Frye, Marilyn (1941–)

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Marilyn Frye, American feminist philosopher, was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She earned her bachelor's degree in philosophy from Stanford University in 1963, and her doctorate in philosophy at Cornell University in 1969, where she worked under the supervision of the analytic philosopher Max Black. She taught at the University of Pittsburgh, the University of Michigan, and the University of Washington before taking up a position at Michigan State University, where she was tenured in 1978, promoted to professor in 1983, and named University Distinguished Professor in 2003, the position she currently holds. Frye has held fellowships at the Center for the Study of Women in Society at the University of Oregon, the Center for Advanced Feminist Studies at the University of Minnesota, and the National Humanities Center in North Carolina. In 2001 she was awarded the Distinguished Woman Philosopher Award by the Society for Women in Philosophy.

Frye's writings reflect the analytic philosophical style of conceptual analysis and display clear, concise, jargon-free writing, though she applies this to subjects beyond the pale of the narrow world of analytic philosophy. Frye's dissertation, "Meaning and Illocutionary Force," and her first several articles in philosophy were on topics in philosophy of language. Subsequently she turned to topics in feminist philosophy, especially sexism, lesbianism, and racism, and it is in this field that she has made her most important contributions to philosophy. Frye expresses unusual commitment to bringing about social change through her writings. Moreover, she expresses herself with a pragmatic urgency frequently lacking in most professional philosophy, and she also makes exceptionally clear the time-bound and culture-bound nature of such change.

Frye's book The Politics of Reality (1983) begins with one of her most important and most often reprinted essays: "Oppression." In this essay she seeks to clarify the term "oppression" and how women can be said to be oppressed. Oppression, on her analysis, is a network of (often microscopic) forces that bind and confine certain social groups within a defined place so as to benefit a privileged social group. She analogizes oppression to a birdcage, which is macroscopic and visible, even though each of the wires of the cage is itself small and seemingly inconsequential in itself. Frye describes two characteristic features of women's oppression. First, women hold positions that simultaneously make them responsible yet powerless to effect decisions to carry out their responsibilities successfully. Second, women internalize and self-police their limitations and restrictions. While men also face social restrictions (e.g., they cannot cry in front of other men), their restrictions are a part of a system that oppresses women and privileges men. In her essay "Sexism," Frye defines "sexism" as an institutional term characterizing social structures that "create and enforce the elaborate and rigid patterns of sex-marking and sex-announcing which divide the species, along the line of sex, into dominators and subordinates" (1983, p. 38). She uses the term "male-chauvinism" to describe the personal relations that men engage in as dominators with women as subordinates. Most of the essays of the book are devoted to illuminating the social and personal relations that serve to oppress women.

In her writings, Frye illuminates the oppression of sexual minorities by heterosexuals and the oppression of minority races, and she connects these to the project of feminism. In two essays in her first book and in the majority of the essays of her book Willful Virgin: Essays in Feminism (1992), Frye takes up the theme of heterosexism as manifested in feminism and society at large. She carefully describes and analyzes the myriad ways in which heterosexuality is taken to be normative. In her essay "Willful Virgin, or Do You Have to Be a Lesbian to Be a Feminist," Frye argues, "The central constitutive dynamic and key mechanism of the global phenomenon of male domination, oppression and exploitation of females is near-universal female heterosexuality" (1992, p. 129). By the term "female heterosexism" she refers not to a preference to engage in heterosexual sex, but rather to the worship of men and maleness that heterosexuality has traditionally required of women. That is, sexism exists because most women willingly tolerate being subordinate to and serving men. Furthermore, because women are subordinate to "their" men, they often comply with whatever other oppression their men perpetrate, such as racism, classism, and ethnic oppression. Thus, not participating in the patriarchal institution of female heterosexuality is an important kind of resistance to oppression generally.

Frye also devotes particular attention to the struggle against racism. She notes that acting White is a way of being privileged, yet for women, acting White consists largely of conformity to white men's expectations of chastity, obedience, and decorum, does not offer any solace to white women, and serves only to separate them from other women. Thus for Frye, Whiteness, heterosexuality, and sexism are bound together in ways that institute and enforce patriarchy.

See also Feminist Philosophy.


works by frye

"Inscriptions and Indirect Discourse." Journal of Philosophy 61 (24) (1964): 767772.

"Force and Meaning." Journal of Philosophy 70 (1974): 281294.

The Politics of Reality: Essays in Feminist Theory. Trumansburg, NY: Crossing Press, 1983.

Willful Virgin: Essays in Feminism, 19761992. Freedom, CA: Crossing Press, 1992.

"The Necessity of Differences: Constructing a Positive Category of Women." Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 21 (3) (1996): 9911010.

Ann E. Cudd (2005)