Judith Butler: An Introduction to Women’s History Month

by Clara Butler

Judith Butler comes to Barnard.

After being told the wrong venue for the room and sprinting to the Diana, I got to see one of my favorite feminist theorists, Judith Butler, lecture on what a woman is. The event had speeches by a few deans as well as various dance performances that were fierce yet a little confusing in the context of such an illustrious speaker, but overall it seemed a fitting introduction to Women’s History Month. Although the other performances of the night were interesting, Butler’s talk definitely took the cake. Although she didn’t have a definitive answer to the question of what a woman is, Butler stated that, “I am the least likely to know,” and the talk fit perfectly into the theme of intersectionality that was presented all night.

Butler centered the talk around gender, but specifically as it pertains to women of color. Citing prominent figures in the literature surrounding women of color’s gender and sexuality, such as Kimberlé Crenshaw and Sojourner Truth, Butler worked historical, as well as social, analysis into the discussion. Talking about the gendering process that happened during slavery and the ‘double jeopardy’ that women of color face when they are asked to identify if they have been marginalized due to their race OR their gender linked old issues of gender and sexuality to contemporary ones. Butler then lectured about the category of woman as a whole and how the categorization itself sometimes leaves out those who aren’t typically defined as ‘female’ such as trans* people, intersex individuals, as well as those who have disabilities, whether or not they are visible.

To illustrate a point about classifications, Butler told the story of an Olympic athlete who had her gender scrutinized by the world. Butler shared the trials and tribulations that Caster Semenya went through just so that she could participate in her own event, the one that she signed up for and eventually won a silver medal in. Butler remarked that perhaps some of this had to do with the fact that Semenya is an African woman and women of color are constantly being denied the same liberties as those who are privileged by their skin color. Although disheartened that the Olympic committee didn’t call upon the one and only Judith Butler as one of their gender experts, Butler ended the narrative by saying that if Semenya said she is a woman then she is.

Yet, Butler’s most memorable and enjoyable example of the night came from a personal anecdote that recounted Butler’s experience with hotel staff. After Butler checked in and went to the hotel room, a man who worked at the hotel came in to check the minibar. But before he could say what his purpose was, he tried to address Butler by saying, “Mr. … Mrs. … Miss. … Mr. …”, repeatedly because he was clearly confused as to whether or not the person sitting before him was a man or a woman. When it was finally revealed that he just needed to check the minibar (rather than stand there repeating the same classifications), Butler calmly remarked, “Do you need to determine my gender to check the minibar?” A similar occurrence happened when two girls told Butler that they didn’t know that men were allowed in the locker room. After Butler asserted, “I’m not a bloke,” Butler told the girls, “It’s fine that you couldn’t tell my gender.” Butler resides on the margins of gender rather than within a distinctive and explicit category. Although Butler can’t be defined by gender, I can at least define Judith Butler as an inspirational and overall awesome person.

Clara Butler is a sophomore at Barnard and a staff writer for The Nine Ways of Knowing.

Image courtesy of The Current.


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