SubStance 30.1&2 (2001) 262-266
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What Is A Woman?
And Other Essays
Moi, Toril. What Is A Woman? And Other Essays. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.
The Second Sex, Toril Moi asserts, is "the deepest and most original work of feminist thought to have been produced in [the twentieth] century, . . . [but] has yet to be properly inherited by contemporary feminist theorists " (vii). These bold opening claims set the tone for all of the essays that together constitute What Is A Woman? And Other Essays, Moi's most recent contribution to the burgeoning field of feminist theory. Many readers are, no doubt, already familiar with Moi's earlier books, Sexual / Textual Politics (1985) and Simone de Beauvoir: The Making of an Intellectual Woman (1994). Not surprisingly, What Is A Woman continues many of the preoccupations of these earlier works. Moi herself goes to some lengths to situate her new book in relation to the previous two. While her 1994 book-length study of Simone de Beauvoir attempted to understand the social and historical conditions that allowed Beauvoir to become the intellectual woman she was, the essays on Beauvoir in the new volume attempt to situate Beauvoir in relation to contemporary feminist thought. Similarly, while Sexual / Textual Politics was groundbreaking in its introduction of poststructuralist and French feminist thought into the realm of Anglo-American feminist theory, What Is A Woman consciously distances itself from postructuralism in order, as Moi puts it, "to see what happens when one goes elsewhere" (xii). Thus, while both the subject matter and feminist perspective of this new book will be familiar to Moi's readers, What Is A Woman reflects a sense of having grappled with difficult questions, a characteristic that is missing from Moi's previous works. This quality of thought, which can only be the product of hard-earned experience, makes What Is A Woman more satisfying and, in my opinion, more useful for feminist theory than either Sexual/Textual Politics or Simone de Beauvoir.
Although the bulk of the volume is devoted to two book-length essays on The Second Sex, there are other important pieces collected here as well, including essays on Bourdieu, Freud, medieval courtly love, and one of Beauvoir's novellas, "La Femme rompue." Indeed, the sheer scope and range of this 500-page book demonstrate the maturity of Moi's thoughts about gender, subjectivity, politics, love, and freedom. As Moi herself puts it in the preface to the volume, the collection "is a record of almost twenty years of work on the question of how to read as a feminist" (xvi).
The longest and most provocative essay in the volume is the first, from which Moi's book gets its title. In "What Is a Woman? Sex, Gender, and the Body in Feminist Theory," Moi tackles one of the conceptual foundations of [End Page 262] contemporary feminist theory, the sex/gender distinction that separates biological sex from a social or cultural gender. Acknowledging that this commonly accepted distinction has become the object of much contention in feminist theory during the last ten years, Moi goes on to argue, however, that even the poststructuralist critique of this nature/culture dichotomy nevertheless continues to rely on the distinction in order to make its claims. Admonishing poststructuralist feminist critics such as Gayle Rubin, Judith Butler, Elizabeth Grosz, and Donna Haraway for their continued reliance on this binarism even as they deconstruct it, Moi suggests that Beauvoir's existentialist understanding of the body as a "situation" gets us out of the sex/gender trap.
What Beauvoir teaches us, Moi contends, is that to use the word "woman" does not necessarily consign us to the realm of metaphysical or biological essence. Rather, Beauvoir demonstrates the value of developing "a feminist theory that starts from an ordinary understanding of what a woman is" (8). Moi continues: "we do not have to believe that the word 'woman' always carries heavy metaphysical baggage. If I am right about this, then it follows that an anti-essentialist feminist may very well claim that the point of feminism is to...