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Gender essentialism : a conceptual and empirical exploration of notions of maternal essence as a framework for explaining gender difference.

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The study sought to explore gender essentialism conceptually and empirically, and to specifically examine the concept of maternal essence as a framework for explaining gender difference. Gender, gender difference, gender essentialism, mothering and motherhood are individual fields of study however this thesis provides a sociological exploration of the intersections between these different fields. A selection was made of gender theorists: Simone de Beauvoir (1972), Shulamith Firestone (1970), Nancy Chodorow (1978, 1989, 1994) and Sara Ruddick (1989). I characterise these theorists as essentialist and analysed their contributions to explore their notions of gender difference. All four theorists commonly located gender difference in a maternal essence residing in individual women and their experiences. This essence was characterised as being biological, social or psychological. I came to the conclusion that women’s maternity was seen to be determined and reduced to biological essence (reproductive functions) or psychological essence (emotional drives and cognitive attributes) or social essence (mothering activity). All four theorists also read off micro social structural formations (family) from either individual biology or individual practice or individual psyche. In the writings of these theorists individuals are conceived of as discrete objects separated from the macro social structural context in which they exist. The study took the view that conceptions of gender can only be held to be true based on their power to represent social reality. To this end the study explored the extent to which the selected theorists’ notions of gender essentialism illuminate the social reality of individual men and women. Their essentialist conceptions of gender difference were subjected to empirical and/ or discursive examination against the maternal realities of women in South Africa. The study used data from already existing studies and policy, legislation and programmes from South Africa which report on findings and reflect notions of gender differences which are located in mothering and defined in women’s reproduction, mothering capacity and maternal practice/thinking. The empirical and discursive evidence examined in this study showed that the four theorists’ essentialist characterisation of gender difference is useful as it draws our attention to the significance of maternity for women’s individual experiences and identity as well as for society in general. However, the empirical and discursive evidence also revealed that external macro social structures, institutions and state discourse and practices influence the significance of maternity for women and society in general. The study therefore points to both the limits and the possibilities of essentialist notions, specifically maternal essence as an individual attribute, in explaining gender difference. This leads me to the view that there is a need for an approach that takes into account the complex, dialectical interaction between individual mothers and their social context to explain mothers’ experiences, behaviour, actions, capacities, attitudes, thinking, desires and activities. This study provides examples of how secondary empirical studies and policy discourse can be used to explore the usefulness of essentialist notions of gender difference. It offers a way in which the power of essentialist accounts of gender difference can be tested conceptually and empirically. It also provides evidence which can be used to extend investigations on essentialist notions of gender difference.


Thesis (Ph.D.)-University of KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg, 2010.


Gender identity--South Africa., Sex role., Mothers., Motherhood--South Africa., Theses--Sociology.