Advanced Search

Do you believe that the future of feminism lies in downplaying our differences

Do you believe that the future of feminism lies in downplaying our differences instead of "celebrating" and emphasizing them? It seems to me that bar physical differences, male and female gender roles are largely social constructs, and the marginalization of women is as much due to their own awareness of their "difference" compared with men. A major example of this is the fact that we have a Minister for Women in this country. Is that not basically admitting that to be female is to deviate from a normative male standard, and that issues concerning therefore requires special attention? That is tantamount to admitting, accepting or condoning the fact that female interest is not present in all the affairs dealt with by other ministers (Finance, Health, Education), and it seems a contradiction in terms. It's more than positive discrimination - it's willful marginalization. On the part of women, obviously. It seems by seeking to put ourselves on an equal level with men we have overshot and are now seeking to...

I have a slightly different reaction to your question that Prof. Fosl does. The version of feminism that I subscribe to says that sexism consists in the existence of gender roles -- that is, in the social construction of categories of persons founded on differences in reproductive physiology or morphology. I envision a world in which (as Richard Wasserstrom puts it) there is no social significance assigned to biological sex. Gender categories, because they cover so many facets of life -- intellectual interests, modes of dress, choice of career, aesthetic preferences -- serve to regiment human difference. So if you know that someone likes big trucks and is the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, you can predict that that person's favorite movie is not Steel Magnolias. In a world without gender, human differences would be much less systematic -- people would thus be more different from each other than they currently are. Thus I think that the question you pose involves a false dilemma. One can admit -- indeed, insist -- that we are not inherently the same and still work to eliminate gender differences. The question is not "shall we have one or two different kinds of people?" but rather "shall we let people be fully themselves or not?"

Do you think that gender roles are socially constructed? I realize it's

Do you think that gender roles are socially constructed? I realize it's reductionist not to consider both the biological and the social influences, but I was wondering which could be said to have a greater effect on average, and what arguments would support this. Is there any inherent difference between male and female mannerisms (not thought patterns, because I believe that the differences there have been established empirically, as far as these things can be), or are they assumed gradually due to social pressures and expectations? Also excuse my English! Thank you, Isabella

It is as you say difficult to know how one would unwind social and biological factors in determining gender roles, or indeed a whole variety of other roles also. If people were brought up in a rather different manner from the norm, and then exhibited rather different gender expectations and behavior, that would be suggestive of the significance of the social. These experiments are easier to carry out on animals, of course, and there does seem to be some evidence there that gender roles are to a large degree social and not natural. Many philosophers would want to query the radical distinction that sometimes is held to obtain between the social and the natural in any case. Even if a particular gender distinction is natural, that does not mean that we should make it, or act in accordance with it. Civilization is often taken to be the curbing of the natural by the social, and so even if it is natural for me to act as a brutish male, I hope I resist the temptation as far as I can.

Bonjour, I am considered an attractive 26 year old woman. I have at times been

Bonjour, I am considered an attractive 26 year old woman. I have at times been asked to model but never have. I find our culture's obsession with beauty unappealing and it has led me to sort of play down my beauty in dress. Should I be worried or at least concious of society and its issues around beauty? Or should I just strive to be the most beautiful I can be, disregarding other things, purely for the sake of aesthetics?

I don't disagree with the first respondent, but I'll give you a somewhat different response, and taking my cue from the 'Bonjour' with which you open, will give it en français. (If the cue was misleading, I'll be happy to translate subsequently!) Premièrement, la beauté est une chose rare et précieuse, et ceux ou celles qui s'en réjouissent ne devrait jamais se sentir coupable à son égard. Deuxièmement, même si la beauté n'était qu'une affaire d'esthétique, qui dit que l'esthétique est moins importante que l'éthique, ou que l'esthétique ne comprend pas, d'une certaine optique, un aspect éthique? (Certainement pas Kant!) Troisièmement, personne n'arrive vraiment à négliger ou à nier complètement les valeurs de la societé entourante; de plus, ces valeurs ne sont jamais avec du moins une certaine justification. Quatrièmement, c'est vrai que la beauté ouvre beaucoup de portes qui autrement resteraient fermées, mais ce n'est pas la sagesse de refuser d'y entrer pour cette raison seule; on n'a que d'y entrer avec circonspection, et sans aveuglement. Cinquièmement, pour en finir, je dirais que la vie de mannequin n'est pas, tout bien consideré, une vie souhaitable, mais qu'on peut quand même tirer de la satisfaction du fait qu'on vous l'avait proposée...

Put otherwise: First, beauty is a rare and precious thing, and those who possess it should never be made to feel guilty about it. Secondly, even if beauty is only an aesthetic matter, who says that aesthetics is less important than ethics, or at any rate, that aesthetics does not include, viewed from a certain angle, an ethical aspect? (Certainly not Kant!) Thirdly, no one can entirely succeed in ignoring or denying the values of the society around them, and those values are also never without at least some justification. Fourthly, it's true that beauty opens many a door that would otherwise remain closed, but it's not wise to refuse to enter them just for that reason, provided one enters circumspectly and without self-deception. Fifthly, to conclude, I would say that the life of a model is not, all things considered, something to wish for, but even so, one can derive some satisfaction from the fact of having been asked...

Is "Patriarchy" as a corrupting force in society that oppresses women an

Is "Patriarchy" as a corrupting force in society that oppresses women an unfalsifiable theory? I can measure sexism. I can measure bigotry. I can describe a society without sexism. I don't know how to measure patriarchy. I don't know how to describe a society without patriarchy that is just not a description of society without sexism. And yet, I am told that patriarchy is not merely sexism.

As is so often the case in philosophy, so much depends upon how one defines the relevant terms. "Sexism," like racism, is a rather vague concept, or at least a concept with a fairly large number of meanings. So, with any interlocutor you're dealing with, it would be important to acknowledge the definitions in play. I take it that those with whom you've been discussing the issue have claimed something like, "Some patriarchy is not objectionable" or "Some patriarchy is benign."

Certainly. as a term of social science, "patriarchy" should remain as free of moral judgment as possible. In that scientific sense, a society might be described as "patriarchal" without implying a moral judgment about that society. In such a case, however, "patriarchy" is not sexism at all. (Here I'm using "sexism" as a term that carries moral judgment and is not a scientific term.) Rather, patriarchy in a scientific sense is just a certain kind of social structure, one where, let's say, men rule women.

Or perhaps there is a relativistic moral claim at work in what you've been told that turns on the variety of societies, tribal formations, etc. Such a position might use the term, "patriarchy," in a non-scientific way to make the moral judgment that patriarchy is not always bad. In this sense, one might argue that while "patriarchy" might be considered pernicious in some societies, it is not considered so in others. In fact, even in the moral terms of our own society, there are other societies where patriarchy seems to function in a morally good or neutral way. I do think there are many societies (even most) where patriarchy is widely approved. But I must confess that I'm not familiar with a society where's I find this to be a good thing. Perhaps someone with more anthropological knowledge might introduce me to one.

For the sake of an answer to your question here, I wish to use "patriarchy" as a term of moral judgment. Using it in this way, I'd rather advance the converse of what you've been told about patriarchy, what you've been told being the claim that "Not all patriarchy is sexism" or "Some patriarchy is not sexism." Instead, I'd argue that, at least in contemporary Western societies, not all sexism is patriarchy, but all patriarchy is sexism. All patriarchy is sexism because the subordination of women to men is morally indefensible. But some sexism involves issues beyond rule or domination. Sexism does involve domination and subordiination, in particular the subordination of women to men. But it also, I think, involves the limitation of women and men to distinct or separate social roles (what anthropologists, I believe, call more neutrally, "sexual dimorphism"). So, while subordinating women is sexist, assigning women (and men) to certain roles (for example, child care or elementary school teaching) while excluding them from others (say, philosophy professorships) is also sexism, even where those roles may command comparable power.

These sorts of things seem measurable. We can measure, for example, the extent to which women hold positions of power in society (such as CEOs of corporations, government posts, university boards of trustees, holdings of property and wealth). We can also measure the extent to which women and men occupy different roles or perform different functions (caregiver, nurse, physician, lawyer, judge). So, patriarchy can be measured through the methods these sorts of matters can be measured.

Finally, I'd point out that some have defined patriarchy not only as (a) the subordination of women to men but also as (b) the subordination of younger men to older men. One might argue, then, that while the subordination of women to men is sexism, the subordination of the young to the old is not. The subordination of younger men to older men, then, would be patriarchal but not sexist. In any case, the moral standing of this second dimension of patriarchy is, I think, morally complex. For the most part (but not always) I think it morally indefensible, as well.

I am impressed by the attempt of some pro-sex thinkers to bring together

I am impressed by the attempt of some pro-sex thinkers to bring together anarchism and feminism, particularly with regard to the controversial issue of pornography. Since I agree with them that freedom is the guiding principle, I also agree that pornography, like any other form of sexual expression, should be considered morally and legally permissible as long as it is consensual. However, given that anarchism is libertarian socialism, it seems that this principle of liberty should be extended to embrace the ideal of a society (or a network of communities) acceptable to all, including those who wish to be free from pornography, or certain types of it. When, for example, women are involuntarily exposed to men's pornography in the workplace, or on a mass scale in popular culture, can the argument not be made that pornography is then transformed from a private consensual activity into sexual harassment or forced sexist propaganda which violates women's own freedom and sexual autonomy? Could we not, then,...

Yes, in short, I think you're right about restricting the display of pornography while preserving the liberty of those who wish access to it. And isn't that just the kind of balance that is often sought. Pornographic materials are sold from separate rooms of shops, encased in opaque wrappings, excluded from billboards--but access to them for those who wish to acquire them is often in many parts of the U.S., anyway, nevertheless not unreasonably difficult to obtain.

It's a tricky thing to figure, however, this balance. On the one hand, there is the liberty interest of those who choose to acquire pornography; and clearly many people find it enjoyable. Arguably, there is also a general political value to pornographic materials insofar as they are part of the conversation about what proper sexual morality and proper sexual expression should be. On the other hand those who find pornography obnoxious have an interest in not being harmed in the sense of embarrassed or annoyed or grossed out by it. Parents, indeed the whole community, have an interest in preventing children from being exposed to it, at least because children like to imitate what they see. Some have even argued that because pornography is more than offensive (i.e. it is degrading, exploitative, causes violence, causes psychological harm) there is a public interest in shielding people from it--just as there is a public interest in shielding people from chemical pollution.

Besides issues of harm, however, there is also the commonly overlooked interest in not being distracted unnecessarily. Sexual representations have a way of arresting people's attention and even arousing them against their wills. For the same reason it's rude to eat in front of others without offering them food (sometimes even if one offers food), it's rude to present them with sexual representations when they wish not to be distracted or aroused. It's interesting to think, in this regard, why people eat in public (at restaurants, etc.) but don't have sex in public. Of course, in the past sex had been a more public affair than it is now, but never so far as I know in the way eating is public. There are many reasons for this, I think, but one is that sex is so powerful in its ability to disrupt other human activities. Consider, how different it is to sit next to someone in a movie theater eating popcorn from the way it would be to sit next to someone in an ordinary movie theater having sex.

When I was a feminist member of a conservative church, I adopted an anti

When I was a feminist member of a conservative church, I adopted an anti-pornography feminism as a way of reconciling my religion with my leftist values, but when I became an agnostic, I found myself moving towards sex-positive feminism (although retaining a role for the other kind of feminism within the public domain, or wherever the bounds of freedom and mutual consent would be exceeded by the production or display of pornography). Given its tendency to elicit support from the religious right, does anti-pornography feminism, especially of the more dogmatic type which assumes rather than proves harm from pornography, betray a quasi-religious and sex-negative world-view?

In response to the question, posed at the end---"Given its tendency to elicit support from the religious right, does anti-pornography feminism, especially of the moredogmatic type which assumes rather than proves harm from pornography,betray a quasi-religious and sex-negative world-view?"---I would argue, and have argued, "Yes." There is a type of anti-pornography feminism that assumes rather than defends with reasonable arguments that pornography of all types is harmful in various ways (or it refuses to investigate carefully the issue); this anti-pornography feminism is abundantly sex-negative (making the mistake, for example, of turning a romanticized and stereotypical feminine asexuality into feminism); and it does not differ appreciably from the religious and politically conservative critiques of pornography. I argue this at length in my 2002 book, Pornography,Sex, and Feminism (Prometheus), although additional and important parts of the argument can be found in Chapter Six of my Sexual Investigations (New YorkUniversity Press, 1996) and in the section on Rae Langton in my Philosophyof the Social Sciences 29, #3 (1999), pp. 354-88.

People equate certain qualities with femininity. E.g. soft, irrational,

People equate certain qualities with femininity. E.g. soft, irrational, emotional. On the other hand, certain other qualities are equated with masculinity: e.g. hard, rational, analytical. Some feminists have said that this is an example of prejudice towards women: firstly, those qualities are largely viewed as negative, secondly, the 'male' qualities are held in higher esteem than the 'female' qualities. It seems to me that men can be just as emotional or irrational as women - but apart from this, is the connotation with those things an accident or is it purposeful and does it actually lead to prejudice? Some people also complain that words associated with blackness - darkness, black, etc, are used negatively and that is racist. Is that actually true or is it a stretch?

Masculinity and femininity have been associated with different properties at different times and in different cultures. Despite all this variation, however, that which is associated with masculinity is valued, and is often identified with the human, while that which is associated with the feminine is given lesser status and is often identified with the "other than" or "less than" human. These symbolic associations operate in many areas of inquiry, including in philosophy. As you note, these associations often don't reflect reality: men are indeed just as emotional as women and just as irrational! However, feminists think we should be worried about them for two reasons: First, they feed into the social construction of gender identity, so that they have psychological and social consequences for men and women who try to live up to the gender ideals they represent. Second, gender metaphors and associations can shape inquiry, making some questions seem pressing, hiding others from view, and bridging what would otherwise appear to be gaps in arguments. (For example, why did it take so long for there to be serious inquiry into the positive contributions that emotions make to our rationality? One possible answer is that emotion has been associated with the feminine and hence with the irrational.) The use of gender metaphors within an area of inquiry can have an ideological function; that is, it can give rise to theories that ratify current gender relations of dominance and subordination. (Sociobiology provides a much-discussed example of how this works.) For these reasons, I don't think we should think of them as "mere associations", or "mere metaphors." Metaphorical uses of "blackness" can play a similar role and so need to be treated with equal suspicion.

I'm a female philosophy student, and I had an argument with my sister about the

I'm a female philosophy student, and I had an argument with my sister about the lack of female philosophers taught in college classes. She claimed that this was because of current sexism in the field of philosophy -- the mostly male philosophy professors disregard many great female philosophers and don't teach them. I thought that it was just a product of past sexism -- there historically haven't been many women in the field of philosophy, and therefore very few great female philosophers. Who's right? And if there aren't great female philosophers, should texts by women be taught anyway, as a kind of affirmative action?

I doubt that philosophy has ever harbored more sexism than any other academic discipline, now or in its history. But sexism has nonetheless played a role in keeping women from doing philosophy, and from being taken seriously when they tried. And this is still true, to a discouraging extent.

I work in the philosophy of mind, and in epistemology, sub-fields where women are less well represented than in ethics or history. The main thing I do to combat sexism -- including my own -- is to work hard at "microenvironmental" issues that are known to have a negative effect on women's participation in intellectual activities. I take care to notice if women have their hands up, to acknowledge and follow up on their comments, to attribute their good points to them by name, and to see that they have as much time to develop their points in discussion as men do. I try to get women, in other words, to see philosophy as belonging to them as much as it does to men.

As for readings: they are still mostly works by men, but there are, as Richard Heck points out, lots of important works in my field by women, so I needn't go out of my way to get women represented in the syllabus.

And I just let it go when students refer to Hilary Putnam as "she."

I have a problem with Hegel's theory which said: the difference between men and

I have a problem with Hegel's theory which said: the difference between men and women are like the difference between animals and plants, men are like animals and women are like plants because women are more sensitive than men and they are dependent on their feelings so they cannot make a good decision as a government member. I know this theory is for Hegel's period but why a famous philosopher like him said some thing nonsense, why did not he worth for women? Why most of the philosophers are man??

If you think that's bad, you should try reading Hume, particularly, "On Modesty". Hume there explains why it's morally required for women but not men to have but one sexual partner!

Hegel, Hume, and the rest were human beings, and their opinions are just as likely to be infected by prejudice, ignorance, and self-interest as are those of any of us mortals. (One might say the same kind of thing, by the way, about Saint Paul and the other authors of scripture, all of whom were also numbered among us mortals.) Of course, it's part of being a reflective person to struggle to uncover such sources of bias. Hegel and Hume failed in this particular instance. I expect that says more about how deeply rooted sexism was in their cultures than it does about them personally. And, of course, their cultures were the antecedents of our own, so there's something to be learned here about our own culture, too.

As for the question why most philosophers are men, I'm sure you can guess the answer to that question. Although the field is much more diverse now than it was, philosophy, like most academic disciplines, was utterly dominated by men until not very long ago. It will take some time until the imbalance is corrected, and for lots of different reasons. Some of these involve continuing bias within the profession. (I've certainly known colleagues in my time who were essentially incapable of working with women.) There are also larger societal issues that are relevant, and I strongly suspect that the kinds of choices people make about what they want to do with their lives play a role, as well.

But, as I said, things are much better than they once were. At the moment, women in philosophy are concentrated in moral philosophy and history of philosophy, and many of the leading young people in these areas are women. I don't know what the numbers are in these sub-fields—someone's probably got them—but I suspect a very large percentage of recent graduates are women, and I wouldn't be shocked to hear that we were approaching something close to parity. Women are less numerous in metaphysics and epistemology, philosophy of language and mind, philosophy of science and mathematics, and so on. Not that there aren't good women in these areas: There are (and some of them are even on our panel). But women are less numerous in these areas, by and large, and one would have to work harder to identify women who were, say, under forty and regarded as likely to be leaders of their generation of philosophers of mind, say, than one would to identify such women in history of modern or ethics. Why that is is itself a nice question. Whatever the answer, it's presumably not too different from the answer to the question why the hard sciences themselves continue to be dominated by men.

Is feminism falsifiable?

Is feminism falsifiable?

'Feminism' can mean at least a couple of different things.

(1) As the view that women and men should have equal rights, or are owed equal respect, it's as falsifiable or unfalsifiable as any other moral/political position, e.g. that people should have equal rights or be given equal respect, irrespective of their race. Your question about feminism as a moral or political view raises more fundamental questions: are moral statements statements of fact? or are they expressions of approval or disapproval? or just claims as to how people should behave? If they are claims about how people should behave, are they grounded in the view that so behaving would make everyone better off, or that such behaviour alone gives due recognition to the relevant parties moral status, or that good, well-adjusted people would behave in such a way?

(2) As the view that women and men have equal capacities, feminism should be falsifiable: either women and men do, or don't have equal capacities, and we should be able to examine them to determine the answer. But there are real difficulties with doing this. First, there are lots of different capacities (depending on how you divide things up: e.g. there's the capacity to do mathematics, but also the capacity to do trigonometry and to calculate compound interest--two capacities, or one?) It doesn't seem that all of these capacities are equally important, or equally important in every context (compare the capacity to jump very high, the capacity to resolve social conflict, and the capacity to solve chemical structures). So how are we to measure whether women’s and men’s capacities are equal? If we could list capacities in some value-neutral way, and if we compared women and men on each of these, would our result be meaningful? Second, what we can measure is performance, and there may be lots of reasons that performance doesn’t accurately reflect capacities: the tests may be biased, or people with certain backgrounds may underperform because e.g. they think they’re bad at tests, or aren’t used to taking tests.

There’s lots more to say about this (and there are also varieties of feminism that what I’ve said above doesn’t quite fit). If you’d like to think about this further, I can recommend the book which I found really helpful when I was started to think about feminism:

Alison Jaggar’s Feminist Politics and Human Nature, Totowa, N.J: Rowman & Allanheld, and Brighton, U.K: Harvester Press, 1983.