Four Forms Of Feminism

Within feminist theory generally, four main branches can be distinguished, though there are many interconnections between them: each of them is also represented in feminist approaches to philosophy of religion. Liberal feminism, whose early representatives include Mary Wollstonecraft (1985), John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor Mill (1983), has long argued against the inferiority of intellect and morality attributed to women by key figures in the history of philosophy of religion, such as Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. If women are allowed equal education and opportunity, they will show themselves equal to men in every respect: they should therefore be equally eligible as teachers and writers of philosophy and for ordination of Christian ministry. This was the position taken by Mary Daly in her early work (1968), though as we shall see, she moved far beyond it.

It soon became apparent, however, that in their stress on the equal humanness of women and men, liberal feminists had overlooked the fact that 'human' has been defined and characterized in ways that are normatively male. Furthermore, liberal feminists had largely accepted without question some of the assumptions and the ideals of the Enlightenment, locating our humanity and dignity in our capacity for rationality and autonomy. Radical and socialist feminists began to argue that this location should be scrutinized, not least for its male bias. Why not locate our humanity and dignity in emotion and inter-subjective bonding, for example, at least as much as in rationality and freedom? Hence it was recognized that the oppression of women is much deeper than liberal feminism took it to be; indeed, it is built into the definitions and conceptualizations of what it is to be human. But if that is the case, then it is not surprising that such oppression should also be built into human conceptualizations of God, whose omniscience and omnipotence are thought to be the religious pattern of human rationality and freedom; consequently, the three subsequent forms of feminism take a much more radical stance religiously than does liberal feminism.

Radical feminism adopts a reversal of the stance of liberal feminism with regard to the Enlightenment values of what is normatively human (Daly 1985b). Rather than accepting the account of a common humanity, radical feminists celebrate women's difference, emphasizing emotion, community, and the nurturing characteristics of women, as against male reason, alienation, destruction and warfare. Radical feminists point to the extent to which language, including the language of religion and philosophy, embodies and reinforces sexist attitudes. Instead of merely asserting the right to be admitted as equals with men in areas of study otherwise unaffected by the presence of two genders instead of one, radical feminists seek to change the whole agenda of philosophy, not least in philosophy of religion. If philosophy of religion is based on male conceptualizations, for example, would it not be appropriate to seek new sources of religious knowledge, rooted in women's experience? If God has been conceptualized in terms which valorize spirit, power and knowledge, at the expense of bodies and feelings, in whose interests has it been to argue for and against the existence of such a God? I will discuss these issues more fully below.

The difficulty with radical feminism, as has been pointed out by Beverly Harrison (1985:6) among others, is that if women are conceptualized as the polar opposites of men, then the logical conclusion for feminist strategy is a separatism which creates for women their own space, not just as an interim measure, but as a final solution. Women are wonderful; men are unredeemable. The result, however, (though I wish to be clear that Daly herself has not followed her argument to its conclusion in this respect) is that women would actually disengage themselves from struggle against concrete injustices, separating themselves from the sordid patriarchal world into a newly woven feminist web. Even if that were desirable, it would at most be possible only for a few affluent and privileged women, and would do little to help those who are most oppressed.

Socialist feminism is a third form of feminism which tries to overcome the problems of both liberal and radical feminist theory. Whereas radical feminism polarizes male and female reason, and calls for women's separateness, socialist feminists take the view that gender, and with it modes of behaviour including reasoning, is socially constructed. Drawing heavily on Marxist theory, socialist feminists like Nancy Hartsock (1985) argue that there are no views from nowhere; that all human knowledge is shaped by the perspective of the knower, and that as knowledge has been constructed in the Western world, those knowers have largely been the dominant males. Contrary to the claims of neutrality and objectivity standardly made by practitioners of science and philosophy, these disciplines actually represent and perpetuate the interests of the oppressor class (Harding 1991:138-63). Hartsock uses Hegel's master-slave analogy and applies it to gender: just as the slave perforce needed to know things which the master could afford to ignore, so also women, because the conditions of their lives have been immersed in reproductive and nurturing labour, are able to see relationships with men and to account for male structuring of society in a way which men from their more privileged position have not seen. Female experience and perspective thus invert the male-dominant perspective, seeing the dualisms which the latter has constructed, between the mind and the body, God and the world, culture and nature, as life-denying rather than life-enhancing. These dualisms can be understood not as the basis for religion, but rather as male projections of their own alienation from bodiliness and women, who have regularly been identified with the second term of each of the above pairs. Socialist feminists are thus concerned to demonstrate the alienating nature of religion; and their work in the philosophy of religion has not usually been focused on detailed arguments within the discipline but rather a reconsideration of the discipline itself, as serving the interests of the dominant class, just as they hold that religion itself does. There are notable exceptions in the area of ethics, however, where socialist feminists' views have been important in the positive construction of arguments (Harrison 1985; Welch 1990). A central challenge for socialist feminism lies in its use of the Marxist category of class: in what sense can women, in all our diversity, be considered a 'class' for epistemological purposes? Surely the wide variation of women makes the idea of 'a woman's standpoint' problematical, and points to the necessity for a multiplicity of standpoints (Harding 1986:136-96)?

This insistence on diversity is the common denominator of the fourth form of feminism, post-modernist feminism, some of whose major articulations have come from the French feminist writers Julia Kristeva and Luce Irigaray. They agree with socialist feminists that religion, at least as it has been known in Western societies, is male-defined. The concept of an omnipotent and omniscient deity has been used by men to valorize their own preoccupation with power and knowledge, and the insistence on God as creator serves to deflect attention from the fact that all men are, in fact, born of women and owe their existence and usually their continued nurture to women (Grosz 1989:152). However, French feminists, especially Irigaray, have urged that abandonment of religious concepts is not the way forward for women. What is needed, instead, is a displacement and diversification of religious concepts, corresponding to women's displacement and diversity. She seeks to explore 'some of the necessary conditions for constructing a female divine, God, gods, a heaven, a genre and social position which is feminine, and can represent women's aspirations to an ethical order, as men's God has represented theirs' (ibid.: 162). A discussion of what this means is found below.

These four forms of feminisms, liberal, radical, socialist, and postmodernist, are the major strands of late twentieth-century feminist thought; and it is useful to see the strengths of each as well as the tensions within and between them as we consider issues in the philosophy of religion. However, it should be obvious that feminist writers in the philosophy of religion do not normally consider themselves bound by any one of these four forms, and draw on them as they find them useful to develop their insights. As I have already indicated, feminists usually find the whole project of drawing tightly defined boundaries around or within disciplines a deeply suspect masculinist project, more designed to abet the goals of individual specialism than to foster liberating communal insight.

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