Philosophy, Feminist

views updated

Philosophy, Feminist

A number of developments since the late 1970s suggest that the distinction between sex and gender is much more malleable than feminism came to assume. These include increasingly technological reproductive means (artificial insemination, for example) and the proliferation of gender identity clinics, which enable female-to-male and male-to-female operations. Hand in hand with these developments, gender theorists are no longer as invested in parsing out the distinction between sex and gender as they are in reversing the implied causal relation between them. In these theories, it is not sex that causes gender, but gender that causes sex. Theorists such as Monique Wittig (1992), Christine Delphy (1993), and Judith Butler (1990) have argued that there is no natural ground of gender, no sex that is somehow prior to or outside interpretation. Gender is always already at play in definitions that proceed according to culturally specific assumptions about femininity and masculinity, which require the body to signify the appropriate gender. In this sense, the body itself functions as a sign.


The distinction between sex and gender finds its origins in anthropology, sociology, and psychology. Influenced by Margaret Mead (1935) and the Parsonian idea of roles, whereby one's behavior is determined by one's function in the workplace, feminists developed the idea of sex roles, which took seriously the notion that social roles could be multiple and sometimes conflicting. One could be an employee, a sister, a daughter, and a mother, for example. One's social function or status determines one's role. The psychologist Robert J. Stoller (1968–1975) introduced the distinction between sex and gender in his work on transvestites in the 1970s, and the sociologist Ann Oakley (1972) defined sex and gender in a way that lays out the main contours of the distinction as it came to be taken up by feminists. The variability of gender, as opposed to what Oakley identified as the "constancy" of sex, is what made gender so central to the feminist program. If gender originates from socially inculcated roles, then it can change over time. There is nothing inherent in women's makeup or constitution that destines them to work in the home, look after children, or engage in traditionally feminine activities. Women are not hardwired to be nurturing, caring, or other-oriented—there is no genetic predisposition to prepare women for the role of mother or housewife. Only cultural expectations require that women confine their activities to the domestic, familial, private sphere.

Mary Wollstonecraft pointed out in her Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1975 [1792]) the contradictory state of affairs that consisted on the one hand in the assumption that women were ethically inferior to men, and on the other hand in entrusting the rearing of children to women. If women were considered incapable of governing themselves, how could they be considered fit to educate young children? The assumption of women's ethical inferiority to men can be traced back in Western philosophy at least as far as Aristotle, who maintained that women's deliberative capacity in ethical decision making was inferior to men's. Such a view represents a challenge to Plato, his teacher, who carved out a place (albeit limited) for some women to be philosopher guardians in the ideal city he describes in the Republic.

Although he did not employ the language of sex and gender, John Stuart Mill argued in his 1869 work, The Subjection of Women, that until women were given the chance to prove themselves in the public sphere, the idea that women are innately unsuited for the rigors of politics or government remained mere speculation. With the exception of Wollstonecraft, whose most important philosophical allegiance was to Jean-Jacques Rousseau (himself hardly a feminist), it was not until 1949, with the publication of Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex (trans. 1953), that a thorough analysis of women's oppression was undertaken. Beauvoir argued from the perspective of existentialist ethics, which held that all humans are subjects, and as such are free to determine their own existence, but as radically free, are liable to forgo their liberty and give in to the temptation to act as if they are not in control of their own destiny. Focusing on the asymmetrical relationship between the sexes, Beauvoir contended that women must confront a special condition: Men impose upon women the patriarchal expectation that they occupy the position of "the other." Although Beauvoir did not employ the language of the sex/gender distinction, her famous claim at the beginning of volume two of The Second Sex—"One is not born, rather one becomes, woman"—could be read as reflecting the issues that would come to be taken up in terms of that distinction. There is no innate, essential, or natural essence of femininity, no eternal myth of the feminine; rather, women construct their identities as they live their lives. This philosophy reflects the dictum perhaps most closely associated with existentialism, "essence lies in existence."

Drawing upon cultural dictates, subjects are called to enact normative genders, which constitute facilitating or enabling scripts which both sexes take on and through which people assert their identities. From this, it is a short step to a Foucauldian understanding of power and agency. If it is true that power is not merely repressive and negative, but also productive and positive, that it operates in multiple sites, rather than univocally or monolithically, then it is also true that feminist politics can themselves become sites of repression. This is, perhaps, nowhere more blatant than in the Western, Eurocentric assumptions of the feminist movement itself, which has tended to operate in exclusive ways.

Since the 1980s feminist discussions have been critical of the extent to which gender was theorized in isolation from other forms of oppression such as race and class, with the result that, by default, racially and class-privileged women have set the feminist agenda. Gender theory in the West has therefore tended to be biased toward white, middle-class, and heterosexist experience. African-American theorists such as bell hooks (2000) have persuasively argued, for example, that to define feminist struggle as a quest for equality is to overlook the fact that such a definition assumes a privileged, middle-class point of view. Clearly, women are not striving for equality with those men afflicted by racial oppression or poverty. Accordingly, hooks suggests that feminism should be understood not in terms of the aim of equality between the sexes, but rather in terms of multiple and interlocking oppressive systems: race, gender, and class.

Mainstream feminists also made the case that women should emphasize gender over sex, thereby opening up cultural and political definitions of femininity to change, and leading to another organizing distinction that played a central role in feminism, namely that between the private and the public realms. Arguing for the right to vote, for example, was a matter of reconfiguring the demand that women remain within the confines of domesticity, within the privacy of the home. Feminism called for women to migrate into the public, political realm of the workplace. Strategically such an argument has proved crucial for some women. Many African-American women, however, worked in domestic spaces, homes that were in some sense private but that were not their own. These workers defy easy categorization in terms of the opposition of private and public: their place of work was usually that of white, middle-class families. Thus, even the organizing distinctions of feminism are not immune from privileging the experience of some women over others, in ways that are permeated by racial and class assumptions for which feminist theory must be accountable.


Third-world feminists have developed postcolonial feminist theories, which on the one hand draw attention to the ways in which women's bodies often come to be the ground on which competing versions of mythical nationalism are played out, and on the other hand defend themselves against charges that to be feminist is to be co-opted by Western ideas (Narayan 1997). In the wake of the relentless spread of global capitalism, multinational corporations engaged in offshore sourcing are particularly exploitative of third-world women (Lim 1983). Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (1988) is among those to have highlighted the need for feminist theory to engage Marxist theory in a way that takes account of globalized exploitation.

Native American feminists have argued that while civil rights might have operated in largely liberatory ways for white, Western women, they have had repressive effects for colonized, sovereign, tribal groups. A system of government modeled after corporate America, and without the checks and balances ensured by the three branches of the U.S. government (executive, legislative, and judiciary), was imposed on tribal authorities from 1924 to 1968. Matrilineal traditions were eliminated, and women were subjected to multiple abuses, including forced sterilization. Native American women were misrepresented by white America as meek and submissive, in contrast to the considerable prestige and power they had actually enjoyed prior to their colonization and forced relocation. Their ideas about gender, which celebrated and honored the berdache (or third sex), were suppressed in favor of ideas emanating from a Christian, heterosexist ethic (Guerrero 1997).

see also Aristotle; Philosophy; Plato.


Beauvoir, Simone de. 1953. The Second Sex, trans. and ed. H. M. Parshley. New York: Knopf.

Butler, Judith. 1990. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge.

Delphy, Christine. 1993. "Rethinking Sex and Gender." Women's Studies International Forum 16(1): 1-9.

Guerrero, Marie Anna Jaimes. 1997. "Civil Rights versus Sovereignty: Native American Women in Life and Land Struggles." In Feminist Genealogies, Colonial Legacies, Democratic Futures, ed. M. Jacqui Alexander and Chandra Talpade Mohanty. New York: Routledge.

hooks, bell. 2000. Feminism Is for Everybody. Cambridge, MA: South End Press.

Lim, Linda Y. C. 1983. "Capitalism, Imperialism, and Patriarchy: The Dilemma of Third-World Women Workers in Multinational Factories." In Women, Men, and the International Division of Labor, ed. June Nash and María Patricia Fernández Kelly. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Mead, Margaret. 1935. Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies. New York: Morrow.

Mill, J. S. 1983. The Subjection of Women, ed. Kate Soper. London: Virago. (Orig. pub. 1869.)

Narayan, Uma. 1997. Dislocating Cultures: Identities, Traditions, and Third-World Feminism. New York: Routledge.

Oakley, Ann. 1972. Sex, Gender, and Society. San Francisco: Harper and Row.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. 1988. "Can the Subaltern Speak?" In Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, ed. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Stoller, Robert J. 1968–1975. Sex and Gender. 2 vols. London: Hogarth; London: Institute of Psycho-analysis.

Wittig, Monique. 1992. The Straight Mind, and Other Essays. Boston: Beacon Press.

Wollstonecraft, Mary. 1975. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, ed. Miriam Brody Kramnick. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin. (Orig. pub. 1792.)

                                          Tina Chanter

About this article

Philosophy, Feminist

Updated About content Print Article


Philosophy, Feminist