Friday, 13 June 2014

Is there a difference between the ‘creative power’ of men and that of women?

This essay by Lottie Kent won Third Prize in the prestigious Woolf Essay Prize held annually by Newnham College, Cambridge, open to all girls in the UK currently in Year 12.

Virginia Woolf
“For women have sat indoors all these millions of years, so that by this time the very walls are permeated by their creative force, which has, indeed, so overcharged the capacity of bricks and mortar that it must needs harness itself to pens and brushes and business and politics. But this creative power differs from the creative power of men”

 Is there a difference between the ‘creative power’ of men and that of women?

 “Gender is the repeated stylisation of the body, a set of repeated acts within a highly rigid regulatory frame that congeal over time to produce the appearance of substance, of a natural sort of being…” – Judith Butler!

Virginia Woolf, too, seems to reference an enforced congealment of gender roles – with patriarchy as the coagulating agent, like platelets to the oppressive wound. She suggests that gender discrimination has stirred the gradual build-up of a ‘creative power’. This ‘power’ is women’s, and it is so saturated because women’s relegated social position has never allowed them to ‘harness’ it to the ‘pens and brushes and business and politics’ that only men have had access to. But is the notion of relegation here at all relevant when we are considering the differences between the ‘creative power’ of two gender categories? It is evident that patriarchy is a social universal; its cross-cultural stability and typology is remarkably unvaried. Where societies and institutions exist, almost inevitably institutionalised gender oppression will too. It inescapably impacts upon social norms in every vein of life, so that we are both consciously and unconsciously products of it. And yet, many would argue that patriarchy has always existed insofar as essential gender differences have always existed. Binaries in kinds, they would say, are what allow the oppressive/oppressed dichotomy. So it is, then, that when we ask ourselves if the ‘creative power’ of the oppressed woman ‘differs’ from that of the oppressive man, we must consider this: is the governing factor in our apparent gender differences our historical existence as beings responsive to the social norms of patriarchy, or are these differences essential aspects of the human self – existing separate of socio-political and historical contexts?

But we still need to decide what ‘creative power’ is. Certainly, given the context of the statement, it would seem that Woolf was mostly interested in the historical imbalance of power between men and women. Arguably, she was casting light over epochs of systemic incarceration, and their inevitable effect upon women’s freedom - their power – to be creative. Woolf was not necessarily pointing out essential differences in creativity between the genders; she wasn’t even arguing that living in oppressive frames affects the creativity of marginalised groups. No, to Woolf, creativity was probably a personal characteristic of individuals. The only aspect of the creative existence that systemic oppression can affect is our relational freedom to express creativity (and, consequently, our freedom to capitalise on it, and to be publicly praised for it). And indeed, there have long been historical ‘walls’ that have separated those for whom creative freedom is a given, and those whose creativity has been ignored and discouraged. If we believe that Woolf is endorsing all of these ideas in her statement, then the truly important notion here is power. Creativeness in individuals is unchanging. Where the indigenous religions of African slaves were suppressed in America’s Deep South, Christian spiritual music grew up out of the cotton fields. In systematically attempting to de-Africanise the black workforce, white enslavers did not rid these people of their personal creativity, but they simply reduced their creative freedom. In this way, it is not unlikely that an oppressed group of people will reassign their creativity to ensuring their survival. When African slaves began to sing Christian spirituals, they were primarily expressions of faith and emotion, but they were also a means of proving (or pretending) their assimilation to white American culture. Likewise, women have hidden their creativity indoors for so many years because it was the only choice they had under the normativity of Patriarchy. But this does not mean that their creativity was in any way reduced; rather, it was merely reassigned to a repressed mode of expression. By this line of reasoning, Woolf was not focussing on essential gender differences, but the effect of subjugation on a group of gendered individuals – creative women.

However, what if she was focussing on these differences? It certainly wouldn’t be inconceivable that Woolf endorsed the notion of gender essentialism. Ideas of traits specific to, and altering as dependent on, gender (understood as sex) were commonplace at the time she was writing. Indeed, in the paragraphs that follow this very mention of ‘creative power’, Woolf insists we ought to ‘bring out and fortify the differences rather than the similarities’ between genders2. She even proposes that ‘nothing would be of greater service to humanity’ than were we to discover ‘other sexes’. In promoting fundamental categorical variations of this sort, she is not celebrating individuality on a personal level, but merely endorsing apparent essential differences between genders, just on an egalitarian plane. Perhaps when she writes that the ‘creative power’ of men and women ‘differs’ she means to say that this is an essential aspect of our binary existence, just like the rest of our dualistic characteristics. This would be such that we could replace ‘creative power’ with ‘creativity’ and she would insist upon the same essentialism. Therefore, Woolf means to rejoice in the differences in order to reject all discrimination on the basis of them; that is, she looks to dismantle patriarchy by working from within the gender binary. A Room of One’s Own is not an essay that works to reject the imposed fundamental differences between men and women. It is a gynocritical essay that argues for emancipation within the organic model of hetero-normativity. The ‘room’ that Woolf requires for women is, as such, still inside the normative house.

Irrespective of whether Woolf was calling us to accept our gender identity as essential, her statement on ‘creative power’ raises an important issue concerning the social change she demands: can we ever truly liberate women from oppressive social roles if we still accept and invest in essential distinctions in genders? Modern feminist scholars have commonly vilified essentialism as a concept that would only serve to hamper the movement for equality. In contrast, the feminist philosopher Charlotte Witt argues for what she calls ‘gender uniessentialism’ in her book, The Metaphysics of Gender3. She is quick to explain that this strain of essentialism is not the form of essentialism that most criticisms are directed at, for this is kind essentialism. Kind essentialism expresses the view that women and men are kinds whose members share a defining property4. In the initial waves of feminist thought this theory would have been used to claim that all women share something fundamental in common, and hence provide a basis for powerful political solidarity that was separate from, and against, men. Instead, Witt’s essentialism aims to offer a metaphysical picture of our social existence: what unifies and organises the various social roles we occupy (parent, academic, doctor, friend, teacher, etc.). She argues that this unifying function is gender – it is the ‘mega social role’ that is prior to and defines all other social roles, and is thus uniessential to us social individuals5. Hers is a view about the structure of social normativity, where social normativity is comprised of the expectations, obligations, and allowances that the various social roles we occupy bring us. Witt believes we are responsive to and evaluated under these norms irrespective of whether we, like Woolf, endorse them consciously or unconsciously. She concludes by arguing that feminism should work under the notion that the gender binary, or the engendering function, is the mega social role, but its aim should be to deconstruct the social roles and norms that oppress women.6 Gender identity is a necessary normative principle, but it should be egalitarian. Therefore, when addressing the notion of men and women’s differing ‘creative power’, Witt would insist that the expression of creativeness is a principle of normative unity to which gender is still a prior definitional and organisational social role. She would, however, argue that the social role of women as being mild-mannered and uncreative homemakers was oppressive, and the gendered limitations placed on women’s creative freedom should not stay as a normative principle. In this way, she would align herself with Woolf’s impassioned spurn of contemporary norms, insisting too that women should be on equal footing with their creative counterparts.

Yet, is not the idea that women need some principle of normative unity in order to exercise their practical social agency frankly erroneous? Why is gender identity at all necessary for liberation? Allow the pendulum of ideas to swing back to constructionism and the simple answer is that it is not. To the anti-essentialist’s eye, representations of physical and biological reality, including race, sexuality and gender, are merely social constructs. Arguably, this notion and much of the present-day work in the field of cultural studies can be seen as shaped by the postmodern movement. And, indeed, the work of contemporary gender constructionists has been strongly influenced by that of postmodern feminists, who saw ‘woman’ as represented by a form of metonymic differentiation that reproduced her oppression by excluding her from history7 – by ‘otherising’ her. The pioneer semiotician and psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva, in particular, critiqued the concept of woman as deviant, as an ‘Other’. She rejected the category itself of ‘woman’, refusing to believe that one can be a woman in an essential ontological sense8, and tried to project a postmodern Subject beyond the categories of gender. She argued that ‘the very dichotomy man/woman as an opposition between two rival entities may be understood as belonging to metaphysics. What can ‘identity’ – even ‘sexual identity’ – mean in a new theoretical and scientific space, where the very notion of identity is challenged?’9 Here, she alludes to one of the cornerstones of Queer theory, a philosophy of modern constructionism: fixed identity is redundant. And, furthermore, normative identities allow for systemic discrimination, through rigid categorisation. Judith Butler, a prominent queer theorist, insists that ‘gender is cultural fiction,’10 and argues for the idea that our gender identity is nothing more than representation, than performance. Where Witt would argue that the engendering function is a social norm set up to respond to the essential biological need to reproduce11, Butler would disagree that gender identity is an expression of some sort of innate or natural characteristic. Instead, she and many other queer theorists would maintain that in performing a gender, we are creating a gender. Hence, gender is a representation of reality that is an arbitrary social construct. The very nature of being ‘queer’, then, is to take on an identity entirely without an essence.12 It was Michel Foucault who believed that, in this way, we can attempt to debunk the regulatory spaces in which identities are formed, reinforced and reproduced.13 He proposed that these frames, comparable to an omnipresent disciplinary regime, are employed as a means to maintain social control over conceptions and practices in gender and sexual identification to guarantee that identities are suited to hetero-normativity. Interestingly, Foucault was intensely focussed on the notion of power, and on considering Woolf’s notion of ‘creative power’ he would probably have held that the only way to dismantle the imbalance between ‘men’ and ‘women’ would be to dismantle the gender binary completely. In assigning ourselves to normative categories, we allow ourselves to be too easily suffocated by stereotypes and, thus, systemically oppressed. Furthermore, if we believe the term ‘creative power’ to refer to an innate characteristic, queer theory would deny that this, and indeed any, trait ‘differs’ between (inessential) gender categories. It would insist that we could substitute any quality or concept for ‘creative power’ and the conclusion would remain the same – that gender has no objective bearing on the manifested characteristics of gendered individuals. Take musical ability, take organisational skills, take hand-eye co-ordination, and the response still stands that not one of these notions is exclusive to one gender; and the spectrum of varying capabilities in each area crosses all supposed gender boundaries so that every personal characteristic transcends gender. Therefore, for queer theorists, the idea that ‘creative power’ might be inherently different for a woman and a man is fallacious inasmuch as the social categories ‘woman’ and ‘man’ are arbitrary.

Therefore, I would contend that if the ‘creative power’ of men and women’ differs, it is because of the general effect that oppression has on a group of people, regardless of whether they are essentially different. So, because of the specific social position that the Western woman has occupied historically, her ‘creative power’, whatever it may be, has been restrained by Patriarchy and the repressive gender roles that she has had to conform to. But still, it is my view that neither an essentially gendered difference in creativity, nor the subconscious committal to learning and performing specific gender identities could account for an observable difference in men and women’s ‘creative power’. No, this difference must be the result of millennia-long systemic subjugation, and the way all power dynamics rest themselves on the imposed divides between kinds of beings.

This brings me to my final insistence – that gender is inessential, but for our society it still has an inescapable impact on identity, and self-identification. It has been posited that humans are unable to think freely because society prescribes so much of our identity – that a person is unable to separate the ‘self’ from environmental conditioning.14 Woolf is snared in this notion when she argues for the disassembly of patriarchal norms, but is insistent that we rejoice in our natural categorical differences, and in doing so accept them as essential and unchanging. ‘Different but equal.’ It is a line we hear often today, trumpeted eagerly from those attempting to promote social justice. And yet this trite masquerade of progressivism merely espouses further inequality by encouraging us to invest in limiting and unnecessary traditional gender roles. In truth, by investing in a constant gender identity we are investing in cultural fantasy that only serves to shackle us. For artists in particular, gender essentialism has repeatedly become yoke-like, and their creativity has become concentrated on the subject of oppression. Hence, their ‘creative power’ is limited by the identities they feel they must assume. Consider Yayoi Kusama, whose work was consumed, as she was consumed, by the suffocating effects of sexual dominance and masculinity. Stuffed-fabric phallic forms heavily feature in her installations of ‘infinite obsession,’15 covering floors and walls and tables and chairs. And in plastering mundane furniture with symbols of the overwhelming oppression she was experiencing, Kusama was not presenting some surreal, gendered fantasy. No, she was simply illumining a contemporary truth about gender’s impression upon art, upon her own ‘creative power.’ For, in the abiding words of Paul Klee, ‘art does not reproduce the visible; rather, it makes visible.’16


 1 Butler, J. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, Routledge Classics (2006; originally published 1990)

2 Woolf, V. Chapter 5, in: Woolf, V. A Room of One’s Own. Wordsworth Edition (2012; originally published 1929)

3 Witt, C. The Metaphysics of Gender. Oxford University Press (2011)

4 Witt, C. Chapter , in Witt, C. The Metaphysics of Gender. Oxford University Press (2011)

6 Witt, C. Chapter , in Witt, C. The Metaphysics of Gender. Oxford University Press (2011)

7 Appignanesi, R. and Garratt, C. Introducing Postmodernism (1999)

8 Kristeva, J (1985) as found in: Barker, C. Cultural Studies: Theory and Practice. SAGE (2003)

9 Kristeva, J (1986) as found in: Barker, C. Cultural Studies: Theory and Practice. SAGE (2003)

10 Garbacik, J. Chapter 9, in: Garbacik, J. Gender and Sexuality for Beginners. For Beginners (2013)

12 Halperin, D. As found in: Garbacik, J. Chapter 7, in: Garbacik, J. Gender and Sexuality for Beginners. For Beginners (2013)

14 Barthes, R. As found in Garbacik, J. Chapter 7, in: Garbacik, J. Gender and Sexuality for Beginners. For Beginners (2013)

15 Kusama, Y. From the exhibition entitled ‘Infinite Obsession’ at Centro Cultural, Rio de Janeiro.

16 Klee, P. Creative Confession. Tate Publishing (2013; originally published 1920)


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