Feminist Philosophy: A Primer


Text Transcript:

Very few people have an accurate perception on what feminist philosophy is. It’s as if feminist philosophy and feminism in general is a vast mystery that no one wants to talk about. What ideas people have about feminist philosophy tend to be steeped in myth and misperceptions.

This is the situation because on the one hand, there are certain people who disparage and basically tell lies about what feminism and feminist philosophy is, and on the other hand, no one gives an accurate perception of feminism in education or the media.

I’ve taught Intro to Philosophy for two decades and I’m familiar with all the textbooks that are out there teaching philosophy and almost none of them mention feminist philosophy and the very few that do just tack on a couple paragraphs at the end of the book about, “oh yeah, feminist philosophy, and it’s basically about the rights of women.

Okay, yes, but that’s highly inadequate of a description of what feminist philosophy is. So, what is it really?

We can address one common misconception right away by pointing out that yes, I am a male of the species homo sapiens; what business do I have talking about feminist philosophy? Some people would say I have no right to talk about feminist philosophy because I’m a man.

But it is a myth and a lie that feminism and feminist philosophy is about men versus women. Feminist philosophy is not hatred of men. Feminist philosophy is not a desire for female supremacy or putting men in their place or whatever fantasies that people who hate feminism make up about what feminist philosophy and feminism.

Feminist philosophy, like all good philosophy, is searching for fundamental principles that are operating in human society so that we can understand what is going on in our world and find ways to improve life for everybody. That’s what philosophy is, and feminist philosophy is a particular approach to that basic idea of what philosophy is.

The fundamental underlying principles that feminist philosophy is looking at are that one—women are full human beings. This of course should not be a debate. It should not be a question, and yet it has been throughout human history. The second is that social attitudes and structures denigrate and oppress women. These are social realities.


Similar to several other branches of philosophy, what feminist philosophy is doing is making a critique of society as it exists versus how our society can be and probably should be. We see this in political philosophy. We see this in moral philosophy. We see this in philosophy of science. We see this in a number of branches. And all that feminism is doing differently from other branches of philosophy is simply focusing these critical energies onto the question of the place of women within society.

Anyone who has paid any attention at all, and anyone who is at all honest with themselves has to address the fact that women have traditionally not, and still are not, granted full human status within human society. To say that fact out loud is not to be against men; it is to be against injustice.

People pointing out this injustice and the reality that women are full human beings who deserve full human rights and privileges is not new. That’s another misconception that a lot of people have–that feminism is some sort of new thing that sprung up out of nothing and nowhere in the 1960s with bra burning people and stuff like that. No. Feminism, or at least feminist philosophy, goes way back.

One of the first instances that we can definitely point to, that we have surviving manuscripts from this person who wasn’t completely silenced and shut down, which did happen to a lot in history to women–they were silenced–was Mary Wollstonecraft, who in 1792 wrote a book “A Vindication of the Rights of Women.” She was certainly not the very first woman to ever publish anything about how society is inherently biased against women and denying them opportunities, but it is one of the first ones that had a major influence on society.

So within the English speaking world and the European world in a broader sense, this discussion about the rights of women has been going on for over 200 years. Feminism is not new. Feminism has never been a women versus men thing. Because in 1869, John Stuart Mill–yes, a male of the species homo sapiens–wrote a book, “The Subjection of Women,” that made similar arguments to Mary Wollstonecraft.

Those arguments by both Mill and Wollstonecraft were in their most simple, straightforward expression that women of sufficient intellect and abilities should be given equal place with men in education, opportunities, and intellectual and political leadership. The only reason Wollstonecraft said, and Mill agreed with her, that women are in a lesser place in society is because they are placed there by the dominant power structures of society. Women are perfectly capable of being leaders in every field of human society, but they’re not given the education or opportunity to do so.

That was Wollstonecraft’s major point: educate a girl the same way you educate a boy, give a girl the same opportunity that you give a boy and the girl will equal if not surpass the boy. Human beings are equal in their abilities. Women can be teachers, women can be scientists, women can be clergy, women can be leaders, women can be politicians, women can be philosophers, and the only thing preventing women from doing these things is a society that says that women can’t and won’t let them try.

That was the case in the 1700s when Mary Wollstonecraft wrote about this. It was the case in the 1800s when John Stuart mill wrote about this. It was the case in the 1900s when the first and second waves of feminism said these things. And it’s still true now in the 2000s when the third wave of feminism is saying these things.

It is certainly the case that over the past 200 years women have managed to fight for and improve their situation but the problems still remain. The efforts of feminists, both men and women, and feminist philosophers, both men and women, have been to fight against injustice and try to improve society in general by improving the lives in particular of women.

One sign of what I’m talking about is that there are probably women listening to this right now, either because there are in a university course or just listening on their own. You are doing this because you are allowed to do this. Because 500 or 1,000 years ago, women weren’t allowed to get a real education. Women weren’t allowed to discuss ideas openly.

For example, in the mid-1800s. a woman was not allowed to get a university degree. A woman was not allowed to own property in certain circumstances. She was not allowed to inherit property from her parents. Women were not allowed to divorce an abusive husband, and so on.

It was in this environment that Margaret Fuller, a feminist philosopher, wrote in 1845 a book, “Woman in the 19th Century,” in which she pointed out all of these facts and she said the reason why we are in this situation is that we have inherited a depraved tradition. Fuller pointed out that the United States had inherited the European tradition of hierarchical society and injustice against people who are in the minority and without power.

Fuller points to the Christian tradition of a belief in a divine love and a divine justice that applies to everyone, and yet finds this hypocrisy in slavery bringing black people from Africa to be enslaved in the United States. She found this hypocrisy in the treatment of native American populations who were killed and their lands stolen from them.

And she found it in the hypocrisy of marriage and the treatment of women as property. Fuller wasn’t against marriage. She believed that a marriage between a man and a woman as equal partners was  good and almost divine. But she did condemn the legal reality of her time that women were considered equal to children, the ward of their husband, not an equal to men.

Fuller and other activists in the mid to late 1800s focused on several primary issues. Women having the right to vote. Women having the right to employment. Women having the right to inherit. Women having the right to financial security and independence. And women having the right to divorce, all of which are interconnected issues.

Throughout the last part of the 1800s and the early 1900s, many brave women in many countries across the world struggled for recognition of their basic human rights. Some key reforms were achieved by these activists. By 1920, women could vote in most countries of the world but they were still denied equal opportunities in many areas of society and we’re still seen as second-class citizens.

Winning the right to vote was the key achievement of this so called first wave of feminism in the early 1900s. That’s partly because after World War One, when women took over many of the jobs and roles that were traditionally male-oriented during the war as the men were sent off to war to die. Women were seen as more capable and this was again repeated in World War Two to a greater extent when the men were sent off to war again to die and women took over many of the jobs and did just fine in those roles. In fact, women often did better, turned out to be better team members, and more productive than men were. Fancy that! Wollstonecraft and Mill were correct that you just give women an opportunity and they’ll equal or exceed men.

But when World War Two ended, and those men who survived came home, especially in the United States women were expected to just go back to the kitchen, go back to the nursery. This social reality was pointed out by Betty Friedan in her book, “The Feminist Mystique.”

Friedan made many of the same comments that Wollstonecraft had made 170 years earlier, but she updated the critique to the post World War Two period She also took a more psychological perspective, because psychology had emerged as a discipline between Wollstonecraft’s time and Friedan’s time, on how women were personally faring in a society that is inherently exclusionary of women’s accomplishments and contributions.

Friedan’s major contribution in her book was the idea of the title of her book, “The Feminist Mystique,” that is to blame for a lot of the oppression of women within society. That mistake Friedan says, is the two-fold assumption That a truly feminine woman has no desire to get an advanced education, to have a career, to have any type of political voice, because according to the mystique, women are predisposed to find their personal fulfillment in being a wife and a mother and keeping house tending to her husband and tending to her husband’s children. That’s what a true woman does.

Friedan calls it a “mystique.” Other women would have nastier terms for it: it’s a prejudice, it’s an ideology, but it’s an unquestioned assumption that “men do these things and women do those things.” Gender roles must be maintained and. indeed while it was allowed for women to fill in in traditionally male occupations during the war because it was an emergency, so we bend the rules for an existential emergency, but as soon as the emergency is past, the war has ended and all those women who had perfectly capably filled those traditionally male occupations were then expected to return home and return to being more feminine. “The crisis is over, Rosie Riveter, go back home and raise children and cook me dinner.” So the mystique or the ideology reasserts itself, perhaps stronger than ever.


Friedan, writing in 1963, is writing in the middle of the cold war between the United States and the Soviet Union, which was predominantly a propaganda and posturing war. The American propaganda portrayed the idealized American nuclear family as a bulwark and defense against the Soviets and their evil whatever it is the Soviets do. American media and popular culture throughout the 1950s, 1960s, Friedan said, fortified this feminine mystique.

Friedan interviewed many women and found that women were trapped in this mystique, felt pressured to live up to the feminine ideal, but they were left unhappy, unfulfilled, even neurotic. And all of this was affecting of course anyone who is around women who are so afflicted. It affects their husbands. It affects their children. And thus it affects the broader society.

The feminine mystique is, in Friedan’s mind, central to the problems of American society. Friedan’s answer, which in a way became emblematic of the so-called second wave of feminism, is that women have a right to have it all. Friedan, like Fuller a century before, was not against marriage, not against men, but against the idea of marriage as this kind of sentence. “You are now sentenced, young lady, to a life of wifehood and motherhood, and you are not allowed anything else.”

Friedan said, “Nonsense. A woman can have both. If a woman wants to have a career and children, she should be allowed to have that. If a woman wants to run for office, she should be allowed to run for office. Women should be allowed to do whatever they want to do. So this idea of women having it all is kind of the centerpiece of the second wave of feminism.

This is the 1960s now. In 1966, the National Organization for Women was established and they nominated and elected Friedan as its first president. It was in this wave of feminism–this idea of women equality, of anything a man can do a woman should be allowed to do also–that did win many fundamental reforms. For example, Title Nine, which requires equal education funding in schools for men and women, boys and girls, women being allowed to have equal access to credit in financial services. Yes, people might not be able to imagine this. If you are younger than say, 50, years old, but it used to be the case that a woman could not have a checking account in her own name. She could not take out a mortgage in her name to buy a house. She could be on her husband’s account. She could be on her husband’s mortgage. But she was not allowed to have a bank account, a mortgage, a credit card. This was true in the United States and the United Kingdom up until then early 1970s.

However, the signature goal of the second wave of the feminist movement was the Equal Rights Amendment. Because just as the United States Constitution had been amended to include rights for Black people the Constitution should also be amended to not exclude lights for women. Bizarrely, the Equal Rights Amendment failed. It was passed by Congress, but it was not ratified by a sufficient number of states within the time limit allowed, leaving the unfathomable reality that in the United States–the alleged land of freedom and liberty for all–that the equal rights of women are not constitutionally guaranteed.

In terms of philosophy and education and academia in general, the second wave did bring a large number of women into academic scientific and philosophical fields. In no way did women become equal in numbers to men in these fields, but at least then there were some female psychologists, some female philosophers, some female scientists. They were still often times treated as second class citizens, but the notion was building that women can do intellectual activities. Women can produce good philosophy, good science.

Mary Daly

There are many great pioneering women in the 70s, 80s, 90s that deserve to be mentioned and I don’t have time to mention them all and give them the credit they deserve, but I will focus on one who is particularly important, and that’s Mary Daly. Daly is important because she changed the conversation from women’s equality, which had been the traditional way of looking at the issue of women’s rights since the 1700s, to a conversation about patriarchy.

Daly claimed that feminism’s goal should not be equality with men but the abolition of patriarchy. Daly argued as a historian that almost all societies in history have been male dominated. Men have always held more political and economic power, usually absolute political and economic power, and this is why they enjoy social privilege and have first access to all natural and social resources.

It is patriarchy—male-dominated society– that subordinates women under men. It is inherent in the structure of human society. Men over women. Daly’s writings, and in particular, “Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation,” published in 1977, argued that the problem of patriarchy is so deeply embedded into twined into all aspects of human society. Daly used as part of her main argument, the philosophy of Paul Tillich, which shows Daly’s program is not about being against men. Remember, it’s about being against oppression.


Tillich had written about the need to replace religious language, both in theology and society, from the abstract and impersonal closed language of traditional religion into the language of a personal encounter with the divine. This is part of a larger push in philosophy that goes back to Kierkegaard, who greatly influenced, Tillich, of focusing more on the individual, of acknowledging that the individual exists; that we aren’t all just examples of a universal form of humanity, we are all individual persons.

Tillich’s philosophy of personalism calls us to move away from the language of god as the invincible tyrant which of course is mirroring the old absolutism of political and social life, the idea that the king rules everything. Well, god is seen in the same way. God is this tyrant. This distant ruler who judges us. Tillich says if we can replace this language with a language of personal expression of spirituality, we will start to heal society and of course, individual people.

Daly says, yes, this is a great idea. This man has a great idea. Let’s use Tillich’s personalism to replace theology’s patriarchal language because not only is god a tyrant in the traditional Christian view, god is very male. God, the Father. That’s of course, not god daddy, not god dad, God the Father.

Daly observes that this highly impersonal language of a distant male god expresses the impersonal hierarchy of male domination. Again the imagery of religion mirrors the social reality of hierarchical oppression. So Daly’s approach is to look at all the god talk, look at all the language, look at how it has infused all of our society, and then change it.

Like Tillich said, the atheists are rebelling properly against the idea of hierarchical domination that is ever present in traditional religion but the atheists are completely ignorant of the fact that there are other possibilities that are not a binary, you must accept this or give up the whole thing. No, there are many other possibilities for religion.

Daily agrees with that in terms of religion. You can have a female centered religion. You can have an equal religion. And you can do this for society at large. Daly’s approach has inspired many other people. other people, women and men, pro-religion and anti-religion, to take on this deconstruction of language in religion and society. Remove the patriarchy. Remove the assumption that men and male things are always dominant. Move towards a more gender-neutral view of life the universe and everything.

Daly followed this up with a second book, “Gyn-Ecology: the Metaethics of Radical Feminism,” in 1978. In this book, her central premise is even harsher about society at large, moving from the critique of religious language and political language into all of society. Patriarchal language and behavior are everywhere. All of society can and should be rehabilitated.

Religion did not create patriarchy. Don’t even go there. Daly never turned her back on religion. Never said that she was against Christianity. Patriarchy is the real religion. Daly is anti organized religion, as was Tillich, as was Kierkegaard, both Christian who were very anti religion. Daily also is anti organized religion because like all social institutions it is structured on the basis of patriarchal interests.

Daly includes an argument that had been made before by feminist philosophers though perhaps Daly made it more strongly than it had to that point been made. That is that all of history has portrayed women as emotional creatures. Patriarchy declares the presence of women as subversive to rationality, objectivity, and morality. Rationality and objectivity has traditionally been seen as the foundation of morality and properness. Society is based on rational, objectivity and hierarchical structures, and women are subversive to this because they are emotional and irrational. So, women’s contributions are dismissed. Women are oppressed as unhelpful, even dangerous and evil.

The word “hysteria”—if you don’t know this, you should—the word “hysteria.” from which we get, “oh, that’s hysterically funny,” well, hysteria is madness. It’s insanity. Hysteria is a word that comes from the root word hysterikos in Greek, which is from the Greek word for “womb” in medical science. The idea of hysteria is of madness. Why do women go mad? Because their womb is traveling throughout their body, causing these mental, emotional, physical disturbances. Yes, it’s true. Look it up. I’m not, I couldn’t, make up this. I’m not that clever.

Over emotionality, excitability, and other disturbances of a psychological nature are caused by women’s being out of control. So hysteria comes from this prejudice against women as being inherently unable to control their emotions. This is the type of thing that Daly is dealing with. She’s trying to point out how our language, and thus our society, is steeped in these attitudes. And there are tens of thousands of similar examples in all the languages of the world.


Daly called for women to embrace the traits they have ascribed to you. Are you emotional? Yes, then be emotional. Are you nurturing? Then, yes. embrace your nurturing nature. Reclaim them as good moral traits. They’re not harmful. They’re not wicked. Don’t let anyone tell you that they are.

Embrace your femininity but not as men define it but as you define it., as your fellow women to define it. Find your own female energy–the energy that includes and perhaps especially is the ability to create. Men can’t give birth to children. A number of feminist philosophers have pointed to this basic biological fact as “hmmm, maybe this has a lot to do with it. Women can give birth, men can’t.” Obviously, this reality means something. It’s not like this could possibly have no effect on how we think about things. Daly says, yes, embrace that. You can give birth. “I am earth woman. I can give birth. I can raise a child. I can suckle a child.”

The female energy has laid dormant because it’s been suppressed by patriarchy, Daly says, but it needs to be revived. Daly is more critical than certain others about this, although less critical than some others too, about male energy.

Yes, there is male energy, also. Daley says that male energy is associated with death dealing, oppression, of course, patriarchy, and if there is a good and evil dichotomy well, evil is male and goodness is female, because men kill. women give birth. Daly had her moment of perhaps going a little bit too far on this, but of course that’s up for debate. A lot of feminists would agree with that assessment of things. And they point to the fact that is men who start wars, men fight wars. But let’s not go there right now.

Another reason why Daly is crucial in the development of feminist philosophy is that from Daly’s philosophy arise two crucial questions that are still with us today over 40 years later. One is the question of whether men and women have essentially different natures, which I will discuss later. The second is whether we should try to reform current social systems to win equality for women, work within the system that we have, or say the system is too corrupt, patriarchy is just too foundational to the entire way that human society is, and the only answer is to smash the system of patriarchy, tear it down to the ground, start again.

Daly sided with that latter idea. We cannot reform patriarchy. It’s too entrenched. It’s too embedded in how we are as a society. Women either need to leave entirely or we do need to just completely tear the system down. And it doesn’t mean physical violence. Don’t even go there. It means literally totally changing society. A large number of feminists have agreed with that. It’s hard to blame them for that.

Then, there’s the so-called third wave of feminism. Feminism had been largely the terrain of middle class whites. That changes and the focus expands, and it is sparked off by a remarkable young woman who at the age of only 22 wrote for Ms Magazine, which was founded by Gloria Steinem who is in the second wave of feminism. The article is entitled “Becoming the Third Wave.” Rebecca Walker was young and very brave for doing all that. Of course, she had a head start because she was the daughter of the very famous novelist. Alice Walker.

Rebecca Walker, a woman of her own mind and great independence, was responding to the horrific confirmation hearings of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court, where despite the testimony of professor Anita Hill—who gave credible testimony that Thomas had repeatedly sexually harassed her—the mostly male, all white panel in the Senate confirmed Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court. Where he still sits today.

Rebecca Walker in her article pointed to Hill’s testimony being completely disregarded as an example of the oppression of the female voice. Walker calls then for a new wave of feminism, a third wave that integrates equality and female empowerment into every fiber of life. Because here is Professor Anita Hill. She’s achieved equality from a legal standpoint. She was allowed to become a professor. She was allowed to receive an education. She was allowed to give testimony to the Senate. And she was still completely ignored. Completely disregarded as a person.

Third way feminism thus is fundamentally the acknowledgement that legal rights for women do not always translate into respect and true equality for women. Just because Madonna is a rich, famous singer does not mean that women have achieved equality in society. The third wave says is time now for society to take the next step to truly integrate women into society; not just give a certain level of legal equality.

The other main aspect of third wave feminism is the concept of intersectionality which is alluded to in Rebecca Walker’s article but actually first appears three years earlier in a journal article by Kimberly Williams Crenshaw with the very long title “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Anti-Discrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory, and Anti-Racist Politics.” One of the longer titles for a journal article but all true and all right on target, because Crenshaw says the idea of intersectionality is the idea that we have a number of groups that are marginalized and oppressed within society. We need to bring these ideas together.

There are fundamental structural similarities in the various groups that are oppressed. Crenshaw says that though these groups have tangible differences, they all share these common experiences of being marginalized. And they’re all being marginalized by the same social structures. Uniting these people around common ground and common cause to emancipate not just one group or the other group but all marginalized groups while not forcing those groups to minimize or disregard their differences is the basic idea of intersectionality.

Crenshaw points out that this idea is as old as black feminist experience. She points back to the abolition movement in the mid-1800s. Black women were a part of it, but of course their contributions were disregard because they were women and because they’re Black.

Perhaps no person epitomizes intersectionality more than the American writer Audre Lorde. Lorde describes herself as black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet. She is best known for her poetry and she’s revered in certain circles for her poetry. But she also wrote several interesting words to philosophy.

Her book, “Sister Outsider,” lays out Lorde’s intersectional strategy. Different groups of people need to come together in common cause. emphasizing their shared lived experiences. Women are much better at that than men, in all honesty. Women are able to share their emotional personal experiences with each other.

Lorde focuses most on the need for white women and black women to find common ground. They need to face their differences directly because there are very real tangible experiences that are very different for a white woman or a black woman. But white and black women need to use these differences as a source of strength, not as excuse for alienation, for not talking to each other.

The not talking to each other–the staying within your tiny camps–is Lorde points out the patriarchal method of divide and conquer. We instead, Lorde says, must define and empower. I’m a white woman; you’re a black woman; you’re a white man; you’re a black man; we need to look at who we are, acknowledge our differences, but especially for the black people and women, people, we need to empower ourselves.

Lorde speaks from the perspective of being a black lesbian from a poor family because being non heteronormative and being poor are also marginalized groups that have been oppressed and suppressed, who have experienced social structures of dominance. Lord’s ability to think of herself–who she is as a person–beyond single labels–black, lesbian, woman–but instead to see herself as a whole person empowered her to see the qualities of each aspect of herself how they can be integrated. She looked at this in terms of a self-awareness.

She then turned this self-awareness to people in general and society at large to understand how people are conditioned to respond to difference with fear and loathing. The fear of the Other, which has been talked about by a number of philosophers throughout the last 100 years, is something that really dominates people’s lived experiences. We are afraid of people who are different from us. And fear leads to loathing.

This is something that philosophers of race, philosophers of gender studies, feminist philosophers, and philosophers in continental social philosophy, have acknowledged and are increasingly acknowledging that this is a fundamental issue. The fear of difference. Lorde points out that from this fear of difference, people are conditioned to ignore difference and to reassert dominance or destroy what they are told is subordinate to them. Hierarchical structures depend on the subordination of people who are different and to marginalize these people because they are different.

From these social realities, Lorde concludes that people need to recognize all forms of oppression, to recognize oppression itself, not just one group of oppression. And one of the chief criticisms of second wave feminism by third wave feminists is that the second wave feminists focused only on the issue of women’s legal equality and ignored the fundamental structures of oppression within society. Lorde contributes to this critique by saying that women in the second wave feminist movement had felt pressure from patriarchy to conform to their oneness as women and thus they didn’t recognize their own diversity–their manyness–the different aspects of their identities.

Lorde and many other philosophers who follow in her footsteps point out that the structure of all forms of oppression is composed of similar beliefs in the inherent superiority of one group over another and a right and privilege of dominance of one or the other. All forms of oppression. Same structure: racism, sexism, ageism, heterosexism, elitism, classism, on and on and on. These forms of dominance all share the same belief structure of dominance and oppression. That’s why the feminist movement, Lorde argues, was unable to form alliances needed to create a better world. It became this too narrow of a movement.

Lorde underscores the need for all people to educate themselves about oppression. It is not just a matter of marginalized people need to wake up. No, everyone needs to understand this, including white males. When people do educate themselves, they will see how society is structured. The pattern must be broken. Real change, Lorde says, will never come from working with a racist patriarchal system. Any changes brought about within the system will just be swallowed up and diverted by the system and they will not last. This is similar to Daley’s idea. You can’t just reform the system. You need to change the system.

There are so many other feminist philosophers and writers who could we could add on to this. We could go on and on about people like bell hooks, people like Iris Marion Young, and so on and so on. We could spend hours talking about all these great writers and thinkers who point out the problems of patriarchy within society.


But what do you do with all this? You say, “okay, fine. I’ll believe you. We need to educate ourselves about the patriarchal structure of our society. What do we do with this? What does this mean?” Here’s a brief introduction to that. I’m going give you two examples. Science and morality.

Let’s look at science first. Central to feminist philosophy is it is a critic of the notion of gender. Gender is not sex. Feminism understands that there is a distinction between the biological category of sex, as to what sex organs you have, and the social category of gender. Gender includes social definitions of masculine and feminine and the many, many, many accompanying assumptions about social roles, sexuality, and alleged psychological and mental differences between men and women.

Some feminists are essentialists, meaning that they claim that there is an essential female nature that is distinct from a male nature. Ironically, some male misogynists would agree with that idea. Yes, “we are males and you are females. Because I have male sex organs and you have female sex organs, therefore, we are essentially different. Almost two different people.” It was a book a few years ago: “Men Are from Mars and Women Are from Venus.” It’s that type of stuff. That’s essentialism. The idea that there are these two separate subspecies of the human race.

This assumption of essentialism, which is deeply rooted in traditional views, assumes that the female gender is composed of stable properties that cannot be changed without great effort, if at all, and that men are the same. Men have stable properties that cannot be changed. You are a man. You are a woman.

Other feminists and a growing number of people in general are nonessentialists. They reject this idea that gender characteristics are fixed–that there’s a essential female nature and essential male nature. Nonessentialists view gender as socially constructed concepts that are open to change and redefinition. Sociology and anthropology provides us with a great deal of evidence that this is indeed the case. Gender is a social construct that differs among different societies and among different times.

Simone de Beauvior wrote in her book, “The Second Sex,” that one is not born but rather becomes a woman. de Beauvior argued the gender characteristics are not biologically or culturally determined. They’re not written stone but they can be either socially imposed or subjectively chosen.

Regardless of how feminists view that genealogy of gender, they tend to agree that women and men experience the world from different standpoints. That is important because experience and knowledge are situated within a person’s social environment. All individuals are socially situated differently and so they will have different experiences, and therefore, they will view the world differently.

This notion, called “standpoint theory” within feminist philosophy, applies to gender, race, economic class, sexuality, and any other set of social situated circumstances. There are major movements in philosophy that attempted to address this social situatedness both of marginalized groups and dominant groups by critically analyzing these concepts of gender, race, sexuality, and so on.


So, yeah, what does this mean to science? What does it have to do with science? Because feminism rejects the modernist epistemology, such as that of analytical philosophers, that everything is rationality, everything is objectivity. The feminist critique of that theory of knowledge is that it is based on the assumption that there is one universal human nature which is a male human nature. Remember my mention previously about hysteria. Men are rational. Women, emotional, irrational.

Feminist philosophers of science critique this definition of what objectivity means, pointing out that the definition of objectivity is steeped in patriarchy. In the assumption that a male nature and a male viewpoint is correct, and of course a white European viewpoint and a wealthy person viewpoint, and so on.

Feminists reject the traditional assumption that it is possible to obtain purely objective value-free and politically neutral knowledge, and yet that assumption is fundamental to how science is done. Not how science is—how science is performed by people.

And if you think that feminists made this up, they didn’t. You can go back to Edmund Husserl in the last decade of the 1800s and early 1900s. He was pointing out this very fact that science assumes that this is what objectivity means: “We are perfectly objective, therefore, our views are completely objective, completely value free, completely neutral.” Husserl said that’s nonsense. Scientists are self-forgetful. Husserl said. They pretend they’re objective, ignoring that they are human.

Third way feminists thus claim similarly that perception is always relative to the standpoint of a particular knower. Therefore, all claims to knowledge reflect the dominant values and political structures of the society. So science is in fact going to be different, and academia is going to be different, in different times and in different cultures.

Feminists claim that the philosophical picture of a generic universal human nature has in fact enshrined men’s experiences and interests as the paradigm of all knowledge that all of us should aspire to. The majority position throughout the western tradition of academia both philosophy and science, and religion for that matter, has defined rationality as male, emotionality as female, and has devalued emotions. Points of view, particularly those women, that deviate from the standard picture of universal rationality are marginalized. Traditionally, they’ve always been marginalized. They’ve been excluded. They’re subjective. They’re unconventional. They’re hysterical.

Science and epistemology tells us that there is a universal standard for rationality. But feminists ask in response, “standard and rational by whom?” Feminist philosophers contend that women’s experiences and ways of thinking differ from those that have been the basis of traditional male epistemology and scientific endeavors, and philosophy must make room for other non-traditional ways of experiencing the world and gaining knowledge. That idea is true whether you are an essentialist or not. The fact that women are raised differently and are situated differently within society means that they are going to view the world differently.

Feminist philosophy, therefore, critiques sciences assumptions of objectivity. And they critique the claim that objectivity is actually the subjective male view point that is an expression of patriarchal structure. This is not a disregarding of science. It doesn’t say that science is worthless. But it does say that we need to question our assumptions and critique our findings.

Two scientific endeavors have in particular become targets for feminist groups about the assumption of objectivity. One of those fields is biology. Feminists pointed out that all of biology has been structured in terms of males dominant  over females. The patriarchal paradigm has framed the scientists’ attention and shaped their perception and it structures and limits the field of inquiry.

Biology tends to see the males of the species as active and females as passive, all the way down to sperm and ovum. It is the sperm that does all the work and the egg just sits there and waits to be fertilized, says biology, not just in humans but everywhere. Biology projects unto animals the patriarchal conception of the strongest male winning the right to pass on his genes. We see this throughout biology. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t species of animals that do exhibit this behavior, but the idea that we project this universally onto everything is the problem.

If we are doing science, any type of science, with previous assumptions, with a bias, then our results are going to be biased. We’re not seeing what’s really there. We’re seeing what we are projecting: our projection of gender human gender roles onto other species of animals and to biological cells themselves.

The other main field that feminists critique is psychology, and feminists see a very strong gender bias in psychology. Sigmund Freud is a very common and justifiable target of feminists who criticize how patriarchy has completely dominated psychology and psychiatry. The idea that women are unable to control their emotions and thus are easily excitable has a long history in psychology and psychiatry.

A strong voice in this critique is the American feminist psychologist Carol Gilligan who critiques the Freudian tradition especially, and the psychology of child development in general, as fields of study that are dominated by men who deemed women deficient in development. Gilligan’s book, “In a Different Voice,” observed that psychologists had always assumed that men are the measure of humanity, that male gender bias assumed that the masculine qualities of autonomy and rationality, which are just mere gender roles, are the true sign and maturity.

Gilligan found in her own experiences as a working psychologist and talking with real people, that psychology is a culture that counted on women not speaking for themselves. When Gilligan worked in child psychology she found that the established gauges of child development were predisposed to measure boys as inherently being more mature than girls.

Switching from science to morality, many of the same critiques interestingly apply most feminist agree that morality, as traditionally construed and discussed within philosophy, has been male-dominated. This is especially because when you look at the close ties between morality and religion, especially within the Judeo-Christian-Islamic traditions, religion is male-dominated. Morality is thus male-dominated. Traditional moral theories reflect the male viewpoint, feminists claim, and do not include female perspectives or women’s voices.

Back to Carol Gilligan again; from her psychological research, she developed her own moral philosophy in the book, “In a Different Voice.” Gilligan argued that humans are exposed to two different moral voices. The masculine voice is individualistic and logical, rational and objective. The masculine voice has an emphasis on making moral decisions based on the defense of rights and the dispensing of justice. Remember, God is male and God is the judge, like the king, the ruler.

For Gilligan, the feminine voice, emphasizes interpersonal relationships and taking care of people as individuals. She calls the feminine voice, the care perspective. The dominant theories of psychology and child development always accentuate the masculine voice. Gilligan says that this bias that reflects and buttresses cultural beliefs about male gender roles and male gender superiority is a bias that makes it very difficult to evaluate a woman’s moral development.

Gilligan instead argues for an androgynous approach, one that doesn’t depend upon gender roles, but instead integrates the masculine and feminine moral voices as a way for each individual to reach his or her potential. In this conversation, Gilligan may seem to be adopting an essentialist notion of gender that men and women inherently perceive morality differently from different essences. But Gilligan says that her theory of moral voices is about theme. It’s not biological sex or inherent gender roles. The different voices of masculine and feminine come from culture traditions. It’s not inherent in biology but we can identify them. It’s a way of easing into a much more free and liberated from gender roles morality.


From these ideas Gilligan makes the very significant contribution to feminist philosophy of the theory of care. Care ethics, which has become a growing feel and one very necessary for our world today in my opinion. Gilligan’s theory is that women’s moral viewpoints focus on a person’s own moral responsibilities and relationships. Whereas men’s moral viewpoints focus on a rational objective understanding of rules and rights. We can look at Kant’s moral theory here of the categorical imperative, that the situation and the persons involved are utterly meaningless. All that matters is applying the right rule and having an absolute duty to the moral law. That’s a very male way of looking at things.

Men tend to define moral situations in very formal and abstract terms, like Kant, whereas women, Gilligan says, define them in terms of context and narrative. At the heart of the feminine moral voice and viewpoint is care for other people. Gilligan says the voice of care is a different voice within patriarchal culture that joins reason with emotion, self with relationships, and men with women in resisting the divisions that maintain the patriarchal order. Within a democratic framework, care is human morality.

On that note we can go full circle back to my original point in this lecture. Feminist philosophy is not men versus women. Feminist philosophy is justice against the injustice of patriarchy. Feminist philosophy and feminism in general is the very simple expression that women are full human beings, but that women’s voices have not been heard and women have not been respected because society has traditional structures that deny women’s voices, deny women’s contributions, and deny women as human beings. Feminist philosophy is thus a call for justice. A call that any person of any sex or gender can become involved in.

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