Second wave feminism has always had a radical strand. It has always been about
more than equal pay. It was also, for instance, about exposing and then discarding
banal conventional unreflective ideas that led to banal conventional unreflective
behaviour. Ideas about cooking and cleaning being somehow naturally women’s
work, for example, which led to men cheerfully lounging about while women put
in what Arlie Hochschild calls a second shift. And even more than that, unexamined
ideas about what women are like, what they want, what they should be and do.
David Lodge once remarked that women became much more interesting after feminism,
and his own novels bear this out, as do those of Michael Frayn and other male
novelists who started writing in the ’50s or ’60s. The pre-1970 female characters
are non-entities, the post-1970 ones–Robyn Penrose in Nice Work, Kate
in Headlong–take up a lot of space. The very way women are perceived
and noticed and thought about changed with feminism, and that would not have
happened if mere institutional reform had been the only goal.
But there are radical ideas and then there are radical ideas. One of the less
helpful ones was difference feminism. The foundations of this shaky edifice
were laid in the ’70s, when a popular rhetorical move was to label many usually
well-thought-of attributes and tools–reason, logic, science, “linear” thinking,
abstract ideas, analysis, objectivity, argument–as male, and dub their opposite
female. So by a contortion that defies “male” logic, it somehow became feminist
to confine women all over again to intuition, guesswork, instinct, feelings,
subjectivity, and arm-waving.
This school of thought became mainstream in 1982 with the publication of Carol
Gilligan’s highly influential In a Different Voice. Gilligan claims that
women have their own special version of morality rooted in relationships and
caring rather than abstract notions of justice and equity. This of course sounds
startlingly like the patronizing pat on the head with which women were barred
from public life in the 19th century, because the dear creatures were simply
too good for that mucky arena. It is quite a feat of legerdemain to take what
had been thought a classic bit of sexist mystification and turn it into new
But however perverse or odd it may seem, and though her research has been sharply
criticised, Gilligan’s views were and are indeed popular.
The criticisms were in small academic publications, while Gilligan got an admiring
profile in the New York Times Magazine in 1990, complete with cover picture.
In the wake of In a Different Voice came epigones such as Nell Noddings’
Caring, Sara Ruddick’s Maternal Thinking, and Belenky, Clinchy,
Goldberger and Tarule’s Women’s Ways of Knowing. The last-named book,
based on interviews with 135 women, claims that women are uncomfortable with
argument and disagreement, and that they have a different approach to knowledge
that emphasizes collaboration, consensus, mutual understanding. Women’s Ways
of Knowing declares in the final paragraph, “We have argued in this book
that educators can help women develop their own authentic voices if they emphasize
connection over separation, understanding and acceptance over assessment, and
collaboration over debate…if instead of imposing their own expectations and
arbitrary requirements, they encourage students to evolve their own patterns
of work based on the problems they are pursuing.” What a flawless recipe for
infantilization and mental abdication. If it were in a book dated 1886 we would
all point and laugh, but tragically it is dated a century later.
Women’s Ways of Knowing raises questions about the evidence its findings
are based on, and about what to do with those findings. Critics have duly pointed
out that the interview subjects were told in advance that the topic was women’s
different approaches to knowledge, which is not quite the way to elicit uncontaminated
testimony. But even apart from that, even if their findings were really findings
rather than self-confirmed prophecies, there would still be a problem with the
conclusions the authors draw. If the evidence truly supported their idea that
women prefer to maintain “connectedness”, make everyone feel good, and promote
understanding and acceptance over judgment or assessment, then clearly the response
ought to be loud and urgent demands for remedial education for women starting
yesterday. In morality, ethics, social life, friendship, there is something
(though far from everything) to be said for preferring understanding and acceptance
to judgment and assessment, but in epistemology or “ways of knowing” there is
just about nothing. Critical thinking is widely recognised to be a basic tool
for cognitive work, and surely the whole point of critical thinking is to know
what not to accept, to know how to judge and assess. It is all about
rejection, separation, negation, being “judgmental”; tolerance and love and
sympathy and sensitivity are the wrong tools for the job. A favourite move for
the different ways of knowing crowd is to quote an aphorism of Audre Lord’s,
“the Master’s tools will never dismantle the Master’s house”, which fact perhaps
demonstrates the result of eschewing logic. Why on earth would the Master’s
tools not dismantle his house? If he goes to town or gets drunk and falls asleep
in the corn crib, his tools will work very nicely. But in any case feminists
need to resist any rhetorical move to hand those tools over to the Master, that
is, to claim that logic and reason and evidence and “linear thinking” and judgment
belong to men, and women should claim what’s left over. Carl Sagan used to like
to say, echoing Hume, that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,
and we should demand very very good evidence indeed (better than 135 women summoned
to describe their different way with knowledge) before accepting the notion
that logic is male.
And the evidence is not particularly good, to put it mildly. The notorious
1990 American Association of University Women study of the putative fall in
self-esteem of adolescent girls was assailed from all sides for its flawed methodology,
but it got a flood of media attention all the same. It inspired more studies
and books such as Peggy Ornstein’s Schoolgirls and Mary Pipher’s best-selling
Reviving Ophelia, and wasted the time of countless girls in “self-esteem”
classes when they might have been learning history or math. Bizarre claims resting
on flawed evidence generated even more bizarre claims resting on yet more flawed
evidence, in a spiral of epistemological breakdown. If only everyone had done
less accepting and more judging. Susan Haack sums the matter up:
“But even if there were such a thing, the case for feminist epistemology would
require further argument to show that women’s ‘ways of knowing’ (scare quotes
because the term is tendentious, since ‘knows’ is a success-word) represent
better procedures of inquiry or subtler standards of justification than the
male…[W]hat my experience rather suggests is that the questions of the epistemological
tradition are hard, very hard, for anyone, of whatever sex (or gender),
to answer or even significantly to clarify.”
We have certainly gone to a great deal of trouble in order to come back to
where we started. Women are sweet, women are soft-headed, women are nicer than
men and don’t like all that pesky judgmental science and logic and reason and
argument and disagreement. If this were true it ought to be changed, but there
is little reason to think it is true. We thought we had escaped the tyranny
of low expectations for women, we thought we had crashed that prison and freed
ourselves to be as tough and hard-headed and autonomous and wide-ranging as
men–and now here come the beaming Ed School professors to tell us No, no, that’s
all wrong, that’s the male way of doing things. We are women and we have to
park our brains at the door and be nice and warm and caring and empathic and
fuzzy. That’s the sort of thing that makes a self-respecting feminist want to
be as opinionated and cold and uncompromising and downright ruthless as she
can find it in her to be. Janet Radcliffe Richards puts it this way:
“It is hard to imagine anything better calculated to delight the soul of patriarchal
man than the sight of women’s most vociferous leaders taking an approach to
feminism that continues so much of his own work: luring women off into a special
area of their own where they will remain screened from the detailed study of
philosophy and science to which he always said they were unsuited, teaching
them indignation instead of argument, fantasy and metaphor instead of science,
and doing all this by continuing his very own technique of persuading women
that their true interests lie elsewhere than in the areas colonized by men.”
Feminists need to keep their eyes on the prize, as the saying goes, and resist
with every fibre of their being attempts to persuade them that the most fascinating,
inspiring, exhilarating, productive, truth-generating fields of intellectual
endeavour are the private property of men and that authentic women are too maternal
and caring and touchy-feely to be good at them. A more perverse, backward-looking,
destructive idea is hard to imagine, and the fact that it comes from friends
rather than enemies is one of the surrealistic jokes of modern life.
1 Colby, Anne & William Damon. “Listening to a Different
Voice: A Review of Gilligan’s In a Different Voice.” Merrill-Palmer Quarterly
29, 4 (October 1983). Walker, Lawrence J. “Sex Differences in the Development
of Moral Reasoning: A Critical Review.” Child Development 55 (1984).
2 Haack, Susan. Manifesto of a Passionate Moderate The
University of Chicago Press (1998).
3 Radcliffe Richards, Janet. “Why Feminist Epistemology Isn’t”.
The Flight From Science and Reason ed. Paul Gross, Norman Levitt, Martin
Lewis, New York Academy of Sciences (1997).
- Biology is Destiny, Yet Again
Women must have children. Get on with it!
- Children Are Optional
Yes, even for women.
- Gender and Ethical Theory
Page of links that connect gender theory with ethics.
- More, The Goddess is Bunk
A review of Philip Davis’ Goddess Unmasked originally published in The Skeptical Inquirer.
- Political Agendas versus Science
The Skeptical Inquirer reports on a conference titled ‘Rational Feminism Explores the Gender Politics of Science’.
- St. Hilda’s
An all-women’s college prompts strange, prurient questions.
- The Birth of Pleasure: a review
A skeptical, slightly ironically or teasingly baffled review of Carol Gilligan’s The Birth of Pleasure in The Independent.
- The Goddess is Bunk
An article in the January 2001 issue of The Atlantic examines the pseudo-mythology and pseudo-history behind ‘Wicca’ and The Goddess.
- The Guardian
An article by Susan Greenfield on women in science, with additional relevant links at the bottom of the page.
- The Virtual Library: Gender Equity
A page of useful links to studies and controversies related to education and women.