Why philosophy needs feminism

What follows is the text from my contribution to a panel entitled “Why We Need Feminism Today in America” at Loyola University New Orleans on March 2, 2016.

The topic of the panel is, of course, why we need feminism in America today, and that topic invites a question: What is feminism? Well, that sounds like a good question for a philosopher. Now, I’ll address that question in just a moment. Having done so, I’ll move on to my main topic: why philosophy needs feminism. Finally, I’ll conclude by making a suggestion about why feminism might need philosophy (or at least benefit from it).

Here’s a schematic answer that captures my understanding of the term “feminism”: Feminism is both a social movement and a research project that aims at liberating (and helping people to liberate themselves) from oppression and other forms of injustice based on their sex or gender. That’s a mouthful, but it will be important to what follows, so I’ll repeat it: I understand feminism to be both a social movement and a research project that aims at liberating (and helping people to liberate themselves) from oppression and other forms of injustice based on their sex or gender.

Three further points seem apposite here. First, feminism has, for most of its history, focused on the oppression of women. But as our understanding of sex and gender becomes more nuanced, there’s plenty of room for feminism to expand in order to incorporate greater diversity and granularity. Perhaps someday we’ll decide that feminism needs a new name to reflect this development, but I take a wait-and-see attitude on that point.

Second, other concepts that are central to feminism – such as oppression, liberation, and justice – admit of more than one reasonable interpretation. For instance, some feminists think that women can be free from oppression under capitalism, while others think that this way of organizing economic life is inherently patriarchal. The debate between bourgeois feminism and socialist feminism is an interesting one, but I want to stress here that the debate, and many others like it, illustrates the vitality and fecundity of feminism, not its incoherence, as one sometimes hears. The imposition of a uniform code of beliefs on specific means, for example, for how the liberation of women is to be achieved, it seems to me, is entirely out of keeping with the nature of feminism. Feminists, as I see them, are united by an end (liberation from oppression and injustice), not by any particular means.

Third and finally, the term “feminism” is often accompanied by an adjective – for example, black feminism or queer feminism. We might call this phenomenon the “adjectivizing of feminism.” And this adjectivizing has come about in part because feminists have come to see, with greater and greater clarity, that in both theory and practice it can be quite difficult to separate oppression and injustice based on sex and gender from oppression and injustice based race, ethnicity, class, ability, sexual preference, and the like.

The “adjectivizing of feminism” has lead some to want to speak of feminisms – that’s feminism with a “s” at the end to indicate plurality. I think this kind of talk is fine, as long as it doesn’t distract us from the fact that feminism has a central identity. So, to take two examples at random, according to me, ecofeminists and postcolonial feminists are not distant relatives; they’re siblings working toward a common goal.

So why, then, does philosophy need feminism? Consider this rather arresting fact: In western philosophy (the only philosophical tradition about which I’m qualified to speak) from its beginnings in about 600 BCE to, let’s say, WWII, history records almost no important women philosophers. Or, at little more precisely, we know of next to no important women philosophers from this period of roughly 25 centuries. Moreover, the attitudes taken toward women in about 96% of the history of philosophy ranges from the comically oblivious to the ridiculously misinformed to the sinisterly misogynist. Of course, there have been important exceptions. At a time when women were not even eligible for citizenship in his own state, Plato seriously entertained the possibility that a woman should occupy the highest position in the government of the best possible state – provided, or course, that she was a philosopher. And if being ruled by a philosopher doesn’t sound that great to you, it’s probably preferable to some of our options after Super Tuesday.

At any rate, you’ll be happy to know that things have gotten better. I suspect it’s no accident that women have taken a much larger role in academic philosophy over the last 5 decades or so, a time in which feminism really came into its own. In my own areas of specialty (moral theory and applied ethics) women philosophers are almost as common as men. The proliferation of excellent women philosophers has nothing to do with a change in human nature. It came about simply because women are now able to participate in academic philosophy.

Furthermore, the expression of a misogynist attitude in a paper today would be good grounds for its rejection from any self-respecting journal or similar form of publication. Mind you, there’s still plenty of work to be done. Women are far less common among philosophy professors once one moves outside of moral theory and applied ethics. So philosophy certainly still needs feminism as a corrective against sex and gender imbalance and unfairness.

Moreover, women are underrepresented among undergraduate philosophy majors and in graduate programs of philosophy. But many of you in this audience can do something about this: Signing up for my intro to philosophy course is a feminist act! I look forward to seeing you next fall.

But let me stress that there is more at stake here than the need for fairness within what is, as a matter of fact, a pretty small group of rather privileged people who spend their lives teaching and doing scholarship in universities. Philosophy needs feminism, not only because it needs to treat people equitably on the basis of sex and gender; philosophy needs feminism because it is the search for the deepest and most fundamental truths at which any of us can hope to arrive. And the search will be hampered – perhaps even rendered impossible – without the collective wisdom of what we used to call mankind, but have now quite properly have learned to call humanity. Our understanding of what makes a community and a state good has benefited enormously from including women in the conversation, as has our understanding, for example, of the nature of knowledge and of identity. We have feminism to thank for that. And we will owe it more thanks in the future.

Let me just conclude by offering a hint or two about why feminism might need philosophy too. Philosophy involves the careful analysis of concepts and of arguments. Philosophy is especially useful when one is trying to determine when concepts are incoherent and when arguments are unsound or invalid, much as I was doing a few moments ago when I offered a definition of feminism. Now, incoherent concepts can – and do – oppress those who posses them, while unsound arguments can – and do – institute and perpetuate injustices. One way in which philosophy can advance the goals of feminism is to expose oppressive concepts and unsound arguments that are parts of systems of injustice. Logic can be – and is – a tool of liberation. So there’s yet another way that signing up for my intro to philosophy course next fall is a feminist act.

Let me thank you for your attention as well as thank Dr. Boyett for organizing this panel and the other speakers on the panel for sharing it with me.


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