Philosophies: Feminist, Twentieth-Century

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Philosophies: Feminist, Twentieth-Century

The term feminism is used both in reference to social movements, such as the late-nineteenth century women's rights movement or the mid-twentieth century women's movement in Europe and the United States, and to theories that identify and critique injustices against women, such as A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft (17591797) or The Book of the City of Ladies by Christine de Pisan (c. 13641430). Although there are various uses of the term, a core connotation of feminism is the commitment to revealing and eliminating sexist oppression.

If one searches the discipline of twentieth century philosophy for philosophers who were feminists, few if any names surface prior to mid-century. It was only beginning in the last half of the twentieth century that philosophers systematically turned their attention to the issues of feminism and embraced the label of "feminist philosophy" to signify a method or focus of attention for doing philosophy. Although it would be a mistake to conclude from this that earlier philosophers were not concerned with the identification and elimination of gender injustice, it does reflect the fact that this was not a central concern of academic philosophy.

It could be argued that feminist philosophy in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries began outside the academy, birthed through the writings and radical activities of such feminists as Charlotte Perkins Gilman (18601935), Ida B. Wells-Barnett (18621931), Emma Goldman (18691940), Jane Addams (18601935), and Anna Julia Cooper (18581964). Indeed, one important tenet of feminist history of philosophy is an awareness of the fact that due to the systemic exclusion of most women from the dominant sites of philosophythe academy and the seminaryone must look to those locations where women are doing philosophy at different historical periods, such as the salon, the convent, and the women's movement.

Many scholars have marked the genesis of contemporary feminist philosophy with The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir (19081986), and there is good reason for doing so. The Second Sex provides one of the first sustained analyses of the lived experience of "becoming woman." Beauvoir examines the institutions and practices that lead to women internalizing a sense of inferiority to men, that is, woman as Other. Beauvoir's philosophical insights are contained in her now famous phrase, "One is not born a woman: one becomes one." In this she presages feminist distinctions between sex and gender, and the ways in which women are "produced" through complex disciplinary practices such as marriage, motherhood, and sexuality.

Beauvoir's philosophy not only provided an important source of modern feminist philosophy, the reception of her work illustrates the very types of exclusions feminists have critiqued. Her writings were, until recently, often relegated to asides or footnotes, and typically treated as derivative of the philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre (19051980). The 1967 The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, to cite just one telling example, only refers to Beauvoir in two entries, one on Sartre where she is described as one of the founders of the review Les Temps Modernes, and another on existentialism that asserts that she employed some of Sartre's analyses in her writings. Contemporary feminist philosophical scholarship on Beauvoir has transformed her position in the philosophical canon by demonstrating the significant impact of Beauvoir's ideas on Sartre's philosophy and by locating her work within the phenomenological tradition.

Social and Political Theory

Feminist philosophical work that emerged after Beauvoir's Second Sex was influenced by the women's movement and had a strong focus on issues of justice and equality. Feminist philosophers began by paying attention to women, to their roles and locations. What are women doing? What social and political locations are they part of or excluded from? How do their activities compare to those of men? What do women's roles and locations allow or preclude? How have their roles been valued or devalued? Because of the centrality of questions such as these, feminist philosophers grappled with political theories that would be adequate to such concerns.

Alison Jaggar's 1983 Feminist Politics and Human Nature provided an influential discussion of the various political theories feminists employed in efforts to argue for women's liberation. Jaggar delineated four primary frameworks: liberal feminism, which focuses on rights and equal access, and argues that the primary cause of women's oppression is laws and rules that limit women's equal access to educational, economic, and political institutions; Marxist feminism, which argues that at the root of sexist oppression is class oppression; radical feminism, which identifies patriarchy and male control over women's bodies, including sexuality and reproduction, as the cause of sexual subordination; and socialist feminism, which views economic and social institutions as interdependent and thus attempts to incorporate the insights of the class analysis of Marxism with the radical feminist critique of patriarchical social organizations.


Contemporary feminist philosophers have also enriched and arguably transformed the field of ethics. Through their attention to the concerns of women, feminist philosophers have introduced new issues to feminist ethics and social theory, such as affirmative action, sexual harassment, and comparable worth, and have brought new insights to more traditional issues, for example, discussions of abortion, and the institutions of marriage, sexuality, and love.

Some feminists who work in the field of ethics have argued that traditional ethical theories are inadequate in that they ignore the experiences and perspectives of women by over-stressing rights or duties and neglecting issues of care and relationships. Virginia Held argues for an enriched moral theory that is based not on the ideal of the "autonomous man" but rather on the ideal of the "relational woman." Others, such as Sara Ruddick, have argued that traditional Western ethical theories have trivialized those virtues historically associated with women and in so doing have neglected the fact that the typical moral situation is not between two completely autonomous and equal individuals, but rather, more like the relationship between parent and child: that is, between individuals with different strengths and weaknesses. Ruddick claims that maternal practices, with their aims of preservation, growth, and acceptability of children, provide a particularly rich alternative to the "contract model" of liberal social theory.

Feminist philosophers have also argued that attention to gender cannot be done in isolation from other axes of oppression, such as sexuality, race, ability, or class. The work of feminist philosophers such as Linda Martín Alcoff, Claudia Card, Nancy Fraser, Marilyn Frye, Sarah Lucia Hoagland, Eva Kittay, María Lugones, Anita Silvers, Elizabeth Spelman, Iris Marion Young, and Naomi Zack reveal the importance of analyses that identify the structure and consequences of the interaction between different forms of discrimination or subordination.

While ethics and political theory have been a focal point of contemporary feminist philosophers, feminist philosophical work has included all the core areas of philosophy and has made use of all the philosophical traditions. The "difference" of feminist philosophy does not have to do with philosophical traditions or themesindeed, feminist philosophers work in all the traditions of philosophy including analytic, Continental, and classical American philosophy, and their thematic focus is often influenced by the topics and questions highlighted by these traditions.

History of Philosophy

Feminist work in the history of philosophy was initially concerned with analyzing canonical philosophers' accounts of women and their conceptions of femininity. Although there were exceptions, the philosophical canon is rife with conceptions of women as lesser or misbegotten men, a bias that has had a profound structuring impact on the history of philosophical and scientific conceptions of men as the true form and women as inferior. Luce Irigaray argues that woman has been defined not in terms of true difference from men, but in terms of lack according to an A (male) / A (female) logic. Men are the true form; women the deviation. Men are rational animals; women less capable of reason.

But the "question of women" in feminist scholarship in the history of philosophy is far broader than canonical (male) philosophical views of women. Much feminist philosophical scholarship has been devoted to recovering the work of women philosophers who have been "forgotten" or, like Beauvoir, seen as too marginal to be included in the canon. Philosophers of history such as Mary Ellen Waite, Eileen O'Neill, Therese Dykeman, and John J. Conley, who have devoted their attention to recovering the work of women philosophers, argue that the lack of women philosophers in contemporary histories of philosophy is due neither to the absence of women philosophers nor to the significance and value of their work, but is the result of complex values that inform the narratives of philosophy and determine what questions and styles count as philosophical and whose voices are sufficiently influential to be chronicled.

Feminists working in the history of philosophy have further argued that gender leaves traces not only on canonization processes, but deeply inscribes the very concepts of philosophy. One common theme in feminist histories of philosophy is the contention that many of the central categories of philosophy are formed through the exclusion of the feminine. In a complex two-step process, concepts such as reason, morality, and agency are produced through the prioritizing of masculine characteristics and the forgetting of gender. The concepts so constructed are then posited as objective and universal rather than gendered and particular. As just one example, Genevieve Lloyd argues that "rationality has been conceived as the transcendence of the feminine; and the 'feminine' itself has been partly constituted by its occurrence within this structure" (p. 104).

To the extent that the central categories of philosophy have been inscribed in this way, not only is philosophy not the objective, universal practice many philosophers have believed it to be, it is also complicit in a social organization that impoverishes the lives of women as well as men. The question of the maleness of reason, for example, may be what is behind common judgments of women as less capable of rational thought, but the question itself is far more complex. To investigate the maleness of reason, one must consider the extent to which conceptions of rationality have privileged traits historically associated with masculinity. In other words, one must consider the extent to which the attainment of rationality has been perceived as involving the control or transcendence of attributes historically identified as femalethe body, the emotions, the passions, the appetites, the erotic. If it is the case that what Michèle Le Dœuff has called the "philosophical imagery of gender" (1989) is inscribed onto a philosopher's conception of reason, then one can not simply ignore his (or her) sexism for it is at the core of the values from which this central category emerges.

Feminist philosophy's attendance to the denigration of the feminine in the history of philosophy presents an important step, but one that must be seen as a first step of a much larger inquiry. Feminists delineate such bias not to simply reject a philosopher, but rather to participate in new ways of reading historical texts that identify resources for engendering the central concepts of philosophy in ways not predicated on the forgetting of gender. These reading strategies are diverse and reflect the different positions and training of feminists themselves. Some, such as Le Dœuff, Penelope Deutscher, Sarah Kofman, and Irigaray, bring deconstructive methods to bear on canonical texts. Others, such as Annette Baier, Barbara Herman, and Martha Nussbaum, read through the lens of contemporary feminist revaluing of the emotions.

Epistemology and Philosophy of Science

Feminist philosophers have also made significant contributions to epistemology and the philosophy of science. Lloyd's insights about the gendering of reason led to substantive analysis of contemporary conceptions of rationality, the process of inquiry, and the knowing subject. Epistemologists and philosophers of science such as Lorraine Code, Sandra Harding, Helen Longino, Lynn Hankinson Nelson, Elizabeth Potter, and Naomi Scheman have critiqued traditional "S knows that P" models of knowledge. A common theme of feminist epistemology is that the traditional view of the knowing subject as distinct but not distinctive is inadequate in that it occludes the ways in which human knowledge practices emerge out of and are influenced by social structures, including those of gender. In other words, the goal of a generic knower is misguided in that subjectivity is always at least partially socially constituted. On this position, no one, regardless of gender, race, class, or ability, is a generic subject.

This conception of situated knowers is a key component of many feminist epistemologies and philosophies of science. Harding develops a version of standpoint theory to account for the ways in which social location can impact knowledge practices, and argues that this theory supports a strengthened conception of objectivity, one that is less susceptible to the production of community-wide biases than research modeled on the "neutrality ideal." Longino and Nelson have also critiqued the individualism of "S knows that P" accounts, arguing in the case of Longino that knowledge is held by persons who are part of complex social communities where both the knower and what is known are marked by that relationship. Nelson, building on a naturalized epistemology inspired by W. V. O. Quine's emphasis on studying how humans in fact reason, argues that it is communities rather than individuals who know.

The commitment to situated knowers has led to an appreciation of the role of embodiment in knowledge practices (for example, in the work of Susan Bordo, Elizabeth Grosz, and Gail Weiss), as well as the role of emotion, imagination, empathy, and values (for example, in the work of Louise Antony, Susan Babbitt, Lorraine Code, Longino, and Alison Wylie).


Feminist philosophical work is making an impact in other areas of philosophy such as metaphysics (Charlotte Witt, Sally Haslanger, Marilyn Frye, Christine Battersby), aesthetics (Peg Brand, Cynthia Freeland), and the philosophy of religion (Pamela Sue Anderson, Ellen Armour, Gail Jantzen).

For those who would critique feminist philosophy as motivated by political concerns and thus not a pure philosophy, Alcoff providers a reminder that much work in the history of western philosophy emerged out of particular political motivations, including the work of René Descartes (15961650), Immanuel Kant (17241804), John Locke (16321704), and Bertrand Russell (18721970). As Alcoff explains, "like Kant, feminist philosophers are committed to using philosophical methods to clarify and disempower the current dogmatisms that inhibit political advance" (p. 55).

See also Feminism ; Gender ; Gender Studies: Anthropology ; Human Rights: Women's Rights ; Sexual Harassment ; Womanism .


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Nancy Tuana

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Philosophies: Feminist, Twentieth-Century

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