] The devil-theory predominant in several androcentric religions, is a clear manifestation of this fact.

              This analysis points towards the fact that an excess of the male sex-instincts or what we may consider to be a form of hyper-masculinity is more of a gendered phenomenon which takes its start from the more naturally grounded male sex-instincts, but is validated in a heightened form within an androcentric culture. In fact, from Gilman’s analysis it seems that she considers the phenomenon of hyper-masculinity to have a certain normative force within patriarchy. Hyper-femininity too becomes a crucial aspect of androcentric culture in which the woman is reduced to her sexual organs or functions, and her value is measured purely in terms of her being female. Gilman remarks, “This... ultra femaleness has been demanded and produced by our Androcentric Culture.”[25] Gilman’s use of the term “produced” as opposed to a term like “given” or “natural” must be emphasized at this point. The emphasis on hyper-femininity and its subsequent devaluation compared to hyper-masculinity, justifies the trading and bartering of women within patriarchal systems which in their most acute form, lead to phenomena like prostitution. Of course more contemporary phenomena like the increase in the international trade of women’s bodies including sexual slavery as an effect of globalization can at least be partly explained, in terms of this particular framework.

              I read Gilman as saying that the phenomena of hyper-masculinity and hyper-femininity are both symptomatic of, and can only be understood in relation to a particular kind of culture, namely an androcentric culture. These are neither present nor valorized in their aggravated forms within the natural order of things where, the female instinct actually enjoys a privileged position compared to the male one. Even if the sex/gender distinction as it has been laid out till this point in Gilman’s work appears at first sight to be a matter of difference in degree or quantity, it at least gestures towards some sort of demarcation between the realm of the biologically grounded natural sex-instincts and that of the culturally emergent gendered phenomena of normative hyper-masculinity and hyper-femininity which end up reversing the natural order of things. 

              In other places of the text, Gilman seems to provide a deeper analysis of the ways in which the categories of masculinity and femininity are more characteristically social categories, arising from the distortion or perversion of the natural male and female sex-instincts. Thus, gender pertains more to the constructed or artificial positions of men and women which are deviations from their natural functions. At the very beginning of The Man-Made World, Gilman expresses concern over how man becomes the race-type within androcentric culture, while woman becomes the “other” of man and comes to occupy a subordinate position to him. Gilman writes, “She has held always the place of a preposition in relation to man. She has been considered above him or below him, before him, behind him, beside him, a wholly relative existence – “Sydney’s sister”, “Pembroke’s mother”....[26] In Gilman’s framework, this appears to be a complete distortion of the laws pertaining to sexual difference in the natural world where the female and not the male is the race-type. Another sphere that has witnessed a gross reversal of the natural sex-roles according to Gilman, is that of the choice of mates. Providing various examples from the animal world Gilman claims that while males compete for female attention, it is she who selects the victor as her mate to perpetuate the improvement of the race. Androcentric culture reverses both these male and female functions such that the power of choice is now delegated to the man who secures the woman either through violence or other socially acceptable means like the institution of marriage as it operates within patriarchy, while she competes for his attention. Given away by one man to another in marriage, the woman often loses her prerogative of selecting her mate. Gilman writes, “The man, by violence or by purchase, does the choosing – he selects the kind of woman that pleases him. Nature did not intend him to select; he is not good at it. Neither was the female intended to compete – she is not good at it.”[27] The natural setup and purpose of the family are also transformed in the context of an androcentric culture. Gilman identifies the original purpose of the family as ensuring the proper care of children. However within androcentric culture, this role undergoes a radical transformation in the hands of a masculine proprietor. The family now becomes a means for his personal gratification and the woman’s primary role becomes that of a wife and only secondarily, that of a mother. While discussing these transformations, Gilman writes, “What man has done to the family... is to change it from an institution for the best service of the child to one modified to his own service, the vehicle of his comfort, power and pride.”[28] Further woman’s economic dependence on man within patriarchy and the shifting of the burden of attracting mates from males to females, have forced women to adopt personal decoration and ornamentation which is the natural masculine sex-instinct in order to secure their livelihood and place in society. Gilman points out that the human female is the only female who has to bear the burden of sex decoration and ornamentation. This has led to a ridiculous obsession on the part of women concerning dress and fashion that often cause great inconvenience to them. Highly critical of this distortion Gilman writes, “Nowhere else in the whole range of life on earth, is this degradation found – the female capering and prancing before the male. It is absolutely and essentially his function, not hers.”[29] In an androcentric context therefore, the way in which the woman lives and performs her gender roles is a distant cry from her sex-instincts.

              Perhaps, the greatest perversion of androcentric culture is the division of spheres (the private/domestic versus the public) and the confinement of women to the former. Gilman categorically makes this claim,

“To the man, the whole world was his world... and the whole world of woman was the home.... She had her prescribed sphere, strictly limited to her feminine occupations and her interests; he had all the rest of life; and not only so, but, having it, insisted on calling it male.”[30]


The fact that Gilman regards such a division as unnatural and not an inevitable part of the natural order of things is evident in Herland where she heavily emphasizes the bonds between the self and the other through her insistence on the strength of sisterhood among women. In contrast she claims in some of her other works including The Man-Made World that, androcentric culture isolates individual women in their homes which causes them to experience maternity as a burden and negatively impacts the child-rearing process. Such distortion of natural laws helps to justify and perpetuate the subordination of women within patriarchy by cutting them off from a huge part of the world. This is evident in Gilman’s condemnation of women’s exclusion from the sphere of mainstream art, literature, politics, etc. and their confinement to traditional crafts, the women’s pages of magazines and other restricted spaces of a predominantly masculine world. In the context of such artificial exclusion that is not mandated by the natural order of things, the natural sexual differences and roles end up being redefined in a way that is more suited to the social fabric of patriarchy. In various passages of the text, Gilman points out further how men and women begin to internalize the socially prescribed models of masculinity and femininity from a very early age.

              These observations can be read as indicating the presence of some idea of gender as constructed and qualitatively different from the category of natural sex-instincts, being already operative in Gilman’s work. It seems that both the gendered female and the gendered male who emerge in the context of an androcentric culture, are in certain ways, distortions of the sexual differences as manifested in the natural world. There is an explicit reversal of the natural hierarchy in the socio-cultural world. Such qualitative differentiation between the natural and the social, provides further evidence for the recognition, or at least an anticipation of the sex/gender distinction in Gilman’s work.

              I have demonstrated the presence of the sex/gender distinction in Gilman’s work but in its turn, this section has the danger of raising the specter of essentialism against her position especially if we look at her claims about how natural sex distinctions and roles are heightened or modified within androcentric culture. Thus the phenomenon of femininity in an androcentric culture still seems to be the result of the interplay between something like natural sex difference and particular cultural developments. In that case, the question remains as to whether biological essentialism also vitiates Gilman’s position in the same way as the 1960s formulation of the sex/gender distinction. If there is  no way to save a view like Gilman’s from this problem, then she will have nothing new to contribute to the sex/gender paradigm and consequently, to a better understanding of the theoretical category of “woman” that is integral to feminist praxis. In the next section, I will show that this is where the pragmatist elements in Gilman’s thought help her from falling into a similar predicament.

The Pragmatist Elements in Gilman’s Approach: New Possibilities for the Sex/Gender Distinction

              Some of Gilman’s insights arising from her commitment to the philosophical framework of American pragmatist thought, provide a way out of both biological essentialism and the creation of rigid binaries on the one hand, and reductionism of the poststructuralist variety on the other. Among the various commitments of American pragmatist thought that Gilman adopts,[31] perhaps the most significant is the commitment to a kind of process ontology that emphasizes the evolutionary paradigm and the changing character of experience. In other words, experience is seen as emerging in the context of the interaction between the organism and its environment and as such, is constantly a-making. Therefore it is hard to uncover or simply go back to the pure nature of an entity in abstraction from its context, since both its evolution and our conceptual grasp of it, is always mediated by the context. The adoption of the evolutionary paradigm in understanding experience makes this kind of process ontology very different from an ontology that assumes the fixed, static character of entities. A necessary entailment of this pragmatist insight is therefore, the idea of interweaving between the individual and her environment (in the sense of both the physical/material realm and the symbolic realm of cultural meanings and inscriptions). As a result of such interweaving, one cannot be explained without reference to the other. Moreover just as the environment shapes the individual, the individual too has the ability to act upon and transform the environment through her actions. I consider this insight to be also very significant, and as having important implications for the way in which the sex/gender distinction operates in Gilman.

              Recognition of the ontological commitment of philosophical pragmatism on Gilman’s part, helps her to come up with a better account of the intertwining of the realms of nature and culture. In The Man-Made World she highlights the ways in which sex and gender relate to, and influence each other, such that the boundary between them can be conceptualized as being porous or fluid. I have elucidated in great detail, how sex affects gender. The uniqueness of Gilman’s framework however, lies in the fact that she also provides an account of how the category of sex itself undergoes change, and is affected by ways in which gender is lived. In other words, the more biologically grounded sexual differences are not absolutely fixed, and do not belong purely to the realm of necessity as absolutely opposed to constructed and changeable gender norms. Therefore despite considering certain sex-differences as being more fundamental, natural or essential than others; I think that in Gilman’s framework whatever this essence is, it is only encountered in the context of culturally constrained bodies. I will now point out some places in the text where she explicitly appears to support this position.

              Gilman points out that when the power of choosing the mate is wrested from the female and given to the male, some of the natural sexual qualities and potentials of each begin to decline. She writes, “The males were no longer improved by their natural competition for the female; and the females were not improved; because the male did not select for points of racial superiority, but for such qualities as pleased him.”[32] She points out how in certain cultures frailty, lack of physical agility and weakness on the part of women make them more desirable to men. Women’s confinement to the interiors of the domestic sphere and her deprivation from the outside world of fresh air and exercise in order to maintain her physical appearance, stunts the growth of her physical attributes. Gilman is very critical of this when she writes,

“The confinement to the house alone, cutting women off from sunshine and air, is by itself an injury; and the range of occupation allowed them is not such as to develop a high standard of either health or beauty.”[33]


According to her the peculiarly perverted gender norm in an androcentric world that designates the role of selector to the male, ends up lowering the standard of size in the race because of the strong preference of men for smaller and frailer female partners due to various practical and psychological reasons. Women that differ from this androcentric standard of femininity, are considered to be relatively unfeminine and as a consequence, less desirable. Although Gilman being influenced by the science of her day assumes that certain features could be heightened while others bred out through sexual selection and also has a somewhat problematic account of normalcy concerning standards of health and beauty, I think the insight that is important for the purpose of the sex/gender debate is that she is able to talk about the ways in which men and women are materially constrained by patriarchal cultural norms and expectations. She concludes that this “... ultra littleness... has been demanded and produced by our androcentric culture.”[34] Women’s comportment in the material world can be affected or transformed when these bodies become embedded in networks of socio-political-economic power-relations and specific cultural inscriptions or gender stereotypes. In contemporary times, similar concerns have been raised by feminists while analyzing the causes behind the prevalence of eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia. The shrinking of the size of women’s bodies in the media and international beauty contests for example, are often held responsible for such phenomena. Such contemporary analyses help reinforce the strength of Gilman’s pragmatist framework for theorizing the relationship between the natural and the cultural worlds.[35]

       Gilman not only refers to the stunted growth of female physical characteristics, but also to the ways in which the natural female sexual instincts undergo deep transformations as a result of the prescriptive models of femininity within an androcentric culture that privileges a division of spheres. When women are cut off from the rest of the world and public life, then their emotional and intellectual horizons also become restricted. Gilman writes, “Under his (the male’s) fostering care we have bred a race of women who are physically weak enough to be handed about like invalids; or mentally weak enough to pretend they are – and to like it.”[36] Forced to be economically dependent on men for their survival and as such doing everything to gain his favor, they become obsessed with their dress and physical appearance, and compete vehemently among themselves to secure a man. These kinds of gender expectations from women within patriarchy end up distorting their natural sex-instincts of cooperation and coordination. They are driven to self-expression and competition which is according to Gilman, “... so alien to the true female attitude.”[37] On a more humorous note Gilman writes, “The woman depends on the man for her position in life, as well as the necessities of existence. ... Therefore she is forced to add to her own natural attractions this “dance of the seven veils,” of the seventeen gowns, of the seventy-seven hats of gay delirium.”[38]  Moreover the mother-instinct which is more of a natural sex-instinct of the female in Gilman’s framework, declines in quality in the context of the expected gender role of a woman in the confines of an androcentric family with a male proprietor as its head and her position as being subordinate to his. In this case, the duty of the wife gains in significance and the role of mother gradually becomes only secondary to it. Additionally, women cannot be good educators to their children when their own perspectives are so restricted as a result of their exclusion from a huge part of human existence. Gilman categorically states, “This abnormal restriction of women has necessarily injured motherhood.”[39]

              All these passages emphasize that even the category of sex is open to change, since the boundary between nature and culture is porous and never sharply delineated. The commitment to a pragmatist ontological framework presents the apparent biological essence of sex as an evolutionary product, subject to further change. Any claim about a fixed female or male essence is a misnomer because the real-life cultural practices of men and women are constantly changing the materiality of sex. In this respect therefore, a pragmatist framework for theorizing the sex/gender distinction is able to overcome the problem of biological essentialism outlined by Butler against the dominant formulation of the distinction, which assumes the essence of sex as being fixed, prediscursive, acultural and unchanging. There is no static essence of sex that can simply be recuperated or revived in its uncontaminated form, in abstraction from its situatedness in a particular cultural milieu. In this way, a pragmatist framework does justice to the crucial poststructuralist insight about the materiality of lived bodies being affected and constrained by the discursive practices and the power-networks in which they are embedded.

              The second pragmatist commitment which is reflected in Gilman’s work however, safeguards her from the poststructuralist error of reductionism which vitiates Butler’s view. In Gilman’s pragmatist account of the materiality in culture, biology is subject to the influences of gender performance and culture is also driven or constrained by material realities at the same time. In other words, sex affects gender and gender too affects sex, as is evident from the preceding analysis. I will introduce the term, “intertwining” to highlight the reciprocity of sex and gender while developing the pragmatist framework of the sex/gender distinction using Gilman’s insights. In other words a commitment to such intertwining between the material and the symbolic, that is, the natural and the cultural realms safeguards a sex/gender paradigm like that of Gilman’s from not only romanticizing a pure nature outside culture, but also from completely reducing or collapsing sex to gender like the poststructuralists. A pragmatist account of the sex/gender distinction does not run into similar problems as the poststructuralist position of losing sight of actual embodied distinctions in the latter’s obsession with linguistic analysis and conceptual deconstruction. Finally, the emphasis placed on the intertwining nature of the relationship of sex and gender helps a pragmatist framework from lapsing into strict dichotomization or the creation of such rigid binaries as those of necessity/freedom, passive/active, being/doing etc. between the two realms of nature and culture, which is a problem with the dominant formulation of the distinction in Anglo-American feminist theory.  

        The chief contribution of a pragmatist account of the sex/gender distinction developed with insights from the work of Gilman lies in the fact that the materiality of the sexed body and embodied distinctions are carefully attended to. At the same time, it is possible to give an account of the cultural level of meanings and the effects of power circulating on these bodies. We can speak of the body in feminist theory in a non-essentialist way when such attention is paid to how these bodies appear as objects of knowledge and sites of cultural intervention. Thus, it is possible to speak about the subject of feminism as an emergent historical subject embedded within a network of socio-cultural meanings and material relationships of power (social, political and economic). Neither the biological body nor the socio-cultural world, are lost sight of within a feminist pragmatist framework of theorizing the sex/gender distinction. (5943 words)



(1) Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. The Man-Made World, New York: Cosimo Classics, 2007.

(2) Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. Herland: A Lost Feminist Utopian Novel, New York: Pantheon Books, 1979.

(3) Hausman, Bernice L. “Sex Before Gender: Charlotte Perkins Gilman And The Evolutionary Paradigm Of Utopia”, Feminist Studies 24, no. 3, Fall 1998.

(4) Seitler, Dana. “Unnatural Selection: Mothers, Eugenic Feminism, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Regeneration Narratives”, American Quarterly, Vol. 55, No. 1(March 2003).

(5) Moi, Toril. “What is a Woman?” in What is a Woman? And other Essays, Oxford University Press, 1999.

(6) Heinamaa, Sara. “Woman – Nature, Product, Style? Rethinking the Foundations of Feminist Philosophy of Science” in Lynn Hankinson Nelson and Jack Nelson (ed.) Feminism, Science, and the Philosophy of Science, Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1996.

(7) Rubin, Gayle “The Traffic in Women: Notes on the “Political Economy” of Sex” from Rayna R. Reiter (ed.), Toward an Anthropology of Women, Monthly Review Press.

(8) Butler, Judith. “Subjects of Sex/Gender/Desire” in Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, Routledge, 1999.

(9) Johnston, Belinda. Chapter 9: “Ranaissance Body Matters: Judith Butler and the Sex That is One” in Breen and Blumenfeld (ed.) Butler Matters: Judith Butler’s Impact on Feminist and Queer Studies, Ashgate, 2005.

(10) Barvosa-Carter, Edwina. Chapter 12: “Strange Tempest: Agency, Poststructuralism, and the Shape of Feminist Politics to Come” in Breen and Blumenfeld (eds.) Butler Matters: Judith Butler’s Impact on Feminist and Queer Studies, Ashgate, 2005.

(11) Kessler, Carol F. Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Her Progress Toward Utopia With Selected Writings, Syracuse University Press, 1995.

(12) Ward, Lester F. Pure Sociology: A Treatise on the Origin and Spontaneous Development of Society (Second Edition), The Macmillan Company, 1903.  







[1] Toril Moi, “What is a Woman?” in What is a Woman? And other Essays, p. 9.

[2] Ibid, p. 5.

[3] For this discussion, see Sara Heinamaa, “Woman – Nature, Product, Style? Rethinking the Foundations of Feminist Philosophy of Science” in Lynn Hankinson Nelson and Jack Nelson (ed.) Feminism, Science, and the Philosophy of Science.

[4] Gayle Rubin, “The Traffic in Women: Notes on the “Political Economy” of Sex” from Rayna R. Reiter (ed.), Toward an Anthropology of Women, p. 159.

[5] A detailed list of some of these binaries can be found in Toril Moi’s essay, “What is a Woman?”, p. 33 where she talks about the rigid dichotomies that the poststructuralists expose within the sex/gender paradigm of thinking about the body and subjectivity.

[6] For this analysis, see Belinda Johnston, Chapter 9: “Ranaissance Body Matters: Judith Butler and the Sex That is One” in Breen and Blumenfeld (ed.) Butler Matters: Judith Butler’s Impact on Feminist and Queer Studies, p. 131.

[7] Ibid, p. 9.

[8] It is important to remember that Gilman’s writings historically predate the semantic split between “sex” and “gender” in the Anglo-American feminist tradition and therefore in this paper, I make an effort to tease out traces of this distinction in her work. Of course, there have been some attempts in the past to read Gilman through the lens of the sex/gender distinction and Carol F. Kessler’s attempt is important in this respect. However in my reading of the sex/gender distinction in Gilman, I will focus particularly on the pragmatist elements of her thought which I think influence it in significant ways but have unfortunately, not been foregrounded in the earlier attempts to read this distinction in her work. I will analyze the ways in which trying to read the sex/gender distinction in Gilman through a pragmatist lens, highlights some novel aspects in which it functions in her work and helps us reconceptualize the distinction in a different and more conducive manner for feminist praxis. It must also be noted at this point that interpreting Gilman’s work through the sex/gender paradigm has also been challenged by some feminists like Bernice L. Hausman who thinks that Gilman made distinctions within the category of sex itself rather than between sex and gender. For further discussion, see Bernice L. Hausman, “Sex Before Gender: Charlotte Perkins Gilman And The Evolutionary Paradigm of Utopia” in Feminist Studies 24, no. 3 (Fall 1998). At  least some of Hausman’s worries about reading Gilman through the sex/gender lens, seem to be grounded in an awareness of the problems that are entailed by the dominant formulation of it. While Hausman’s worries seem to be justified at certain points, some of these may be addressed even when Gilman’s work is read through the sex/gender paradigm as long as the latter’s commitment to the basic premises of American pragmatist thought is borne in mind while reading the sex/gender distinction in her work. The same commitments in fact theoretically prevent Gilman from merely glorifying sexual difference, as will be apparent in my subsequent analysis. Retaining the terminology of “sex” and “gender” can therefore, be useful in her case. In fact, I think that Gilman’s perspective can help us reconceptualize the sex/gender distinction itself in a more productive way.

[9] Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Man-Made World, p. 17.

[10] Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Man-Made World, p. 29.

[11] See Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Man-Made World, p. 94 for this definition.

[12] Dana Seitler, “Unnatural Selection: Mothers, Eugenic Feminism, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Regeneration Narratives” in American Quarterly, Vol. 55, No. 1 (March 2003), p. 74.

[13] Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Man-Made World, p. 77.

[14] Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Man-Made World, p. 94.

[15] Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Man-Made World, p. 56.

[16] Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Man-Made World, p. 57.

[17] Gilman uses this phrase on p. 48 of The Man-Made World.

[18] Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Man-Made World, p. 46.

[19] However, I will highlight in my subsequent analysis how these instincts are not “essential” in the sense of being absolutely fixed or unchangeable and being outside the realm of cultural influences or inscriptions. Gilman’s own use of the term “essential” is therefore, a little deceptive at this point. In the light of Gilman’s whole framework, such instincts seem to be essential insofar as they are sometimes fundamentally grounded in the possession of specific kinds of material bodies and resulting bodily comportments. This is almost reminiscent of Beauvoir’s claims in The Second Sex about the body being a part of one’s situation, although not the whole of it. Beauvoir also discusses at length how women’s experiences of coitus, pregnancy, etc. have a potential to structure the ways in which they live time and comport themselves in space. Although there are important differences between the two thinkers, such analyses are instances of paying detailed attention to the lived experience of bodily specificities and therefore, does not necessarily result in the form of essentialism that the poststructuralists are weary of in the 1960s formulation of the sex/gender distinction.

[20] Gilman explicitly uses these phrases on p. 43 of The Man-Made World.  

[21] Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Man-Made World, p. 59.

[22] Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Man-Made World, p. 7.

[23] Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Man-Made World, p. 37.

[24] Gilman introduces this phrase on p. 56 of The Man-Made World.

[25] Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Man-Made World, p. 11.

[26] Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Man-Made World, p. 6.

[27] Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Man-Made World, p. 10.

[28] Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Man-Made World, p. 9.

[29] Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Man-Made World, p. 30. She reiterates this fact when she says, “She (the human female) alone, of all creatures, has adopted the essentially masculine attribute of special sex-decoration... she blooms forth as the peacock... in poignant reversal of nature’s laws, even wearing masculine feathers to further her feminine ends.” Ibid, p. 8.

[30] Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Man-Made World, p. 7.

[31] Gilman was in close contact with some of the greatest pragmatist thinkers of her generation like Jane Addams with whom she had extensive discussions and dialogue.

[32] Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Man-Made World, p. 11.

[33] Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Man-Made World, p. 20.

[34] Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Man-Made World, p. 11.

[35] Of course some of the science that Gilman relies on, may be dated and no longer well-grounded. But what I take to be the crucial insight on her part throughout this analysis is the idea of the continuity between nature and culture. She argues for example, that the ideal of beauty within an androcentric culture is that of smaller, demure women. The important thing is not whether sufficient generations have passed and human genetics has been radically transformed to breed smaller women. Rather, I think the significance of this claim lies in its focus on the ways in which the materiality (and not necessarily genetics) of women is conditioned by cultural expectations. I think that Iris Marion Young makes an argument along similar lines in her famous essay, “Throwing Like a Girl”.

[36] Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Man-Made World, p. 22.

[37] Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Man-Made World, p. 24.

[38] Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Man-Made World, p. 72.

[39] Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Man-Made World, p. 14.