Jonathan Wolff: Blavatnik School of Government
Theory of Politics: Gender Lecture Notes, February 2018
Note, some of the material below is taken from my Introduction to Moral Philosophy (Norton 2018) and from the editorial material in my Readings in Moral Philosophy (Norton 2018)
1 General Background: Standpoint Epistemology
Many different issues concerning gender are now discussed within philosophy, and even within political philosophy. Here the focus is gender injustice. However, it connects with many broader themes, at various points.
In thinking about any question of systematic oppression and disadvantage, it can be very helpful to have an understanding of what is commonly called ‘standpoint epistemology’ although this is something of a grand name for a familiar idea that dates back at least to Karl Marx, and no doubt before. The basic starting point is that some people are situated in a socially privileged position, but generally do not wish to believe that their privilege is the result of their having acted unjustly, or having been complicit in injustice, or even having benefited from others acting unjustly. There is, therefore, a common tendency for those in a privileged position to construct narratives to justify, or in some other way mask, their privilege, or the role of injustice in the creation or preservation of privilege.
Historically, justification has often been a matter of appealing to religious sources, or to natural ability, or to principles of desert, effort or entitlement, or to the longer-term interests of those subjected. Sometimes the justification takes the form of the inevitability of the current arrangements, with no viable alternative. These arguments exist in common discourse, but are also to be seen in various forms, both in elaborate arguments and assumed in passing, in philosophical texts.
Standpoint epistemology suggests that those from a subordinate position are very likely to have a clearer view of the facts, as they do not need to tell myths to attempt to justify their own position. G.A. Cohen explains this in the context of a common criticism of Marx’s theory of ideology. On some readings of Marx, all moral and political views are an ideological reflex of material conditions, rather than candidates for truth. But if that is so, how can Marxism, or the complaints of the proletariat, be any more than ideological? Hence Marxism is accused of failure according to its own standards. If nothing can provide an objective standpoint, Marxism cannot either. Cohen replies that for Marx, capitalist ideology has exactly the character of a set of justifying myths the bourgeoisie tell themselves (and pay economists and philosophers to develop and defend for them) to explain why capitalism is just. However, from the standpoint of the proletariat the hollowness of those justifications is very apparent. The proletariat, as critic, has no interest in the system to defend, and so has far less reason to engage in distorted moral reasoning than those in a privileged position. (Cohen 2013) This generalises to all those in an oppressed or dominated position standing up against the power and privilege of others. To put it simply, the moral perceptions of the oppressed are more acute than those of their oppressors.
Of course, the possibility of accurate criticism does not mean that those in subordinate positions will find it easy to speak, or to find an audience, or to bring about change. Power works against them. The silencing of critics has itself has been said to constitute ‘epistemic injustice’ (Fricker 2007). Nevertheless, the oppressed are in a position to explode the myths that (falsely) support the position of the privileged.
But this does not mean that the oppressed will never mythologise their oppression, and the privileged will jump to this attempted explanation of criticism in order to undermine it (for example, that the poor complain about injustice to hide their laziness). Nevertheless, it is often reasonable to give the arguments of the oppressed special weight, and the benefit of the burden of the argument. They may have some reason to tell myths, but much less than the oppressor.
So far, the argument from standpoint has been presented in generic form, but it has been used very effectively by generations of feminists, arguing that social codes, practices, language and many other aspects of society embody and reinforce male privilege and power to the disadvantage of women. It is not necessary to know that one’s argument falls under this type to deploy it, of course, and I will discuss various arguments that could fall under this head. The general idea, though, is that the oppressed can have a moral perception and perspicuity that the privileged lack: this is a sense in which the oppressed do have a form of privilege after all: a moral privilege.
Here’s one example. The early feminist Mary Astell in 1700 published a text called ‘Some Reflections on Marriage’, in which, among other things, she confronts arguments that supposedly justify a man’s domination over his wife in marriage. One such argument is that as God created Adam before Eve, Adam has right of dominion over Eve. Astell points out that according to Genesis the beasts and birds were created before Adam, but no-one supposes that this gives the beasts dominion over Adam (Astell, p. 21). Here we can see a classic deployment of standpoint epistemology. She acutely sees that men have cherry-picked part of the scriptures to defend their privilege, but as someone in the oppressed group she points out that other passages in the same text contradict the logic of the argument they give. Hence these are not neutral interpretations, but picked especially to try to defend the indefensible. She need not contest the authority of the scriptures, but can merely point out that they have been used in a baised and self-serving way.
2. Women in Western Political Thought (Okin 1979)
The status of women, in comparison with men, has been a theme in political philosophy from the beginnings. In The Republic, conscious that he was contradicting the received view, Plato argued that women should be able to accomplish the highest achievements and rank in society, alongside men. Plato argued that on average men would do better than women, but some outstanding women could get to the top. He didn’t stop to consider why men would do better on average, presumably assuming it to be a matter of natural ability. We will return to this later. But Plato’s view is in sharp contrast with Aristotle, who believed in ‘separate spheres’, with men excelling in the public sphere, and women in the domestic private sphere. There was no competition or comparison, simply a matter of being suited by nature for different types of roles. Of course, it was also assumed that the public sphere was superior, as were the talents that suited men for these roles.
Views that agree with Aristotle seem to have been dominant in philosophy and broader culture for more than 2,000 years. The general legal position regarding the relation between a husband and wife is nicely summarised by the commonly used phrase that in the English common law, husband and wife are one, and that one is the husband. Unmarried women often had more rights than married women, such as the right to hold property, which married women forfeited to their husband on marriage. However, even unmarried women did not have the vote until the 20th Century (earliest 1893 in New Zealand) and were barred from many professions.
Many of the most influential male philosophers of the modern period held views that purported to justify the subordinate position of women. I do not know of a significant male philosopher who explicitly argued for women’s equality until John Stuart Mill in 1869, although the early socialist tradition shows greater sympathy to the position of women in society than the mainstream.
3. Equality for Women
Christine de Pazan may be one of the earliest known published defenders of women’s equality, in her The Book of the City of Ladies published in 1405. Other early feminist writers include Mary Astell (mentioned above) who in 1704 laid down the challenge ‘If man is born free why are all women slaves?’ and asked why absolutism has been rejected everywhere except within marriage. On the standard philosophy curriculum the first feminist writer (in English) who has been exhaustively studied is Mary Wollstonecraft, who published A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792. Again on the standard curriculum she is followed by John Stuart Mill who published The Subjection of Women in 1869 (there is discussion and speculation about how much influence, even co-authorship Mill’s wife Harriet Taylor had over the authorship of this text).
The arguments from Wollstonecraft and Mill are at bottom simply the claim that there is no good reason to deny women the rights and opportunities enjoyed by men. Wollstonecraft argues that women have been socialised to be ‘alluring’ to men and to confine themselves to diminished roles. Wollstonecraft’s main claim is that women are educated not as human beings but to prepare them to fulfill feminine, subservient, roles in society. True, she says, men are typically physically stronger than women, but that alone cannot justify the many ways in which women are treated as inferiors. Women, she says, are kept in a state of perpetual childhood, utterly dependent on men, existing to serve them, and, at least for the wealthy women who are Wollstonecraft’s subject, kept in a state of leisure and idleness.
Instead, she argues, women need to be educated with the virtues that will allow for their independence. In addition to the good it will do for women themselves, it will make them better companions for their husbands. An independent woman can be a friend, rather than slave, of her husband, argues Wollstonecraft.
Mill catalogues the pervasiveness of male domination, especially within conventional marriage, and examines its detrimental effects on human happiness. He likens the tyranny of marriage to slavery: the absolute and deeply unjust power of husband over wife. Mill comments that with the ending of legal slavery in the United States, “Marriage is the only actual bondage known to our law. There remain no legal slaves, except the mistress of every house” (1869/1996, p. 197).
Mill offers many arguments for ending the tyranny and domination of men over women. He insisted that women had a right to equality. But he also appealed to utilitarian arguments, and here we can pick out four. These arguments all hold that utilitarianism demands the liberation of women because their subjection is detrimental to human happiness.
First, Mill argues that it is bad for men to grow up falsely believing in their superiority over women, for this “arrogance and overbearingness” (1869/1996, p. 199) and expectation of service is likely to lead to their own misery over time.
Second, by excluding women from employment in professions such as law and medicine, society is shunning half the potential talent pool. Therefore emancipation would have the effect of “doubling the mass of mental faculties available for the higher service of mankind” (p. 199).
Third, the utter economic dependence of wives on their husbands gave husbands a duty to adopt safe, conventional lifestyles. In Mill’s time married women could not own property, and from the moment of marriage a wife had to rely on her husband. According to Mill, having such responsibility for their wives and children led many men into quite conventional occupations. Mill claims that men became focused on accumulating resources to support their wife and provide an “advantageous match” (p. 207) for their daughters, rather than taking the risk of doing work that was more personally fulfilling or advocating unpopular causes. Mill worries that a man known for unconventional opinions would be shunned by polite society; this would then damage his daughters’ marriage prospects.
Finally, and perhaps most obviously, women in subjection lose, so argued Mill, “the most inspiriting and elevating kind of personal enjoyment,” as well as suffering “the weariness, disappointment, and profound dissatisfaction with life” which “dries up … the principal fountain of human happiness” (p. 215).
There is a mix of arguments here. Arguments one and three claim that men are worse off if women are subjugated, for they will become arrogant and make conservative choices. Argument two claims that society as a whole suffers if half its talent goes unused. And lastly, argument four—finally, an argument that concentrates on women’s interests—suggests that women will be much happier if they have a full range of opportunities and greater freedom. And, of course, female happiness is part of the general happiness. The utilitarian theory therefore encourages, even demands, liberation from oppression.
Mill’s utilitarian case relies on empirical claims, some of which appear stronger than others. Yet, the rights based case for equal rights for women, though resisted for most of human history, seems unanswerable, perhaps outside some strong theological views, and even there we have seen that the sacred texts can be interpreted very selectively. Yet it has been a constant theme in feminist writing since around the 1960s that equal rights, even where achieved, have not brought about equality. Sample inequalities, and there are many more, include the gender pay gap, harassment at work, and the depiction of women in popular culture (cf the Bechdel test for movies: to pass the test a film must include at least one scene in which two or more women talk to each other about a subject other than men: many movies fail).
We return, however, to Plato’s argument. It is interesting to ask why Plato believed that in a free competition a man would be more likely to win, even though occasionally a woman would shine through. In tests of physical strength this view may be fair enough, but what about other types of contests? What explains the statistical fact, true for most of human history and still true in many fields today, that men more often do better? One possibility would simply be that men are born on average more intelligent and more talented than women, and this would explain the statistical difference in achievement. However, if women have been raised in a sexist culture, they might be less successful for many reasons. Here are some (non-exhaustive) suggestions:
(a) They may have been denied the education and training that men have received
(b) They may not be offered the opportunities for work or advancement that are open to men
(c) They may have been taught to underestimate their abilities and not strive to do well in competition
(d) Others may underestimate their abilities too, and overlook them
(e) They may face simple discrimination.
Sexist social structures and sexist attitudes certainly impede women’s achievement in many other ways too. Although women today continue to achieve power or high office less often than men do, this tells us nothing about men and women’s relative talents.
4. Sex and Gender
Lurking in the background here has been the distinction between sex and gender, which is developed particularly in the work of Simone de Beauvoir, famously writing ‘One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman’. (de Beauvoir, 2011) The idea is that there is a distinction to be made between the biological categories of man and woman, and the socialised gender roles of male and female, with the derivatives, manly and feminine. Men are socialised into male roles, and are socially expected and encouraged to behave in a manly way, while woman should take on female roles and behave in a feminine way (note the similarities with Wollstonecraft’s analysis). Much of culture – popular and high – is a training ground giving models of manly and feminine behaviour, with deviance from these roles considered as troubling and in need of correction, or even punishment. This comes out very well in the title of Iris Marion Young’s important paper ‘Throwing Like A Girl’. Most people will instantly recognise that boys and girls typically throw a ball in different ways. If a boy is accused of throwing like a girl, it is a powerful insult. Describing a girl that way is somewhat more ambiguous: a weaker insult, though also somehow only what is to be expected, perhaps confirming their assigned second-rate status. Young argues that this exemplifies ways in which boys and men are encouraged and expected to be active and take up physical space, while girls and women are expected to be demure and passive.
How to react to the fact of differential socialised gender roles is contested. From the point of view of equality, it seems there is an urgent imperative to destigmatise ‘effeminate’ men, or ‘masculine’ women. But should we attempt to transcend gender altogether? Is that even possible? Or would it be better to attempt to revalue gender roles, to remove the notion that one role is superior to another, but to encourage individuals to adopt the gender identity, including transgender identity, that suits them best? Or is some other response possible?
5. The Ethics of Care
One place in which different gender roles have been claimed to have been observed is that of moral decision making, where the ‘ethics of justice’ has been contrasted with ‘the ethics of care’. This originates in the important work of developmental psychologist Carol Gilligan, and has been taken up by many others, including Nel Noddings (who has a background in nursing ethics) and Eva Fedder Kittay (who has been very influential in her writings on profound intellectual disability).
The starting point of the ethics of care is the work of developmental psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg, who produced a theory of stages of moral development according to which moral maturity consists in understanding universal moral principles of a very abstract nature that apply to a wide range of circumstances. Gilligan calls this ‘the ethics of justice’. John Rawls’s theory of justice, or utilitarianism, or some forms of Kantian ethics would fall under this heading. Gilligan contrasts it with the ‘ethics of care’, involving emotional engagement and personal relations, especially the caring relations of love, sympathy, and empathy. Kohlberg had dismissed this type of moral thinking as representing a lower level of development. In contrast, Gilligan suggests that the ethics of principle is a ‘male’ way of approaching ethical questions, while the ethics of care a ‘female’ approach. Noddings perceptively adds that from the perspective of care ethics, “It is important to understand that we are not primarily interested in judging but, rather, in heightening moral perception and sensitivity” (1984/2013, p. 89). In other words, the ethic of care is not so much concerned with providing a list of moral instructions as with helping people develop the sensitivity to approach moral questions for themselves. Gilligan officially appears to regard the two approaches as not ranked in any particular order of superiority (unlike Kohlberg) yet she also seems to hint that the ethics of care is superior, at least in some cases.
To understand the difference between the ethics of care and the ethics of justice it is helpful to look at Gilligan’s famous interviews with two 11 year old children Jake and Amy. The best known example concerns the fictional moral dilemma of “Heinz” who is contemplating stealing a drug that he cannot afford in order to save his wife’s life. When asked whether Heinz should steal the drug, Jake is clear that Heinz is morally permitted to do so, because “a life is worth more than money.” Amy, on the other hand, says:
Well, I don’t think so. I think there might be other ways besides stealing it, like if he could borrow the money or make a loan or something, but he really shouldn’t steal the drug—but his wife shouldn’t die either.
If he stole the drug, he might save his wife then, but if he did, he might have to go to jail, and then his wife might get sicker again, and he couldn’t get more of the drug, and it might not be good. So, they should really just talk it out and find some other way to make the money. (Gilligan, 1993, p. 28)
Amy’s more reflective and concerned approach seems much more mature than Jake’s simple formula, and is said to exemplify the ethics of care.
When caring goes well, it is not a sacrifice. Many of the demands of caring are not felt as demands. They are, says Noddings, the occasions that make life worth living. Ethical caring extends beyond the relations you have with your family, for caring relations can arise with strangers. This action often involves learned behavior rather than being instinctual or natural, but it bears many of the marks of natural caring. Here we need to be careful to distinguish caring from caregiving, which can be professionalized, as it is in homes for the elderly—and notoriously, can be done without caring. Of course, there is no denying that caregiving within the family can be hostile and grudging—or that professional caregiving is often very caring or even loving.
A further important feature of the ethics of care is that rather than considering emotion as an impediment to clear thought, as Kant did, it regards emotion as a key element in moral perception and thinking. In a fascinating observation, Noddings points out that when we are engaged in a moral dialogue with others, we want to look into their eyes and see their changing facial expressions (Noddings, 2013). Often people communicate more by tightening their facial muscles, or using uncomfortable body language, than by uttering any number of articulate verbal expressions. Anxiety, relief, pleasure, fear, and a host of other feelings are at the centre of our moral experience. They enhance our moral understanding and can convey it to others rather than being an obstacle to experience and communication.
It does seem that Gilligan has pointed out something vital. Moral and political philosophies based on the application of abstract rational principles seem to have little room for human relations, emotion, and moral complexity. At the same time, for some feminists the ethics of care has set off alarm bells. There is a clear contrast between the ethics of principle and the ethics of care, but is it right to identify principle with masculine reasoning and care with feminine reasoning? This sounds like the dismissive attitude toward women all over again, except with the care element revalued as equal or superior. Such an approach is often called essentialist, assuming that male and female natures are essentially different, but also inescapable. Yet essentialism of this type is itself a common target of feminist critics who argue that social conditioning, not nature, may be behind different gender attitudes and roles. To push Gilligan’s point too far is to play back into the hands of those who say that women are not capable of rational thought in the same way as men.
Annette Baier writes:
Some find it retrograde to hail as a special sort of moral wisdom an outlook that may be the product of the socially enforced restriction of women to domestic roles (and the reservation of such roles for them alone). For that might seem to play into the hands of those who still favor such restriction. (1987, p. 44)
Gilligan did not want to argue for the extreme essentialist position that men are by nature hardwired to adopt the ethics of principle and women the ethics of care. She noted that when prompted the right way, men and women do adopt both the ethics of principle and the ethics of care. However, many will accept the crude generalization that women are more attuned and sensitized to the ethics of care and men to the ethics of principle. Whether this notion is actually true is an interesting question. In a subtle critique, some have suggested that it is not even true that men and women reason differently; but it is true that men and women think that men and women reason differently. That is, we are partially blinded by stereotypes and do not see things as they are.
Nevertheless, the insights of the ethics of care can be applied in a non-essentialist fashion as an important supplement to the ethics of justice or principle, as a way of deepening and enriching our moral perceptions and understanding. The main question is not whether the ethics of care should constitute the whole of a feminist approach to justice or whether it is one part of more pluralist picture,
6. Feminist Political Theory After The Ethics of Care
Feminist moral and political philosophy, at various times, can be characterised as being coalesced around some key themes. Those I have picked out so far are, first, the demand for equality; second, the distinction between sex and gender; and third the ethics of care. All of these remain important to feminist theory as it develops further. For that, and perhaps other reasons, it is much harder to pick out a single dominant theme today, for there are many strands to feminist political thought. They do, however, have certain commonalities, one of which was put very well, if a little cryptically, by Sandra Harding, who wrote “Should feminism set such a low goal as mere equality with men?” (1986, p. 21). Harding is, in effect, rejecting the ‘default male’ assumption that dominated early thinking about gender and justice, in which equality with men was the goal for feminists. Harding, in common with many others, asks whether that is that the right target.
Audrey Lorde says: “Somewhere, on the edge of consciousness, there is what I call a mythical norm, which each one of us within our hearts knows ‘that is not me.’ In America this norm is usually defined as white, thin, male, young, heterosexual, Christian and financially secure. It is with this mythical norm that the trappings of power reside within this society.” (Lorde 2007, 116). The issue is to question whether it should be the aspiration of all to achieve this idealized male ‘default’ position, or something close to it. The response is that there are many ways of living a good life. The default male may not even be an attractive model, and there are distinctively female models worthy of aspiration. This is part of the motivation of the ethics of care, but can be exemplified in many ways, such as in more radical feminist ‘separatism’ discussed, for example, by Marilyn Frye in which one model for women is to try to remove themselves, as much as possible, from the world of men. (1983).
Frye, in fact, has produced a very important image for thinking about contemporary elements in feminist theory, in her image of a birdcage. No single wire in a birdcagcage explains why the bird cannot escape, but the wires of the cage together create a trap. Frye suggests that for women and other disadvantaged groups, our world is like that. No single factor explains women’s unequal experience of the world, but many factors working together.
It is only when you step back, stop looking at the wires one by one, microscopically, and take a macroscopic view of the whole cage, that you can see why the bird does not go anywhere; and then you will see it in a moment. It will require no great subtlety of mental powers. It is perfectly obvious that the bird is surrounded by a network of systematically related barriers, no one of which would be the least hindrance to its flight, but which, by their relations to each other, are as confining as the solid walls of a dungeon. (Frye, 1983, p. 5)
This is immensely insightful. Consider, for example, feminists who argue that pornography reinforces male domination. The general point that pornography can have that effect is sometimes conceded, but the argument is dismissed as unimportant. Banning pornography wouldn’t make things any better; countries that do ban pornography often have greater male domination; other aspects of the social world, such as advertising and sexual harassment, are even worse, and so on. But we can see this is like saying that a single wire in the birdcage has no effect. Even if the wire was removed, the bird would still be trapped. But that, of course, does not entail that it is not part of what traps the bird. Pornography is not necessary for women’s oppression, it is not sufficient, but, in the argument of some, it contributes to it.
So let us consider pornography as a potential wire in the birdcage that oppresses women. This argument has been made very powerfully by Catherine MacKinnon, who opposes an argument that regards pornography as a type of speech that is protected by the first amendment of the American Constitution. MacKinnon, with Andrea Dworkin, drafted a possible new human rights ordinance on pornography for Minneapolis. It is important to keep in mind that MacKinnon and Dworkin define pornography as “graphic sexually explicit subordination of women through pictures or words that also includes women dehumanized as sexual objects.” It is distinguished from erotica, which involves sexually explicit materials, but not subordination (MacKinnon, 1985).
MacKinnon’s main case is that pornography, so understood, oppresses women. Hence she is not especially interested in arguments regarding obscenity, but rather relates pornography to power and powerlessness. She considers how pornography is made; how it is used; and the effect it has on gender relations in society. First, her studies show that women who take part especially in violent pornography sometimes do so under extreme coercion, to the point of rape and even murder. Second, pornography has been implicated in very serious sex crimes and influences the type of sex men force on their partners. Third, and in the main argument of the paper, pornography eroticizes dominance and submission and in doing so celebrates and reinforces gender oppression, thereby harming all women. Mackinnon argues that a great many women have been victims of sexual violence, harassment and assault, but find it impossible, in general, to speak of this abuse. This is reinforced by the representation gender oppression’s as consensual in pornography. In this way, and others, pornography contributes to an atmosphere that, according to MacKinnon, silences women. Feminism can contribute to giving women the means by which they can express, oppose, and perhaps overcome their subordination. For MacKinnon prohibiting pornography (as she defines it) is part of that process.
The idea that pornography silences women has been developed by several other philosophers (eg Langton 1993), but it has also been generalised to link to more general issues concerning language and oppression, related to standpoint theory. A deeper criticism of power relates even to having the language in which to express one’s criticism. Alison Jaggar makes this point beautifully:
As a young woman … I was unable to articulate many vague and confused feelings and perceptions because the language necessary to do so had not yet been invented. The vocabulary I needed included such terms as “gender”, … “sex role”, “sexism”, “sexual harassment”, “the double day”, “sexual objectification”, “heterosexism”, “the male gaze”, “marital, acquaintance, and date rape”, “emotional work”, “stalking”, “hostile environment”, “displaced homemaker” and “double standard of ageing”. (2000, p. 238)
The example of sexual harassment is particularly interesting. By one account it was invented to help fight a court case for a woman named Carmita Wood, who felt compelled to leave her job because of the mental and emotional stress caused by extreme sexualized pressure in the workplace. She was unable to claim unemployment benefits because she had “voluntarily” left her job. To describe the intolerable situation she faced, Wood’s advocates devised the term sexual harassment, which is now used so often that it is hard to believe it did not exist before the 1970s.
There are many other aspects to contemporary feminism, some of which are analyses of aspects of the ‘birdcage’ – forms of routine oppression which may seem too petty to make a difference, or even to mention, but contribute to an oppressive system – and some which are major theoretical innovations. There has also been the more recent question of how issues of transsexuality (Girshick 2008) and biological intersexuality (Fausto-Sterling 2000 ) should be dealt with, that I can only mention here.
I will end with two contemporary trends which take quite different paths but may in the end be complementary. And both can be illustrated by starting from aspects of Kant’s moral philosophy. Kant is generally presented as providing a moral theory that provides foundations for universal liberal equality, in which all are included, as rational creatures, in the Kingdom of Ends. We have already seen one feminist objection to this: the objection from the ethics of care that it fetishizes a type of male moral rationality, downgrading women’s moral agency. And when we look in more detail at Kant’s writings it is clear that he did regard women as second class citizens. Furthermore, readings of his lectures on geography and anthropology have, shockingly, revealed him to have held deeply racist views too (Boxhill and Hill 2001). Some commentators have even suggested that Kant is the founder of scientific racism, which has come as nasty shock to those inspired by the apparent universality of Kant’s ethics.
One response is to try to rebuild Kant’s ethics to be much more inclusive. This, of course, is the natural response of many recent interpreters of Kant’s moral philosophy. But they tend to deal with issues of sexism and racism rather indirectly. Others have tried to confront it head on, such as Carol Hay (2013), in effect producing a new Kantian feminism, with, at the centre, the idea of a duty to oneself to resist oppression.
Another very important trend, which is attracting much attention, is intersectionality. Just as the assumption that ‘the default male’ was the model to which all humans should aspire, feminism has been criticised as being a movement of financially secure, educated, white, heterosexual women, ignoring the concerns – perhaps the more pressing concerns – of other women. Soujoner Truth, a former slave, eloquently pointed out that her problems did not include being excluded from the workforce, though this was the obsession for many middle class white women. Claudia Jones, a black, working class, Marxist, objected that Marxism spoke for her only as a working-class person, and not as a woman or a member of a racial minority. She coined the term ‘triple-oppression’ to express her experience. Audre Lorde, remarks, “As a forty-nine-year-old Black lesbian feminist socialist mother of two, including one boy, and a member of an inter-racial couple, I usually find myself a part of some group defined as other, deviant, inferior, or just plain wrong.” (As an important side note, Lorde complains that she is tired of having to educate her oppressors about the oppression she and her family suffer.)
The term ‘intersectionality’ was coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw (1989) to express the idea foreshadowed in Truth, Jones and Lorde that those who belong to more than one oppressed group experience a form of oppression that cannot always be reduced to the sum of the oppression others just in one groups experience. For example, the oppression of a black woman cannot be analysed into the sum of the experience of a black person and a woman. Much more attention and respect needs to be given to the many different ways people will experience the intersection of belonging to more than one oppressed group. Chandra Talpade Mohanty (2003) has extended this analysis to post-colonial studies, in which women from non-Western countries are often taken to be defined by some sort of common victimhood, which is insulting, over-generalises, and falsifies their true experience.
In conclusion, feminist political philosophy is now a vibrant and diverse field, challenging male privileged – noticed and unnoticed – from the standpoint of oppressed and disadvantaged women. We cannot assume that the oppressed voice is always correct, but it should be given prima facie greater weight, as it has less reason to generate myths to defend itself.
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Available at: https://chicagounbound.uchicago.edu/uclf/vol1989/iss1/8
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