FEMSAG conceptual primers, 1st round: “Feminist theory”

If you have stumbled across this website during one of your forays through the web, you will possibly have puzzled over the acronym of my research project: FEMSAG. If your puzzlement persisted even after learning (by checking the “About FEMSAG” page) that the full main title of the project is Feminist Theory After Sex and Gender, I empathize with you. The reason for my empathy, or at least part of it, is that the project title remains puzzling even to myself, even now, well into the project’s incoming phase. I therefore thought it would be a good idea to spend a few blog posts reflecting on the meaning of the very terms making up this title, beginning in this post with “feminist theory”.

The two words “feminist theory” appear in the project title for a reason. And the reason is that the project is conceived as a contribution to conversations undertaken within and about feminist theory. How, then, is this particular project situated vis à vis feminist theory more generally? To answer this question, it is necessary to offer a characterization of “feminist theory more generally”. Yet this is perhaps an impossible task – at least if the task is understood as that of offering a characterization of feminist theory that is shared more generally, i.e., a non-controversial characterization. But there is no non-controversial way to characterize feminist theory as a project (perhaps this is the only non-controversial statement that could be made about it). The most important reason for this is, undoubtedly, the lack of consensus as to what feminism as a movement is or should be concerned with.

In offering my take on what feminist theory is about, therefore, I am basing myself on a non-trivial and partial conception of “feminism” as the basis for such an account. In effect, I do not intend what I have to say on this subject to be representative of the opinions of all or even the majority of working feminist theorists. Nor do I mean to offer an exhaustive delimitation of the purview of feminist concerns. Rather, what I intend to propose is what I understand to be a plausible construal of at least some concerns that at least some working feminist theorists could recognize as bona fide feminist-theoretical concerns.


Feminism as a movement

To the best of my understanding, “feminism” is what we call the social, political, cultural and intellectual movement that addresses systemic injustices and harms perpetrated globally and locally against women due to their membership in the social class “woman”. Often it will be the case that the specific harms and injustices suffered by women are due to these women’s also belonging to a range of other minority groups, including social, sexual, racial, cultural and religious minorities. For example, the harms and injustices suffered by a black working-class single mother could be quite different from the ones suffered by a white middle class married woman, and they may also have aspects not shared by her male peers among black working-class people. In short, there are systemic harms and injustices that cannot be accounted for in terms of the categories of sex, race, and class taken in isolation, nor yet by adding them up; rather, they occur – in Kimberlee Crenshaw’s proverbial expression – only at the intersection of sex, race, class etc.

This does not mean, however – again, to the best of my understanding – that feminism is just as much about racial, class, cultural etc. harms and injustices as it is about oppression, abuse and exploitation on the basis of sex. Nor can it plausibly mean that no feminist analysis can be valid unless it also incorporates an analysis of race, class, age, (dis)ability, cultural identity, religious identity, coloniality etc., as this would spell the impossibility of any valid feminist analysis whatsoever. This is because it would be impossible for a single social analysis to address all axes of oppression that might conceivably – yet not necessarily – be involved in a given instance of oppression. Feminism exists as a social movement because women suffer specific harms and injustices on the basis of sex, and because no other social or progressive movements – whether anti-racist, anti-capitalist, anti-colonial, multiculturalist, anti-ableist etc. – have made it their first priority to struggle against the systemic underpinnings of these specific harms and injustices. Hence, what singles the harms and injustices suffered uniquely by, e.g., black working-class mothers out as being of concern specifically from a feministpoint of view is that these are harms and injustices suffered uniquely by women, even if they’re not suffered by all women.


Feminist theory

Granted the above specification of the concerns that characterize feminism as a movement, one might draw some implications regarding the particular shape assumed by feminism as a theoretical endeavour, i.e., what we call feminist theory. But the broaching of this subject again opens another can of worms. For what, exactly, are we to understand by the term “theory” in this context? If there is any sense in yoking feminist theory to the concerns of feminism as a movement, as I am assuming there is, then one would suspect the efforts undertaken under the sign of “feminist theory” to somehow address the concerns around which feminism as a movement crystallizes. This might serve to place some constraints on what we mean by “theory” in this context.

Along these lines, I submit that one of the chief goals of feminist theory is to explain the harms and injustices experienced by women by identifying and analysing the systemic causes of these harms and injustices. This would dovetail nicely with the way the term “theory” is used in other contexts, including many branches of natural science. In physics, for example, observable phenomena (e.g., the rainbow) are explained with reference to non-observable forces, properties and processes (e.g., electromagnetism, wavelengths and amplitudes, the light-refractive capacities of water). Similarly, feminist thinkers have sought to explain various sex- and gender-related grievances with reference to such theoretical posits as “the myth of woman” (Simone de Beauvoir), “the feminine mystique” (Betty Friedan), “sexual politics” (Kate Millet), “the sex/gender system” (Gayle Rubin), “the subaltern” (Gayatri Spivak), “the intersection of race and sex” (Kimberlee Crenshaw), “the beauty myth” (Naomi Wolf), “the heterosexual matrix” (Judith Butler), and, more recently, “himpathy” or “male entitlement” (Kate Manne).

But the parallel with natural science stops here. For there is rarely (if ever) any attempt in feminist theory to formulate natural laws such as those that codify the action of non-observable factors in physics. In physical theory, the goal of explanation by natural law (such as those governing the refraction of light through transparent bodies, e.g., drops of water) is, in some sense, to make an otherwise puzzling or striking phenomenon like the rainbow seem “natural”. What is meant by “natural” here is that which is expected necessarily to occur in the precise circumstances in which it occurs (e.g., sunlight hitting and being refracted and reflected by spherically shaped drops of water), given the nature of the forces (e.g., electromagnetism) operating in such circumstances.

Explanations in feminist theory, by contrast, typically seek to dispel the air of naturalness in which sex-based grievances are shrouded and in virtue of which they have been allowed to persist unchallenged. They do so by revealing how a certain pattern of adverse experiences electively undergone by women does not issue from some inexorable way in which the universe works, but rather results from a contingent fashion in which the social interactions between men and women are set up, i.e., something that might have turned out differently under different circumstances. Along these lines, it might be said that the role of feminist theory is to bring home why a given adverse state of affairs – e.g., the statistics on male sexual or domestic abuse of women in a given country, region, or globally – is a meaningful target of feminist activism and reform. This is because it shows the state of affairs in question to be the product of a contingent, not necessary, way in which humans (not least men) think and act and have thought and acted in certain circumstances.


Feminist theory, sexism and gender stereotyping

In feminist theory, showing that a given state of affairs is the product of contingent circumstances, and not the inevitable result of the way the world inexorably works, is more often a matter of showing how this state of affairs is maintained in existence than of showing how it originated. In many instances, feminist theorists will point to certain widely shared beliefs and attitudes with respect to men and women as part of the explanation why a certain state of affairs deemed adverse to women is kept exempt from criticism and is thus allowed to persist. It is common to call such beliefs and attitudes sexist if they represent people of one sex (typically women) as inferior to, or deserving of less respect than, those of the other sex (typically men). According to standard usage, however, it is sufficient for a belief or attitude to be regarded as an instance of sexism if it merely represents either of the sexes in an over-generalizing way, also referred to as gender stereotyping. Such gender stereotypes are often pernicious because they typically give rise to expectations as to how people are going to behave in specific situations, and because violation of those expectations is sometimes sanctioned with punishment.

Take, for instance, the belief that women are “by nature” more empathetic, considerate, and nurturing than men. Someone taking their cues from this stereotype is more likely also to differentially expect and perhaps also prefer women to happily set aside their own needs, wants and aspirations in order to accommodate those of others. In short, according to this stereotype, women are expected – and thus, in some way, required – to be “nicer”, sweeter, more gracious people than men. Accordingly, in contexts where this particular stereotype is operative, it could mean that men and women are held up to different moral standards when evaluating their behaviour or performance. This could mean that, in such contexts, men may get away exhibiting less “niceness” than their female peers and still be seen as equally, if not more, “descent” and “respectable” people than them. It could also mean that “niceness” is more often an issue when judging a woman’s qualifications for a particular job or office than in the case of men.

As an illustration of this, consider the public reception of Senator Elizabeth Warren’s campaign for nomination as the Democratic Party’s candidate for the 2020 U.S. presidential election. It is probably safe to say that the American public has obsessed more over Warren’s “likeability” (or lack thereof) when assessing her fitness for presidential office than it has in the case of her male rivals. One could, of course, argue that likeability is an important asset for a U.S. presidential candidate, regardless of his or her sex, and that Warren is simply too short of it. From a feminist-theoretical point of view, however, one should at least consider two other possible (and related) explanations. One possibility is that, in American political life, “likeability” does not mean the same when assessing a female as opposed to a male candidate for executive office. No doubt Warren’s performance is fiery, confrontational, and sometimes even angry – but the same could be said of Senator Bernie Sanders’ political persona. In Warren’s case, however, such behaviour tends to be read as a sign that she is unhinged, emotionally labile, and lacking in self-control, whereas Sanders’ signature right index finger-wagging is more likely to be read as a sign of power and authority. Another possibility, again, is that male candidates generally have to worry less than do their female rivals that their prospects for success will be compromised by shortage of likeability.

The point being made is that, from a feminist-theoretical point of view, gender stereotypes are pernicious in that they tend to rationalize or bolster practices and arrangements that adversely impact women, as illustrated in the above example. A person endorsing a given gender stereotype is plausibly less inclined than non-endorsers to perceive the practices or arrangements on which the stereotype bears as “unjust”, “harmful” or generally as instances of “oppression”. Accordingly, he or she would also plausibly be less inclined than non-endorsers to support amelioration of such practices and arrangements through social reform or some other means.

Furthermore, gender stereotypes tend, once they’ve taken root, to be recalcitrant. Simone de Beauvoir spoke to this in The Second Sex when she noted that “the myth of woman” – i.e., the representation of “woman” as an entity endowed with an essence consisting of a set of psychosocial attributes presumably shared by all the exemplars of the entity – holds itself unaccountable to the testimony of experience. This is how she puts it: “Thus, to the dispersed, contingent, and multiple existence of women, mythic thinking opposes the Eternal Feminine, unique and fixed; if the definition given is contradicted by the behaviour of real flesh-and-blood women, it is women who are wrong; it is not said that Femininity is an entity but that women are not feminine”.

Finally, as explained by psychologist and feminist science scholar Cordelia Fine, there is experimental evidence suggesting that exposure to and/or belief in “biological” accounts of human differences adds to the potency and toxicity of social stereotypes, including gender stereotypes. For example, Fine cites studies showing that endorsement of such accounts correlates positively with greater endorsement of gender stereotypes as well as with more stereotypical self-perception. A 2009 study also found, Fine explains, that “people shown scientific claims that males and females are hardwired to be different (compared with those told that such ideas are under scientific debate) expressed more confidence that society treats women fairly, and less confidence that the status quo was likely to change”.


Feminist theory, nature vs. nurture issues, and philosophy

In the preceding, we have seen that sexist (including “merely” stereotyped) beliefs and attitudes regarding men and women are of concern to feminist theory because of their assumed role in maintaining social practices and arrangements that adversely impact women. For this reason, a sizeable portion of the intellectual project travelling under the sign of “feminist theory” has historically consisted in efforts to challenge such beliefs and attitudes. By the same token, a sizable portion of these challenges have also – at least from the time of Beauvoir’s The Second Sex – been attempts to take issue with the idea that social hierarchies between men and women can be chalked up to “biologically based”, “essential”, “innate” or “natural” sex differences in cognition, personality and behaviour. Indeed, it is probably not an overstatement to say that Beauvoir’s declaration that “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman” has retroactively assumed the rank of something like a watchword for modern feminist theory.

Accordingly, feminist theory has historically had, and continues to have, a considerable stake in the age-old nature vs. nurture debate, i.e., the debate as to whether individual and group differences among humans are due to “nature” (e.g., evolution, genetics, neurophysiology etc.) or “nurture” (e.g., diet, social conditioning, cultural norms etc.). Saying that one is not born a woman, but rather becomes one, would seem to be a general way of positioning oneself in that debate. It is to say that any explanation of some sex difference in ability, personality, behaviour, and social role that only cites evolution, genes, hormones, brain structure or some other placeholder for “biology” or “nature”, yet devotes little to no attention to social-environmental factors, will be an incomplete explanation at best and a misleading if not perniciously ideological explanation at worst. Scholars self-describing as feminist theorists yet who do not share this view belong, as far as I can tell, to a vanishingly small minority.

In later blogposts, I will treat of how the proverbial sex vs. gender distinction figures into the nature vs. nurture debate with respect to how (alleged) cognitive, emotional and behavioral differences between men and women are to be understood and explained. For now, I want to advance the following claim: In yoking itself – for the understandable reasons I have outlined above – to a certain stance with respect to the nature vs. nurture debate concerning the basis of psycho-social sex differences, feminist theory also implicates itself in the most fundamental and delicate philosophicalissues there are. Taking a certain stand on a question framed as a nature vs. nurture issue is not only to put forth a theory of how some individual or group difference (between, e.g., men and women) has come about or is maintained. It is also to make assumptions with respect to (in a word) the nature of whatever is rubricated as “nature”, “nurture” and “vs.”, respectively. What do we mean when we speak, for instance, of some putative sex difference in cognition or behaviour having a “biological basis” in, e.g., some genetic, hormonal or neuronal difference? What causal powers do we conceive such entities to exert on behaviour? What sense (if any) can be made of the notion that these powers of “nature” interact with those we have classified as belonging to “the environment”, to “nurture” or “culture”?

Such questions are philosophical in the precise sense that they admit of no straightforward empirical resolution; rather, we presuppose – whether avowedly or not – some answer to questions like these whenever an empirical resolution to a nature vs. nurture question is either decided upon or contested. They are irreducibly contestable relay points co-deciding the fate of whatever nature vs. nurture question one may come up with, not least ones dealing with the explanation of psychological and social differences between men and women. Accordingly, as has been forcefully argued by such luminaries as Donna Haraway, Karen Barad, Vicky Kirby, Elizabeth Grosz and several other thinkers associated with the so-called material turn in feminist theory, such philosophical questions must be seen as foundational to feminist theory, both as an intellectual and a political project.


Conclusion: Project FEMSAG and Feminist Theory

Project FEMSAG’s starting points in, and positioning vis à vis, feminist theory can now be summarized in the following four points:

1) Project FEMSAG takes as a given the assessment, constitutive of feminism as a movement (also sometimes referred to as “the women’s movement”), that women globally suffer harms and injustices uniquely affecting them due to their membership of the socially salient sex class referred to as “women”. Principled endorsement of general ethical and political values such as freedom, dignity, autonomy, fairness etc. entails support for this movement’s struggle against these particular harms and injustices.

2) Project FEMSAG also assumes the feminist-theoretical point of departure in the hypothesis that a sizeable portion of the harms and injustices perpetrated against women worldwide are allowed to continue thanks in part to ideological rationalization by sexist beliefs, attitudes and rhetoric. Such beliefs and attitudes can be sexist even if they simply amount to gender stereotypes, i.e., over-generalized or over-simplified representations of how men as a group and women as a group think, feel and behave. Such representations are pernicious in so far as they tend to be assumed as implicit norms as to how “real” men and “proper” women, respectively, should think, feel and behave. This is especially so whenever the stereotypes in question are thought to be the outward manifestation of some evolutionarily, genetically, hormonally, neuronally or in some other sense biologically conditioned internal disposition. It is therefore a feminist-theoretical task to subject such gender stereotypes to criticism, particularly when they are advanced on the authority of some branch of natural science, which is to say, when they are presented as the expression of the “natural” way the universe works.

3) From the preceding two points, two further implications can be drawn. First, if feminist theory is obliged – in virtue of the nature of its task(s) – to challenge one-sidedly “biological” explanations of some psychological sex differences deemed significant for some social outcome, this is one reason why feminist theory constitutively occupies a non-neutral stance with respect to nature vs. nurture debates. In other words, saying with Beauvoir – as a considerable majority of feminist theorists probably still do – that “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman” is to imply that it matters what answer is offered to a given nature vs. nurture question regarding the causal basis of some sex difference of interest. Here again, Project FEMSAG sides with feminist theory in adopting a non-indifferent stance also with respect to what is at stake in such questions.

4) Finally, if feminist theory adopts a non-neutral position with regard to the fate of nature vs. nurture debates over psychological and behavioural group differences between men and women, by the same token it cannot stand non-committal with regard to the conceptual framework in terms of which such debates are pursued. For this reason, eminently philosophical questions regarding the meaning of key terms such as “nature”, “biology”, “nurture” and “culture” – terms in relation to which one either affirms or denies that some given sex-typed trait is either “innate” or “acquired” – are found at the very foundation of feminist theory. It is at this level in particular that Project FEMSAG seeks to enter and contribute to the ongoing conversation in feminist theory concerning the nature, extent and causal basis of psychological and social differences between men and women.

Welcome to the project FEMSAG website!

The official website and research blog of project FEMSAG is now up and running. On the header menu you’ll find information about key issues explored in this research project, funding received, people involved, events hosted, scholarly output and communication, and contact info. In the blog stream, I will upload posts in the form of short essays or literature reviews related to the issues addressed in the research project, and possibly some interviews with people I’ve met and been interacting with on campus during my stay as a visiting scholar at the Program in Gender, Sexuality and Feminist Studies, Duke University, Durham NC. Please come back soon to learn more about my work in FEMSAG!