Why Gender Essentialism?
The only dependable test for gender is the truth of a
person’s life, the lives we live each day.
—(Jennifer Finney Boylan, “The XY Games,”
New York Times, 8/03/08)
While working on this book, I have had occasion to try to explain its topic to friends, family, and acquaintances. I would ask whether they thought they would be the same person or individual if they were a different gender. All the people I spoke with thought that they would not be the same person if they were a different gender; the world, it seems, is filled with gender essentialists. Indeed, my interlocutors often had difficulty understanding why someone would write a book on a question that had an obvious answer. They may have also had doubts about my authorial competence once I explained that I had difficulty understanding the question much less answering it. This book is simply my attempt to articulate what they understand already. What does it mean to think that gender is essential to an individual, and why might it be true—at least for one understanding of gender, one interpretation of essentialism, and one kind of individual?
I have also on occasion explained or presented my research to colleagues in philosophy and in feminism/gender studies; they have, predictably, reacted very differently. I rarely find a professional colleague who thinks the question about his or her gender has an obvious and easy answer. And even when the