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A Very Short Summary of
Poststructuralist and Queer Feminist Theory and Practice

by Marian Staats

  1. Poststructuralist feminists resist universalist or normalizing conceptions of women as a group or altogether dismiss the category “woman”. They share with psychoanalytic feminists a skepticism about phallogocentric language and social structures, as well as the French feminist rejection of metanarrative explanations and prescriptive norms for gender and sexuality. 


  1. Most poststructuralist feminists would share the following assumptions:
    1. That we need to reject the Enlightenment notion of a stable, coherent and autonomous human nature founded in reason. We also need to question so-called objective, scientific standards for the acquisition and production of knowledge, the assumption that knowledge gained through reason represents universal truths that exist independently from reasoning beings, and the idea that reason and truth prevail over power. Instead we need to focus on exploring the construction of fragmented/fluid human subjects through various cultural discourses and operations of power.
    2. That language does not accurately represent or reflect reality, but rather constructs it. Poststructuralist feminists question the Saussurean notion that there is a fixed, underlying structure to language and focus instead on the contextual fluidity of language and the various communication systems through which we imagine our societies. Meaning is neither entirely arbitrary nor absolute/eternal, but rather constantly negotiated, shifting, plural, and complex. We can change it.
    3. That universalizing, or essentialist, principles are linked to oppression and domination of that which does not conform – thus, the universal human being, while presented in Western thought as neutral, is actually a male standard by which non-males are measured as less, or abnormal. Similarly, essentialist notions of woman will operate to exclude or marginalize nonconforming “women.” This critique extends to other aspects of identity – sexuality, race, ethnicity, religion, and class – that hierarchize groups of people.
    4. The Foucaultian notion that human subjects are effects of power relations proliferated through multiple discourses and that deconstructing these power relations is essential for resisting repressive forces. For example, “sexuality” is a set of relations comprising the subject that involves fantasies, behaviors, practices, and policing through medical, legal and religious discourses, so critiquing power relations around sexuality is an essential part of reconstituting sexual subjects, transforming previously oppressive realities by imagining new ways of relating.
    5. That the use of identity politics in feminism – i.e. organizing “women” to challenge the oppression of women – is potentially dangerous because it reinforces self-concepts generated through operations of power that are not liberatory. However, some poststructuralist feminists would endorse what Gayatri Spivak has termed a “strategic essentialism” in the interests of rejecting theoretical purity and organizing toward particular goals. The point, after all, is not to posit absolutes, but to question how power operates and carve out space for new subjects and less oppressive institutions. It is also the case that some feminists, particularly French poststructuralists like Irigaray, Kristeva, and Cixous did not entirely relinquish the idea of a feminine sexual identity, but hoped to reconstruct or reclaim female sexuality as subversive.


  1. Queer theory “feminists” – including Judith Butler, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Teresa DeLauretis, among others – constitute a possible subset of poststructural feminists, as they share most, if not all, of the assumptions outlined above, most significantly the idea that human subjects are socially constructed through discourses and are thereby plural and multiple and open to revision. Queer theorists focused their constructivist critique on the boundaries for legitimate sexualities, challenging both dominant and dissident accounts of sexual identity, so, for instance, they were equally critical of normative prescriptions for both heterosexual and homosexual identities and viewed all sex/gender categories as contingent and malleable.


  1. Poststructural and queer feminisms have been widely criticized as too “ivory tower” academic, careerist, and overly concerned with language/textuality and detached from the activist energies of earlier feminisms. Thus many feminists consider them irrelevant for people working toward feminist objectives.


  1. Sample texts by poststructural and queer feminists:


Gloria Anzaldua, Borderlands/La Frontera

Kate Bornstein, My Gender Workbook: How to Become a Real Man, A Real Woman, the Real

You, or Something Else Entirely

Rosi Braidotti, Metamorphoses

Judith Butler, Gender Trouble and Bodies that Matter

Judith Halberstam, Female Masculinity

Janet Halley, Split Decisions: How and Why to Take a Break from Feminism

Donna Haraway, The Cyborg Manifesto

Maria Lugones, Pilgrimages/Peregrinajes

Joan Scott, Gender and the Politics of History

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Between Men and Epistemology of the Closet

Hortense Spillers, Black, White and in Color: Essays on American Literature and Culture

Michael Warner, The Trouble with Normal




Author: Hollace Graff
Oakton Community College
Updated: February 15, 2012