RECENT FEMINIST THEORY
There are at least three different contexts for feminist theory in philosophy and elsewhere, namely:
1) Gender Theory, theory about gender, of which feminist gender theory is a variation: in Mediterranean basin philosophy, since at least Plato’s Republic. Gender Theory is of course far from neutral: it is deeply implicated in questions of personal identity, interpersonal and social relationships, economics and politics. One may make a broad distinction between gender theory functioning as an expression or support of the status quo and gender theory seeking to contest the implicit or explicit prescriptions of the status quo. Feminist gender theory belongs to the latter.
Status quo Gender Theory is often more an attitude than a theory, and often an expression of a general dualism:
God Humans Soul/Mind Reason Male
World Nature Body/Matter Emotion Female etc...
Compare also the Pythagorean List, to be found in Book I of Aristotle’s Metaphysics.
2) The Genderization of the history and the History of Philosophy, that is, the virtual exclusion of women throughout most of Mediterranean basin history from the ‘profession’ of philosopher (far from complete); and the even greater exclusion of women philosophers from the classic canon of the History of philosophy (with a capital H). Feminist Theory here takes the form of a contestation of or a deconstruction of the classic canon and a retrival of women’s factual contribution to the philia-sophia since the beginning.
3) The participation of women in
philosophy: since 500 BC, the early Pythagorean circle, with
ebbs and flows, to the point nowadays of close to equality. Though, for example, there are very few women
employed at the moment in university positions in analytic philosophy in
The following is a very inadequate and simplistic attempt to categorize or make sense of some recent Feminist Gender Theory. There are a number of categorial schemes which might be adopted: for example, one might use the ‘background theory’ being deployed as a classificatory device, liberal versus socialist versus ecofeminist versus radical versus whatever. The following deploys a classificatory pattern based on the predominant strategy being deployed. It is far from original: it is based on the following, for the most part:
Elizabeth Gross, "Conclusion: What is feminist theory?", ibid, pp. 190-204.
Elizabeth Gross charts a passage recently from feminisms of Equality to feminisms of Autonomy, which she interprets in a post-structuralist (contemporary french feminist influenced) manner. This latter feminism is local and specific, and both negative/deconstructive and positive/constructive.
Jane Mansbridge and Susan Moller Okin, "Feminism", in A Companion to Contemporary Political Philosophy, edited Robert E. Goodin and Philip Pettit (Blackwell, Oxford, 1993), pp. 269-290.
Mansbridge and Okin distinguish at one point between feminisms emphasizing sameness [= feminisms of sex equality], feminisms reclaiming and revaluing difference [gender equality] and feminisms unmasking and contesting domination in all its different forms [liberation/autonomy]. They see a necessity for all three approaches, even if they are inevitably in tension with each other.
See also some of the articles in Feminist Perspectives in Philosophy, edited M. Griffith and M. Whitford (Indiana University Press, 1988). See p. 7, quotation, for a similar triple emphasis.
VARIETIES OF FEMINIST THEORY:
(A) FEMINISMS OF EQUALITY /SEX EQUALITY /SEX EQUALITARIANISM /FEMINISMS EMPHASIZING SAMENESS
= feminism in its original form, from Plato through Mary Wollstonecraft (1790's), Harriet Taylor and J.S. Mill (mid 1800's) through to the present.
Emphasizing essential sameness, at least to the point of de-legitimatizing discrimination on the basis of sex.
.The general idea: women will perform pretty well at men's doings, given the chance - something obvious even to Plato (cf. Thornton, p. 97). It is therefore both irrational and unjust to discriminate on the basis of their sex.
If women are given the right to and the effective opportunity (implying similar treatment in education etc.) to participate in men's 'games', men's doings, e.g. Guardians, Philosopher Rulers, political and economic leadership, professions, they will do pretty well.
In all justice and for the sake of the common welfare they should be allowed to.
:if women are excluded from politics, business, professions, etc., you are only making use of half your potential.
Cf. Bob Hawke, Paul Keating, cf. Mao Tse Dung "women hold up half the world".
In its expression in technical argument, this can
take two forms (
(a) 'dogmatic argument' for sex equality:
:Women and men have equal (
So if women are given equal treatment with men,
The outcome will be equal or similar performance.
(b) 'modest argument' for sex equality: cf. Plato, Wollstonecraft, Taylor and Mill:
:Women and men have equal natures on the grid of kinds but women may rate on the whole lower on the grid of degree (it is not necessary to the argument to actually admit that they do);
So if women are given equal treatment with men to the limit of individual capacity,
Everyone will be better off.
Grid of kinds: capacity for similar distribution over different professions, jobs, roles etc, possibility for entrance into different professions.
Grid of degree: men, on the whole, may perform better. But this doesn't rule out the possibility of some women doing better than most or even all men,
and so cannot be used to discriminate between individuals.
Everybody is to be treated equally, regardless of sex, and educated to the limits of their capacity and allowed to rise to the limit of their merit and potential, whatever it may be.
The advantage of the second approach lies in the modesty of its claims, while giving the same result in practice. Its main disadvantage is that it may make more concessions than it needs to do.
Sex equality is essentially an argument for equal treatment, non-discrimination on the basis of sex.
However, it does not rule out a certain amount of temporary reverse discrimination in the real world, if the notion of effective equal treatment in a particular real situation is thought through:
· Given that the various games and practices and doings and major roles at present are stacked, with men in positions of power, 'glass ceilings' etc., and psychological, ideological, economic and even linguistic barriers built up over the centuries to be overcome.
1) essential as a start, given that it is men's roles and men's 'games' which on the whole and in almost every place and recent culture dominate especially public life.
2) but not enough by itself, insufficiently critical. Among its deficiencies are the following:
· (a) It takes men and their doings as the norm or standard to which and in respect of which women are to be made equal.
In its very presupposition, it gives the game away: why should this be so?
· (b) The reverse side of this: it tends to devalue and downgrade the kinds of roles women are presently into, even those ones which many women themselves find valuable, and even makes them feel guilty....
It risks joining the males in their depreciation of the attributes of their supposed subordinates and it fails to cater for women's specific potentials and excellences.
In fact it ignores the possibility that women may indeed have different though equally valuable excellences, at least statistically.
Such deficiencies make other forms of feminism necessary.
(B) FEMINISMS OF GENDER EQUALITY/FEMINISMS OF DIFFERENCE
: traces of this already in Taylor and Mill
Emphasizing and revaluing difference and the difference difference makes, with or without complementarity.
.The general idea: women and men have their own different but equally valid and valuable potentials and excellences and roles/'games' to play. This equality of value needs to be recognized and affirmed and people need to feel and to be equally empowered each to play their own different roles.
With complementarity (
:Women and men are gendered by nature, i.e. have incommensurable but complementary grids of kinds. Grid of degree cannot compare women with men directly.
So if they are equally enabled to develop their divergent capacities,
They will perform differently, but their performance will be mutually complementary and have comparable value,
and in so far as, or to the extent that they are complementary, we will all be better off.
The emphasis here then is not on individual equality irrespective of sex but equality of the genders with which individuals are endowed,
requiring not similar treatment, but rather different and yet equally empowering treatment for people of different genders.
Claiming and valuing the difference.
1) This, unfortunately, often differs only rhetorically from the inferiority thesis, esp. when voiced by or in a form heavily influenced by males
: everything depends on who defines or decides the supposedly equally valuable roles, who determines the games the different genders are supposed to be playing,
and how the notion of the roles having equal but complementary value is to be cashed in.
In practice it is often just an excuse for keeping women in their place, keeping them out of the men's games which really run the show, meanwhile leaving these ‘games’ exactly as they were before.
2) This position, in particular, is usually guilty of what is called ‘essentialism’, i.e. presuming all women share a common nature or essence (and that all men do also, only different, and that the two essences or natures are complementary). This itself is a controversial (and complicated) issue, with some strong feminisms also into essentialism.
3) Nevertheless, this second family of views does pick up on the notion that women's experiences are to be equally respected and taken account of, esp. in determining roles people play - without perhaps yet doing this properly in respect of women's roles.
Overall, it is still insufficiently critical of itself, requiring for its authenticity to be complemented by a third form or family of feminisms.
Note on ANDROGNY: in this scheme = Internalized Gender Equality, often under the influence of Karl Jung: that we all have both sets of capacities to some degree, animus/anima, a person and their shadow etc, and the other side of our personality for the sake of wholeness and personal development needs to be be positively valued, reclaimed and integrated. The men will do this with a masculine flavour, the women with a feminine flavour, but both need to recognize and integrate the other side of themselves.
This has essentially the same problems, in so far as it leaves the conventional, typical, probably eventually male determined 'masculine' versus 'feminine' idea uncriticized. But it might take on a new form also, if complemented by the next set of feminisms.
(C) FEMINISMS OF AUTONOMY/LIBERATION
Focusing on the radical undoing of the domination, and the deconstruction and reconstruction of its consequences.
Not just freedom and effective opportunity to play
the 'games' the men play, nor just empowerment to play their own equally valid
but to actually decide the character of the games, the doings, the roles themselves, to have an equal share in deciding the character of the games we play together as well as the games/roles specific to women themselves,
altogether to deconstruct and reconstruct the games themselves, of both kinds.
The struggle for autonomy, as Gross points out, needs to take at least two forms:
Critical-reactive: to unmask and deconstruct, with the aim of making patriarchal dominance no longer viable; but also
Constructive-active: constructing viable alternatives that take full account of women's experience when purified of the effect of male domination.
Without the latter, one is still being determined, albeit by reaction.
For Gross and others, this is a local, specific struggle, taking different forms in different places.
With this kind of feminism, women are no longer just claiming inclusion in endeavours already going, whether practical or theoretical;
they are now claiming the right to full subjectivity, to reconstitute those endeavours themselves,
having unmasked and dismantled their inherent masculinist bias.
This goes for philosophy and the sciences, among other things, and impinges on the very notion of reason and rationality.
It also implies an attempt at the deconstruction of the 'masculine - feminine' idea itself as it presently obtains.
In practice, this kind of feminism can be 'Modern' or 'Postmodern', depending on how AUTONOMY is understood.
· One can appropriate a neo-Kantian notion of autonomy, connected closely with rationality - but purified of Kant's prejudices against the supposed emotionality of women.
· But the notion of autonomy itself probably needs to be critiqued. For example, a white, middle class, individualistic liberal elitist probably masculinist rationalist Kantian notion might not in fact be appropriate. Perhaps one would do better with a notion of autonomy with connection and mutual sisterly responsibility: for conceiving 'self-determination', everything depends on what one identifies as one's self, one's very own, i.e. on with whom one identifies oneself and how one defines oneself.
Nowaday, there is typically (though not always) a much greater respect for differences:
- differences between different groups, e.g. white middle class/african-american, white middle class/aboriginal Australian, Western versus 'third world'.
- also differences within the groups themselves between different women, with differing experiences,
joined in the conviction that "gender is a problem: that what exists now is not equality between the sexes" (Mansbridge and Okin, p. 284),
in the conviction that women's experiences as such are typically undervalued even in respect of women's doings.
Feminism in a world beyond foundations, beyond totalization, specific, localized, can still be a group activity but now radically democratic, drawing on the experiences of each other, validating one's own experience by reference to the experience of other women in similar situations and groups, mutual validation and mutual support with mutual respect.
A local, specific, struggle, still done together, though without force and without totalization, still with lots of sharing.
The lesson for the men, meanwhile, might be to learn from the women's struggle and from the sophistication it has taken, for the sake of men's liberation and men's autonomy in a way that is equally local and specific and finally non-oppressive, whether of themselves or others. We yet have a lot to learn. As Hegel has taught us, a dialectic of master and slave, dominance and subordination whether overt or disguised is not the way to go. Perhaps the women can show men another way? To reclaim our sameness which we have denied as well as live the differences and aim for a non-oppressive, non-totalizing autonomy.
For a non-foundationalist epistemological grounding of contemporary feminisms, see article by Ann Seller in Feminist Perspectives in Philosophy: via a variety of reflective equilibrium.
Compare also Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza: modern in goal, post-modern in strategy, local and specific critical hermeneutics, moving from a liberating meaning to a liberating interpretative process which in its results is as varied as demanded by the situation and the experiences of the people in it.
For some sophisticated self-critical but committed feminist theory, see especially the work of Catherine Keller and also the Australian philosopher Val Plumwood.
One problem with post-modern feminist gender theory: precisely because it is so specific and localizing, in practice it may make one too susceptible to effective totalization by late capitalist globalizing consumerism.
This, however, is the fault of the post-structuralist ‘background theory’ rather than the feminism as such.