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Getting at the Essence: Professor Speaks About the Experience of Gender in a Social World

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Would you be the same person if you were a different gender? Do you think that all women or all men share a common feature, like a physical or psychological attribute?

 How you answer these questions is a good indication of where you might stand in the feminist debate over the essence of gender, whether it is rooted in a person’s identity (if you answered “no” to the first question) or in a person’s classification (if you answered “yes” to the second question), or, indeed, if there is anything essential about gender at all (if you answered “yes” to the first question and “no” to the second).

 In this year’s Lindberg Lecture, “Gender Essentialism: Identity or Classification,” Charlotte Witt, professor of philosophy and humanities, proposes a new way of defining identity-rooted gender theory. She explores how gender operates in our lives as social beings, arguing that our experience of gender and the resulting actions we take show that gender is the dominant aspect of our identity—stronger than any other aspect, even race or sexual orientation. We are social beings who must play multiple social roles at any one time, each with its own normative expectations, but the gender role and its norms trumps all.

 “Gender is the pervasive and fundamental social role—what I call ‘the mega social role’—that is prior to, prioritizes, and unifies normatively an individual’s other social roles both synchronically and diachronically,” says Witt.

 Witt offers her theory as an alternative to the biological (and essentialist) conception of gender that claims that identity is biology is destiny. Instead, Witt defines gender in terms of social agency: we are gendered beings because we are social beings in a social world that is structured and functions in a particular way.

 Witt hopes her theory is reflective of the way in which women experience gender. If a theory does not ring true in women’s everyday lives, it does not, ultimately, engage them, she says.

 After earning her Ph.D. at Georgetown University, Witt was appointed to the UNH faculty in 1987. She is an internationally-known specialist on Aristotle’s Metaphysics and has published two books in this field, “Ways of Being: Potentiality and Actuality in Aristotle’s Metaphysics” (Cornell University Press, 2003), and “Substance and Essence in Aristotle” (Cornell University Press, 1994). A third book, “The Metaphysics of Gender,” published in 2011 by Oxford University Press, uses Aristotle’s idea of essentialism as a model for gender essentialism and is the basis for this lecture.

 The Lindberg Lecture is delivered annually by the winner of the Lindberg Award for outstanding teacher-scholar in the College of Liberal Arts.