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Using the F-Word in Philosophy Classes

Ellen Miller on the word which can generate so much instant hostility and misunderstanding.

I love to use the f-word when I’m talking about philosophy! What could be better than to combine philosophical jargon like dualism, ontology, and existentialism with swear words? I teach courses where I regularly use the f-word, the word dreaded by today’s college students and the international media. I first encountered the f-word as an undergraduate at Douglass College, the women’s college campus of Rutgers University. I attended a meeting of the Women’s Caucus in my first year of university, but was turned off by my impression that women had to hold certain shared beliefs in order to truly belong to that organization. This is in part how feminism becomes a nasty word, an off-putting word, a word you don’t want attached to your identity. Feminism has become the dreaded f-word! My initial impression of feminist and women’s groups is one I now hear from my students, both male and female. This idea that all feminists are alike is one major challenge that confronts those interested in feminist philosophy.

Two other challenges for those approaching feminism for the first time are firstly the negative images of feminism in pop culture and the media and secondly the belief that feminism is no longer needed because gender equality has been achieved. For example, I often hear students say “I’ve never been discriminated against, so why do I need to know about feminism?” Or similarly, “Haven’t all the barriers against women already been removed?” One final difficulty arises for those who have some previous familiarity with philosophy. Feminist philosophy can appear as a challenge to philosophy itself. One longstanding view of philosophy is that it is about obtaining absolute truth and knowledge, truth that like mathematical certainties is not affected by outside social factors like gender or race. Feminist philosophy does indeed challenge this understanding of truth and knowledge.

One of the most important things I have learned in my continuing work writing and teaching feminist philosophy is that feminism, like other branches of philosophy, has a long history. This means that there is not one feminist theory nor is there one right way to be a feminist. There are as many different ways of being a feminist as there are women and men. Even though you may not agree with every piece of writing or argument given by a feminist writer, this doesn’t mean feminism is unnecessary, invalid or worthless. Similarly, one need not dismiss epistemology because you find Descartes’ idea that the mind and body are completely separate absurd. So, even if you do not agree with radical feminists who believe pornography literally harms women, we should not dismiss all feminist writings. Since many people only know about feminism through what is presented in the popular media, what I would like to do in this article is introduce some of the major movements in feminist thought and indicate some of the challenges these movements pose. I’ll present these trends as they developed chronologically so that we can see how each type of feminism arose in response to previous thought.

Feminism for Non-Dummies (i.e.: Blondes!)1

Liberal feminism shares many of the same principles as liberal thought generally understood. It emphasizes the removal of external barriers that limit women’s equality. Early liberal feminists concentrated on removing restrictions that kept women out of universities, denied them the vote and made them unequal in monetary matters. Today, liberal feminists continue this tradition by focusing their attention on the remaining institutional barriers to equality. The idea here is that once we remove external barriers, oppression against women will be eliminated. Like other liberal theories, liberal feminism emphasizes the individual and individual achievement. Liberal feminism promotes an understanding of the similarities between men and women rather than emphasizing gender differences. A major difficulty with this type of feminism is that it does not address more invisible barriers to equality. Just because women received permission to enter the workplace, that did not mean that family and societal expectations permitted them to succeed and actually flourish there.

Radical feminism grew out of dissatisfaction with liberal feminism. This movement emerged out of the civil rights movement of the 1960’s. Radical feminists generally believe that it is the patriarchal structure of society that oppresses women. ‘Patriarchal’ refers to male norms, institutions, and laws. Unlike liberal feminists, who think that the underlying structure of society is okay, radical feminists aren’t content with the sex-gender system (where sex=biologically male or female and gender=social roles labeled masculine or feminine). Also, radical feminists emphasize women’s differences from men. Radical feminists consider women’s oppression to be the deepest form of oppression. Within radical feminism there are divergent views. For example, as previously mentioned, some radical feminists (such as Catherine McKinnon) think that pornography is violence against women and should be eliminated. Others disagree and suggest that pornography might serve as a vehicle for women to express and control their own sexuality. The status of motherhood and reproduction also divides radical feminists. Some claim that motherhood is a powerful tool only women can wield, whereas others endorse artificial means of reproduction over natural ones to lighten what they see as a burden on women. What radical feminists share in common is an emphasis on how gender affects our personal and communal lives. They differ over whether to use traditional ways of understanding femininity by affirming women’s natural capacities for caring and mothering or whether these traditional notions of femininity and masculinity should be abolished.

Socialist feminists believe that the radical feminist tenet that patriarchy is solely responsible for women’s oppression is too simplistic. Instead, they maintain that oppression and discrimination are systemic; they arise from collective forces in our social and political lives. Socialist feminists are influenced both by the feminist movement and by socialism. They believe it is not only the sex/gender system that is the cause of women’s oppression but also the economic structure of society. If we are to eliminate oppression, we must reorganize economic systems as well as gender relations. So, socialist feminists think we have to deal with both sexism and capitalism. Issues such as day care, women’s household work, and women’s undervalued role in the public work world demand the reform of our current economic structures in order to provide real equality without exploitation or manipulation.

What we are beginning to see is that all feminists share a common vision of eradicating and eliminating gender inequality but have different views about how best to do it. As our society has become more multicultural, with more heterogeneous populations, many feminists have extended their moral and political concerns to countries other than their own.

Multicultural feminists expand the perspective of socialist feminism. They explore the ways that actions pursued in one part of the world directly and indirectly affect the lives of women and men around the world. Multiculturalists do not restrict their analyses only to gender and class. They also look at how other types of oppression, for example, those related to sexual orientation, physical ability, race, age and religion, work together to form interlocking systems of oppression. Multiculturalists stress that culture (language, religion, laws, economics, family, education) has an impact on our perception of the world. An awareness of this, they say, leads to an attitude of openness towards other cultures and a reluctance to criticize other cultures.

What could possibly be wrong with this multiculturalist emphasis on openness, toleration, and humility towards one’s own culture? Well, it has been suggested that there might be a tension between the demands of feminism and those of multiculturalism. (See for example Susan Moller Okin’s, Is Multiculturalism Bad For Women?, Princeton 1999.) If we can’t criticize other cultural practices because no one culture is inherently better than any other, what do we do when we discover cultural practices we find disturbing or abhorent, such as rape laws in certain countries, polygamy, clitoridectomy and forced marriages. One of the greatest challenges for contemporary feminism (and philosophy generally) will be combining the belief that one’s own cultural practices are not necessarily better than anyone else’s with the ability to raise objections to those practices that violate fundamental feminist principles of equality, nondiscrimination and freedom.

Feminist philosophy has been instrumental in bringing real life social and political issues into the world of philosophy. Even though there are many different ways to be a feminist and to be a feminist philosopher, feminists do share a commitment to bridging theory and practice. That is, it is not enough just to write about issues in an abstract way, divorced from the real world. Similarly, the real world must be considered when developing and creating philosophical theories. For example, in my Feminist theory classes we do not only look at philosophical theories, we see whether these theories can help us understand contemporary issues such as sexual harassment, pornography, affirmative action and parenting issues. If a theory of self, the world, knowledge, rationality fails to make sense of the real life questions and problems women and men face, that should cause us to seriously reconsider that theory.

When I begin a class in Feminist Philosophy, I start by asking students whether they consider themselves to be feminists. In a class of twenty-five, two or three hands go up. Then when I go around the room and ask each person to tell me a bit about their thoughts on the word, they will say things like, “Well, I’m not a feminist, but….,” and after the ‘but’ can come some pretty strong confessions: “I do think men and women should be equal in all ways;” “I don’t want to be judged based on my gender;” “I don’t think it’s fair that I’m scared to walk around the streets at night;” “It’s just not right that women in Afghanistan can’t work, own property, and make their own decisions.” These men and women believe in one major principle that unites the feminisms we have just encountered: equality of opportunity.

I am frequently asked, “So, you’re a feminist… do you […]?” A few of my favorite lines for the blank spaces are: “Do you let men hold open the door for you?” “Do you wear makeup – doesn’t that oppress women?” “Are you antifamily?” “Do you still go to Church?” As a philosopher, some colleagues have asked me how feminist philosophy is different from other schools of philosophical thought, or even whether feminist philosophy is philosophy at all. These questions aren’t meant to put me on the defensive, but they are difficult questions especially if the person asking them has not read any actual feminist literature. My students are asked similar questions when they tell their peers they’re taking a feminist philosophy class. It is much easier to understand and appreciate feminist philosophy when we appreciate that being a feminist or reading about feminism does not involve having to agree with everything every feminist has ever written. When I started to realize this in university, I began to use the label ‘feminist’ in order to identify myself with commitments I have towards social activism in the world and as a philosopher. I use this word to align myself with those philosophers who believe that philosophy should be about the real world. More specially, philosophy needs to reflect upon how gender, race, class, age, affect our understanding of knowledge, reality, and our ethical relations with others.

Yet the Shakespearean question, “What’s in a Name?” remains. Does it really matter if we continue using the word ‘feminist’? Should we work towards cleaning up this dirty, nasty word, or pick some new label instead? I would humbly suggest that the word should remain as it is in order to display the long her-itage feminism now enjoys. The fact that it has become a dirty word indicates its power and potential for uniting those who share similar core commitments. However, as we have seen, becoming a feminist doesn’t mean losing your individuality or having to automatically endorse a whole set of ‘feminist’ beliefs. This is the first step towards realizing the amazing impact feminist philosophy has had and continues to have on philosophy as well as in the world.

© Dr Ellen Miller 2002

Ellen Miller is an Assistant Professor in philosophy at Rowan University in Glassboro, New Jersey.

1 As a blonde myself, it’s important to trample these stereotypes whenever possible. Besides, books directed towards Dummies have been done and re-done!

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