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One Is Not Born A Woman

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 2445 words Published: 1st May 2017

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A single, short expression that poses the central feminist question about sex difference is the following: Mamas baby, papas maybe. Biology has granted women a right to genetic parenthood that no man is privileged to share. However, this expression is subject to inversion in the text, The Color Purple, which I have chosen to discuss in the light of womanism rather than feminism because the former is more inclusive than the latter. Moreover, the traditional concept of man- woman relationship/ dependency physically and ideologically is put to severe blow by Monique Wittig’s concept of lesbianism in her controversial yet most famous essay, “One is not born a woman.” This paper aims to show the bonding between Celie and Shug through the theories put forward by Wittig. The meaning of love, companionship and sexual pleasure finds an altered form in the chosen text and proves that woman does not need a man to complete her.

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Keywords: intertextuality, womanism, black identity


Monique Wittig is a well-known French feminist writer. In 1992, The Straight Mind and Other Essays, a compilation of essays on a variety of feminist and lesbian issues, stormed the world with its declaration of “lesbians” as opposed to the category of “woman”. The result was a book of nine essays in which she outlines her position on such issues as the category of sex, the heterosexism inherent in language and the social contract. It cajoles one to think about one’s “natural” assumptions about gender and sexuality.

According to Wittig’s preface, the first half of the collection is concerned with “materialist lesbianism” in which she “describes heterosexuality not as an institution but as a political regime which rests on the submission and the appropriation of women (p. xiii).

In “One Is Not Born a Woman,” one of the essays in the book that I have chosen to read, is an attempt to establish a link between women fighting for women as a class, against the idea of “woman” as an essentialist concept. Wittig being a contemporary proponent of feminist and gay/lesbian rights, takes constructionist viewpoints of the likes of Simone de Beauvoir, that –

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, which is described as feminine. (p.1)

The advantage of womanism as a theory is that it, unlike the feminist movement, brings to bear upon the woman question more than a white woman’s perspective in its effort at ridding the society of sexual inequality (Aldridge 127). Womanism also acknowledges the existence of the male counterpart, seeing him as an equal victim with the woman. However, it is pertinent to mention here that black women were victimized thrice in terms of – racism, sexism, and economic exploitation though the womanists combat the question of racism first before the gender issue. The emphasis varies from female- empowerment to race-empowerment and Women’s Liberation Movement to Black Freedom Movement (Aldridge 133, 135). Toni Cade in her 1970 anthology The Black Woman elaborates:

“[…] Over the years, things have sort of been cooled out. But I have yet to hear a coolheaded analysis of just what any particular group’s stand is on the question. Invariably, I hear from some dude that Black women must be supportive and patient so that Black men can regain their manhood. The notion of womanhood they argue – and only if pressed to address themselves to the notion do they think of it or argue- is dependent on his defining his manhood (Cade).

The categories of sex (woman and man) essentially appropriates that one having capacity to give birth (biologically) is a “woman” and that it is the only creative act that determines her existence and her identity proclaiming her “naturalized” slavery to man as “master/ oppressor.”

Wittig defines ‘woman’ in terms of her relationship with ‘man’ which takes the form of a “forced residence”, “domestic corvee”, “conjugal duties”, “unlimited production of children” etc. This applies to Celie, the protagonist of Walker’s The Color Purple who contents herself with a purposeless life and is oblivious of the orgasmic pleasure until she meets Shug Avery. Essentially the patriarchal society, as Wittig asserts, strengthens the form of oppression through “imaginary formation” of physical features. A black is perceived as a black, therefore, s/he is a black; similarly, a woman is perceived or seen as a woman, therefore she is a woman. However, it is not because she is born that way, but because she is made to be so.

Walker swept the world with her crude yet realistic portrayal of strong women characters and equally repulsive men characters in her Pulitzer winning novel, The Color Purple. Her clarion call for Black Womanism had just begun. She could not accept the idea of the White feminism speaking for women of color because she correctly witnessed the alienation of the ‘black experience’ and further marginalization of texts by black feminists in the mainstream academic tradition. Her ideology of ‘womanism’ first appeared in her book In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose (1983), in which she attributes the word’s origin to –

“the black folk expression of mothers to female children, ‘You acting womanish,’ i.e. like a woman … usually referring to outrageous, audacious, courageous, or willful behavior … [A womanist is also] a woman who loves other women sexually and/or nonsexually appreciates and prefers women’s culture, women’s emotional flexibility (values tears as natural counterbalance of laughter), and women’s

strength. Sometimes loves individual men, sexually and/or non-sexually. Committed to survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female. Not a separatist, except periodically, for health. Traditionally universalist… Loves music. Loves dance. Loves the moon. Loves the Spirit. Loves love and food and roundness. Loves struggle. Loves the Folk. Loves herself. Regardless.” And “Womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender.” (p. xi-xii)

Feminism as a movement is exclusively for women and has as its agenda the repudiation of male hegemony. The meaning of female “denotes the sex that can bear offspring or produce eggs, distinguished biologically by the production of gametes (ova) that can be fertilized by male gametes.” Thus, biology can use the term ‘female’ rather than ‘girl’ and ‘woman’. Femininity, on the other hand, is a group of traits that have culturally become associated with women, but they do not make a woman. The patriarchy views woman as an incomplete man, the second sex, the other. But in refusing to become a woman does not imply that one adorns the role of a man since as Wittig puts it-

For becoming a man would demand from a woman not only a man’s external appearance but his consciousness as well… one feature of lesbian oppression consists precisely of making women out of reach for us, since women belong to men. 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. (p.4)

She elaborates her argument further asserting that-

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 than the refusal of the role “woman.” It is the refusal of the economic, ideological, and political power of man. (p.4 )

The term “gender” was coined by Greek philosopher, Protagoras. Greek nouns were divided into three different classes which attributed its existence to a word meaning ‘class’ or ‘kind’- ‘masculine’, ‘feminine’, and ‘neuter’ (Cameron, p.89). The ‘masculine’, Jakob Grimm, a German philologist explained, ‘means the earlier, larger, firmer, more inflexible, swift, active, mobile, productive; the feminine the later, smaller, smoother, the more still, suffering, receptive’ (Cameron, p.92). However, the category of ‘woman’ is neither biological nor grammatical. It is a cultural construct.

Womanism, on the other hand, considers the society as a collective whole and acknowledges the inter-linked fate of the black women with their men in the community. Rather than supporting separatism, Womanism promotes “universalism”. Womanism, like Black Feminism, provides a space for Black women and women of color to create

dialogue in a non-dominative and a non-threatening environment. Womanism is not a new idea by any means; in fact there is evidence of its origins in the sacred texts of ancient Africa, especially the Husia of Egypt and the Odu Ifa of ancient Yorubaland. Concepts from the Husia such as the Divine inclusiveness of male and female principles, woman and man as the image of God and the concept of human customarily written with male and female characters in hieroglyphs indicate the belief that woman and man were equal by nature and divinely and must operate as such (Karenga 324).

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Wittig thus, busts the “myth of woman” (created by men) by questioning and agreeing to Beauvoir, that the concept of “woman is wonderful”, underlining women having the best of features is a judgment men have compartmentalized according to their own perception. To save one self being entrapped in such a purview is the aim of the lesbian- feminists who strive for a sexless society. In this light then the concerns of feminism too is subjected to scrutiny. Feminism contains the word “femme” meaning woman, fighting for women as a class or, the removal of this “class.” If it is so, then the movement took precedence from the acceptance of the notion that women shared common features as a result of oppression; “But for them these features were natural and biological rather than social.”

Wittig takes upon her the daunting task of establishing the idea of lesbians as opposed to the class of woman/man in materialist terms. It does not imply that men as species should be led to extinction but to suppress men as a “class’ through political struggle. Once this category of class disappears, says Wittig, the natural and historical division between man and woman too will vanish, for “there are no slaves without masters.”

The political formation of class can be traced back to the ideology of Marxism which states individuals to be product of society, and that only their consciousness can be alienated not the individual herself/ himself until the class that dominates ceases to produce the ideas itself that alienates them from the class that they oppress. For instance in order to achieve a sexless society, the visible division between the bourgeois and the proletariat has to be removed first and then only can there be “no-man” and “no-woman”, but all humans society. As Wittig puts-

This real necessity for everyone to exist as an individual, as well as a member of a class, is perhaps the first condition for the accomplishment of a revolution, without which there can be no real fight or transformation. But the opposite is also true; without class and class consciousness there are no real subjects, only alienated individuals.(p.10)

Thus, lesbianism is the only concept that provides for a chance to create such a social form where humankind can live freely. Celie’s realization of herself as a woman capable of living independently without the necessity of a man in her life, springs from the unconditional love she receives from Shug Avery, another woman for The Color Purple establishes itself as a story of women by a woman. It moves away from the categories of woman and man because a lesbian is neither a man nor a woman, “either economically, or politically, or ideologically.” Here, Wittig’s text offers some positive contributions to feminist and queer theory, in particular her deconstruction of the term “woman” and her focus on the power of language. As she clarifies-

There is no possible fight for someone deprived of an identity, no internal motivation for fighting, since, although I can fight only with others, first I fight for myself. (p.7)

In the The Color Purple the women are doubly marginalized, first as a black, seen as ‘the other’ by the white, and, secondly, as a subordinate group by the men. Celie is so used to the oppression by the men around her that when her step- son Harpo complains of his wife’s disobedience to him, she advises him to beat her: an alternative for her does not exist. Nettie, on the other hand, refuses to give in to the whims and fancies of the male order. She fights and carves an identity and life for her with her marriage to Samuel, a missionary. It is Shug Avery, a Blues singer, who reveals to Celie the value of independence and the assertion of a woman’s identity. Through the conversations and the relationship thus enforced between Shug and Celie, one can find clinching evidence of ‘subversive textuality’ wherein the traditional text is undermined and hetereosexuality is challenged. The realization brings about a metamorphosis in Celie. She forgives the men in her life who viewed her as nothing more than a “mule of the world.” She emerges like the autobiographical Walker as a butterfly whose fiercely strong willpower makes the society and world at large celebrate her identity and individuality. As Toni Morrison maintains in Beloved, “Definitions belong to the definers not the defined. Self naming and self defining is crucial.” (Morrison 1987). So too, womanists like Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Patricia Hills Collins, Clenora Hudson- Weems assert authoritatively their political identity to the world, amidst the frequent conflation with the Black Feminists.


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