Philosophy 182 - 9.6.1 Historical Critique

At its core, feminism is a response to a world that has by and large ignored the perspectives, interests, and lived experiences of women. Feminists explore historical factors that have caused and perpetuate gender discrimination and oppression. They aim to identify, critique, and correct traditional assumptions about gender. Feminists criticize “institutions, presuppositions, and practices that have historically favored men over women” (McAfee 2018). They point out that the male perspective has been treated as the norm and the stand-in for the human perspective. When theorists and thinkers have historically made claims about universality and objectivity, they ignored the fact that it was their own (male) perspective that was treated as the norm, as a standard human experience. Feminists therefore criticize traditional moral theory for pretending to be universal and objective even though it favored the male perspective and experience (McAfee 2018).

At its core, feminist ethics seeks to understand, uncover, and correct the traditional role gender has played in social/cultural development. The male perspective has celebrated man as the norm, the standard human. We see in all areas of life a celebration of traits associated with men. The belief that we should pursue science and technology to dominate and control the natural world, for example, celebrates strength and reason, values that are used to characterize men. Women, on the other hand, have traditionally been characterized as delicate, weak, submissive, and emotional (as opposed to rational).

The Concept of the Feminine

In The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir points out that femininity is not something given, but something learned, a social construct. “It would appear, then, that every female human being is not necessarily a woman; to be so considered she must share in that mysterious and threatened reality known as femininity” (Beauvoir [1949] 2011). The concepts of femininity and masculinity represent society’s idea of what it means to be either a woman or a man. These concepts are based on traditional gender roles and the norms, practices, and values tied to them. As Mari Mikkola suggests in her article “Feminist Perspectives on Sex and Gender” (2019), “females become women through a process whereby they acquire feminine traits and learn feminine behavior.” Feminine behavior has historically been associated with being delicate, submissive, and emotional. Feminists critique this concept of femininity for being used to justify limits on female autonomy and contributing to the marginalization of women.

Gender Binarism and Essentialism

Most feminists in the 1970s and 1980s believed that gender was binary. Gender binarism is the view that each person can be categorized by one of the two genders (male or female). Some feminist thinkers have used gender binarism as a starting point to explore different, alternative ethical systems in which the norms for human nature are defined by women. Others have suggested that women approach moral problems from a fundamentally different perspective than men. Psychologist Carol Gilligan’s work, for example, found that men and women often approach moral problems from different perspectives: men from the perspective of justice and women from the perspective of care.

Feminists criticize traditional normative ethics for treating man as the human norm. In the traditional view, characteristics associated with masculinity are those characteristics that embody the ideal person.

Some feminists have argued that women should not deny or reject these characteristics, but instead adopt them as essential. Essentialism is the view that a set of characteristics makes something what it is. Essentialism suggests that there are certain essential characteristics that make a woman a woman or a man a man. Traditionally, women have been defined by characteristics that define them as morally bad and subversive. Rather than view these characteristics as negative or argue that they are not essential to woman, some feminist ethicists have argued that women should adopt these essential traits as positive.

The content of this course has been taken from the free Philosophy textbook by Openstax