Study Guide

Judith Butler Biography

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Basic Information


Judith Butler


The Performatist, Prose Killer, Gender Bender, Judy Patudy


Well, my birth certificate says that I am female, and society wants me to perform as a female, but I refuse to acknowledge what I am just to make you feel comfortable about your sexuality. (It's not about being anyway—it's about "performing.") Plus I'm a fan of boyish haircuts.

From the get go, you should know I never give one-word answers, so I will just quote myself in response to the ridiculous social constructions that are "sex" and "gender": "I'm not always calling into question who's a man and who's not, and am I a man? Maybe I'm a man. [laughs] Call me a man. I am much more open about categories of gender, and my feminism has been about women's safety from violence, increased literacy, decreased poverty and more equality. I was never against the category of men" (source).

In other words, while I may not be a fan of society's gender constructs, I am not, in fact, a man-hater, thank you very much.

Home town

I was born in the heartland—Cleveland, Ohio, to be exact. My parents were Russian and Hungarian.

Work & Education


I taught at a ton of great universities before landing a plum position in the Rhetoric and Comparative Literature Department at UC Berkeley in 1993, where I've been ever since. But I can't be contained: along the way, other universities have given me some great professorships to hold at the same time (Yes, I'm that in demand), so I also have a gig as professor of philosophy at the European Graduate School in Switzerland.


I'm not like all of those privileged European white male philosophers who get fast tracked to the École Normale Superieure. Truth be told, I'm a bit of a dissenter, and I've been bucking authority before there was even a bumper sticker that told me to do so. This may not be part of my formal education, but here's one important thing I have learned along the way: people don't like it when you don't tow the line.

When I was just a scrappy little "problem child," people actually warned me I would end up in the pokey if I kept up being so defiant and ungirlish at the synagogue. (Guess the laugh's on them, eh?) The rabbi told me, "You are too talkative in class. You talk back, you are not well behaved. You have to come and have a tutorial with me." So I said "Okay, great!" Truth be told, I was thrilled to have weekly meetings with the Rabbi, because I managed to turn the whole punishment into an education in Jewish religion. Lesson learned, guys: life is full of teachable moments.

As for formal education, I got my hands on a BA at Bennington College and then trucked it to Yale, where I earned my PhD with a dissertation entitled Subjects of Desire: Hegelian Reflections in Twentieth-Century France—not a by-the-pool read.


Political views

I have nothing if not beliefs. I've got two cents to offer about everything, and everything I've got two cents on is political. My philosophy merges with my political beliefs, so nothing is cut and dry.

First and foremost, I am a pretty zealous feminist, and sexual identity is front and center in my belief system. (And while I'm on the subject, let me just say that the feminist movement in the U.S. is a bit of a mess. Anyone should be able to join, so those ladies need to stop checking IDs at the door. Pull it together, people!)

Second, I'll tell you what keeps me up at night: anything that keeps down our sexual freedom. I'm all about GLBT rights, too. Americans are so obsessed with keeping everything "normal" (a load of codswallop, if you ask me), that they lose sight of their freedoms. Now, much as I love America (sort of), I also feel that it can been a bit of an oppressor when it comes to international rights activism. America thinks it has human rights all figured out in spite of being an incredibly racist and sexist (and other "ists") culture.

But let's zoom in. In the last decade or so, Jewishness, Israel, and Zionism have been my main intellectual focus. Why's that? Because I think people should be able to critique Israel and Israeli politics and not be seen as anti-Semitic. Unfortunately this belief has gotten me into a bit of hot water, with some folks even accusing me of virulent anti-Zionism (source). Sure, I've called for countries to boycott and divest from Israel, and I've made a few remarks about Hezbollah and Hamas, but that's only because I believe that their fight against imperialism makes them members of the "global left." Let's just say I haven't increased my friend quotient on Facebook for opening my mouth.

Okay, okay, I should wrap this up because really I could go on all day. So let me just cover one last area of political interest for me: economic inequality. I got down with the Occupy people because I believe that the corporate greed of huge global monetary institutions is pretty much the worst thing ever. There are folks out there who can't pay their mortgages, or their student loans, or even for their breakfast. It's about time we all did something about it, don't you think?

In short, I have been described as a gender-theorist-turned-philosopher-of-nonviolence, which is a depiction I can live with (source).

Religious views

The simple answer is that my parents were practicing Jews. My mother was raised attending an orthodox synagogue and when her dad died, she went to a conservative synagogue and then wound up in a reform synagogue.

But if you want to read the nitty gritty about my religious beliefs, I'm gonna recommend that you pick up a copy of The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere (2011) or Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism (2012), because I go into full detail there about my feelings about Israeli state violence.

Look, I consider myself Jewish, but I get a little hot under the collar when Israel claims to represent "The Jewish People" and our values. Speak for yourself, guys. But, as usual, when anyone on the outside criticizes any Israeli policy, they're accused of anti-Semitism. But I have always believed in speaking out—and that's part of my Jewish upbringing. I believe I have an ethical obligation to speak up and to speak out against state violence, so here I am, jawing on about it again (source).

Activities & Interests


Big questions
Drag shows
Playing dress-up
The lesbian and gay activist group Act Up
International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission
Guerilla Theatre
Gender Bending


Compulsory heterosexuality
The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
Shock and Awe
Mainstream Media
Visual aesthetics of war
American masculinist military ideology
Traditional Humanists
Cultural Reactionaries
Pat Buchanan
State-sponsored violence


Questioning our ontology as subjects
Intervening in the face of tyrannical social conditioning
Civil disobedience
Ethical behavior
Subversive action
Mobilizing for a good cause
Pushing the limits of pretty much anything
Criticizing authority
Fighting social determination
Taking a good, brisk walk


Jewish Voices for Peace
Feminist Theorists
The Anti-Genderists
The Unwomen
The Performatists
Women Against the Forces of Construction
Sisters for a World United Against Sexual Identity

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