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Following Alison Jaggar, I take the term "feminism" broadly, as referring to "the various social movements dedicated to ending the subordination of women."1 I understand philosophy in general as the activity of thinking through a variety of very basic non-empirical issues concerning topics such as the nature of knowledge and of morality, and of investigating the more particular questions that fall under them. Philosophy, to repeat, is an activity; it is not an established body of correct answers to philosophical questions. As those of you who have studied philosophy know too well, philosophers have a proud tradition of disagreeing with each other on almost everything, and there is no established body of correct answers to philosophical questions. Feminist philosophers also disagree with each other, but they do agree very broadly that women are systematically subordinated in important ways, and that this subordination is wrong.

As I shall illustrate, philosophy of feminism investigates the nature of sexism and deals conceptually with various aspects of the subordination of women; it also contributes to the vision of a desirable future. The claim that sexism needs philosophical analysis may seem strange, but it is true. If you asked a typical liberal to define sexism off the top of his or her head, you might hear something like "anything ... which creates ... or exploits any irrelevant marking of the distinction between the sexes." Thus unequal pay for equal work would count as sexist. As Marilyn Frye points out, however, "relevance is an intrasystematic thing."2 If women are systematically disrespected, then we cannot dismiss as irrelevant the fact that a candidate for a supervisory position is a woman. So the superficial definition of sexism is unsatisfactory.

I said that feminist philosophy deals conceptually with various aspects of the subordination of women. Examples include pornography, the socially enforced norms of femininity (such as ways of moving, talking, and wearing make-up), and the exclusion of women from creating knowledge. One reason it is important for students to encounter such analyses is that people who do not encounter them are much less likely to be able to make reflective decisions about how to live. For example a woman who passes, uncritically, a department store display of cosmetics that advertises a sale on "18 make-up essentials" (that's eighteen ESSENTIALS) does not understand the social functions of make-up. She is therefore in no position to decide whether, or to what extent, to serve these functions and be acted upon by them, or to try to envision alternative ways of being. In class we read Sandra Bartky's amazing article on femininity 3 , which has the potential to enable students to make reflective decisions. To realize that potential, it is not enough to approach Bartky's article as a philosophy class might usually approach its texts. The apparent dissonance of Bartky's point of view with students' experiences, and the personal threat that her view often seems to pose, can interfere substantially with their understanding and benefiting from the article. To counter these interferences, I provide an opportunity for students to discuss their own experiences and try to relate them to Bartky's points. It is a better pedagogical strategy for some students than for others. Students who are enrolled in the class under Women's Studies are likely to think that discussions of personal experience are useful, while a number of the students who are enrolled under Philosophy think that such discussions are a waste of time.

So far we have considered only one reason why it is important for students to encounter feminist analyses of various aspects of women's subordination--namely to enable them to make reflective decisions about how to live, on a more or less personal level. Another reason is to disclose factors that they should consider in their capacity as citizens of a deliberative democracy who participate in the shaping of social policy. Consider the issue of pornography, for example.4 A factor that obviously plays a role in determining whether or not pornography should be censored on account of the harm that it causes is the amount and kind of harm involved. The harms must be identified and weighed before responsible citizens can determine if they are outweighed by countervailing values such as the liberty sacrificed by censorship. The violence against women that is inspired by pornography certainly constitutes one sort of harm. But feminist analyses claim to disclose other kinds of harm. For example, Naomi Scheman holds that dominant models of masculinity in the United States normatively include power over women. 5 If Scheman is right, and if male-supremacist masculinity is supported by pornography, this harm must be taken into account.

In democratic deliberation about whether to censor pornography, a crucial consideration is provided by the dispensability or indispensability of the support that pornography lends male-supremacist masculinity. Here are four rival pictures. In the first picture, the pornography industry represents only one of many redundant supports of male-supremacist values. Other supports might include the team sport industry and certain religious and social ideals such as the ideal that husbands should be bosses. The first picture seems to gain plausibility from Marilyn Frye's argument that we are constructed masculine and feminine by the enforcement of all-pervasive, obligatory, and excruciatingly redundant feminine or masculine gender-marking, including not only ways of dressing, moving, and behaving, but also ways of talking and thinking. 6 On Frye's picture, no small group of supports is sufficient to sustain the general acceptance of male-supremacist values.7 Furthermore, the redundancy of the supports prevents any small group of them from being necessary for sustaining male supremacy. Thus, arguably, the pornography industry is neither necessary nor sufficient to sustain the general acceptance of male-supremacist values.

In a second possible picture, some group of closely related supports is sufficient to sustain male-supremacist values, but the pornography industry is not part of the group. In a third picture, the pornography industry is sufficient to support male-supremacist values in our actual society, but the efficacy of pornography might be undermined by the discovery and application of some antidote. In a fourth picture, the social construction of sexuality itself is the embodiment of male-supremacist values, and "pornography constitutes the meaning of that sexuality." 8

Unless we know at least roughly which picture to accept, we do not know whether the suppression of pornography--either alone or in combination with other feasible measures--could reasonably be expected to succeed in undermining male-supremacist values. We also do not know if it might be possible, without suppressing pornography and thereby diminishing some people's liberty, to undermine male-supremacist values by attacking other supports on which they depend. We must know at least roughly which picture to accept, if we are to determine if it is justified to censor pornography on account of the harm that it causes.9 We need feminist analysis to help us decide which picture to accept. Those who have studied philosophy of feminism should be in a position to introduce such considerations into democratic deliberation.

So far I have discussed two reasons why it is important for students to encounter philosophical analyses of women's subordination: they become better able to make reflective decisions about how to live on a personal level, and they bring greater sophistication to democratic deliberation about social policy. A third important benefit is the acquisition of a critical distance from a key presupposition of prevalent ethical thinking.

Feminist ethicists hold that influential ethical theories--and the prevalent view among educated people--are under the sway of a certain distorted picture of what persons are, and of what the job of ethics is. The picture is this: Ideally, persons are free, equal beings, who agree to come together and cooperate in society. If we did not come together in society, life would be pretty grim. There would be something like a "war of all against all, " in Thomas Hobbes' famous phrase. So, ideally we do come together in a well-ordered and just society. Social cooperation not only offers us personal protection and security, but it allows us to produce and enjoy the immense benefits of industry and culture. The central job of ethics is to set forth the principles of a just society, in which the benefits and burdens of social cooperation are distributed fairly, and everyone's basic dignity is protected. Ethical principles regulate our dealings with each other, giving everyone the same important basic rights. To be a good person is truly to respect the rights of others, not to trick them, coerce them, or otherwise take advantage of them--and also to do one's bit for the unfortunate whose basic needs are not being met. That is the widely accepted picture that feminists challenge.

The picture is distilled from the experience of adult males who take their lives in the "public world" of business, politics, etc. to be the central subject of ethics. Their first requirement is for personal security, and after that they need rules governing cooperation and competition. So they generate theories of fair social cooperation and individual rights. They rely, as I said, on the picture of persons as free, equal beings, who agree to come together to form and cooperate in society. Feminists say that this sort of theorizing ignores or fails to take seriously the experiences that women have traditionally focused on, such as the mother-child relation. Mothers who take their own experiences seriously would not think that society is formed by equal, independent individuals agreeing to come together. Persons do not come together to form society; they start out together. A person's first relationship is with her or his mother. The participants do not come together from some prior state of independence, nor are they equal, nor is their relationship the result of a voluntary agreement between them.

Of course the men who made ethical theory saw this, sort of. But they saw it only peripherally. And if they thought of it at all, they thought of it as being peripheral to the primary human concerns of business and politics. So, traditional ethics relegates the mother-child relationship to the private realm, the realm of the natural rather than the social. It is the public realm that is the subject of serious ethical theory.

Many feminist theorists conclude that the dominant ethical view needs to be fundamentally re-thought. On the dominant view, "justice is the first virtue of social institutions."10 This means that non-justice concerns must be morally secondary at best. Taking justice as primary, we would not design our institutions with the primary concern of fostering the flourishing of children. Virginia Held suggests that we experiment with taking the mother-child relation as the paradigm social relation.11 She does not think it should in fact be taken as the paradigm of all relationships, but she does think the experiment is an instructive exercise that will upset the hegemony of the contractual paradigm. What can we learn from the exercise of taking the mother-child relation as paradigm? We can learn, she says, that making the world better for children can be a motivation for working hard. Competition for money and power is not the only possible motive, and we don't necessarily have to set up the economic system as if it were the only possible motive. We can explore the possibilities of remaking society by remaking personal relations, and of trying to shape social institutions in such a way that they foster valuable relations. A new conception of the self may be at the heart of a reconceptualization of society: we are partially defined by our relationships. Human flourishing is more than succeeding in our individual, rationally chosen life plans. Values such as harmony, love, and cooperation cannot be broken down into individual benefits and burdens; and we need such values in society. Of course we cannot dispense with justice and universal ethical principles, but we should not try to subsume everything under them. Moral sensitivity and responsibility are not a matter of following rules. Being a good person is not just a matter of respecting the rights of others. And the most important task of society may be to foster the flourishing of our children.


1.Alison M. Jaggar, Living With Contradictions: Controversies in Feminist Social Ethics (Boulder: Westview Press, 1994), p. 2.

2.Marilyn Frye, The Politics of Reality (Freedom, CA: The Crossing Press, 1983), p. 18. My example of a "top-of-the-head" definition is taken from a definition that Frye considers there. The definition that she finally endorses is this:

The term 'sexist' characterizes cultural and economic structures which create and enforce the elaborate and rigid patterns of sex-marking and sex-announcing which divide the species, along lines of sex, into dominators and subordinates. Individual acts and practices are sexist which reinforce and support those structures, either as culture or as shapes taken on by the enculturated animals. --p. 38

3. Sandra Bartky, "Foucault, Femininity and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power," in Janet A. Kourany, James P. Sterba, and Rosemarie Tong (eds.), Feminist Philosophies: Problems, Theories, and Applications (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1992). Reprinted from Irene Diamond and Lee Quinby (eds.) Feminism and Foucault: Reflections on Resistance (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1988).

4. The following material about pornography is taken largely from my "Pornography, Indirect Harm, and Feminist Analysis: A Response to the Professors Häyry" (Journal of Value Inquiry, forthcoming.)

5.Naomi Scheman, "Who Wants to Know?: The Epistemological Value of Values" in Joan E. Hartman and Ellen Messer-Davidow (eds.), (En)Gendering Knowledge (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1991), p. 189. Socialist feminists would point out that this statement of Scheman's view ignores race and economic class. Elizabeth V. Spelman, for example, reminds us that power over white women is not included in the masculinity of poor African-American men. See Elizabeth V. Spelman, "Gender in the Context of Race and Class" in Kourany, Sterba, and Tong, p. 328. Reprinted from Elizabeth V. Spelman, Inessential Woman: Problems of Exclusion in Feminist Thought (Boston: Beacon Press, 1988).

6. Frye makes this argument in her essay, "Sexism," in The Politics of Reality.

7. Frye likens women's oppression to a bird cage; it takes all the wires together to do the job. See The Politics of Reality, pp. 4-5.

8.Catharine A. MacKinnon, "Pornography: On Morality and Politics," in Catharine A. Mackinnon, Toward A Feminist Theory of the State (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989), p. 197.

9.I am assuming here that censorship can suppress pornography to a significant degree, and that the harms done by male-supremacist values may be sufficiently grave to outweigh the sacrifice of liberty and other values entailed by censorship. Of course these assumptions may be challenged.

10. John Rawls. A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971), p. 3.

11.Virginia Held, Feminist Morality: Transforming Culture, Society, and Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993). I follow Held in the rest of the paper. See especially her chapter 10.


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