Wittig, Monique

Assigned: Wittig, Monique. “One Is Not Born a Woman” (1823-29). Also read the editors’ introduction (1821-23).

“One Is Not Born a Woman” (1981)

1. On 1823-24 (“A materialist feminist approach to women’s…”), Monique Wittig begins with the assertion that “lesbian society destroys the artificial (social) fact constituting women as a ‘natural group’” (1823). How does she go on to support this anti-essentialist point of view about the constitution of sex and gender? Why does Wittig reject notions about “mother right” and a female-dominated “prehistory” (1824)—for example, the legend of the Amazon women in Greek mythology—along with any conception of history that treats the categories “man” and “woman” as pre-existing and natural?

2. On 1824-26 (“A materialist feminist approach shows that…”), Wittig writes, “what we believe to be a physical and direct perception is only a sophisticated and mythic construction…” (1824). This claim apparently applies to categories such as race and even to biological sexual characteristics. How does she explain this counterintuitive assertion that even what are universally taken as “natural” or “given” qualities really are not natural or given at all, but rather the product of a certain motivated way of seeing and perceiving? How should we consider these concepts, according to Wittig, and what danger do they hold if they are unthinkingly accepted?

3. On 1824-26 (“A materialist feminist approach shows that…”), Wittig writes, “To refuse to be a woman […] does not mean that one has to become a man” (1825), and she rejects as well such mantras as “woman is wonderful” (1825). On what grounds, then, does she again take issue with biologically based, essentialist feminism, this time partly with regard to theories about lesbianism? Why does she also quarrel with the widespread and sometimes ambiguous use of the word “feminism” itself—in her view, how do some women use the term in a way that mistakenly validates the patriarchal order?

4. On 1826-27 (“Thus it is our historical task…”), how does Wittig theorize the gender struggle in terms of “class” (1827)? In what sense does she aim to destroy not only the “class” of men but the “class” of women as well? Why is opposition to these categories necessary, in her view, and what harm does she believe is caused by the abstract singular term “woman” as opposed to “women”? Why is it also vital that women constitute themselves not just in terms of a category but also, and more importantly, as “individual subjects” (1827)?

5. On 1827-28 (“The question of the individual subject…”), how does Wittig describe Marxism’s attitude towards the concept of the individual subject—a concept that would take us well beyond the confines of the “class struggle” that Marx considered to be the engine of Western history? How, according to Wittig, has Marxist thought served as a hindrance to women’s attempts to achieve unity or “class consciousness”? How does she therefore redefine or recalibrate the key term “consciousness” to serve the interests of women both as a class and as individual subjects?

6. On 1829 (“It is we who historically must…”), Wittig argues that it is necessary for women to set about “defining the individual subject in materialist terms.” Nonetheless, in what sense is she also arguing in favor of women developing a strong “class consciousness”—why is that still necessary? In the end, what is Wittig calling upon feminist intellectuals, and upon women more generally, to do by way of making progress against patriarchal oppression? Of what value, according to Wittig, is the continued existence of “lesbianism” to women’s struggle—why shouldn’t it, like the gender binary man/woman and the system of heterosexuality, be left behind as a harmful, antiquated concept?

7. General question: In her 1981 essay “One Is Not Born a Woman,” Monique Wittig sets forth her anti-essentialist feminist claims in a very stark, challenging manner. This is surely a deliberate rhetorical strategy on her part. Why does she find it necessary to set herself against widely accepted assumptions about biological sex, gender, and heterosexuality? In her view, why are such categories and concepts at the heart of the struggle for women’s liberation from patriarchal domination and oppression? Finally, how would you compare Wittig’s style or rhetoric as a feminist writer with the style or rhetoric of at least one other such writer? Which do you prefer, and why? (See the editors’ Alternative Table of Contents list for “Feminist Theory and Criticism” on page xxii of our anthology’s prefatory material.)

8. General question: In her 1981 essay “One Is Not Born a Woman,” Monique Wittig rejects the foundational assumptions she believes ground the patriarchal order that has done so much to keep women from realizing their fullest potential. It has been approximately four decades since the publication of this influential article. How much change has occurred in our thinking about key concepts/categories pertaining to gender and sexuality? Have many people likely accepted, either partly or entirely, the radical viewpoint Wittig promotes? How much resistance to this viewpoint do you think still exists, and what are the material effects of that resistance on American (or European, etc.) society?

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

Copyright © 2021 Alfred J. Drake