What is a Woman? And Other Essays 
by Toril Moi.
Oxford, 517 pp., £25, October 1999, 9780198122425
Show More
Show More

Feminism is fiftysomething if you start counting from The Second Sex, and, like Toril Moi, a lot of academic women are taking stock. The good news is that wherever positive discrimination in favour of men has been suspended, there are many more women in universities than there used to be, as students, teachers and even tenured professors. What’s been lost is the sense of connection with utopian politics. Part of the fiftyish feeling is to do with having to recognise that the future – that future, the classless, melting-pot, unisex, embarrassing one – is now in the past. Or, more painfully, that it has been hijacked by obscurantism and academic careerism, which often amount to the same thing.

What Is a Woman? and Other Essays deplores this development. Moi is in a tricky position, however, for she herself is widely seen as one of the villains of the piece: the woman who trashed sisterhood in her 1985 book Sexual/Textual Politics by preaching post-structuralist demolition of the whole person, and dismissing American feminists as naive empiricists. ‘With friends like these, does feminism need enemies?’ Susan Gubar asks with uncharacteristic bitterness in her new stock-taking book Critical Condition. Clearly Moi is unforgiven, even though she has partly recanted. For instance: she used to argue that ‘all efforts towards a definition of woman are destined to be essentialist.’ Now she thinks definition is a red herring, and wields the very word ‘woman’ like a weapon. This will not endear her to the women whose work she so influentially pigeonholed. Nor will her insistence that her former savagery was fuelled by a euphoric sense that conflict was exciting and feminist writing should be rash, hand to mouth and excessive. This was intellectual life after all, and vive la différence. No harm was done, we were all playing the same game, weren’t we? The moment fed, she says now, a recurring ‘fantasy of being able to speak in a way that would genuinely be all-inclusive ... The fantasy is one of merger, in which one would not have the problem of separating one’s voice from that of others, so that, ultimately, it would not matter who was speaking.’

Well, it has turned out to matter. The essays that make up this new book examine the question of how to speak for yourself, and not in quotation-marks as though you were the mouthpiece of an unstoppable dialectical process. Moi still recognises the author of Sexual/Textual Politics, but no longer accepts the way she operated, quoting with some incredulity herself quoting Luce Irigaray and Hélène Cixous. She/they were doing away with the old humanist self as ‘constructed’, in one of the book’s most-quoted passages, ‘on the model of the self-contained powerful phallus’. Now, she says: ‘I don’t think I can have believed this when I wrote it. I don’t understand why every integral whole must be phallic ... It doesn’t help that I say I have it from Irigaray and Cixous. This in fact makes it worse.’ This new use of ‘I’ liberates her from having to pay lip-service to post-structuralist orthodoxy. She hasn’t changed, she was just carried away, she implies, and there’s no reason not to believe her. With hindsight, the first book’s odd disapproving allusions to Cixous’s personal style – ‘ermine as emancipation’ – take on more weight. There spoke the literal, serious and class-conscious Moi of the turn of the century, exasperated with the decadence and snobbishness of deconstruction – ‘obscure, theoreticist, plagued by internal contradictions, mired in unnecessary philosophical and theoretical elaborations.’

The long title essay undertakes a patient, sometimes dogged diagnosis of how this impasse came about. Feminist theory took a wrong turn almost at the moment of its rebirth in the 1960s. Moi traces the problem to the enshrining of the sex/gender distinction, which was so useful as a bulwark against biological determinism, but developed a life of its own and spawned metaphysical pseudo-problems around the concrete historical body. Perhaps the most interesting encounter here is with the work of Judith Butler. Butler, too, finds the distinction between biological sex and gender specious, but she resolves it by arguing that sex is just as constructed as gender, thus (for Moi) compounding the damage. Butler’s concept of ‘performativity’ – the daily script that ends up being written on the body and makes a woman seem solidly a woman – brilliantly obscures the matter of self-making, of ‘a “doer behind the deed”, an agent who actually makes choices’: ‘In Butler’s picture ... sex becomes the inaccessible ground of gender, gender becomes completely disembodied, and the body itself is divorced from all meaning.’ There is nothing material in such arguments except language itself, Moi argues, and language works to cloud the issue: ‘Butler thinks of a woman as the ongoing production of a congealed ideological construct.’ What we need is a way out of these labyrinthine poststructuralist debates in which matter is an effect of power and ‘power becomes a principle that works in mysterious ways behind the veil of appearances.’

So how do we extricate ourselves? Moi argues that we need to go back to the future – back, in particular, to Simone de Beauvoir, whose phenomenological understanding of lived experience will provide a way out. Her 1994 book on Beauvoir, The Making of an Intellectual Woman, paid implicit tribute to the continuing relevance of Beauvoir’s ideas, but now she applies them directly as a kind of alternative therapy for feminism’s sick and fissile state. Beauvoir writes and thinks with awareness of ‘the concrete, historical body that loves, suffers and dies’. ‘Woman’, in the words of The Second Sex, ‘is not a fixed reality, but rather a becoming ... the body is not a thing, it is a situation, it is our grasp on the world and a sketch of our projects.’ Moi concentrates on Beauvoir’s language in order to rediscover her originality, and she often has cause to rewrite H.M. Parshley’s English translation, as she does here, where he had the body as ‘a limiting factor’ rather than a ‘sketch’, thereby importing (she argues) a traditional idea of consciousness as merely inhabiting the body. Beauvoir’s woman is realistically ambiguous, a sex-gender amphibian, subject both to natural laws and to the human production of meaning, ‘a synthesis of facticity and freedom’: ‘The fact that Beauvoir refuses to hand the concept of “woman” over to the opposition is what makes The Second Sex such a liberating read.’ Beauvoir’s woman – resembling her author – invents herself. Not freely, or fantastically, in a void, but in a style of resistance and scepticism. This is what Moi is after: a theoretical position that gives us back the notion of agency. She returns again and again to the same point: ‘Each woman will make something out of what the world makes out of her’ is a sentence that recurs with minor variations at least half a dozen times.

Moi in fact has come to resemble Beauvoir in her distaste for anything that might smack of self-pity or titivation: she would rather repeat herself than doll the idea up in different words. The second big essay in this book – ‘ “I am a Woman”: The Personal and the Philosophical’ – comes at the argument about how to get the whole person on the page from a different angle. It looks at the fashion for saying ‘I’ in academe that started with Jane Tompkins’s 1989 essay ‘Me and My Shadow’, in which Tompkins confesses to finding theoretical writing ‘incredibly alienating’: ‘I love writers who write about their own experience. I feel I am being nourished by them.’ Philosophy – i.e. theory of any kind – is male and arrogant, on this view; or to put it less personally, Post-Modern thinking pictures all knowledge as located: you have to say where you’re coming from because (in Linda Alcoff’s immortal words) ‘a speaker’s location is epistemologically salient’. Moi has a fairly easy time exposing the double-think involved here (‘in order to indulge in the luxury of the personal one needs to have tenure’) and showing how token or kitsch some of these supposedly vulnerable and personal excursions are. More seriously, you need to work hard to speak or write cogently in the first person, and to acknowledge that ‘there is always someone who is not speaking.’ Be your own woman. At the centre of the argument is a comparative analysis of the opening paragraphs of The Second Sex and Luce Irigaray’s Speculum of the Other Woman, in which Moi is able to show convincingly that Irigaray’s strategy of ventriloquism leaves very little space for readers to dissent, whereas Beauvoir’s ‘I’ lets in the ordinary, partial perspective. For Irigaray, a woman under patriarchy is doomed to mimicry, locked up in a language not hers; for Moi, one of the major strategies of sexism is ‘to imprison women in their subjectivity’ in just this way.

This second long essay complements the first. Just because Moi has had enough of theoreticism, as she now scornfully calls it, doesn’t mean that she is anti-theoretical in currently correct style either. Confessionalism, she concludes, has become an academic sub-genre like any other, which is unsurprising, since it is ‘a theory-generated attempt to escape from the bad effects of theory’. The problem was the way we posed the problem. What she wants is a radical spring-clean of feminist thinking. Let’s go back and start again, we have nothing to lose but our mind-forged manacles. Beauvoir was a freelance, an independent, and Moi is too, in spirit – not a deconstructionist, more of a righteous wrecker. Beauvoir told her eager biographer Deirdre Bair (who came to resent her superior glumness, if you read between the lines) that when she wrote The Second Sex she was ‘the messenger who brings the bad news’, and Moi has assumed her mantle. So although she laments the reluctance of feminist theoreticians to listen to arguments that don’t speak the right language (use the right quotation-marks), she can hardly be surprised. Beauvoir’s own reception by later feminists was spectacularly mixed; among the most prestigious, like Cixous and Irigaray, it was violently hostile. Moi notes here the ‘snub’ Cixous delivered by simply never mentioning Beauvoir in her contribution to the special issue of the magazine l’Arc dedicated to Beauvoir in 1975. Beauvoir was already dead and buried, for Cixous. ‘Beauvoir is not an enemy ... she is no one, nothing.’ Antoinette Fouque in a 1986 obituary article in Libération accused Beauvoir of ‘intolerant, assimilating, sterilising universalism, full of hatred and reductive of otherness’. There are lots more where they came from; Moi doesn’t quote as many as she could. Annie Leclerc, for instance, who has described her 1974 book Parole de femme as ‘an anti-Second Sex’, sets her own version of textual bliss against Beauvoir’s bleak view of the hard labour of reproduction: ‘To be this vagina, an open eye in life’s nocturnal fermentation, an ear alive to the pulse, the vibration of the originating magma’. This is enough to send one back with relief to Beauvoir’s trenchant description of the colossal bad faith of women who choose charm and bad writing.

These days, Anglo-American feminists, too, would mostly agree that Beauvoir has nothing to say to them. She didn’t know she was ‘different’ is the line. Moi thinks that quite a lot of this stems from generational rage, rubbing out mother. Indeed, she argues that this sort of pattern is endemic in intellectual life, and that you can see it in relations between male thinkers – for example, in the relations of Bourdieu and Derrida to Sartre, and of René Girard to Freud. So perhaps there’s nothing specifically female or feminist about the bind that theory has got itself into. Battling her way out of the forest of quotation-marks, Moi turns to Freud himself and one of his most quoted phrases, ‘Anatomy is destiny,’ which is a travestied version of what Napoleon said to Goethe: ‘What does one want destiny for now ... Politics is destiny.’ In other words, Freud is inviting us to think about what destiny means in the modern world: he probably didn’t intend to say that anatomy overrides human agency, though it may well ironise it. Moi’s argument is characteristically detailed and lucid, and arrives at a reading of the Freud texts (he misquoted Napoleon twice, first apropos of all human beings, later just women) that avoids bringing in timeless and ineluctable fate by the skin of its teeth. History and contingency count, she wants to say: indeed, Freud was a man of his time in his ‘tendency to think of male sexuality as fairly easy to investigate, and to cast female sexual difference as an unsolvable mystery’. By this stage in the argument – and in the book, which only has three short literary essays on courtly love and (again) Beauvoir’s brief novel, The Woman Destroyed, to go – we’re out of the wood, and the moral is clear. Don’t settle for getting used to the dark, don’t write yourself further into the undergrowth, perversely addictive though it is. Hack your way through the thickets of theory.

What Is a Woman? is a kind of Pilgrim’s Progress: most of the other critics and theorists you meet on the way represent obstacles or sophistical tempters – or as in Freud’s case have to be lent on to yield a usable meaning. One of the exceptions is the social theorist Pierre Bourdieu, whose remark ‘One cannot liberate the victims of symbolic violence by decree’ Moi takes very seriously. What it means is that you have to spell out the arguments step by step, and that even then the class-system in the intellectual world, which rations attention, and ensures that those who already have symbolic capital tend to accrue more, makes it hard for dissent to get a hearing. Another friendly presence is Wittgenstein: ‘A picture held us captive. And we could not get outside it, for it lay in our language and language seemed to repeat it to us inexorably.’ And another phrase of his – ‘language on holiday’: that is, language that’s not doing an honest day’s work – serves to describe what she so distrusts in deconstruction’s style: if people have fun rattling their intellectual shackles, that’s even worse. Like Beauvoir, Moi is the messenger who brings the bad news. ‘No, we have not won the game.’ Put these words of Beauvoir’s into her mouth, and they come out sounding right. What is a Woman? is written out of a prim passion for freedom. For a book that argues for the resurrection of Woman, it is shamelessly individualist. No wonder Toril Moi is regarded by some feminist scholars as the new enemy, the enemy within. But her energy is positive and provocative, and in the best sense old-fashioned – modern, Utopian, enlightened, or at least of a kind to let in the grey day.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 22 No. 11 · 1 June 2000

I do indeed believe, as Linda Alcott suggests, that ‘a speaker’s location is epistemologically salient,’ but so is the location of the text. Could you reclaim those lines of Sage on Moi (LRB, 18 May) which are apparently located underneath an over-expansive advertisement?

Catherine Conybeare
University of Manchester

Editor, ‘London Review’ writes: They are (with apologies) as follows:

a) … who brings the bad news’, and Moi has …

b) … are lots more where they came from, Moi …

c) … argues that this sort of pattern is endemic in …

Editor, ‘London Review’

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences