1.3.09

Gender in philosophy

Something interesting I found in Diana Coole's Women in Political Theory. Human beings structure their ideas and debates through a series of binary oppositions: mind-body, subject-object, reason-passion etc. These ethical, political and philosophical categories are 'gendered', defined as being either 'male' or 'female'. And in most cases the 'male' categories have been seen as superior, and the 'female' inferior. What is more, the 'male' category becomes the standard, the norm. Its antithesis is thus negative, and 'other'.

This polarity justified the domination of women by men for most of human civilization. The female principle (nature, flesh, appetite) is made subordinate to the male (culture, spirit, reason). The male defines humanity and the highest goals and ideas of the species.

Coole then argues that in their approach to this male-female polarity, most thinkers can be classed into two basic approaches. The conservatives (including Aristotle, Aquinas, Rousseau and Hegel) claim that there are natural and unassailable differences between the sexes. Women have a significant role in the organic hierarchy of society, mostly associated with reproduction and domesticity. As this status is natural, it cannot be oppressive. Nevertheless, they are incapable of the rationality that men are capable of, and so occupy a lower echelon in the order of the universe.

The radicals (Plato, Augustine, Wollstonecraft, the Utilitarians, Marx and de Beauvoir) argue for sexual equality. However, this approach is often tied with a profound rejection of all things female: passion, intuition, emotion and their relationship to reproduction. The primary gender polarity is not overcome. The 'female' category remains inferior and continues to exert its influence beneath the trappings of formal equality. The radicals still see women as lowly and subversive. Women have to reconstruct themselves into an ideal of enlightened masculinity.

What, then, is the answer? Women shouldn't be classed as 'other' or made into 'men'. Instead, we need the 'de-gendering' of all ethical and philosophical categories -- reclaiming them as neutral. We need to create a synthesis that we can term, not 'male' or 'female', but 'human'. This is what I argue for in the note about gender below. It's nice when someone clever agrees. Permit me a little smugness.

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