Essentialist Feminism

We often associate feminism with the struggle for "equality" with men. Feminism comes in many forms, and each movement has its values. Could you imagine feminism promoting differences from men instead of equality with men? 

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Essentialist Feminism


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We often associate feminism with the struggle for "equality" with men. Feminism comes in many forms, and each movement has its values. Could you imagine feminism promoting differences from men instead of equality with men?

That is essentialist feminism. It is a form of feminism that defends the physical, biological, and mental differences between men and women as something natural. Read on to find out what this theory is about and what they are fighting for.

What is the meaning of essentialist feminism?

Essentialist feminism, also known as difference feminism, is a branch of feminism that focuses on the biological differences between men and women. Essentialist feminists believe these physical and biological differences are significant and natural. It uses gender essentialism to support and explain the differences between men and women.

Gender essentialism is the social construction of gender and its essence. It studies the assignment of gender, its characteristics and how society, biology, and psychology helps construct it.

These differences constitute the foundation of gender and the way society views it. While gender roles may change with time, fundamental aspects of femininity remain constant. Essentialist feminists believe that there are specific characteristics that all women share, which makes them unique as a gender. These characteristics, according to essentialist feminists, are based on biological sex.

Some critical traits often cited by essentialist feminists include compassion, nurturing, and empathy. These qualities are essential to the female experience and help make women caregivers by essentialist feminists.

Essentialist feminism criticisms

Essentialist feminism is increasingly under criticism due to a growing acceptance of the differences between sex and gender, as well as the understanding of biological sex as a spectrum rather than a strict binary.

As such, equality feminism and transfeminism argue that essentialist feminism is transphobic because it invalidates the identities of many trans-men and women as well as non-binary people.

For more information on LGBTQIA+ issues in the feminist movement, look at our explanation of Transfeminism.

Essentialist feminism theory

Essentialist feminism Women's March for equality StudySmarterFig. 1 – Women's march for equality.

While classical feminism and essentialist feminism overlap, their focus and objectives differ. Essentialist feminism argues that coexisting and communicating the message about how the difference between genders does not imply unequal opportunities.

Essentialist feminism argues that women's differences are not barriers to having and exercising their rights. Their main criticism against feminism, especially equality feminisms, is that they seek equality by imitating men, thus losing their essence and what makes them unique.

Traditional feminists argue that this recognition of 'female characteristics' is harmful, especially regarding traditional gender roles. Not all strands of feminism share this belief, but most lean on the politics of difference and use it to justify their goal of equality.

Politics of difference is a concept that rejects universal theories of justice and argues that the justice system should pay attention to people's experiences marked by difference.

Essentialist feminism also emphasises ideas of sisterhood and sometimes even separatism; it's this that sometimes leads critiques to call essentialist feminists 'man-haters'.

Separatism is when groups advocate separating from a larger group on the basis of things like sex, gender, race, and religion.

Nonetheless, essentialist feminism does support the idea of empowering women. What differentiates it is trying to do so by raising awareness of the qualities that distinguish women from men. As such, the goal of essentialist feminists is not to create equality but to appreciate and value the differences between men and women. They believe that doing so will lead to a more just and 'women-oriented' society.

Essentialist Feminism history

Essentialist Feminism Photograph of Carol Gilligan StudySmarterFig. 2 – Carol Gilligan.

While the core ideas of essentialist feminism have existed throughout history, it wasn’t until the 1980s and 1990s, when prominent feminist Carol Gilligan published her works, that the term became more widely spread. Gillian researched the moral development of both genders. She then developed a theory that explained gender differences. She argued that women tend to develop morally based on relationships and responsibility towards others. Thus, according to this theory, women and men have definite fundamental differences.

During the second wave of feminism, these ideas expanded, and work on the characteristics or patterns of femininity was questioned. This time gave birth to modern essentialist feminism, with its unique ideas and the affirmation of differences between genders.

Carol Gilligan is a significant psychologist and feminist theorist, especially in essentialist feminism.

During the third and fourth waves of feminism, other authors contributed to essentialist feminist theory. However, these waves also shifted the discussion to other topics, such as intersectionality, gender essentialism, and sexuality.

The waves of feminism are different periods in the western world where a series of social and political movements took place to fight for women’s rights.

  • The first wave (1948-1920) focused on legal rights such as voting.
  • The second wave (1963-1980) focused on re-examining traditional gender roles and discrimination.
  • The third wave (1990s) tackled sexual violence.
  • The fourth wave (ongoing) focuses on the systems that allow the discrimination and abuse of women.

Examples of essentialist feminism

In essentialist feminism, several thinkers argued different points of view about the biological differences between genders. This section will briefly discuss some examples of some important essentialist feminist authors and their main ideas.

Author Mary Daly highlights how men and women think and their biological dissimilarities. She criticises equality, believing the focus should be on ending patriarchy. She argued that female nature creates while masculinity destroys.

Daly also believed women should focus on the differences between sexes and be proud of their biological capacity to enter motherhood. They must seek a culture that allows expressing themselves, self-discovery, and separation from the identities imposed by patriarchy to experience liberation.

Mary Daly was an American radical feminist, author, scholar, and theologian. She argued that women were the superior gender and identified herself as a radical lesbian feminist.

Other contributions focus on the moral differences between men and women. For example, Carol Gilligan argues that women tend to focus on responsibilities and relationships when approaching an ethical problem, whereas men tend to focus on moral fairness.

Essentialist feminism’s place in the feminist movement

Essentialist feminism is relatively new when compared to other branches of feminism. While bringing something new to the table, it does ruffle feathers with traditional feminist philosophy. Here we will discuss how it compared with equality feminism and constructivist feminism.

Difference feminism v equality feminism.

Difference or essentialist feminism began as a critique of equality feminism, a movement that argued for equal treatment for women and men. This movement emerged to emphasise the differences between women and men when the prevailing feminist movement argued that there are none, or at least none that are very important.

It created a debate with equality feminism where the essentialist feminist argued that while ignoring the intrinsic difference between men and women, the female perspective was diminished in favour of the male way of life.

As such, difference feminism argues that there are characteristics unique to women that should be acknowledged and valued. While equality feminists argue that any differences between men and women are not important and are often a result of the society they grew up in rather than their biology.

The goals of difference and equality feminism are therefore also different. Difference feminism believes that acknowledging and valuing these differences is the way to a more just society. Whereas equality feminists believe that the goal to strive for is true equality between men and women.

Differences between essentialist and constructivist feminism

Constructivist feminism can sometimes be hard to differentiate from essentialist feminism because it also acknowledges that there are differences between men and women. But constructivist feminists focus on the role of ideas and society in constructing gender roles and norms. See the table below for some more detail on the differences between essentialist and constructivist feminism.

Essentialist feminism

Constructivist feminism

Women share characteristics and experiences due to their biology.

Gender and femininity are social constructs.

The essential female identity carries virtues like caring, nurturing, or mutually supportive relationships between women.

It is essential to examine the construction of gender roles to change them.

Gender inequality as a result of the undervaluing of the characteristics of women.

Gender inequality idue to the construction of gender by society.

Gender results from natural, physical, and biological elements.

Gender is the result of interaction and cultural formation.

Table 1 – Differences between Essentialist and Constructivist feminism.

What is anti-essentialism feminism?

Anti-essentialism feminism is a branch of feminist thought and activism that sprung up in reaction to essentialist feminism. It rejects the existence of essential differences between men and women and believes that gender is a social construct. Thus, society determines our behaviour. Its core principles are:

  • Individuals must be treated equally regardless of sex or gender identity. No discrimination is allowed.

  • Gender is learned, not innate.

  • Sex and gender do not affect an individual’s personality or behaviour.

While a new branch of feminist thought, it has gained ground due to inclusion. It encompasses many interpretations and includes favouring equality instead of differentiation.

Essentialist Feminism - Key takeaways

  • Essentialism feminism is a branch of feminism that focuses on the biological differences between men and women.
  • Essentialist feminism differs from the mainstream feminism movement with its acknowledgement of differences between genders and rejection of equality.
  • Modern essentialist feminism grew out of 20th-century works of authors such as Carol Gilligan.
  • Essentialist feminism sits on the opposite side of the feminist movement as equality feminism.
  • Though essentialist feminism shares the acknowledgement of differences with constructivist feminists, they disagree on why they exist.
  • Anti-essentialist feminists believe that gender is not a natural or innate characteristic, but rather, it is socially constructed.


  1. Fig. 1 – Protester holding sign at Women's March Rally in Vancouver (January 19, 2019) (https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/5a/Protester_holding_sign_at_Women%27s_March_Rally_in_Vancouver_%28January_19%2C_2019%29.jpg) by William Chen (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Cyali) licensed by CC-BY-SA-4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en).
  2. Fig. 2 – Carol Gilligan P1010970 - cropped (https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/0b/Carol_Gilligan_P1010970_-_cropped.jpg) by Deror Avi (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Deror_avi) licensed by CC-BY-SA-3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en)
  3. Table 1 – Differences between Essentialist and Constructivist feminism.

Frequently Asked Questions about Essentialist Feminism

Essentialist feminism is a theory that argues that men and women have fundamental biological differences and that these should be acknowledged and celebrated.

Essentialist feminists believe that acknowledging and valuing the differences between genders will empower women. 

It is a philosophy born as a variation of classical feminism that believes that women's characteristics are essential to their gender and make them superior to men because of biological distinctions.

Examples of essentialist feminism are the works of Carol Gilligan, Mary Daly, and Robin West, who argue for the differences in biology, morality, and personality that distinguish women.

Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

Which of the following is a prominent essentialist feminist?

Select which of these statements is true?

Which of the following applies to essentialist feminism?


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