Feminist Social and Political Philosophy

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Within the enormously varied and fluid field of feminist social/political philosophy and political theory, several foci can be identified: analyses of women's oppression; explorations of differences among women and their implications for feminism; critiques of political philosophers and retrieval of little-known women philosophers; reanalyses of central concepts in political philosophy; analyses and recommendations on practical political issues.

A Common Theoretical Basis for Feminism?

Whether there is anything that cuts across these different areas of work and the varieties of theoretical perspectives is not entirely clear. If feminism is to have a common basis it would seem necessary to say that whatever the disagreements, all agree that women are oppressed, or at least subordinated to men, and that to eliminate this requires not only legal changes of a kind that have mostly been achieved in the developed world, but more profound changes in society and consciousness. However, even these modest generalizations are suspect to postmodernist feminists who eschew talk of "women" because the term conceals so many differences among women, and who are skeptical of claims to truth and objectivity.

Indeed, the question of differencesboth between women and men, and among womenhas been a consuming issue throughout the history of feminism. In first-wave feminism, whether women and men had distinct natures (beyond the biological) was the dominant theoretical question, with early feminists like Mary Wollstonecraft and Harriet Taylor basing their call for women's rights on the claim that women had the same capacity for reason as men. Utopian socialists and Marxists agreed, deepening the critique of naturalistic justifications of the hierarchy between women and men, with a call to end class inequality as well. By the time of second-wave feminism, most educated people agreed that whatever differences exist between women and men were largely social in origin and certainly not sufficient to explain women's subordination. Even among feminists, however, this view was not universal and for a period this disagreement consumed considerable attention. Nevertheless, the question of "differences" that dominated second-wave feminism and beyond was differences among women and how they affected the feminist project.

The issue was not discussed directly in those terms at first. Feminists assumed that women could all be said to be treated unfairly, or to be oppressed, the particular word chosen reflecting different political theoretical perspectives, but most shared an optimistic assumption of commonality expressed in slogans like Sisterhood Is Powerful. The issue of differences among women emerged implicitly, however, in debates regarding how to understand women's subordination. The standard labels for the competing political and philosophical perspectives on the roots of oppression and how to end it, best explicated by Alison Jaggar, are liberal feminism, Marxist feminism, radical feminism, and socialist feminism. There has also been much rich discussion of how to conceive oppression that is independent of these labels, by Iris Young, for example.

Critiques and Revisions of Liberalism

Liberal feminism is liberal theory as adapted by criticisms that women had been left out. By and large, liberal feminists in the United States and Western Europe accept the terms of the dominant political discourse such as methodological individualism, the centrality of the values of individual freedom and choice, the focus on legal and political change, such as securing the legal right to abortion and the passage of an Equal Rights Amendment, and a faith in education to eradicate prejudice. They believe that the dominant political and economic system, that is, capitalism, is compatible with equal opportunities for women, but that many existing social arrangements need to be changed. In particular, they argue that it is unjust that the care of children should be exclusively women's responsibility and they call for arrangements to make possible sharing of childcare, like part-time work. Liberal feminists accept sexual freedom as a matter of individual right, but it is not central to their concerns, nor are differences among women along the lines of race/ethnicity, class, or sexuality.

The extension of the concept of justice from the public sphere to the family, traditionally understood as private, is one of the most distinctive features of feminist thought. While feminists differ on the importance of the notion of privacy, they point out that what counts as the private depends on the public, that is, legislation, and question many aspects of this fundamental distinction. Independence is another central concept and value that feminists question, pointing out that humans are all interdependent and that some people's independence is actually dependent on the invisible or undervalued labor of others, usually women. Feminists have also reconceived the concepts of autonomy and obligation in more relational terms, have debated the adequacy of rights talk for feminist concerns, have proposed that rights be extended to groups, and have explored positive and negative dimensions of power. The social contract tradition within liberalism, particularly Thomas Hobbes, has been radically reconceived by Carole Pateman as in actuality a sexual contract.

Most of these criticisms of liberal political philosophy are still within liberal feminism, but a broader sense of liberalism that encompasses social-welfare liberalism. Since it is these latter types of liberalism that have been influential in East and Central Europe, along with strains of liberalism that recognize collective goods like the family and the nation, many of the Western feminist critiques of liberalism do not apply there. As Nanette Funk shows, in those contexts feminists have needed to insist on individual rights versus the common good and neutral universalistic rights versus gendered and nationalistic conceptions. Western European and American feminists have also disagreed on these issues because they have disagreed about the source and centrality to political theory of differences between women and men.

In the 1980s and 1990s, an approach known as "difference feminism" was very influential, according to which universalistic gender neutral ideals and policies did not do justice to women's specific roles and capacities. Some went so far as to hold that these differences between women and men were biologically based, but most accepted a psychoanalytic approach to understanding the origins of psychological sex differences rooted in the fact that women are the primary caretakers of children; they paid little attention to class, race/ethnic and historic variations among women and men. Given male/female differences, whatever the source, they held that citizenship should be reconceived and accommodations for women should be made in law and public policy, such as pregnancy and maternity leave. Other feminists favored gender neutral policies such as disability and parenting leave.

Feminist philosophers have brought to light little known women philosophers such as Christine Di Pisan who had the idea of the body politic before Hobbes, and have examined classic and contemporary political philosophers with feminist eyes. Their purpose is not simply to expose sexist assumptions but to explore how central these are to the theory. Sexism is seen as ineliminable from the political theories of Aristotle, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Georg Hegel, for example. John Locke is credited by some with opening the door to feminism, but others, such as Lorene Clark, argue that Locke's theory is fundamentally inconsistent; while political obligation is said to rest on free, equal, and rational individuals consenting to a limited government, Locke's theory requires that women be subordinate in the family and society in order to guarantee his other aim, the preservation of private property. Hence, Locke's theory cannot be rewritten in universal terms. Not all feminist critiques of political philosophers have been so devastating. For example, according to Susan Moller Okin, though Rawls assumed the traditional sexual division of labor in his theory of justice, and did not extend the sphere of justice into the family, his theory does not depend on this sexist limitation and would be stronger without it.

Marxist, Radical and Socialist Feminist Perspectives

Many feminists, particularly outside the United States, have found Marxism a useful tool for understanding women's oppression. Although focused on economic exploitation, Marxism does not deny other forms of oppression, like sexism or racism, or reduce them to the economic, (except for the crudest of "Marxists"), but it gives them less explanatory primacy. According to Marxism each exploitative mode of production, such as feudalism or capitalism, is distinctive in its mode of exploitation and each gives rise to certain distinctive forms of government, religion, culture, and family. Thus relations between women and men will vary in different modes of production. While women's lot in life is better in capitalism than in feudalism or slave societies, Marxist feminists generally maintain that sexism has certain benefits for capitalism, such as allowing socially necessary caring labor to be unpaid, and hiding the (un)(der)employment of women. They have debated the relations between sexism and capitalism, such as whether housework is exploited in a Marxist sense, whether women can be said to constitute a class and how domination and alienation at work contribute to the hierarchical construction of gender. For a sample, see the debate between Wally Secombe and Margaret Coulson et al. in the New Left Review (1975). Some feminist uses of Marxism involve quite significant revisions of Marxism, and in Europe some call this radical feminism.

Implicit in a Marxist approach is that women share certain common interests, but that women of different economic classes also have fundamentally different interests; and, moreover, that these are likely to be most important to them. For example, all women need the legal right to birth control and abortion, but poor women need public funding to exercise this right. The greatest problem facing women around the world is extreme poverty, according to the World Health Organization, but women capitalists profit directly from this poverty, while many others benefit from poor women's cheap labor. The political and strategic implications are that all women should unite to secure their common cross-class interests, but that working class women need to work with working class men to secure their specific economic interests, and that ultimately the elimination of women's oppression requires the end of capitalism.

Radical feminism, the youngest and most fluid of feminist theoretical perspectives, was developed by feminists who saw liberalism's goal of equality for women as not nearly radical enough and Marxism's focus on the economic as blind to the specific oppression of women by men of all classes. The very notion of politics, they held, must be radically reconceived. "The personal is political," they proclaimed. Some radical feminists like Catherine MacKinnon attempted to develop a theory in which sex replaced class as the primary category with which to understand history and current societies, seeing most societies as profoundly misogynist. Whether they share this overarching theory or not, radical feminists see differences among women such as race/ethnicity, class or nationality as less important than what unites them oppression by men, particularly sexual violence, focusing attention on the outrageous prevalence of rape and its use as a weapon of war, on trafficking and sexual slavery, and on pornography, Andrea Dworkin's work being the most notable on the latter. Most radical feminists are deeply skeptical about the pleasures of sexual liberation for women, focusing instead on the dangers and coercion of heterosexual sex in a male dominated universe, although some sexual liberationists might also fall within the radical feminist camp. Many have connected violence against women to violence against other species and nature, universally associated with women, and some have evolved into "difference feminists," echoing those first-wave feminists who argued for women's suffrage on the grounds that women were more moral than men.

"Socialist," as distinct from Marxist, feminism is best understood as a synthesis of Marxism and radical feminism. Maintaining that women's oppression in capitalist society is a function of both the economic system, capitalism, and the sex/gender system, which they called patriarchy, socialist feminists like Heidi Hartman refused to give primacy to one over the other. Many saw as sexist the Marxist emphasis on wage labor rather than on all kinds of labor, especially women's unpaid caring labor, and on the relations of production, rather than on what they called the "relations of reproduction" (sexuality and parenting). To correct this deficiency Ann Ferguson proposed a concept of "sex-affective production." While its synthesis is attractive, the theory gives rise to questions as to whether the oppression of women requires a "system" (patriarchy) to explain it, and if so, why doesn't racism or heterosexism, require a system to explain them, and what exactly a "system" means anyway. Some socialist feminists tried to accommodate racism by adding a race/ethnicity system, but questions remain regarding the meaning of "system," how the systems are related, and how the theory differs from simple pluralism.

In the twenty-first century, as Nancy Holmstrom explains, "socialist feminism" is often used more broadly to refer to any theory that tries to integrate class and sex, as well as other aspects of identity such as race/ethnicity in a coherent way, however exactly they are related. On this broad definition, it would encompass perspectives that either go by other names such as materialist feminism, womanism and black feminism or that have no theoretical labels of any kind. Which term a feminist uses to describe herself indicates where she wishes to position herself within certain debates or else signals certain commitments, but is not necessarily a "grand theory" in competition with liberal, Marxist/socialist or radical feminism. Although "materialist feminism" was introduced by Christine Delphy and Colette Guillaumin as a competing grand theory, and the label has recently been used by feminists wishing to engage with postmodernism, it fits within this broad definition. "Womanist" was introduced initially by some women of color who felt that "feminism" is too one-dimensional and who wished to indicate solidarity with men of color as well as women. "Black feminist," particularly as developed by Patricia Hill Collins, is a position whose insights stem from the particular experiences of African-American women.

Retreat from Grand Theory

Most feminists in the early twenty-first century, especially in the United States, eschew the word socialist, both because of negative associations and because of an anti-theoretical mood brought on by postmodern criticisms of "totalizing narratives." Instead of one overarching feminist theory, feminists prefer to rest on the concept of intersectionality, to use Kimberle Crenshaw's useful descriptive term. Racism, sexism, classism, and heterosexism are seen as overlapping forms of oppression, similar in some ways, different in others, none of which is more important politically or theoretically than the others. But if being a woman cannot be separated from being a particular kind of woman, black or white or gay or working class, then this seems to imply that there can be no theory of women's oppression as such. And this suggests there is no basis for feminism, a theory and political movement for all women, but rather only for particular kinds of women, for example for black women. Moreover, the same logic can be carried further. Black women are also of a particular nationality, class, sexual orientation, (dis)ability. Thus, this seems to lead to a dead-end theoretically.

A hopeful assumption widespread among twenty-first-century feminists is that while commonalities cannot be assumed, they can be found, unity can be forged, despite the differences among women, but only with strong political commitment and efforts to seek commonalities. It entails accepting, negotiating and transcending differences and first of all, it means really listening. Implicit in this approach is the assumption that the various kinds of differences"identities"are on a par: race/ethnic, class, sexual orientation, (dis)ability. To give any order of importance is mistaken and oppressive.

This sounds promising for feminist political philosophy in that it could provide a common basis for feminism, without denying differences. However, whether this approach to overcoming or at least bridging differences is applicable to all the different kinds of difference depends on whether or not they are inherently antagonistic. A plausible example is sexuality. Despite what social conservatives say, heterosexuality is not threatened by homosexuality. Neither the existence of heterosexuals nor their happiness is compromised by acceptance of different kinds of sexual and emotional desire. On the other hand, class differences are more problematic. Imagine a conversation between two women, a sweatshop owner and her employee. However much they talk and negotiate and understand each other's position, how is the difference between them to be overcome? Since classes are socially constituted by their antagonistic relationship of interest and power, those relations between members of different classes will persist.

Other feminist philosophers have been more involved with ethical theory, particularly care ethics, than with wholesale analyses of oppression, assuming that sufficient commonalities exist among women to justify their analyses and policy recommendations. Nel Nodding's approach starts with a characterization of the best of familial relations and then applies the lessons learned there to broad social policies regarding welfare, education, and criminal justice. Especially since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, issues of war, peace, and terrorism have received a lot of attention, but Sara Ruddick connected mothering to peace politics early on. Many feminist philosophers have turned their attention in recent years to global gender issues, and have debated whether human rights, capabilities, or a care ethics is the most fruitful approach. Postcolonial feminists like Chandra Mohanty pay particular attention to the ways in which colonialism and imperialism work together with patriarchal structures and ideology to subordinate women. Within global feminism, differences among women are again a problematic issue, as the controversy around Okin's critique of multiculturalism attests.

See also Aristotle; Feminism and Pragmatism; Feminist Ethics; Feminist Metaphysics; Feminist Philosophy; Ferguson, Ann; Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Heterosexism; Hobbes, Thomas; Locke, John; Marxist Philosophy; Racism; Rawls, John; Rousseau, Jean-Jacques; Social and Political Philosophy; Wollstonecraft, Mary.


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Nancy Holmstrom (2005)

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