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Feminism and Pragmatism


Pragmatist feminists hold some or all the following conceptual commitments, which are rooted in classical pragmatism:

(1) A rejection of foundationalist and essentialist notions of reality and truth, in favor of an understanding of reality as the result of mutually constitutive transactions between agents and their environments and of truth as good knowing that it enables an inquiry to grow

(2) A recognition that chance and uncertainty are parts of one's world, not (necessarily) signs of one's incomplete understanding of that world

(3) A rejection of sharp dichotomies separating theory from practice, self from world, mind from body, fact from value, and reason from emotion

(4) A view of inquiry as experiential and experimental: Inquiry springs from experience, and its findings must have the capacity to improve on experience, for the individual or for society

(5) Respect for the philosophical value of ordinary, everyday experienceincluding experiences that characterize women's lives

(6) Cognizance that the community of inquirers plays a central role in inquiry and a commitment to improving the goodness of inquiry by actively increasing the perspectives represented in the community

(7) An understanding of ends, aims, and values as experimental: subject to revision in light of new experiences

(8) A recognition that democracy provides a model of intellectual and moral growth for society and the individual possessing the greatest capacity to promote justice

Feminist strands of pragmatism stand in the somewhat unusual position of having been part of their parent tradition virtually since that tradition emerged in the late nineteenth century. However, only in the 1980s did an explicitly, self-consciously pragmatist feminist philosophical movement emerge.

Early Figures

The pragmatist movement counted women and feminists among its members from the early days; many were associated with the classical pragmatist John Dewey as his colleagues and as his students. These theorists worked almost exclusively at the margins of academic philosophy, as educators and school administrators, policy makers, and social activists. While their outsider status was not always chosen, their decisions to work in the community as teachers, policy makers, and community workers nevertheless embody a pragmatist commitment to creating philosophy that works to ameliorate the problems of everyday lifenot simply the problems of philosophy.

Among women who contributed to the emergence of pragmatist thought in explicitly feminist ways, perhaps none exerted greater influence on subsequent pragmatist feminism than Jane Addams (18601935), a social activist, theorist, and founder of the Hull House settlement. Her choice to theorize with, rather than about, the people of the neighborhoods surrounding Hull House embodied a pragmatist understanding that inquiry transforms both inquirer and inquired; she and the other residents of Hull House produced both theory and public policy that began in, and returned to, the problems of the people of their community. Addams's feminism was rooted in her understanding that women are, by enculturation if not by nature, different from men, and that such differences constitute actual assetsin city government, for instance. There, women's experiences as homemakers and mothers directly prepare them for the associated tasks of running a city. Addams's long association with Dewey significantly shaped the intellectual development of both theorists, particularly in the areas of democracy and education.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman (18601935), a contemporary of Dewey and an acquaintance of Addams, shared with them a debt to the evolutionary theory of Charles Darwin. All three understood evolutionary theory to assert that humans have both a capacity and an obligation to improve the conditions of their world through reflection on concrete experience; they also understood that value concepts like improvement, progress, and the good themselves evolve as a result of reflection and action; they are not fixed and timeless. Gilman's Women and Economics (1998) offers an evolutionary account of human social development that argues for the necessity (indeed, inevitability) of women's evolution as workers and public figures; only as women so develop will humans realize their social and intellectual potential. Gilman argued for transformations of domestic life to enable women to take their place in the world of work: public kitchens and day care centers, for instance. She saw these proposals echoed in organizations and programs for working women developed at Hull House.

Several early women pragmatists worked as educators. Ella Flagg Young (18451918), Elsie Ripley Clapp (18791965), and Lucy Sprague Mitchell (18781967) studied with Deweyin some cases, when they were already mature thinkers who exerted an influence on him. All three worked actively to develop pragmatist models of education that emphasized experiential, student-oriented, community-based learning: Young, as general supervisor of the Laboratory School at the University of Chicago; Mitchell, as a researcher and founder of the Bank Street School in New York; and Clapp, as the head of a community school system in Arthurdale, West Virginia, the first New Deal community in the United States.

Contemporary Theorists

Contemporary pragmatist feminists, like feminists working in other traditions, have undertaken two separate but related projects: reclaiming forgotten or neglected work of early women/feminist pragmatists and advancing pragmatist thought by developing new, explicitly feminist versions of it. In the first category, Pragmatism and Feminism (1996), by Charlene Haddock Seigfried, presents a systematic exposition of the contributions of early women pragmatists, documenting the lines of influence running among Addams, Clapp, Mitchell, Young, and Dewey. As Seigfried points out, such recovery work transforms both the history of pragmatist philosophy (restoring important voices that were lost) and its conceptual frameworks (engendering a reconceptualization of pragmatist positions that incorporates feminist contributions) (p. 6). Illustrative of this transformation is the work of Marilyn Fischer and Judy D. Whipps (2003), who elucidate the importance of Addams's work for the pragmatist tradition in their edited collection of her writings on peace.

Theorists working on the second taskdeveloping feminist versions of pragmatist thoughtdraw on the (implicitly and explicitly) feminist and antiracist thought of several earlier pragmatist thinkers, including Addams, Dewey, W. E. B. Du Bois (18681963), and Alain Locke (18861954). Seigfried's Pragmatism and Feminism also marks the most significant early contribution to this project; it lays out a broad, flexible research agenda in epistemology, ethics, and sociopolitical philosophy to be undertaken by pragmatists and feminists using "a pragmatic hermaneutics of cooperation" and aimed at "changing the theoretical analyses and concrete practices of both" (1996, p. 4).

Much pragmatist feminist development has been in the area of feminist epistemology. Theorists here ground their work in the pragmatist emphasis on the primacy of experience and the experiential nature of knowing. Inquiry begins in the problems of ordinary life and possesses a melioristic function; this naturalistic epistemology is grounded in pragmatist thinkers such as Dewey and should not be conflated with Willard Van Orman Quine's naturalized epistemology.

Pragmatist feminist theorists also emphasize the pragmatist commitment to undermine or dissolve traditional dualisms between self and world, mind and body, and theory and practice. Shannon Sullivan challenges the self-world dichotomy to develop a Deweyan feminist understanding of humans as "transactional," where transaction is understood as "an active and dynamic relationship between things such that those things are co-constitutive of each other" (2001, p. 12). This gives rise to a conception of truth as "transactional flourishing": truth and objectivity are conceived not in terms of transparency to reality, but as characteristics of transactions that enable both humans and their environments to flourish.

Pragmatist feminists have developed conceptions of reason, rationality, and objectivity that recognize the inherently collective, relational nature of these conceptsand that thus acknowledge their ethical, social, and political dimensions along with the epistemological. Lisa Heldke (1990) conceives a "coresponsible model" of objectivity grounded in responsibility to the inquiry community; on this model, inquiry becomes more objective as it acknowledges, fulfills, and expands responsibility to an increasingly pluralistic community. Reflecting the pragmatist commitment to problems of ordinary life, she develops the model through an analysis of food making, conceived as a "thoughtful practice"a categorization that eschews the traditional division drawn between theoretical and practical activity.

Another significant body of work has developed in social and political philosophy. Theorists here utilize pragmatist understandings that social and moral ends are themselves subject to revision in light of new experience and that intelligent inquiry has melioristic potential and the pragmatist commitment to democracy, understood as a way of living emphasizing collective experimentation to transform current social realities. In The Task of Utopia (2001) Erin McKenna develops a pragmatist feminist concept of utopia, which understands it not as a fixed state, but as a characteristic of a (democratic) community's collective inquiry and education process. Such a utopia is necessarily open-ended, its aims always in principle subject to revision.

Pragmatist feminists deepen classical pragmatist notions of community, which emphasize the importance of pluralism for democracy and inquiry; and of personhood, which reject liberal notions of the individual in favor of a relational, transactional model. Feminists show why the perspectives of marginalized persons must be explicitly sought, if people's democratic communities are to continue to grow, promote justice, and create more reliable understandings of social reality. Whipps (2004) draws from Addams a form of communitarianism that rejects the radical individualism characteristic of its contemporary forms and recognizes the (messy, multiplicitous) ways selves are constituted through the interactions of daily life in the diverse community. And in Deep Democracy (1999) Judith Green creates a model of democratic practice as experimental. Her "radical critical pragmatism engage[s] with liberalism, communitarianism, postmodernism, critical theory, feminism, and cultural pluralism" (p. x), not simply to identify the weaknesses of these other traditions, but also to draw on these expanded resources to address concrete problems of democracy, most notably racial, economic, and sexual injustice.

See also Feminist Epistemology; Feminist Philosophy; Feminist Philosophy of Science.


Addams, Jane. Democracy and Social Ethics. Introduction by Charlene Haddock Seigfried. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2002.

Addams, Jane. Jane Addams's Writings on Peace. 4 vols., edited by Marilyn Fischer and Judy D. Whipps. Bristol, U.K.: Thoemmes Press, 2003.

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. Women and Economics: A Study of the Economic Relation between Men and Women as a Factor in Social Evolution. Minneola, NY: Dover, 1998.

Green, Judith. Deep Democracy: Community, Diversity, and Transformation. Lanham, MA: Rowman and Littlefield, 1999.

Heldke, Lisa. "Foodmaking as a Thoughtful Practice" and "Recipes for Theory Making." In Cooking, Eating, Thinking: Transformative Philosophies of Food, edited by Deane Curtin and Lisa Heldke. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990.

McKenna, Erin. The Task of Utopia: A Pragmatist and Feminist Perspective. Lanham, MA: Rowman and Littlefield, 2001.

Rorty, Richard. "Feminism and Pragmatism." Michigan Quarterly Review 30 (1991): 231258.

Seigfried, Charlene Haddock, ed. Feminist Interpretations of John Dewey. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2002.

Seigfried, Charlene Haddock. Pragmatism and Feminism: Reweaving the Social Fabric. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Seigfried, Charlene Haddock, ed. "Special Issue on Feminism and Pragmatism." Hypatia 8 (2) (1993).

Sullivan, Shannon. Living across and through Skins: Transactional Bodies, Pragmatism, and Feminism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001.

Whipps, Judy D. "Jane Addams's Social Thought as a Model for a Pragmatist-Feminist Communitarianism." Hypatia 19 (3) (2004): 118133.

Whipps, Judy D. "Pragmatist Feminism." In Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward N. Zalta. Stanford, CA: Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University, 2004.

Lisa Heldke (2005)

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