Social & Political Philosophy 16 – Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman
For this lecture, read Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Introduction and Chapters 1 & 2.
Myths and Realities of Gender Differences
The gender mythology of our culture and many other patriarchal cultures is that women are docile, non-violent, unconfident, incompetent, and emotional. Lt. Col. Grossman in his excellent book On Killing tells us that there is no difference between men and women in combat physically or psychologically. Women are capable of violence and even rape, though our society does not recognize this yet. There is rape and torture among female prison inmates. There have been documented instances of female gang members gang raping men. Women, including young girls, have been said to be more psychological than physical in bullying compared to men and boys, but they are clearly not docile, unconfident or incompetent.
What, then, are the differences between men and women? Most obviously, there are physiological differences that relate to sex and procreation. In addition, there is one dynamic of psychology in which women relatively differ from men. Men tend to seek power through NOT being social, isolating themselves and their opinions, whereas women tend to seek power through BEING social, interacting with others. The two best examples are 1) classic women ‘let’s talk’ vs. men ‘I don’t want to talk about it’ that becomes strained in many heterosexual relationships (like choosing a restaurant, where women wants to discuss and man wants her to just pick), and 2) male boss ‘don’t bring it to me until it’s done and done right’ vs. female boss ‘let’s go over the details so we are on the same page’ difference of support offered.
This does not mean that all men are antisocial or that women are social, but there are many instances of this dynamic that become clearer when we become aware of it. One offshoot is that women are more self-conscious, conscious of being watched as the object of gaze, whereas men are more conscious of the object watched, of the goal or destination they have in mind. Women want to be desired, whereas men want to get what they desire. Again, this does not mean that women are incapable of firm goals any more than men are incapable of being self-conscious, but the dynamic is quite familiar. Some say that there may be a genetic difference, including differences of male and female emotions and brain chemistry, but others argue that this is merely cultural. Other than this RELATIVE difference, there is no good evidence to suggest that men and women are very much different at all. The work of Piaget suggests that men and women undergo the same mental development in the same set of stages at roughly the same ages.
In apes and the most ancient nomadic and tribal societies, there is evidence that women often had status and leadership positions. Women were shamans, leaders, and there were often central female mother gods. As people began to collect into city states, we can see patriarchy increase. Why did this happen? The best explanation so far, one that does not rely on any inability of women, is the increased size of the community. When people lived in small communities, women could raise children at the center of the village, as the political center. As city states increased in size, it made it increasingly difficult to raise one’s children at the public center. Thus, women retreated into the home, and men, who had to be the go-for before now were the ones who could venture out of the home and into the centers of political activity. Today, devices allow women and men to raise children while fully participating in public life, but women are still more confined to the home in balancing life between home and career.
When we look at the cultures of the world and their historical development, we can see that all cultures have taken part in a similar oppression of women, but at the same time women have had increasing power in society and new cultural movements have to appeal to women to be successful. Consider that Buddhism, Christianity and Islam, the three largest cultures so far, all had to offer women better status and rights than they had previously.
In Buddhism, there is a story of a naga princess who is enlightened upon hearing the Buddha’s teaching, but when she goes to the monks to have her enlightenment confirmed they tell her she has to be reborn as a man before getting enlightened, so she levitates and transforms into a man and flies straight up to a high pure land (heaven) in front of them. Note that you can read the story as a progressive Buddhist woman and say that being a man is no significant thing, or you can read the story as a conservative Buddhist monk and say that she had to become a man before rising. Jesus had many women as followers, and Christianity appealed to women of ancient Syria, Greece and Rome by teaching that men cheating on women is equally as bad as women cheating on men. Under Islamic law, with regional variation, women can divorce their husbands and receive a portion of the property, as well as refuse consent for sex. All three of these religions also oppressed women. In Buddhist and Christian traditional culture, nuns were only allowed to teach children, adult men unwilling to be taught by women.
Modern society has continued the trend, such that today women have equal legal status in many nations but covert sexism and a lack of women owning the property persists. A United Nations 2004 report claims that women work 20% more a day on job and home together than men do (10 ½ hours to men 8 ¾ hours). Worldwide, women are 51% of the population (technically the MAJORITY of the population), do 66% of the work, get 10% of the income, and own 1% of the property. Thus sexism, overt and covert, is quite alive in spite of counter claims.
Feminism is the movement in reaction to sexism and prejudice against women. The basic idea is that women should have the same status as men in society, or “women are people too”. At my high school assembly years ago, the student who served as the head of the NOW chapter for the school asked the assembly ‘Who thinks women are equal to men?”, and when most everyone raised their hands, she replied, “Then you are all feminists!”, which impressed me much. It is a shame that people, men but also women, are afraid of calling themselves feminists, largely from the backlash of the 80s between the second wave and third wave of feminism which said that militant feminists simply hate men and that feminism is more about anger and revenge than it is about love and equality.
Historically, many consider Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) to be the first major feminist work, arguing that women and men should have equal rights, and that women are not rationally inferior to men, but appear so because they were not educated to the degree that men were. Two years before (1790), Wollstonecraft (1759 – 1797) had written Vindication of the Rights of Men, a justification of the French Revolution and progressive values such as equality that were being attacked by conservatives and traditionalists. In writing the influential work, arguing that doing away with nobles and slavery benefits society as a whole, she began to conceive of her second Vindication, a work centered on progress towards women’s equality.
Like bell hooks would much later, in the 1980s, Wollstonecraft argued that improving the lives of women such that they are regarded as equals will make them better wives, better mothers, and benefit everyone socially. Women are perceived, genuinely or falsely, to be superficial only because they are denied equal education. Women are taught that it is beauty, not intelligence, that counts, and so many are left no option other than “to adorn its prison”. Because women are the early educators of both daughters and sons, they should be educated such that they can be better educators and parents. Both boys and girls should be given the same public education to help society progress as a whole.
In America there were three waves of feminism, each building on and addressing new issues from the previous wave. The first wave was the women’s suffrage movement of the early 1900s in America and Britain. The most famous figure is Susan B. Anthony. She argued that the abortion issue should be set aside to concentrate on women’s right to vote as an adult citizen and women’s right to refuse sex to their husbands. Note that Mohammed said this over a thousand years ago, recorded in the Ahadith in 600 CE, and yet there are still problems today in Islamic culture as well as our own. The first wave, not of course known as that till the second wave, culminated in 1919 with 19th amendment to the US Constitution.
The second wave was the Civil Rights Movement of the 60s and early 70s which is also called the Women’s Liberation Movement or Women’s Lib. Defined by Carol Hanisch’s phrase “The personal is political”, it took off in early 60s and culminated in the Civil Rights Act of 1966, backed by both NOW and the NAACP, the biggest American anti-sexism and anti-racism groups working together. While the first wave said ‘this is America so we deserve to vote’, the second wave was part of anti-establishment left movement that said that America was a corrupted institution that needed to be changed.
Simone De Beauvoir wrote The Second Sex in France in 1953, arguing that women had been marginalized as ‘The OTHER’ by men using Hegel’s idea of the master-slave dialectic (my German Hegel professor ‘a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle’ speaking of feminists using Hegel). The Feminine Mystique (1963) by Betty Friedan was another major feminist work of the time, much more published in America than Marxist De Beauvoir’s, arguing that women were not feeling fulfilled as homemakers and mothers and they needed an identity for themselves as individuals beyond the identity of the family. Women who went to psychologists in the 50s and complained that their lives were unfulfilling were often prescribed Valium.
The major criticism of the second wave movement, which only fully rose in the third wave was much embodied in the work of Gloria Jean Watkins, known as ‘bell hooks’, an early critic of 2nd wave feminism as white middle class women empowerment that ignores all else in the name of ‘feminism’, thus hooks’ ‘womanism’. The third wave was after the 80s backlash against the 60s progressive movements that began in the early 90s and continues today. The third wave tried to not only pay attention to black women, Latina women, third world women, but also to break down the idea of women as essentially different from men but equal.
The two big issues, which are still being fought out today, are 1) Is gender a subjective construct (in the mind) or social reality (in the world)? And 2) Did feminism accomplish what it set out to achieve, or did it in part hurt its own efforts in telling women that sex makes them oppressed? I was talking with a BCC co-worker, and she said her son and his friends in high school think that the oppression of women is a thing of the past and feminists are hippie women who don’t shave their armpits and hate men. Notice that this deals with these two issues: the kids misunderstand feminists as both anti-sex and ignorant that the battle is over.
De Beauvoir famously wrote, “One is not born a woman, one becomes a woman”. Judith Butler says that gender identity is performative. Both of these figures thus back the Poststructuralist conception, that identity is created and performed. If a woman puts on makeup and wears a short skirt, is she being oppressed or is she actively expressing her individuality? The second wave came under fire from the third wave because some feminists told women that if they tried to be sexy they were being deceived and made into property This drew a fight between anti-pornography and anti-prostitution feminists and younger sex-positive feminism.
Pro-sex feminists ask, even if we are talking only of abusive male style porn, should we make porn illegal? Should we try to deny men watching women and lust, or should we empower the individual woman to live as freely and equally as men in a complex world? Many feminist critics have argued that some TV and movies seem to be pro-feminist (Sex and the City, Ally McBeal, Bridget Jones’ Diary) but in fact they are stories where a working white woman (and her friends) try to find the perfect man to find happiness. They are not critical of society and remain centered on white professionals.
Born Gloria Jean Watkins, bell hooks (1952 – present) (yes, spelled lower case on purpose) is a feminist and social philosopher who argues that class, gender and race are complexly connected. Critical of second wave 60s feminism focusing on sexism to the neglect of racism and the gap between the rich and the poor, she labeled herself a womanist (not in spell check, but now added to my dictionary) and argued much like Foucault did with Chomsky that power, even resistance movements, reinscribes itself and thus feminism can itself be a marginalizing force. This is also similar to Judith Butler, who views culture and feminism as a complex and not as a simple struggle between the forces of good and evil. While feminism made gains in the 60s and continues to do so today, bell hooks was critical of the movement as it was populated mostly by white college women who are upper and middle class, live in first world countries such as the US and UK, and disconnected from the lives of many women who are impoverished, are unable to attend college or a good career, and who are overwhelmingly of European descent.
One of the most frequently cited sources of the third wave of feminism, bell hooks argues that feminism is for everyone, not just middle and upper class college girls and career minded women. Growing up first in segregated schools and then in predominantly white schools, she saw firsthand that progressives and educators can support prejudice while fighting for change. She studied at UC Santa Cruz and began teaching in 1976 at USC, then later at Santa Cruz, Yale and SF State. She first wrote poetry under her grandmother’s name, Bell Hooks, later keeping the name as she wrote essays and books. One of her early and most famous books is Ain’t I A Woman? Black Women and Feminism (1981), which examines the dual marginalization of black women in a patriarchal and racist society. The title is inspired by Sojourner Truth, a black abolitionist and feminist living in the late 1800s whose speech Ain’t I a Woman is a celebrated work of women’s rights. She is critical of black men’s sexism towards black women, the marginalization of the poor by the powerful, and white racism and white supremacism in culture and media.
While some are critical of her work, like Foucault she is suspicious of any side that calls itself the true and the objective, including feminist and black consciousness movements. For this, many call her, as they do Foucault and Butler, a post-modernist, a skeptic of conceptions of absolute truth and a believer in perspectivism and historicism, that truth is always in a particular perspective situated in a particular time and place. This is similar to Trotsky and Heidegger in so far as power and knowledge must continuously transform themselves. A movement such as feminism must thus be continuously critical of itself and understand itself as a diverse group of various strategies and perspectives. I am particularly inspired by her view of education and teaching. She argues that schools can operate as mind control centers that breed conformity and complacency with injustice such as institutional racism and sexism, but they should operate as open spaces where individuals are invited to question their culture, assumptions and ideas.
Another celebrated source of feminist philosophy, particularly poststructuralist and postmodernist third wave feminism which is critical of power like Foucault, is Judith Butler (1956 – present), a professor at UCB and one of the most famous feminist thinkers today. She wrote her thesis at Yale on Hegel and understanding individuality in French history. Like bell hooks, she began to question feminism and its assumptions, particularly the monolithic “us vs. them” mentality that is unreflective and untransparent not only in its assumptions but in its masking the diversity of the feminist movement.
A political philosopher beyond the focus on feminism, I myself saw her give a recent talk (in jeans and a black t-shirt in front of a well dressed audience) on Palestinians and how their suffering is perceived and framed in the US and UK, particularly on how suicide bombers understand themselves and their actions and how they are understood by outsiders. This is very similar to her work on gender in locating truth in a human body as a performance in time and space. As she is Jewish, she has been praised for this, her most recent work by pro-Palestinian groups and opposed by pro-Israel groups and authors as a traitor and fool. I particularly admire thinkers who stand up against what they believe are injustices of their own culture and people.
Butler’s famous feminist idea is performative gender, that gender, and all identity, is a performance. Wearing a dress, applying make-up and watching certain types of TV shows are obvious examples of how traditional women’s gender is performed. In her most famous book, Gender Trouble, she particularly uses Foucault as inspiration to critically examine gender and how it is prescribed and reinscribed through the actions of people as they identify themselves with a particular gender. Like Hegel and Foucault, this is a historical view of truth that suggests that gender and identity are cultural constructs. Like Foucault and Fanon, Butler is critical of binary divisions and how they limit our understandings of ourselves and others. Like bell hooks, Butler argues that supporting feminism means criticizing binary distinctions such as women vs. men rather than supporting them. Given a diverse population and the complexity of politics and history, human beings limit themselves through their understanding of identity and its complexity.
For example, men come to see certain actions as macho, and they identify these with masculinity and heterosexuality as individuals in a cultural coherence such that their performance of their own identities and individualities are stylized and polarized. Thus, crying becomes something feminine or homosexual, in opposition to the masculine and heterosexual. A male individual, inauthentically as Heidegger might say, would believe that he is doing what he naturally wants without critically reflecting on the fact that he has helped participate in his own enclosure in an identity that limits his individuality and possibilities.
Here is a link to an extensive three part documentary on feminism and the women’s movement: