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Xenofeminism by Helen Hester

A ‘feminish’ book, reviewed by Dharmender Dhillon, reflects on beauty and otherness.

I must confess, prior to reading Helen Hester’s excellent Xenofeminism I was unaware that such a movement existed. But the book’s title intrigued me, and I was eager to learn more about what it entailed.

I was not disappointed. In a pithy and engaging fashion, Hester’s well-organised text makes the movement’s aim clear. Xenofeminism is defined from the get-go as a “technomaterialist, anti-naturalist, and gender abolitionist” project (p.6). The text soundly concludes that “we should look to foster a form of mutational politics – one that can be oriented towards practices of xeno-hospitality” (p.4). ‘Xeno-hospitality’ literally means a form of politics that welcomes otherness or difference (‘xeno’ means ‘foreign’ in Greek). Xenofeminism is socio-politically radical, and in no uncertain terms seeks full emancipation for those most marginalised under late capitalism: the alienated, the exploited, the underclass – in effect, Marx’s ‘lumpen proletariat’, or, in Frantz Fanon’s words, the ‘wretched of the earth’.

Kneeling Woman in an Orange-Red Dress
Kneeling Woman in an Orange-Red Dress Egon Schiele 1910

However, xenofeminism, as rendered by Hester, is neither fanciful nor escapist. Rather, acknowledging that gender, for example, is “determined through the terms of power” (p.28), xenofeminism takes inspiration from an earlier radical movement: the Black Panther Party. In the Sixties and Seventies the Panthers insisted upon ‘survival pending revolution’ in order to secure and broaden access to ‘juridical, medical and social technologies’ for black people marginalised by white hegemonic power structures. Now, Hester widens the issue, arguing that “traits associated with gender, race, class, able-bodiedness, and so on, are unevenly loaded with social stigma and often contribute to cultures of inequality” (p.29). She argues that in response to this unjust milieu, the disenfranchised are often left to choose between the traps of ‘oppressive conservatism’ and ‘debilitating hopelessness’ (p.33). In response to this dilemma, and using gender as her springboard, Hester’s gambit is to argue that “like all manifestations of nature, gender must not be confused with a pure and timeless structure” (p.39). In Marx and Engels’s terms, ‘all that is solid melts into air’. Hester wants to explore the material possibility of radically altering the lived fabric of society. Here Hester, and the xenofeminist movement in general, owe a huge debt to the pioneering work of the late Shulamith Firestone (1945-2012), whose Dialectic of Sex (1970) argued in a neo-Marxist vein that technological advances could result in a dissolution of conservative gender roles. Following Firestone, Hester argues that contemporary technological advances mean that “the always precarious distinction between nature and culture has been definitively blown apart” (p.13). In xenofeminism, then, there is a theoretical exploration of, as well as the material realisation of, radical change. As Hester says, “the future is under construction” (p.19).

Xenofeminism seeks to surpass ‘pseudo-theological limit(s)’ which lend “huge conceptual resources to the conservative punishment of radical difference” (p.19). In response to such socio-cultural hegemony – that is, to the dominance of one socially conservative narrative over others – xenofeminism succinctly frames the “terrain of biology as rightfully subject to change” (p.21). This is its anti-naturalism. This anti-naturalism is grounded in material fact – perhaps paradoxically so given its radicalness. A visit to London’s Natural History Museum is enough to demonstrate, even to a child, that nature, quite simply, loves change and diversity.

In spite of my overwhelming agreement with, and appreciation of, the majority of Hester’s points, I did take issue with a few. Concerning its anti-naturalism, Xenofeminism dismisses depicting women as having a natural affinity with ecology merely owing to their ability to give birth (p.37). That said, and returning to the notion of ‘survival pending revolution’, I consider it no sin to be versed in ecology. And, as a cisgender hetero male (and in spite of my prior knowledge of and appreciation of the radicalness of Firestone), I did find it difficult, at times, to accept that all of those ‘impregnatable’ among us are necessarily oppressed. To be oppressed means to be subject to harsh and authoritarian treatment. Whilst I am somewhat sympathetic to the claim that oppression is in fact the case for the ‘impregnatable’ (in effect, for females), I would argue that a better descriptor would be ‘discriminated against’, or, perhaps, ‘marginalised’. I also take issue with Hester’s vehement advocacy of individuals being allowed to self-administer hormones to alter their biological sex as an apparent act of revolution, in refusing to “submit to the policing gaze or medical and juridical authorities” (p.86). Whilst (again) somewhat sympathetic with such a Foucauldian project of self-determination in the face of hegemonic medical power, I consider it a slippery slope to celebrate medical DIY. Of course, my reservations are possibly remnants of the precise socio-culturally learned behaviours and misgivings which Hester, and the xenofeminist project, seek to radically unsettle.

In sum, Xenofeminism argues, contra Audre Lorde, that the master’s tools can, in fact, dismantle the master’s house (pp.97-98). As someone prone to ‘debilitating hopelessness’ in the face of ‘oppressive conservatism’, Xenofeminism read to me like a worthy battle cry amidst uncertain times. In uncertainty there is the possibility of real, radical, change, and xenofeminism has the potential to be a significant movement of our times. And, as Hester herself says, Xenofeminism is not the definitive text about the concept, but rather a text that utilises its tools to produce a self-conscious polemic (pp.2-3).

As, I’d like to think, an open-minded and inquisitive bunch, I heartily recommend this well-argued, provocative, and timely text to the Philosophy Now readership.

© Dharmender S. Dhillon 2020

Dharmender S. Dhillon has long been a Nietzschean and anti-natalist. He reckons that he’d make much better company at parties if he was a xenofeminist.

Xenofeminism, by Helen Hester, Polity, 2018, 140 pages, $10 pb, ISBN: 9781509520633

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