Gayatri Spivak’s Strategic Essentialism: Meaning & Examples

Gayatri Spivak’s Strategic Essentialism: Meaning & Examples
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak by Rosa Luxemburg-Stiftung for Wikimedia Commons CC BY 2.0

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak is a celebrated postcolonial, feminist, and post-structuralist critical thinker well known for her English translation of Jacques Derrida’s ‘’Of Grammatology”, and the groundbreaking essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?”. She is also known to have coined the term ‘Strategic Essentialism’. This blog will help you understand the concept and its significance.

It was in her interview with Elizabeth Grosz, that Gayatri Spivak had come up with the term 'strategic essentialism'. Spivak appreciates the interventionist value and effect of interviews in the foreword to her 'Outside in the Teaching Machine':

"Indeed I was not aware of my strategic use of essentialism. I knew it in response to Elizabeth Grosz, a woman who cared enough to interview me" (Spivak ix)

Understanding Essentialism

Image of Plato

To understand the concept of strategic essentialism, we must first know what essentialism is. Essentialism is the common belief that there exists the true essence of things, certain properties and characteristics that determine and define the subject. It is the presence of those characteristics, that essence because of which the subject exists and is recognised as such. This point of view can be traced back to Plato and his idea of abstract, ideal, and absolute Forms. According to Plato’s theory of Forms, everything that constitutes the material world is not absolute and true. Instead, they are just imitations of the prefect and absolute Forms. The Forms are the essence of everything in the material world. For example, a tree in our world is just an imitation of the real Tree which is the essence of all the trees

Criticism of Essentialism

The concept of essentialism has been criticized by anti-racist theory, gay/lesbian theory, and Anglo-American feminist theory during the 1980s and early 1990s. This is because it defines race, sexuality, and gender in terms of fixed human essences without any scope of fluidity. This defining of the attributes is often accompanied with biological explanations. This is problematic because:

  • It ignores cultural differences that exist within a race, gender, or sexuality
  • It also perpetuates inequality, prejudice, and stereotypes. For example, the commonly held essentialist belief that women are homemakers, while men are the breadwinners has perpetuated gender inequality. Similarly, racial essentialism might lead us to believe that certain ethnic groups are inherently more intelligent than others due to inherent genetic and biological factors. This perspective is then used to justify discrimination and unequal treatment of individuals because of their race and ethnicity.

For the above reasons, there was a shift towards anti-essentialism during the 1980s and 1990s. During this time, all stable categories of identity were rejected. Race became a detrimental metaphor instead of truth based on scientific facts. For feminists like Judith Butler, sexuality and gender were re-thought as social and linguistic constructs rather than biological facts.

The conventional universal humanist thought had based the difference between men and women on natural and biological foundation. However, anti-essentialist feminist thinker Simone de Beuvoir asserts in ‘The Second Sex’ that “one is not born a woman, one becomes a woman”. According to her, gender identity is created by society and is not a biological construct.

What is Literary Theory?
Literary theory refers to the various schools of thoughts that shape and affect our interpretations of a literary work. It is literary theory that facilitates impactful and effective criticism of literature.
Introduction to Theory

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s concept of Strategic Essentialism

As mentioned above, the concept of Strategic Essentialism was introduced by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak in her interview with Elizabeth Grosz on August 17th 1984 in Sidney, Australia. In the interview, Grosz (who is an Australian philosopher and professor in the U.S.) asks Spivak:

“In a number of published texts you have discussed ‘universal’ oppression of women under patriarchy in terms of the effacement of the clitoris, of women’s sexual pleasure whereby clitoridectomy can be considered a metonymy of women’s social and legal status. Could you elaborate on this?” (Grosz 182)

It is in response to this question by Grosz that Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak introduces the concept of ‘strategic essentialism’. In her works like ‘French Feminism in an International Frame’, Spivak talks about clitoridectomies in actual sense, as well as symbolically. She points out that her choice to employ this term as the repression of women’s sexuality, as well as the suppression of their agency generally. Spivak employs the term ‘universally’. She answers  Grosz’s question,

“I was talking of course not only about clitoridectomies as such but also about symbolic clitoridectomies as marking the place of women’s desire: but I should also say that the choice of universality there was a sort of strategic choice. I spoke of universality because universality was in the air on the other side in the talk of female discourse. What was happening was a universal solution was being looked for and since I believe that one shouldn’t throw things but use them, strategically I suggested that perhaps rather than woman inhabiting the spaces of absence, perhaps here was an item which could be used as a universal signifier.”  (Spivak 183)

Spivak further says that the discourse on marginal social groups such as women, tribals, aboriginals is either extremely classical marxist, or is about the celebration of the ‘other’. Although Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak is concerned with heterogeneity, she choses a universal discourse. Instead of straight away rejecting universality and essentialist discourse and defining herself as specific, she attempts to explore how the essentialist and universalist discourse can be useful. Spivak says : “I think we have to choose again strategically, not universal discourse but essentialist discourse”. Spivak emphasizes that we cannot escape and completely wash our hands off universalist and essentialist labels and claim ourselves to be specific. Infact, the moment Spivak calls herself a deconstructivist, she is putting a label on herself. Hence universalist and essentialist labels are inevitable. What Spivak attempts to do through strategic essentialism is to utilize universal and essentialist labels for minority groups.

Elizabeth Grosz further asks Spivak about the ways one can use essentialism and universalism strategically without commiting to the concepts completely. To this the postcolonial thinker responds that we committing to the concepts of essentialism and universalism cannot be avoided. We already are committed to them. For example, the moment we talk about prioritizing practice over theory, we are universalising. Therefore, Spivak points out:

“let us atleast situate it at the moment; let us become vigilant about our own practice and use it as much as we can rather than make the totally counter-productive gesture of repudiating it”. (Spivak 184)

Strategic Essentialism might impact your purity. You cannot claim that your theory takes a stand against anybody else’s because it is adapted and modified from time to time. Strategic essentialism means that you are an essentialist from time to time, when it is useful for you. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak chooses clitoris as a universal to make Western high feminism useful, and will help her to fight against the otherside. In this process, you will end up giving away your theoretical purity. At the same time, people who claim themselves to be anti-universal and anti-essentialists are able to maintain their theoretical purity but are unable to commit to anything.

Strategic Essentialism as a glance

  • Strategic Essentialism emphasizes that we must criticize essentialism, but at the same time must acknowledge that it is inescapable. Concepts of essentialism and universalism are necessary to understand the social and political world. It is a strategic, temporary and political practice of embracing essentialism inorder to criticize it
  • Strategic essentialism is the temporary use of essentialism to affirm and consolidate the political identity of minor groups. However, it must not become a permanent and fixed category by dominant political groups. Strategic essentialism is temporary. It is the practice of using the concept of essentialism or universalism from time to time.
  • Strategic essentialism is not a theory but is a situational and context specific strategy.
  • It does not provide a permanent political solution to exploitation and oppression.

Examples of Strategic Essentialism

Martin Luther King Jr giving a speech by David Erickson

One of the most simple examples of strategic essentialism is the coming together of Indians against British colonial rule. During the Indian struggle for freedom, all Indians irrespective of their caste and religion came together against the oppressive British rule. This unifying act overlooks the poor, working class marginals. However, it was temporarily significant inorder to gain freedom from British imperialism. The national movement also did not provide any solution to the oppression and exploitation of the poor, working class Indians.

Another example of strategic essentialism is the Civil Rights Movements in the United States. During the Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King Jr had strategically used ‘Blackness’ inorder to unify African Americans against racism. It goes without saying that even within the essentialist concept of Black African Americans, there existed diverse and varied experiences and cultural backgrounds

Chandra Talpade Mohanty’s 1984 essay ‘Under Western Eyes’ describes how Iranian middle class women had veiled themselves in solidarity with their working-class sisters during the 1979 Iranian revolution. The veil is an essentialist symbol of oppression imposed on women by patriarchal Islamic laws. However, the middle class women strategically employ this universal symbol of oppression to demonstrate solidarity with the poor Iranian women. Thus utilizing a conventional universal concept, temporarily, for the advantage and support of the disenfranchised.


“Criticism, Feminism and the Institution.” Thesis Eleven, vol. 10-11, no. 1, Feb. 1985, pp. 175–87,

Chakraborty, Mridula Nath. “Everybody’s Afraid of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak: Reading Interviews with the Public Intellectual and Postcolonial Critic.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, vol. 35, no. 3, Mar. 2010, pp. 621–645,

Morton, Stephen. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Routledge, 2003.

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