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In short, one is not a woman due to shared surface properties withother women (like occupying a subordinate social position). Rather,one is a woman because one has the right history: one has undergonethe ubiquitous ontogenetic process of gender socialization. Thinkingabout gender in this way supposedly provides a stronger kind unitythan Haslanger’s that simply appeals to shared surface properties.

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For Butler, sexed bodies never exist outside social meanings and howwe understand gender shapes how we understand sex (1999, 139). Sexedbodies are not empty matter on which gender is constructed and sexcategories are not picked out on the basis of objective features ofthe world. Instead, our sexed bodies are themselves discursivelyconstructed: they are the way they are, at least to a substantialextent, because of what is attributed to sexed bodies and how they areclassified (for discursive construction, see Haslanger 1995, 99). Sex assignment (calling someone female or male) is normative (Butler 1993, 1).[] When thedoctor calls a newly born infant a girl or a boy, s/he is not making adescriptive claim, but a normative one. In fact, the doctor is performing an illocutionary speech act (see the entry on ). In effect, the doctor'sutterance makes infants into girls or boys. We, then, engage inactivities that make it seem as if sexes naturally come in two andthat being female or male is an objective feature of the world, ratherthan being a consequence of certain constitutive acts (that is, ratherthan being performative). And this is what Butler means in saying thatphysical bodies never exist outside cultural and social meanings, andthat sex is as socially constructed as gender. She does not deny thatphysical bodies exist. But, she takes our understanding of thisexistence to be a product of social conditioning: socialconditioning makes the existence of physical bodies intelligible to usby discursively constructing sexed bodies through certain constitutiveacts. (For a helpful introduction to Butler's views, see Salih2002.)

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The various critiques of the sex/gender distinction have called intoquestion the viability of the category women. Feminism is themovement to end the oppression women as a group face. But, how shouldthe category of women be understood if feminists accept the abovearguments that gender construction is not uniform, that a sharpdistinction between biological sex and social gender is false or (atleast) not useful, and that various features associated with womenplay a role in what it is to be a woman, none of which areindividually necessary and jointly sufficient (like a variety ofsocial roles, positions, behaviours, traits, bodily features andexperiences)? Feminists must be able to address cultural and socialdifferences in gender construction if feminism is to be a genuinelyinclusive movement and be careful not to posit commonalities that maskimportant ways in which women qua women differ. Theseconcerns (among others) have generated a situation where (as LindaAlcoff puts it) feminists aim to speak and make political demands inthe name of women, at the same time rejecting the idea that there is aunified category of women (2006, 152). If feminist critiques of thecategory women are successful, then what (if anything) bindswomen together, what is it to be a woman, and what kinds of demandscan feminists make on behalf of women?

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In order to better understand Butler's critique, consider heraccount of gender performativity. For her, standard feminist accountstake gendered individuals to have some essential propertiesqua gendered individuals or a gender core by virtue of whichone is either a man or a woman. This view assumes that women and men,qua women and men, are bearers of various essential andaccidental attributes where the former secure gendered persons'persistence through time as so gendered. But according to Butler thisview is false: (i) there are no such essential properties, and (ii)gender is an illusion maintained by prevalent power structures. First,feminists are said to think that genders are socially constructed inthat they have the following essential attributes (Butler 1999, 24):women are females with feminine behavioural traits, being heterosexualswhose desire is directed at men; men are males with masculinebehavioural traits, being heterosexuals whose desire is directed atwomen. These are the attributes necessary for gendered individuals andthose that enable women and men to persist through time aswomen and men. Individuals have “intelligible genders”(Butler 1999, 23) if they exhibit this sequence of traits in a coherentmanner (where sexual desire follows from sexual orientation that inturn follows from feminine/ masculine behaviours thought to follow frombiological sex). Social forces in general deem individuals who exhibitincoherent gender sequences (like lesbians) to be doing theirgender ‘wrong’ and they actively discourage such sequencingof traits, for instance, via name-calling and overt homophobicdiscrimination. Think back to what was said above: having a certainconception of what women are like that mirrors the conditions ofsocially powerful (white, middle-class, heterosexual, Western) womenfunctions to marginalize and police those who do not fit thisconception.

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So, this group of feminist arguments against biological determinismsuggested that gender differences result from cultural practices andsocial expectations. Nowadays it is more common to denote this bysaying that gender is socially constructed. This means that genders(women and men) and gendered traits (like being nurturing orambitious) are the “intended or unintended product[s] of asocial practice” (Haslanger 1995, 97). But which socialpractices construct gender, what social construction is and what beingof a certain gender amounts to are major feminist controversies. There is no consensus on these issues. (See the entry on for more on different ways to understand gender.)

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Many historians argue that in a pre-market, farm economy, women enjoyed something much more like equality. On a family farm, men and women typically did different jobs—men did heavy field labor, woodwork and repair, and worked with large edge tools: women typically did food and clothing preparation, and food preservation. Children were raised by both. A farm simply could not survive without the skilled labor of both men and women, and in this sense men and women's contribution to the economy of the family farm was equal. True, the law clearly favored men, and gave women few formal rights. But in a world where most people made their own food, clothing and shelter, rather than buying these things pre-made, a farm wife's labor was crucial to the family's basic survival.