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by Rick Lewis
What is feminist philosophy, and why should we be interested in it today? Feminism generally seems to have a relatively low profile in society these days. The heroic age of suffragettes chaining themselves to park railings or throwing themselves under racehorses is long gone. At least in the industrial countries of the West, feminism has won great victories – Votes for Women, access to education, property rights, equal opportunities legislation – and moved on to issues which perhaps have a lower public profile. But women still face innumerable real problems in our society and the Spice Girls’ concept of ‘girlpower’ wasn’t exactly a big help; in fact it seemed to consist entirely of trying to convince the rising generation that the main thing was to look cute and that they shouldn’t worry their pretty little heads about more mundane matters. The fashion industry’s conviction that the ideal woman should look like a stick-insect has also added to the sum of human misery by creating an epidemic of eating disorders. Meanwhile outside the West, women face appalling repression in Afghanistan and elsewhere, and each day hundreds of young girls are subjected to female circumcision. So even at a glance one can see that there is still plenty for feminists to do.
But what about feminist philosophy? Well, the feminist movement has always been in part a movement of ideas, not just a bunch of malcontents waving placards. The arguments of intelligent but blinkered advocates of the status quo needed to be confronted and overcome. Therefore feminist theory always accompanied feminist action, and as the social movement evolved, so feminist philosophy changed too. When John Stuart Mill wrote his groundbreaking book The Subjection of Women in 1869, he was arguing merely for the equality of women in the public sphere (although even that was a fairly revolutionary view for the times). And Simone de Beauvoir, a century later, shared the idea that what women should be striving for was equality with men – except that she thought that equality should extend to all areas of life, public and private. However, feminism has moved on and at the same time fragmented into a variety of different approaches. Whether this is to be deplored as a loss of direction or applauded as a sign of strength and maturity, there is little doubt that we must now speak of feminist philosophies, in the plural.
There are a whole spectrum of approaches to feminism, from liberal feminism (focussing on equality of opportunity and emphasizing the rights of individuals, whether male or female) to radical feminism, which claims that since all of society’s structures, science, language and history have a patriarchal bias, they must now be reconstructed to suit women’s needs and incorporate women’s insights. The great idea of the radical feminists (and one of the great talking points in feminist debates today) is therefore difference – the idea that men and women are inherently different from each other. This dual ontology is being developed and explored by philosophers such as Luce Irigaray, and there is much debate over how to hold this view without being committed to essentialism – the idea that there is some distinctively female ‘essence’ – since some worry that this might play into the hands of the male chauvinists.
Feminist philosophy is not so much a separate area of thought, like aesthetics or the philosophy of mind, but more an approach (or a set of concerns?) which can be applied to all the fields of philosophy. So there is feminist ethics, feminist aesthetics, feminist epistemology and so on, just as outside philosophy there is feminist economics and feminist history. In this issue we have articles on feminist ethics and on early American women philosophers, as well as an interview with one of the most prominent and radical of feminist thinkers, Mary Daly. But surely one of the most interesting aspects of feminist thought from the point of view of all philosophers, feminist and otherwise, must be the idea, right or wrong, that the kinds of knowledge you can attain depend on your viewpoint and your nature and that consequently the kind of science we can have is somehow dependent on gender. This idea is explored on page 9 in an article on feminist theories of knowledge.