Feminists and Philosophy

And mustn’t there be a type of woman that loves philosophy,1 and another type that hates it?

Yes, both of these.

Plato, Republic 456A

We’ll encounter opposition, won’t we, if we give women the same education that we give to men, Socrates says to Glaucon. For then we’d have to let women strip and exercise in the company of men. And we know how ridiculous that would seem.

Absolutely, says Glaucon—at least in the light of present practice.

Note, however, that it was not such a long time ago, Socrates says, when the public calisthenics for men that now seem so natural and admirable seemed themselves absurdly foreign—for we weren’t used to the idea of men stripping in public. But when we reflected about the reasons for the change, and decided they were good, then “the appearance of absurdity ebbed away under the influence of reason’s judgment about the best.”2

Convention and habit are women’s enemies here, and reason their ally. Habit decrees that what seems strange is impossible and “unnatural”; reason looks head on at the strange, refusing to assume that the current status quo is either immutable or in any normative sense “natural.” The appeal to reason and objectivity amounts to a request that the observer refuse to be intimidated by habit, and look for cogent arguments based on evidence that has been carefully sifted for bias.

In our own society the arguments of feminists make such appeals to reason and objectivity all the time, and in a manner that closely resembles Platonic arguments. We now demand, with Plato, that reproductive differences between men and women not be taken to be relevant to hiring unless it can be shown that these differences affect job performance, as it rarely can.3 We point out that these differences are not disabilities until law and custom treat them in certain ways; and we expect to be heard. Hiring in my own university was between 1977 and 1992 administered under a consent decree resulting from the settlement of a class-action lawsuit that vividly recalls Platonic arguments: for the males who denied tenure to a prominent female anthropologist held that her new type of scholarship, which concentrated on women, was theoretically weak.4 The women prosecuting the class-action lawsuit did not hesitate to argue that by objective criteria (above all, the judgment of outside experts) this was not the case. The claim of objectivity had been used as a screen to mask mere prejudice against the new and strange. Critical to the case was this distinction between a pretense of objectivity and real objectivity. And so, at Brown as in Athens: “the appearance of absurdity ebbed away under the influence of reason’s judgment about the best.”

And yet today reason and objectivity are on the defensive in some feminist circles. We are frequently told that reason and objectivity are norms created by “patriarchy,” and that to appeal to them is to succumb to the blandishments of the oppressor. We are…

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