Born in 1941, Kristeva is a Bulgarian-born French feminist and form the part of what is called French Feminism, along with other feminists like Helene Cixous, Luce Irigaray.
French feminism is considered quite different than the Anglo-American feminism for the reason that French feminism, which heavily uses ideas from philosophy, psychoanalysis, linguistics, post-modernism and post-structuralism, is, and as rightly pointed out by various feminist critic, theoretical in nature.
Anglo-American feminism, on the other hand, is more activism-oriented. French feminism can also be loosely categorized as essentialist in nature, unlike the feminism propagated by feminists like Beauvoir or Elaine Showalter which is labelled as anti-essentialist.
Before going further in the specificities of Kristeva’s ideas and to comprehend them properly, one should clearly understand this debate surrounding essentialism and anti-essentialism.
Essentialism & Anti-essentialism
The idea of essentialism and anti-essentialism can be easily grasped from the statement on women given by Irigaray if women are “equal or different.”
Basically, essentialists wanted to point out the uselessness of two ideas- one is that women can never achieve equality in a system that has inherent masculine bias and second that very idea of trying to categorize someone as equal or inferior and the whole concept of hierarchy is coming from a patriarchal mindset.
So according to essentialist, women are simply different than man and they should celebrate this fact and should strive hard to create a system that accepts and is open to difference, unlike the unified structured phallic model.
Anti-essentialist like Beauvoir, on the other hand, argued, that women are not inferior to man, nor they are born with “weak feminine” characteristics, and all of this is a social construction imposed by male hegemony on women.
So, anti-essentialists, like Beauvoir, also called as equality-feminists, disagrees with the idea that women are different and are inherently feminine.
They support the idea of transcendence- of women not being inherently connected to nature and motherhood but being able to transcend and become immortal through their work and art like man, unlike disregarding this idea of transcendence, equality and supporting difference and appreciating the immanence of womanhood by essentialist.
Lucia Kristeva – An Essentialist
So Lucia Kristeva, like other French feminists, as explained above, could be loosely classified as an essentialist, as all of them basically are using a radical approach to overthrow patriarchy instead of begging for equality from a system that has deeply embedded misogyny.
Kristeva argues that western philosophy and the entire patriarchal system is founded on the idea of repressing any difference, and has thrived by suppressing this difference. Anything that deviates this system, defies its logic and structure is labelled as “abnormal,” “perversion,” “unnatural,” criminality and many other such things which this system tries to suppress with complete force and authority, lest it will disrupt and break the very foundation of it.
Kristeva Borrows from Freud and Lacan’s Psychoanalysis
Kristeva, like other French feminists, uses Freud and Lacan’s psychoanalysis to prove one point, that gender difference is a social construction that a child tries to enact in his sexual stages as discussed by Freud, and his behaviour towards his and other’s sexuality is heavily influenced by our circumstances one is brought up in.
Similarly, using Lacan’s mirror stage, which is the state when a child recognizes himself as “I” which helps him to differentiate himself from others. Unlike the pre-linguistic and pre-Oedipal state, when the child has no idea of sexuality.
So like Lacan, Kristeva points out that it’s the language that creates the awareness of the sexual difference in a child when the child starts categorising and understanding the patriarchal world, including the authority of father and patriarchy which makes the child suppress lots of desires and ideas.
Kristeva calls the pre-oedipal and pre-linguistic state as semiotic and the later stage when the child is influenced by society and language as symbolic. Using this, Kristeva argues, just like the unconscious can only be repressed and never be eliminated as explained by Freud, semiotic too can be repressed only and never be completely eliminated.
This means feminists can overthrow the conscious or symbolic state represented by patriarchy and order by letting free the repressed semiotic (the feminine and any difference).
This can be done by using Ecriture feminine (feminine writing) as proposed by French feminists, which talks about creating a unique female writing, that for instance, heavily relies on using puns, unstructured argument lacking sentences with unexplained breaks and disjointed narratives to break the very order of language where the male hegemony derives its strengths from.