Jean Grimshaw's Critique of Essentialism

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  • 0:01 Womanhood
  • 0:56 Essentialism
  • 2:00 Grimshaw
  • 2:52 Nurture
  • 3:40 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in education.

This lesson will explain the philosophical view of essentialism. It will also highlight the modern works of Jean Grimshaw, which challenge the idea that women and men are born with different patterns of reasoning and intellect.


Growing up as a girl in the Deep South, my mom often told us she had three choices for her future. She could be a teacher until she got married and had babies. She could be a nurse until she got married and had babies. Or, she could be a secretary until she got married and had babies. No matter which she chose, the end game was the same: get married and have babies. After all, she was a girl, and that's what girls are supposed to do, right? Hmmm.

Many women have grown up under the same notions that were taught to my mom. Going far back into the pages of history, it's the idea that a woman's true calling is marriage and then children. Speaking philosophically, this idea has its roots in essentialism. Today we'll define essentialism and see what the works of the modern feminist philosopher, Jean Grimshaw, have to say about it.


For starters, let's take a closer look at essentialism. When speaking of men and women, philosophical essentialism argues that the genders each have essential, inborn thought and reasoning patterns that define them. Stated simply, a baby boy is born with thoughts that make him a man, and a baby girl is born with thoughts that make her a woman. It's not nurture; it's nature.

When speaking of women, essentialism has traditionally asserted that a woman's inborn patterns of thought and reasoning pull her toward the role of wife and mother. Many essentialists even argue a woman maximizes her full potential within these roles.

To an essentialist, a woman's intellect is made for the private sphere of the home, not the public one. It's not a freewill choice to act in the role of wife and mom; it's the predetermined course her intellect is programmed toward. Sort of like a fish is made for water, a woman's mind is made for marriage and babies.


Stepping on the scene and saying, 'Um, not quite,' is Jean Grimshaw. Her work, The Idea of a Female Ethic, espouses that there is no inborn difference in the intellect of men and women. Putting this notion aside, it argues that women and men think differently because they are assigned different roles: it's not nature; it's nurture.

Going back to my mom, Grimshaw might say, 'Well, of course she thought and reasoned that motherhood was her destined path. After all, she was handed a doll as a child, while her brother was handed a toy gun. She was consigned to help mom in the kitchen, while her brother helped dad with the cars. Is it any wonder her thoughts went to motherhood while her brother's went to conquering? Is it surprising that she became a stay-at-home mom, while he became a naval engineer?'

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