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International Gay & Lesbian Review

The Straight Mind and Other Essays

by Monique Wittig
review

Celesta Atkins: Celesta Atkins is a graduate student in Sociology at the University of Southern California focusing on race and gender and is also interested in sexuality and identity formation.

Monique Wittig is a well-known French feminist writer who has compiled a book of essays on a variety of feminist and lesbian issues. The end result is this short book of nine essays in which she outlines her positions on such issues as the category of sex, the heterosexism inherent in language, the social contract, and others. Although the book is short, it is dense and not easy to read; however, it does force 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 ”[m]aterialist lesbianism” in which she “describe[s] heterosexuality not as an institution but as a political regime which rests on the submission and the appropriation of women (p. xiii). As I struggled at times with the essays, I prefer to quote Wittig at length from her preface as to her goals for each essay.

With “Category of Sex” I wanted to show “sex” as a political category. The word “gender” already used in England and in the United States seemed to me imprecise. In “One Is Not Born a Woman,” there is an attempt to establish a link between women fighting for women as a class, against the idea of “woman” as an essentialist concept. In the “Straight Mind,” I sketch the thought which throughout the centuries built heterosexuality as a given. “The Social Contract” discusses the idea that there is an issue beyond the heterosexual social contract. “Homo Sum” is about political thought and the future of dialectics. In the second half of this collection I mention the object of my main concern: writing. . . . In “The Point of View, Universal or Particular” I touch upon the problem of a work of art in which the literary forms cannot be perceived because the theme of the work (here homosexuality) predominates. The “Trojan Horse” is a discussion of language as raw material for the writer and of how violently literary forms affect their context when they are new. . . . In “Mark of Gender” I examine the original meaning of gender and how it represents the linguistic index of women's material oppression. “The Site of Action” focuses on language as the ultimate social contract, an idea that Natalie Sarraute's work inspired (pp. xvi-xvii).
Wittig's work is at times a struggle to read and to understand due to the assumptions inherent in her references that the reader is as well versed in the literature as the writer is. The style will also seem strange to American readers used to an academic style which necessitates a lot of citations and quotations.

The main concern I had with this work is the implicit message that lesbianism is the only route to escaping sexism which, to me, devalues the work of heterosexual feminist women, not to mention male feminists.

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. 13)
This is problematic for me, because it seems to imply that only through refusing to sleep with and to romantically love men can one effectively fight patriarchy and sexism. As long as lesbians live in a world that is controlled, politically, economically, and ideologically, by a certain class of men, I would argue that they can never “refuse the economic, ideological, and political power of man.”

My second critique is that many of Wittig's assertions seem to deliberately deny areas of similarity, as well as destroy the potential of solidarity between lesbian and heterosexual women.

What is woman? Panic, general alarm for an active defense. Frankly, it is a problem that the lesbians do not have because of a change of perspective, and it would be incorrect to say that lesbians associate, make love, live with women, for “woman” has meaning only in heterosexual systems of thought and heterosexual economic systems. Lesbians are not women. (p. 32)
Although Wittig professes to fight against “the idea of ‘woman' as an essentialist concept” (p. xvi), in my opinion what she substitutes is an essentialist idea of “lesbian” that both denies the range of variety among lesbians and the commonality of oppressions faced by both lesbians and heterosexual women. While I think it is very important to understand difference among women and to resist an essentialist notion of “woman,” I also believe that in order to fight all types of “isms,” including racism, sexism, and heterosexism, oppressed peoples need to form coalitions and devote themselves to not only fighting their own oppressions but ALL oppressions. The types of divisive categories and denying of “womanhood” that Wittig proclaims seem to me to be counterproductive.

My final critique of Wittig's text is the one that is the most personal to me. I found myself deeply offended at several points in Wittig's essays when she casually compared sexist oppression to Black slavery. As a Black woman, this is one of my major complaints with certain types of white feminist writings. Although I don't believe in “comparing oppressions,” I am amazed at the audacity of women who are descended from a group that actually OWNED other women who then can turn around and compare themselves to a group in whose oppression their own ancestors explicitly participated. Sexist oppression is not comparable to chattel slavery; for that matter, racist oppression is not comparable to chattel slavery. For Wittig to compare lesbians who “run away” from patriarchy to runaway slaves greatly lessened the legitimacy of her arguments in my eyes. The greater personal affront, was the casual use of the term “nigger.” One might argue that, as a French person, Wittig may not be fully cognizant of the negative power of that term, but for her to compare the term “woman” to the term “nigger” was a Eurocentric co-optation and evidenced her lack of understanding of the fundamental import of race in United States society. Her argument does not even hold water once one probes deeper into the comparison. Although it may be argued that “woman” has been (and still is at times) used as a derogatory term, it has also been used by both men and women as a positive term embracing certain aspects of femininity such as motherhood and nurturing. Moreover, a vast number of females embrace the term “woman” as a definition of themselves. In contrast, the word “nigger” has never been anything but a negative, derogatory insult and Black Americans have never embraced that term as a definition of themselves.

In conclusion, I think that 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. However, I add the caveat that this text needs to be read with a critical eye and with the understanding that race is not treated sensitively. Moreover, one must take with a grain of salt the author's claim to nonessentialism.

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International Gay & Lesbian Review
Los Angeles, CA