diotimacomunità filosofica femminile

per amore del mondo Numero 4 - 2005

Pensiero della differenza

Thinking about Sexual Difference

The following text is the translation of “La differenza sessuale. Da scoprire, da produrre”, the opening essay of our first book Il pensiero della differenza sessuale, written in 1987.

After twenty years this seminal text has for us an historical value -so many things are changed, and we ourselves for first!- but in spite of the long way covered from that begininnig we think that it is still necessary to cover another distance, the one which divide our path from the trajectory of gender’s research.. Our hope with this translation is to offer a chance for a better knowledge of our thinking and political practice, but above all a chance for and relationship



Adriana Cavarero, Cristiana Fisher, Elvia Franco, Giannina Longobardi

Veronika Mariaux, Luisa Muraro, Anna Maria Piussi, Wanda Tommasi,

Anita Sanvitto, Betty Zamarchi, Chiara Zamboni, Gloria Zanardo




  1. The “passion” of difference


“Sexual difference is probably one of the issues, or rather, the issue in our time which should be thought through” wrote Luce Irigaray in 1984.1

In fact the importance of thinking about sexual difference is not part of our heritage: our western culture, whose beginnings go back to ancient Greece, hasn’t elaborated the gendering of the human species into knowledge. This fact has been, and continues to be, the subject of numerous discourses that have produced a large body of knowledge. But, in order to constitute a ‘knowing’, those discourses should account in their form for the fact that sexual difference affects the subject itself of the discourses and of knowledge, as it is affected by other elementary determinations, such as the placing in space-time or the individually mortal being, that have been elaborated both in the form and the contents of knowledge. To give a simple example, syllogism is the logical figure that shows the progression of demonstrative thought, that is, the intrinsic temporality of reasoning that does not, however, depend on time for its validity.

This formal acknowledgment, which liberates one from  real limits and produces knowledge, is completely absent when it comes to sexual difference – a science of which has been sought from the point of view of a neutral ungendered subject, as in all other cases.

As a consequence, the difference between the being woman /man is represented in a false exteriority which forms an obstacle to knowledge, since it interrupts the circularity between immediacy and mediation, separating from its social representation our being man or woman, who remains in a silent intimacy.

This lack of elaboration of sexual difference can be attributed, not without reason, to the historical male domination of women. It is important to note, however, that this disregard for the symbolic power of sexual difference can be found above all in philosophical and scientific knowledge but not in other fields such as mythology, religion (excluding theology) or the arts.

This fact shows that sexist domination has not, in itself, precluded every symbolic expression of

sexual difference; its elaboration is missing especially where human thought is applied to the demonstration of truth.

A first explanation can be found by analogy with similar facts. Euclidean geometry, for example, has been formulated in the 3rd century B.C., and until last century it has been considered the only true and possible geometry, simply because of the mental inability to  mediate conceptually human needs and experiences different from those of land surveyors.

This not  accounting for sexual difference can be similarly seen as a kind of simplifying decision. But, most importantly, we must be aware that in this case what are excluded are not simply some experiences or procedures to the advantage of others. What is excluded here is the alterity itself that constitutes the human subject because of gender. It is because of this that the subject, in the act of knowing finds itself outside of, and opposed to, not only the knowable world, but itself in the other sex. Undoubtedly this constitutes a formidable complication for the relation of knowledge.

Sexist  domination has had a role in this. The subordination of one sex to the other is a practical way to solve the problem of the human subject that is not one but two. This solution, traditionally used to regulate the relationship between the sexes, has been adopted by philosophy and science in order to make the knowing subject one and undifferentiated, that is, untouched by the particularity of its gendered body and, as such, opposed to the multiple and becoming object of its knowing.

This arriving at a theoretical solution through the practical solution offered by the condition of subordination of the female sex can be found both in the philosopher G.W. Hegel and in the scientist Sigmund Freud. Both, in fact, reflect about sexual difference by using as demonstrative function elements of sexist domination. One of these elements is common to both thinkers: the fact that in patriarchal societies woman has no relation with social objects of desire except through man, father, brother or husband, so that her desire is either lived in a masculine form or is lost in the female extrusion from the social world.

It must be pointed out that both in Hegel and Freud sexist domination becomes a visible interpolation since their demonstrative discourse has changed from being deductive and abstracting, as it was in classical thought, to being mediating and dialectical in order to understand the real in its concrete singularity. It is from Hegel’s revolutionary thesis – that substance is subject – that derive some terms that allow to formulate the question of sexual difference. It is not by chance that this question has been posed by feminism through a politic with an unmistakably Hegelian name: the practice of self consciousness, or consciousness of self (autocoscienza).

Hegel places the reason for sexual difference in the family and states that beyond the family sphere, that is when the subject aspires to the universal through politics, art or science, this

difference becomes insignificant. “It does not progress” says Hegel2. We can even admit that it may be so, but we still don’t have a reason for the fact itself.

The answer can be found in the extended treatment of this theme by the philosopher in his Phenomenology3. In it he argues that the human being goes beyond  the natural fact of being man/woman, and this by chance, (to be born female rather than male, or vice versa is, in effect, a question of chance, at least in Hegel’s days and even today) thanks to the family, where the two take on different aspects of the “ethical substance”: the female takes upon herself the divine law, while the man takes the human law, and it is on his dialectic that is based the relationship between husband/wife, parents/children, brother/sister.

The next problem is understanding how the family goes beyond itself thus giving rise to social and cultural life. The family, in fact, tends to reproduce itself since it reproduces human beings who are, in turn, marked by their difference. But inside the family difference presents itself in the form of a couple, brother and sister, that is not immediately finalised to the reproduction of the species. Hegel maintains that this couple represents the gender relationship in its highest form since it is free from the subordination of one gender to another and  both genders from subordination to nature. Hegel, therefore, sees in it  the opening of the family circle to further spiritual progress. Sexual difference loses its reason to exist in this deciding passage. “This relationship- Hegel writes- is the limit that, once reached, allows the self contained family to go beyond itself. The brother is the side according to which the spirit of the family becomes individuality turned towards something external and passes in the consciousness of universality”.

There follows a complex argument aimed at demonstrating how the unfair one sidedness of this resolution in the end becomes higher justice. But this justice cannot be appreciated as such by the sister who, being confined to the family and becoming wife, remains bound to the particular and cannot therefore understand the universal ends of the social community. On the contrary, she becomes its enemy and mocks it, this in turn justifies the social oppression she must endure.

This is, obviously, a vicious circle. It was not, of course, invented by Hegel and it is evident even to us  that the oppression of the female gender is such that it tends to reproduce itself. Hegel wants to demonstrate how this vicious circle is not vicious at all but follows reason. The singularity in which the female gender remains, he states, is essential to the community, which keeps her in subjugation. In this way the ethical substance remains in its duality of divine and human law but, at the same time, can go outside duality and develop into the forms of the universal. Female and male, explains Hegel, are equally essential but cannot subsist side by side since their different and equally essential existence contradicts the unity of the thought that thinks itself. As such, therefore, they fall away. They resurface in the unity of thought: the male gender as the side which, conscious of its one sidedness, has gone beyond it, and the female gender as the side that remains in immediacy and is subject to obedience.

So the subject goes beyond the natural and accidental fact of its being man/woman thanks to the separation of the female, deprived of mediation between self and self and between self and society. The separated female gender retains that which spiritual progress overcomes. Given that the element that is overcome can be overcome with the consciousness of the self, this element is retained as unconscious. With this Hegel does not mean to sustain that the female gender is the unconscious side of thought and the male the conscious one. He explicitly excludes such a solution to the problem. According to Hegel, when it comes to knowledge there is an equal split between conscious and unconscious both in the male and in the female genders. They have, however, a different relationship with the split off part: the male is attracted by it while the female aims to escape from it, thus creating a double and opposing upward/downward and downward/upward movement  respectively which, Hegel maintains, forms a single movement.

It is however difficult to follow Hegel here since, according to his text, man is attracted downwards, the place from which he has separated thanks to the previous movement of his spiritual progress, while the woman only aspires to the upward movement.

The Hegelian theory of sexual difference leaves without rational explanation two questions. The first, of which Hegel himself was aware, is the inevitable oppression to which woman is submitted within the family. In relation to her husband she loses the spiritual freedom which she had enjoyed in relation to her brother. In the context of Hegelian philosophy it is an absurdity that spiritual progress should  have the effect of causing such a loss of freedom.

The philosopher is aware of this absurdity and tries to exorcise it with the famous passage in which he refers to the female gender as “eternal irony of the community”.

The second problem, unacknowledged by Hegel for lack of social evidence, is represented by the contradiction in which the woman that leaves the family to join the political or scientific community finds herself. From his theory  it follows that, in order to participate in the social and cultural life, one must assume a masculine character. But this is a process in which the male subject loses his particular gender in order to find it again in the service of the universal, while the female loses her gender and cannot find it again, so entering in contradiction with the fact of her being  woman.

According to Hegel, the gendered human is the prime cause of thought dividing into conscious and unconscious. Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, does not agree with this thesis. According to Freud gender does not have a determining role in the processes of consciousness formation. This means that the unconscious and sexual difference form the object of two separate theories and therefore knowledge of the unconscious will not lead the knower to recognise itself in the constitutive alterity of being man/woman.

Freudian thought recognises three factors in the difference between man and woman: biology, society and childhood experience. As we know Freud concentrated on the third factor and didn’t investigate systematically the interaction of all three factors.

The keystone of his theory is the irrelevance of gender difference in infancy. The infant has a very strong, but not very conspicuous sexual life which is identical in both sexes. According to Freud differentiation appears at a later stage, when the sexuality of the infant becomes identified with the penis or the clitoris. In this ‘phallic phase’ difference ceases to be irrelevant since the male child interprets the female anatomy as missing the sexual organ, and this makes him afraid of losing his own. This produces in the male child a castration anxiety which leads him to renounce his desire to posses his mother, desire that makes him feel guilty and for which he is afraid of being punished with castration by the father. At the same time the female child, through the same anatomical comparison, reaches the same conclusions and perceives her genitals as defective or missing. This gives rise to penis envy, leading the girl child to hate the mother that did not provide her with it, and making her turn to her father, who previously was her rival in her love for the mother, hoping to receive from him the missing penis.

The castration complex is what differentiates the individuals of the two genders and their subsequent development. Males are characterised by their castration anxiety and females by penis envy4.

This theory, like it is often the case with new theories, presents numerous weak or obscure points. It was therefore criticized, corrected and expanded, partly by Freud himself. But the further adjustments managed only to emphasize its main drawback, i.e. that it presents a coherent explanation of male psychology, while female psychology receives a twisted explanation in which biological and social factors, sometimes used only to reconcile obvious contradictions, are thrown in confusedly with the real psychological ones.

This discrepancy is all too familiar to us, given all that is known and said about the two genders. It disappoints the deep expectations we have from science, from which we do not ask to give us back our own obvious certainties or our lingering confusion, but to resolve the latter even if it means destroying the former, as did Copernicus and Einstein, to mention a few greats.

Freud does not come to such revolutionary results with regard to gender difference. Contrary to what Hegel maintained, in Freud the attraction man has for the unconscious does not join in a circular movement with woman’s aspiration to a free existence. In reality, the subject enters in a circle with itself even when it is looking for knowledge of the other. Its descending movement joins with the ascending movement that led it to seek scientific knowledge and, if in this first movement there was a rejection of the feminine, the knowing subject will only find it again as a rejected part of itself, a part which it itself has rejected.

At the end of his last work, Analysis Terminable and Interminable,5 published in 1937, Freud talks about “rejection of the feminine”. According to him, it is present in man as repugnance to act passively towards the other males and in women as striving towards masculinity or, alternatively, as depression. He concludes by saying that this “so very surprising tract of human psychic life” is a boundary that psychoanalysis cannot trespass, the “fundamental rock” before which its therapeutic effectiveness comes to an end, and the science of psychoanalysis considers an “enigma”.

The outcome of this inability of human thought to know itself in the male/female duality is that the difference is lived rather as passion. This passion of sexual difference can be found in art and literature, specially in the great female literature of the 20th century, which raises it to a form of knowledge: Three Lives by Gertrude Stein, To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf, The House of Liars by Elsa Morante, More Women Than Men by Ivy Compton Burnett, The Quest for Christa T. by Christa Wolf, The Passion According to G.H. by Clarice Lispector.

It is passion – in the classical meaning of the Latin pati – that something could happen to the spiritual substance, or soul, because of the body. So to everybody happens to be female or male, depending on the body s/he has. But it would be more correct to say: is.

Hegel states that the power that does to consciousness the injustice of making it purely a thing is nature, and not society. The denial of difference is already present in this view, which cannot be the view of the female being, who has been “wronged” by nature, a wrong that is extended into social oppression. So much so that, both for the man as for the woman, this natural injustice mentioned by the philosopher is practically erased by the injustice that woman has to endure, both from nature and society indistinctly.

The passion of  difference in human thought begins with this confusion between nature and society  in regard to the being woman. What can happen to her because of the body is not some unexpected event or final death, but her entire life, because of a socially planned and regulated fate. A fate that can be sustained by philosophical argument, when needed. That which demonstrative, philosophical, scientific or political thought looks upon as a mere problem to be solved, the living thought on the female side suffers as existing but not originating from itself, as thinking of itself thought outside of itself and an obstacle in returning to itself.

But even when female thought frees itself from its destiny of subordination and becomes a free activity and an end in itself, it doesn’t find in itself its reason for existence and enjoys a false freedom. Because being woman rather than man is irrelevant for what concerns thought,  demonstrating truth and decide what is right. So, now, the passion of difference lives itself in the form of superfluous female thought. In society it is encouraged or discouraged, taken into consideration or neglected, according to circumstances independent from it, while internally it lacks necessity, rules, criteria and is unable to reach a conclusion because it does not possess its own regulating elements. These regulating elements are on the outside, like the body from which it has detached itself in order to become free thought. As such it does not find before and over against itself something to interpret that has already happened, but only, within itself, the need for something to happen. It is not like Oedipus that, having killed a man unaware that he was his father and having married a woman without knowing she was his mother, had to discover the truth because of the plague that broke out in Thebes. The thought that suffers in itself  the unrecognised difference is like Melanctha  Herbert in Three Lives: “Melanctha Herbert always lost what she had because of the need for all the things she saw. Melanctha was always abandoned, when it wasn’t her that abandoned others. Melanctha Herbert always loved with too much enthusiasm and too often. She was always full of mystery and tortuous moves and refusals and vague mistrusts and complicated disappointments. But then Melanctha would become impulsive and overenthusiastic, then she would suffer and try to control herself”.

There is an accommodating point of view, called in psychology “bisexuality”, according to which it is inevitable and, in the end, useful to the advancement of human knowledge, that demonstrative thought -in its effort to reconcile what, in fact, is with what reason compels to think -leaves outside itself, besides those facts that don’t coincide, also a part of thought that doesn’t know what it is driving at, unbound by what is true/false, just /unjust.

But this accommodating point of view leaves out the fact that even if things can be deaf or dumb, thought, by definition, is not so. Thought is an I that feels and thinks and if it is said to be superfluous it is aware of this. It can understand this, and itself, as being marginal or a reserve but, on the contrary – and nothing can forbid it, given its logical regime of superfluity – it can understand itself as condemned thought. And so it desperately wants to live, at any cost.

When thought stops thinking itself from its female, innocent and superfluous side, it lives itself as a scream repressed out of fear in a silence by now unbearable. This is the powerful image of it that Clarice Lispector gives in The Passion According to G.H.: “Everything came down to never letting out the first scream – a first scream lets loose all the others, the first scream, on being born, unleashes life, if I were to scream I would awaken thousands of screaming beings, who would start a chorus of wails of horror from the roofs. If I were to scream I would unleash life – whose life? The life of the world”.

It is the ultimate image of passion and its end. Because the dilemma between silence from fear and a desperate protest erases any gratuitousness that thought enjoyed in woman. Now she knows what happened and she is afraid of it: if she talks she will awaken from silence an immense suffering. But thought learns from its own inner fear what its choice will be.

Historically this last passage has a date, 1938, the year in which Three Guineas by Virginia Woolf was published. In this book gender difference appears to the female thought as its compelling question, the question in which it loses its false freedom and, in so doing, it causes demonstrative thought to lose its false neutrality.

When Virginia Woolf was asked by her activist friends to take a public stance in defence of peace, freedom and culture threatened by fascism, she declined. The book was written when it became clear to her that, although she loathed any form of oppression and felt a sincere love for culture, her active involvement did not logically follow, since there was no real connection between her inner feelings and what she had been asked to do.

The request had been made by men for whom freedom and education were basic requirements for all human beings and who, considering submission to oppression intolerable, had chosen to defend peace with all means, even war if necessary. Woolf’s feelings sprung from her estrangement, as a female, to the exercise of power. It was, at the same time, a radical but ineffective feeling. It was dictated by her gender, that knows some of the effects of war but not the reason why they are waged, that doesn’t have a social obligation to be educated but only a right won with difficulty, and that all it knows about oppression is how it feels to be submitted to it.

Theirs was a higher view, hers the feeling of female experience. Virginia Woolf decided to reason following her own experience. The universal rights that she was being asked to defend against  the fascist barbarians were known to her as those from which her gender had been excluded for centuries and still did not fully possess. As such they had to be defended: “The only way in which we can help you to defend culture and freedom of thought is by defending our culture and our freedom of thought”6.

This statement created a scandal, and it does to this day. The (female) part that separates itself from everything, and not for some personal interest, but to defend truth and justice, appeared illogical. In reality by this separation it was only uncovering the partiality and the privileges that were hidden behind the pretence of the universal. It is thanks to this assertion, by the female side, of its own love for culture and freedom that these cease to be masks and become the contents of a living thought that recognises the existence of gender difference and the necessity of knowing it.


  1. The “state of the question” in knowledge.


Thinking about difference is a complex task. First of all it is necessary to separate the effects of male domination on women from the manifestations of their difference. Because they are so enmeshed and not easy to tell apart, it is extremely difficult to observe them, since no theoretical basis exists for this. For this reason the effects of domination can be easily mistaken for, and interpreted as, original differences or, vice versa, even genuine differences are seen as the results of domination.

This attempt at a theoretical discernment requires the abandonment of all bipolar opposites such as: active/passive, superior/inferior, form/matter, culture/nature, public/private, all resonating between themselves and all, to some extent, based on the male/female duality, undermining the perception of sexual difference by hiding the asymmetrical nature of male/female relationship

Therefore it becomes possible and necessary for all forms of knowledge to be open and transparent, in order to show what in them reflects male symbolism and to accept new symbolical forms that reflect the female experience. These forms must be discovered but also invented, since the experience of women  often lives itself without the necessary mediation to understand and give significance to itself. This experience, although real, is usually mediated through male thought or through the endless, intense activity of female imagination.

The taking into consideration of sexual difference becomes then creator of female mediations. That is, it becomes political thought, fighting the isolation of woman, who is traditionally alone when confined within the family and even more so when she aspires to enter social life, since in both cases her terms of reference consist only of what man feels, wants and judges.

In this way thought returns to its initial task, which is to free sexual difference from the hold of sexist domination, and deals again with it using finer and more powerful conceptual tools, thus showing, with this reappropriation, its symbolic fertility.

In the Freudian school of psychoanalysis the debate that took place in the ‘30s on the theory of sexual difference highlighted the fact that it didn’t take into account female sexuality. Freud himself recognised this and tried to deepen his understanding of it, but without modifying his fundamental thesis, according to which the castration complex was the basis for the original differentiation between the sexes. Karen Horney, Melanie Klein and Ernest Jones differ from this theses by using different arguments.

Already in the ‘20s Karen Horney objected that penis envy (female version of the castration complex) is a secondary and reactive stage of development, preceded by an original experience in which the little girl has specifically female desires associated with her own genitals, particularly with her vagina. Later, influenced by US anthropologists Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict, she studied this thesis in more depth  reaching the conclusion that penis envy must be interpreted as a defensive symptom developed by woman because of her disadvantaged  position within society7.

It was the first time that psychoanalysis raised the question of the coexistence of psychic and socio-cultural factors, a fact that Freud had acknowledged but did not explore. Horney’s theory was largely ignored and it was only taken up again in the ‘70s by Luce Irigaray8.

Melanie Klein demonstrated, through the exploration of the phantasmal world of infants, the existence in the female child of a precocious vaginal eroticism. This eroticism is subsequently abandoned, since it causes unbearable anxiety, and it is substituted by a secondary and reactive “male” position9. The basis of Freudian theory, which denies the existence of an originally different sexual experience for males and females, is thus dismantled. As a consequence the role and meaning of penis envy in female sexuality is modified.

Ernest Jones, attempting to integrate Klein’s new discovery with Freud’s theory, postulated the hypothesis that in woman the castration complex hides, more deeply, the fear of losing all forms of sexual pleasure. Woman is not originally defined by envy for the male sexual organ, but by the anxiety of not finding answers that respond to her sexual needs.10

According to Jacques Lacan, the psychoanalysts that have criticized Freud’s castration theory have not understood the real role that this complex has in Freudian thought. What is being considered in this theory, says Lacan, is not the real penis but the phallus as representation of desire. The relationship between the sexes is ruled by this symbolic function of the phallus, in the sense that woman wants to be desired and loved for what she is not (the phallus) but at the same time she encounters the embodiment of her desire in the male, which she supposes posses a phallus, to whom she turns in order to be loved.11

Lacan meant in this way to repropose in an integral form Freud’s theory of sexual difference, while admitting that it still leaves many unresolved questions regarding female sexuality. Unlike Freud , Lacan  leaves no room, even hypothetically, for social factors. He even maintains that the psychoanalytical theory of sexuality perfectly explains the traditional position of women in patriarchal societies.

This “coincidence” between theories about woman and her social subordination to man has become the starting point for Luce Irigaray’s questioning of the connection between sexist domination and the forms of demonstrative discourses in philosophy and science.

Some traces of sexual difference can be detected in the field of so called “humanistic” science, that does not hold a dominant position in the world of knowledge and allows for procedures considered socially to belong more to the female sphere than the male. However, in the field of exact science (mathematics and mathematical and physical sciences), that for nearly two centuries has represented the model of what is intended by science and scientific objectivity, sexual difference remains completely unacknowledged. According to traditional interpretation these differences are not denied but transcended, meaning that the closer the subject gets to the ideal of true and demonstrable knowledge, the more it is free from the limitations imposed by a personal point of view. Today this concept of science is being questioned by some epistemological currents of thought. The most important problem, however, is to understand whether sexual difference can be considered only a difference between particular points of view. That is, if it is possible and profitable for human knowledge to remain indifferent to sexual difference.

According to Evelyn Fox Keller12 and Luce Irigaray13 scientific discourse has never been indifferent to sexual difference, and even less so when it has pretended to be. This pretence, in reality, has sustained itself through the absolute domination of the male point of view. When a form of knowledge becomes socially prestigious and becomes a model for other forms of knowledge, it can be observed historically that it tends to exclude the female gender, by denying access to women and in the image of itself that it projects. Keller talks of the “sexual metaphor of science” to name the cultural process that has been the model for the relationship of knowledge man-nature in metaphorical interaction with the relationship man-woman, and from which science emerges as a masculine activity, as opposed to the passive and irrational female side.

For the subject that does science, to acknowledge sexual difference means to be conscious of being a gendered subject and therefore to free knowledge from the straightjacket of domination. This could in fact be the outcome of female participation in scientific endeavours. It goes without saying that this participation presents some problems. As some American scholars noted14, what women have to say cannot  be simply added to the existing scientific discourse, since such discourse does not, in its content and modality, accept female difference. As a consequence, the woman that enters the field of science does so without the immediate availability of her experience of being female.

In the past, this difference between being a woman and doing science was used to demonstrate that women are incapable, with a few exceptions, of scientific objectivity. Since the last century, and even before, the advocates of female emancipation have used these “exceptional cases” to support the idea that women are as capable as men of working in the scientific field. Although these two views are contrasting, they both agree in judging the relationship between the female way of thinking and science on the basis of the ability that female thought has (or has not) to assimilate the canons of scientific objectivity, while in fact true competence lies in being able to change them.

The conjugation of female thought and scientific endeavour cannot happen unless they both undergo some changes. The question of which changes need to take place must be addressed by the practical experience and the philosophical approach of women scientists.

Today both biology and physiology acknowledge and, in some cases, support the existence of cognitive differences based on a different cerebral organization of the two sexes. This different organization of neural substrata affects some forms of behaviour, such as those related to linguistic competence, spatial ability and emotions. According to this hypothesis in women these functions engage both hemispheres while in men the two hemispheres form independent neurological systems.15

Although this new knowledge emphasises the greater flexibility of  the female brain, it has not led to the elaboration of a thought that appreciates and values this difference. To this day biology has been used to justify sexual domination. In fact, these differences in the neurological systems of men and women have been used to support the hypothesis of the biological inferiority of women. It is argued that, since women’s cognitive system engages both hemispheres, their ability to concentrate on different cognitive activities at the same time is impaired. This point of view does not take into consideration the fact that, in women’s thinking process, emotion and language interact dynamically. To the contrary, this ability in women is seen as a biological handicap compared to the wholeness of the male thinking process, a handicap that women must overcome in order to become efficient and more like men. What is missing is a new theoretical approach that can, in opposition to the current cultural view, interpret and read the female brain and body in terms of a positive alterity. The specificity of the female body must be understood and decoded through a thought process defined  authoritatively by women, outside of, and independently from, any imprinting of male thinking.

A similar difficulty in interpreting the signs of sexual difference can be found in linguistics studies.

In structural linguistics and in generative grammar, which consider the subject as a purely grammatical function, sexual difference disappears. The determination of the subject’s gender, however, is present in sociolinguistic studies where it is considered not as an abstract category but as the result of an interweaving of descriptive variables. Among the variables (race, age, origin etc. ) gender distinction appears just as one among others.

American scholars Barrie Thorne and Nancy Henley 16consider female language as that of a social sub-group whose linguistic deviation is evaluated against male language which results in gender being contested.

In this perspective, on one side emerges the description of a linguistics practice that reproduces the stereotypes present in various empirical-historical situations, on the other, by looking at language from an emancipatory point of view, there’s a tendency to neutralise language, demanding the complete elimination of anything that highlights the female gender in institutional language, since the linguistic underlining of the female gender, when it appears in a public context, seems to devalue and mock it. Marie Ritchie Key’s thesis supports these positions by maintaining the necessity of an androgynous language that totally cancels out sexual difference.

Other currents of the feminist movement, more notably the French one, have noticed the emergence of sexual difference in the deviations of language, in the gaps between words, in the white spaces or the tonality of voice18,  deviations and white spaces interpreted also as lack of cohesion of the language that allows a glimpse of pulsional materiality19. Therefore, in contraposition to the male’s “plain and clear” language stands the language of woman as silence or deviation.

A way of demonstrating how sexual difference could be one of the basis of knowledge and experience can be found in the problem of gender category raised by theoretical linguistics. Masculine and feminine genders, present in various forms in all languages, seem to be devoid of any function, actually encumbering the use of language. In contrast with the traditional explanation, that justifies the presence of gender as an arbitrary fact or, at most, as a remnant of a pure archaic materiality, Roman Jakobson underlines the symbolic value of gender, which assumes in language a metaphorical function that can be found also in dream symbolism.

Anthropology has constantly opposed the large variety of interpretations that different cultures give to biological data to the still enduring tendency to see biological data as a determining factor.

Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead, starting from the theoretical principle of historical particularism demonstrated that one is the product of the culture in which one lives.22 Mead states that traits of male and female character derive from the cultural messages that have been learnt and absorbed by both sexes, that differ from each other, not so much because of biological predisposition, but because of the cultural influence they have internalised.

Therefore the difference between the sexes appears above all as a difference in roles that every society reproduces and passes on as stereotypes. Although such differences become less apparent in the transition from primitive societies to more complex organizations, they still persist. The necessity for action is seen as the prerogative of man, so much so that the certainty of his role seems to be connected to the ability and the right to engage in activities precluded to women, while the woman should limit herself simply to the necessity of existing and to fulfil her social function in reproduction and maternity. Biology, when related to the female situation, has become progressively, in the history of civilisations, the obstacle that must be overcome; men have elaborated and put into practice their projects of domination of the world, trying to defeat nature and to eliminate their physiological limitations.

According to Margaret Mead, this progressive moving away from what is “natural” has devalued women and impoverished humanity, denying the full development of the peculiarities of  each sex. Social division of labour has allowed men to improve their creative and productive abilities, while women’s task has been limited to the perpetuation of the species, precluding for them any other role.

As civilisation developed it has ignored and neglected that particular type of female understanding acquired by women through maternity, such as the intuitive ability to comprehend synthetically. This has produced a unilateral scientific knowledge, born of the masculine mind, interested in analysis and the domination of matter rather than in human relationships, where the use of intuition is required. In this process of erasure of differences, civilisation has become progressively poorer and, by overestimating the role of the male, has caused the neglect, by both sexes, of part of their human prerogatives.

Some women theologians from the US, working towards a theoretical elaboration of a theology of female liberation, have spoken of the necessity of regaining the integrity of both male and female personality in the ethical perspective of the construction of a new social order, where alienation and oppression are eliminated. Even in the field of divine knowledge, as in all other fields of human knowledge where symbolic mediation is stronger, there has been an erasure of the female. Classical theology reproduces the sexist basis that has marked all human history. Sexism in religion has been made sacred, becoming the normative model for human relationships: the male head of the family incarnates the figure of God father and patriarch, and therefore only he can possess His image. This, on the one hand, explains why women have been barred from learning and teaching theology, which they have been allowed to do only 25 years ago; on the other hand it also explains the total lack of an alternative tradition, fragments of which can be found by a systematic study of patriarchal theology, from the Bible and patristics up to the present day.

According to Rosemary Radford Ruether, the need for a feminist theology adopts as its starting point the principle that God “the ground of being and of  new being, underlies, includes, supports and promotes the being/woman as well as the being/man. Woman is not subordinated or ‘included’, but equivalent as imago Dei” 23 The authentic message and meaning of theology then, is the redemption from sexism and the restoration of a humanity made whole by the inclusion of both sexes and by its relationship with nature and society. But in Ruether’s perspective there is no theology of feminist liberation if women don’t take themselves as the starting point, if they don’t believe strongly in the value of their human personality which must become the source of  normativeness and of models for the construction of a tradition in alternative to classical theology. We can then see the meaning in the reconstruction of fragments, the recovery of those traces of the female presence in the words of the prophets and the mystics, in the silenced voices of  minority and dissident groups, in the image of the divine, at the same time male and female, of  non-Christian and pre-Christian religions. A tradition comes into being when there is consciousness of the self, that is, only when there is a need to give themselves a memory as human subjects no longer negated in an apparent isomorphism.  Feminist spirituality constitutes itself through an ethical perspective implying this will to affirm a female being projected towards a redeemed society, where there’s freedom from patriarchy and where it is possible rediscover all the potential values of human life, symbolically present in the myth of an original harmony but now lost in a distorted real existence.

It isn’t a question of assuming a return to a primitive harmony, of which women are custodians, through rituals dedicated to the cult of  the Mother Goddess: the sacred chant is of no use in breaking the false world of contradictions, which is what some feminist communities in the USA believe. In fact Ruether, in an analysis of divine language24 destroys the ancient myth of an original matriarchy connected to the female symbol of the goddess. It is indeed necessary to build female communities, but only because every liberation theology must be based on a Church, that is, a context in which to discuss questions pertaining rituals, beliefs and action and because the traditional institution of the Church, which must remain merely a “field of mission”, is deeply bound to a sexist symbolism.

Finally, in the field of historical studies there is a tendency to include notions of gender and sexual difference, traditionally used to describe particular subjects of research, among historiographic categories, as theoretical notions capable of organising and explaining the facts under investigation.

This tendency aims to reap the fruits, and at the same time go beyond the limits, of  research – of feminist history as social history – that was focused on women.

In contrast to mainstream historiography feminist historiography, born in the ‘70s, has been striving to make visible women’s presence in human history. Women themselves are the subject of  research, exemplary females that were finally recognised for their importance, together with the times and environment  in which they lived. But ordinary, anonymous women were researched too, in an attempt to rediscover the traces of female culture. The aim of these studies is to offer women a historical memory and therefore a source of identity and a sense of self.

Feminist historiography has filled, at least in part, the gap in the knowledge and data on the female side of human history. Unfortunately, because of the way it is set up, it runs the risk of creating a “separate history”, a “supplementary” history that simply completes or adds to conventional social and political stories, without ever challenging them.

Research carried out in the field of social history has also contributed to give more visibility to women’s past, opposing a tendency to obscure it. But even this approach has failed to get to the root of the problem. By studying women according to categories formulated to analyze social or economical processes that include indifferently both men and women, social history relegates women to a subordinate group, akin to workers, slaves, racial minorities etc.

However, the existence itself of a historiography that has shifted the attention towards women in society, and the new historical knowledge that has emerged from it, has eventually forced the question of sexual difference in this field. It isn’t possible to continue to look at the history of women without raising the question of gender partiality in historical subjects, male and female. Studying the female side of history does not, essentially, consist in changing the object of study, women instead of men, the private instead of the public, daily life instead of political life, but in reformulating the actual concepts that we apply to the female/male being and, therefore, how we interpret the past.25

It is necessary to acquire new notions of gender and sexual difference, of theoretical concepts and historiographical categories. According to Natalie Zemon Davies and J. Kelly-Gadol, 26 it is through these concepts that political history and the history of power is modified. The two American scholars agree that a separate study of women or a view dictated by the simple opposition of dominion-subordination, does not allow the various forms that power has taken in history to be understood. It is necessary to ask the question of how the political has built the notion of sexual difference and how sexual difference has produced the political. Without considering these connections it is impossible to study the history of women. The private sphere in which women seem often to be relegated is in reality a creation of the public sphere and influences the definition of power relationships. In fact, those that apparently remain silent express instead very loudly the nature of power and participate in the making of history. For the same reason, it is not possible to study history without looking into what was, at a particular time and in a certain society, the determining relationship between the two sexes, that is, without bringing to the fore the gendered structure of social, economical and political authority.


  1. Difference influences the relationship of women between themselves and with the world.


From this overview, albeit incomplete, it clearly follows that the investigation of sexual difference proceeds through a symbolic elaboration of difference itself on the part of the thought that does the investigating . This connection is highlighted by the historical and theoretical ties between the research on sexual difference and the feminist movements.

The feminist movements developed in the late ‘60s in western and westernised countries following the failure of  women emancipation’s politics. The offer of equal opportunities to women satisfies a need for social justice but does not address the need for a female presence in society. Nor would this be possible as long as sexual difference is seen as insignificant for the achievement of  social ends outside of the family. Because of this, female participation in social life remains devoid of its own dimension, so that women find themselves divided between, on the one hand, social activity designed to suit the aims and means of men, who participate in social life as a right and a duty of their own gender, and on the other the need to find intimacy with their own gendered body. Emancipation, therefore, did not put an end to the passion of sexual difference, it only changed the terms: from discriminating inferiority to mutilating integration.

Feminist movements pointed at this contradiction and the weight it has on the experience of every woman. Through collective self awareness (“pratica dell’autocoscienza”) it emerged that woman suffers because of her material and symbolical dependency on man. There is no doubt that the individual, male or female, depends necessarily on others for its material existence and to give meaning to it. But in our culture woman’s existence is recognised through a discourse in which she is spoken of and denied at the same time, because, being defined as not male, she is seen as lacking, as other, as negative.

So women experience their existence as being spoken of and denied at the same time. Their ontological integrity, their being-there, is split between the correspondence to the discourse that speaks of them and a remaining with themselves, wordless. With themselves, meaning that silent intimacy, that “wedge-shaped core of darkness” described by Virginia Wolf in To The Lighthouse.

Feminist separatism acknowledges this split that women suffer, because sexual difference is not inscribed in the symbolic .

Carla Lonzi, in the political manifesto of 1970 Sputiamo su Hegel (Let’s Spit on Hegel), maintains that there is an irreducible asymmetry between the world of men and that of women: “Woman has no dialectical relationship with the male world. The needs she is expressing do not imply an antithesis, but a belonging to a different plane.”(p.32) The difference from the world of men cannot therefore define what women are for themselves.

Following a different theoretical thread Luce Irigaray states again the same impossibility mentioned by Carla Lonzi. To create a boundary around one’s identity, in order to separate from the other, one must see oneself from the outside and recognise oneself. Men can do it, women can’t see themselves. They then find themselves in an intimacy invisible to themselves and to society, or they lose themselves in their objects of love.

There are many political and theoretical texts written by the women’s movement that  address the basic problem of sexual difference: how can woman give meaning to herself, how can she come out of her wordless intimacy in a social and symbolical order that defines the female by oppositions and similarities with the male, while the male defines himself?

The solution to this question is to be found in the idea of sexual difference itself. That is, that difference, from being the object of thought, becomes thinking thought.

As we have seen, it is not enough for woman to know herself as being different from man, in order to know herself. Male mediation, as indirectly recognised by Freud, results in the repudiation of  what is female on the part of women and men. For the feminine to be able to enter the discourse of  politics and science, woman must have a female mediation in order to relate to herself and to the other . In the system of social relationships there wasn’t a symbolic structure adequate for this task, in fact, it was expressly excluded. In relation to this Freud is extremely explicit when he states, in his lecture on “Femininity”28, that, to became normal, woman must separate from her mother and turn into hostility her love for her.

The invention of this missing symbolic structure is the theoretical and political work of the reflections on sexual difference. Following from its initial separatism the women’s movement, because of the need to regulate the relations between women in the absence of men, has created the symbolic structure of female mediation that was missing from social relationships.

This solution finds agreement in the texts of both  political movement and theoretical research.

Adrienne Rich talks of  the “shared world of women” in which there is not only solidarity but where the “the historical strength of the relations among women”29 is brought into play.

Rich represents this world without an acquired social existence. However, where there is a social existence, albeit partial, we can detect two main essential aspects:

  1. a) the dialectical relation with the other woman;
  2. b) the harmonious relationship between self and self and with the world outside the self.
  3. a) The world of women is not a world of identical individuals. Identity among women is only the result of being “other” in relation to the male world. Therefore, there is no generic identity between women, nor is there an undifferentiated serial difference, which in reality comes once more under the sign of identity.

The seriality of identity and generic difference is interrupted by the relationship I (woman)/ you (woman). There is the danger that this I / you between two women could result in a reciprocal closure which sinks into the “formless”. A practical and open form is found when there is what Irigaray calls the symbolic currency of exchange between two women 30. This currency is based on the fact that the power differential between women is recognised and recognisable.

The collective text  Più donne che uomini (More Women than Men)31 illustrates how this currency circulates where the disparity between women is practised and the ancient relationship with the mother is translated into a social relationship of  female “entrustment”. Luce Irigaray too sees in the recognition of a power differential between women the reactivation of a not undifferentiated relationship between mother and daughter.

Adrienne Rich holds that drawing from this disparity creates interwoven, mixed and multiple relationships between women, which reproduce the original relationship between mother and daughter.32

It can be said that the dialectical relationship between two women consists of recognising in a woman a value that makes her an authoritative voice for another woman.

This differential between two women takes one of these forms and maybe others. Each of these forms responds to a shared need: to produce and to show a value that circulates among women. The strength of this relationship lies in this. It is this power differential that brings difference out from its being reciprocal, closed and without form. Instead it makes it concrete, not serial and not undifferentiated, so as to become the starting point of symbolic production.

The uneven dialectical relationship between women creates the condition for an undivided ontological existence. The (authoritative) recognition of the other woman (the mediation) allows the emergence of immediacy and love of self,  without the need to find refuge in the “wedge-shaped core of darkness”, in that intimacy that is the only place without a place, in which a woman can find herself when the usual symbolic speaks of her and denies her at the same time. The intimate space is divided between self and self and what is outside oneself. It becomes a home.

  1. b) The dialectical web between women creates the condition in which a woman can divide autonomously the space between self and self and the external world, the condition in which she can extend her body so as to find emotional and intellectual harmony between herself and the world.

This is the second important aspect of the “shared world of women”.

Adrienne Rich mentions it in On Secrets, Silences and Lies when she translates the harmony between the self and the self and with the world outside the self to the faithfulness of women to their own experience. This faithfulness becomes witness of their reality and is therefore acquired heritage, not only for personal ethics, but for the “shared world of women” itself.

Silvia Montefoschi33 speaks about the same harmony : it doesn’t come from the confusion with one’s object of love or one’s own experience. On the contrary, it is the result of the elaboration of the distance from one’s own object. It is a distance sustained by “eros”, intended as “void in movement”. It is indeed this distance that allows the joining of “eros” with reflection, production of symbols and knowledge. To invert the perspective: only in the harmony supported by “eros” the symbolic distance becomes knowledge.

According to Luce Irigaray woman’s body opens onto a double doorway: that of maternity and that of the body itself, which readies itself for the encounter with the other by cloaking itself with what could be minimal gestures, but always rigorously in harmony with itself. The two doorways must not be confused. Irigaray defines this harmony between the self and the outside the self as the “inhabiting ethically” starting from the body. The mark of this harmony is enjoyment.

The collective text Più donne che uomini (More Women than Men) talks of “gendering social relationships”, that is, to render socially visible the difference of being woman/man. The criteria used is that of feeling at ease, i.e. the possibility to participate in a form of social intercourse that fully accepts the female world. Feeling at ease can be considered the translation in social terms of what Irigaray has called enjoyment. The inner world (enjoyment) and the outer world (being at ease) are no longer separated, instead there is a reciprocal and enriching exchange.

The symbolic fecundity of sexual difference still remains a promise. It is shown by the fact that we now commonly speak of the “world of women”, as if women and men did not inhabit the same world together. But this “inhabiting together” is not part of the history of the two sexes and the image of the two worlds is justified by the necessity of creating a space that allows woman, as well as man, to know her/himself as self and in relation to the other.

Our knowledge of sexual difference must therefore be considered still very imperfect.

Its progress, we must stress again, will not depend on discoveries on the part of any science but on the meaning that those discoveries will be given and therefore by the fact that sexual difference “progresses”, to use a Hegelian term. Because to be aware of sexual difference fundamentally is nothing more than the human subject knowing itself as gendered.





 1 Luce Irigaray, An Ethics of Sexual Difference, Trans. Carolyn Burke and Gillian C. Gill. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1993.


 2 G.W.F. Hegel, Encyclopaedia of the Philosophical Sciences, part two (1830). Translated by A. V. Miller with foreword by J. N. Findlay. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970.


       3 G.W.F. Hegel Phenomenology of Spirit, Trans. A.V. Miller, analysis of the text and foreword by J. N. Findlay. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977.

4 S.Freud, Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality. Ed. James Strachey, Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, vol. 6. The Hogarth Press, London 1953-1974; The infantile genital organization, Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud ,vol. 19:141-145; The passing of the oedipus complex., Int. J. Psychoanal.,  vol.5:419-424; Psychical consequences anatomical distinction between the sexes , Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud   vol.19:248-258.

5 S.Freud, Analysis Terminable and Interminable, Ed. James Strachey. Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol. 23, The Hogarth Press, London 1953-1974.

6 Virginia Woolf, Three Guineas, Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1938.


7 Karen Horney, Feminine Psychology., W. W. Norton, New York, 1973.


 8 Luce Irigaray, Speculum of the Other Woman, Trans. Gillian C. Gill. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985.


    9 Melanie Klein, Contributions to Psychoanalysis, Hogarth Press, London; The Psychoanalysis of Children, in The Writingsof Melanie Klein, vol. 2, Free Press.


10 E.Jones, Papers on Psychoanalysis, Baillère, Tindall & Cox, London 1948.


11 J.Lacan, Guiding Remarks for a Congress on Feminine Sexuality from Écrits, transl. by J. Rose, in J. Mitchell and J. Rose (eds.), Feminine Sexuality, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1982. and The Meaning of the Phallus, transl. by J. Rose in J. Mitchell and J. Rose (eds.), Feminine Sexuality, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1982.


12 Evelyn Fox Keller, Reflection on Gender and Science. Yale University Press, 1985.


13 Luce Irigaray, To Speak Is Never Neutral. New York: Routledge, 2000.


14 Sandra Harding – Merryll B. Hintikka, Discovering Reality. Feminist Perspectives on Epistemology, Metaphysics, Methodology and Philosophy of Science, Riedel Publishing Company, Dordrecht-Boston-London 1985.


15 Sandra Witelson,


16 Barrie Thorne – Nancy Hencey, Language and Sex. Difference and Dominance, Rowley Mass., Newbury House 1975.


17 Marie Ritchie Key, Male/Female Language. With a Comprehensive Bibliography, The Scarecrow Press, Metuchen N.J. 1975.


 18 Helene Cixous – Catherine Clement, La jeune née, Union Générale d’Editions, Paris 1975.


19 Julia Kristeva, Revolution in Poetic Language, Trans. by Margaret Waller, New York Columbia University Press 1984.


20 R. Jakobson, On Linguistic Aspects of Translation, in Selected Writings, II, Mouton, The Hague-Paris-New York 1971, pgs. 220-266.


21 Patrizia Violi, L’infinito singolare, Edizione Essedue, Verona 1986.


22 Ruth Benedict, Patterns of Culture. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1934. Margaret Mead Male and Female: A Study of the Sexes in a Changing World, Morrow. New York 1988.


23 Rosemary Radford Ruether, Feminist Theology and Spirituality, in Judith L.Weidman, Christian Feminism Vision of a New Humanity, Harper and Row, San Francisco 1984.


24 Rosemary Radford Ruether, Sexism and God-Talk: Toward a Feminist Theology, New York 1983.


25 Gerda Lerner, The Majority Finds its Past – Placing Women in History, New York 1979.


26 Joan Kelly Gardol, The Social Relation of the Sexes: Methodological Implication of Women’s History, “Signs”, 1, 4, 1976; Natalie Zemon Davies, Women’s History, in Transition: The European Case, “Feminist Studies”, III, 3/4 (1976).


27 Carla Lonzi, Sputiamo su Hegel, ed. Rivolta femminile, Milano 1974.


28 S. Freud, New introductory lectures on psycho-analysis., Ed. James Strachey. Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol.22:5-182, The Hogarth Press, London 1953-1974.


29 Adrienne Rich, On Lies, Secrets and Silence: Selected Prose, 1966- 1978, Norton, 1979.


30 Luce Irigaray, La doppia soglia, in Il vuoto e il pieno, Centro di documentazione donna, Firenze 1982.


31 Più donne che uomini, “Sottosopra”, Libreria delle donne, Milano gennaio 1983.


32 Adrienne Rich, Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution,  Norton 1986.


33 Silvia Montefoschi, Il recupero del femminile e la psicoanalisi, in Il vuoto e il pieno, Centro di documentazione donna, Firenze 1982.