Tuesday, November 16, 2004



I listened last night to the http://www.philosophytalk.org/ discussion on the philosophy of Feminism, and it was very interesting. The philosophy of feminism turns out to be quite different to the politics of feminism, and I certainly came out the wiser.

Mostly, it helped me understand what people mean when they talk about sexism. Most people who talk about feminism are talking about activism to redress sexism. However, it's really a little more complex than that. Feminists come in several different flavours - but can be fairly well-divided into "Same-ist Feminists" and "Difference Feminists". The first is the view that gender differences are essentially arbitrary, and all of our views about male/female differences could be otherwise. The second is the view that male and female gender roles make for quite different people, and that while you shouldn't let this difference be the basis for discrimination or oppression, you still need to treat the two in different ways.

There was some discussion about the difference between sex and gender - there is a well-defended position that people's characters vary, across both sexes, according to traits which have typically been associated with one or the other sex. Nurturing attitudes, people who emphasise the value of connections between people and place importance on the feelings of others are dubbed "feminine". On the other hand, competitiveness, aggression, some kinds of reasoning and goal-oriented behaviour are dubbed "masculine".

Same-ist feminists would say that these gender divisions are mostly artificial, and that connecting them to sex is a philosophical mistake which needs to be redressed. Difference feminists would say that these are based on real biological differences, which may or may not be connected to sex, but are certainly inherent to particular individuals. Unravelling the effects of cultural bias on how we understand gender and sex is important to having a good understanding of people.

The nub of feminism appears to be about respect. Respect for another person shouldn't be dependant on someone's sex or gender. Redressing this imbalance is what political feminism was about in the mid and late 20th century, and is referred to as a sufferage movement. There is still plenty of imbalance left, by the way. Dealing with the errors of thought involved is what the philosophy of feminism is about. How should some of the apparent genuine gender differences affect our society? Should we be attempting to reduce gender difference, or should we encourage people to identify strongly with a particular gender? How does this affect our relationships? Has it led to any reduction in the quality of life in the forms of institutionalised sexism?


Blogger thesocialworker said...

This is a good idea. I'll listen to the same episodes then we can discuss :)

11/16/2004 07:13:00 PM  
Blogger mh said...

Catherine MacKinnon offers an excellent critique of the 'Same-ism' and 'Difference' versions of feminism in her essay ‘Difference and Dominance’ (printed in Feminism Unmodified). I wrote the following, which I take to be in the spirit of her approach, for a course earlier this year:

"Feminism faces a trap, a riddle with no answer. It is the standard response to the demand for women’s equality, appearing in the form of a choice: on the one hand women are offered paternalist protection (including so-called affirmative action) at the cost of being maintained as limited beings. Alternately, male society says: you can play with the boys, just don’t expect special treatment when you get hurt (which we know you will). Oh, and by the way, you can’t have it both ways. -- Radical feminism achieved insight into gender as a hierarchical relation of domination, but the prevalent discourses are unable to recognise that historical-dialectical account. The account is dialectical because it recognises a difference between existence and essence: women and men as free beings existing in unfreedom. Feminism, whenever it has sought audience with the powers that be, has been driven into an acceptance of the either/or logic of the choice, thereby allowing the radical theory of gender to be deflated: it gets caricatured as a theory of women as victims entirely lacking subjectivity or agency.

"Although such a theory provides what is seen as a politically tenable ground for affirmative action it extorts the admission that women are in fact, and consequently by nature, not as able as men. The dogmatism of this alternative is not avoided by the creation of a compromise term such as “partial agency” situated somewhere between autonomy and heteronomy. What needs to be given is not an answer to the question, but an immanent criticism of its antinomic either/or which would both demonstrate the necessity of the contradiction (under current social conditions) and articulate the more adequate conception of reality capable of depriving the latter of its power over thinking (‘Difference and Dominance’ attempts this)..."

11/21/2004 09:59:00 PM  
Blogger MelbournePhilosopher said...

I don't personally buy into any kind of philosophy which suggests that women have any kind of impaired version of free will. I'm more comfortable with the idea that women have a less adverserial approach to life on the whole, which leads to a systematic reduction in the impact of their opinions. I think any difference feminism which leads to people failing to give women an equality of respect is going to be flawed and wrong, but I'm happy to listen to discussions about gender roles in society, and how it affects the power struggle. One might almost say that women seem to have less of a will-to-power in the areas of social and economic power, but I don't think that's a basis for giving them less respect at people.

It's a slippery slope to start talking about "natural" inequalities, but I think there clearly are differences, and we need to be able to consider those perspectives too, else we blind ourselves to issues.

11/22/2004 01:33:00 PM  
Anonymous Jhia said...

this is very interesting. :)

4/26/2007 11:25:00 PM  

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