A criticism of the Materialist Feminist account of gender
While Christine Delphy and the other Materialist feminists did successfully and accurately tease out the scope of feminist analysis of patriarchy from the rationalist assumptions and class reductionism from the Marxist Feminists, however their theoretical centrepiece on gender and sex is not dialectically materialist at all, but the application of the speculative, idealist Hegelian dialectical method.
Having recently read from an anthology titled ‘On Dialectical Materialism’ (Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1977), of Marx’s, Engels’ and Lenin’s works on the subject, I encountered the following passage written by Engels in his ‘Review of A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy’, p.49:
The Hegelian method, on the other hand, was in its existing form quite inapplicable. It was essentially idealist and the main point in this case was the elaboration of world outlook that was more materialist than any previous one. Hegel’s method took as its point of departure pure thought, whereas here the starting-point was to be inexorable facts. A method which, according to its own avowal, “came from nothing through nothing to nothing” was in this shape by no means suitable.
Here is the passage from Christine Delphy’s Close to Home, (1984, p. 144):
We must reject all its presuppositions, up to and including those which appear not to be such, but rather to be categories furnished by reality itself, e.g. the categories of ‘women’ and ‘men’… we think that gender, the respective social positions of women and men, is not constructed on the (apparently) natural category of sex (male and female), but rather that sex has become a pertinent fact, hence a perceived category, because of the existence of gender… For most people… anatomical sex (and its physical implications) creates, or at least permits, gender—the technical division of labour. This in turn creates, or at least permits, the domination of one group by another. We believe, however, that it is oppression which creates gender; that logically the hierarchy of the division of labour is prior to the technical division of labour and created the latter, i.e. created sex roles, which we call gender. Gender in its turn created anatomical sex, in the sense that the hierarchical division of humanity into two transforms an anatomical difference (which is in itself devoid of social implications) into a relevant distinction for social practice. Social practice, and social practice alone, transforms a physical fact (which is in itself devoid of meaning, like all physical facts) into a category of thought.
Christine Delphy’s argument for the procession from an analysis of gender and its rejection, leads onto a rejection of sex, reads as fallacious or at best permitting, never clarified; however it is soon clear that she is dealing in concepts alone, and the ‘inexorable fact’ of the materiality of biological sex somehow evades her. There is a splitting in her thought pertaining to biological sex - at first it is, in its material perceptibility, reduced to a category of thought as a process of -human- splitting - in a hierarchical manner, thus socially constituted. However soon afterwards, this material anatomical sex, is reduced again to an empirical “physical fact … devoid of meaning”. But she has non-dialectically contradicted herself, for in reducing sex to an idea, she cannot draw it back to an empirical splitting. The object, sex, is split and thus lost. Ergo, she cannot make an assessment of biological sex as it exists outside of the human social imaginary, as a fact of its own in all its functionality.
The overall result thus leads to a begging the question of the oppression of women, without any materialist analysis of the social, historical, or biological phenomena involved — for in order for her to start from the material, the ideology that permitted the sexual division of labour would be discernible, as something pertaining to biological sex but materially contradictable; and indeed sexual politics can then become a conscious area of examination. Instead she deals entirely in the realm of ideas, constraining reality to such ideas in her employment of the dialectical idealist method. She has assumed, in her circular way, that ideas - that of gender, creating anatomical sex - create conditions, thus, the oppression of women.
Therefore, the same dialectical idealist method used by Delphy, is quite inapplicable. Whereas any (m)aterialist feminism departs from inexorable facts, Materialist Feminism departs from pure thought. Thus the Materialist Feminist understanding comes from nothing through nothing to nothing, since gender is nothing, therefore sex is made nothing. The femina is made nothing; existing only in her patriarchal reification as woman.