Feminism is not just for women (part I)

I am a feminist. I have always felt I could not not be one. All the same I have met with much confusion on the subject around me. Time to disentangle some knots and try to shed some light on the differing philosophical, political and social views that do and do not combine with feminism. A most important form of confusion one encounters often is the idea that feminism is something for women. That it is the ideology of a lobby that has for its aim to promote the interests of its members. Well, it is not, and that is shown in the many arguments that men have brought forward for it. They cannot be suspected to be members of a lobby group restricted to women, so why would they be feminists?

They have many reasons, political, social, philosophical – and they are not even of a kind. In general feminism is seen as a product of the Enlightenment – as one of the emancipation movements of workers, women and people of colour that based itself on the idea of the equality of all ‘men’. All the same, we have seen massive criticism of the major Enlightenment thinkers – for the fact that despite their general ideas about the equality of ‘mankind’ they excluded all the mentioned groups who fought for emancipation in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries from the realm where the equal rights reign. Such criticism has led to the questioning of the aim of Enlightenment itself: was it really a movement for the advancement of humanitarian values like equal rights for all, or was it the very succesful dust thrown in the eyes of those who were to support by their free labour and care the winners of the colonial and the early industrial era?

It is more complicated than that, as we see that in those same centuries of equality for the few and oppression for the most, we see Aufklärer (taken in a broad sense) who seem to have drawn the right consequences from the principles of modern thought. It is only natural that some of the feminist treatises of such writers, even of the men among them, are hardly known, for they sure went against the mainstream. Lets remember some of them. Like the social Cartesian Francois Poulain the la Barre (1647-1723), who wrote no less than three feminist treatises: On the Equality of the two Sexes (1673), On the Education of Women (1674) and On the Qualities of Men, against the Equality of the Sexes (1675). The final title might mislead – it contains a criticism of criticisms of feminism. Poulain based his arguments on the Cartesian critique of tradition as authority. If one thinks for oneself, unprejudiced, one must conclude, he argues, that men and women only differ where sexual reproduction is concerned, and in no other relevant aspects. Ergo: women deserve the same opportunities in public life as men. Here we see a consistent modernism – which cannot be dismissed on the grounds of creating false consciousness.

Somewhat less forgotten is the feminism of John Stuart Mill (1806-1873). But when Mill is mentioned in the philosophy curriculum as the influential writer of Utilitarianism (1863) and On Liberty (1859), most teachers forget to mention his other important work The Subjection of Women (1869) – seeing feminism as a ‘special subject’ and not as one that stands at the centre of moral thought. To Mill this is not so: not only does he defend equal opportunities for women on the pragmatic ground that human society should use its most talented individuals to run its affairs and not harm itself by letting the talent of half of humankind wasted – but he also gives the pronounced moral argument that ‘every restraint on the freedom of conduct of any of their fellow human creatures, […] dries up […] the principal fountain of human happiness, and leaves the species less rich, to an inappreciable degree, in all that makes life valuable to the individual human being.’

Two male feminists, modernists also, using very distinct arguments for their case. Their inspirational principles are distinct also. For Mill it is the greatest happiness principle, which acknowledges the importance of the sentient individual as the cornerstone of moral thought. For Poulain it is the objective or empirical equality of both sexes, apart from sexual reproduction – a more ‘materialist’, ‘proto-socialist’ principle. Feminism thus goes beyond widely differing views on politics and society, it surmounts them. Perhaps it provides one of several possible litmus tests for deciding, in the end, on the moral worth of the whole Enlightenment experience. And should the test produce a positive result, this would of course have to lead to the conclusion that Kant and many others who thought ‘some pigs to be more equal than others’, had it wrong in defending the lost cause of the subjection of women.

Dates and works of Poulain de la Barre and Stuart Mill I already mentioned in the text above. Their feminist works mentioned can all be accessed online.

Mill’s here: http://archive.org/stream/subjectionofwome00millrich#page/n3/mode/2up

Poulain de la Barre’s here: http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k82363t/f1.image.

Some of the research for this subject I did a long time ago, when I prepared the introduction to the early feminist Treatise on the Talent of Women for Science, of a Dutch thinker, Anna Maria van Schuurman, originally published in Latin in 1641, and translated by Renée Ter Haar in Dutch for the publication in 1996 by Uitgeverij Xeno, Groningen.

1 comment
  1. Lee said:

    Thanks for a thought-provoking piece.

    From a spiritual perspective, I do believe that God originally created man and woman equal, and that such equality would be the norm if we were living in the way God intended us to live. (See my article “What are the Roles of Men and Women toward Each Other and in Society?” and the follow up article, “Man, Woman, and the Two Creation Stories of Genesis.”) It was only when we humans fell away from the path and pattern God intended for us that sexual inequality and the dominance of men over women entered the picture.

    I find it fascinating and poignant that Poulain was arguing all the way back in the seventeenth century that “men and women only differ where sexual reproduction is concerned, and in no other relevant aspects.” As much as I agree with main thrust of feminism toward equality between the sexes, I consider this view that there are no differences other than reproductive ones to be a major ball-and-chain on the whole feminist movement. (Not that all feminists believe this, but it has been a very strong voice in the feminist debate.)

    I would venture to say that to the vast bulk of the people on this earth, it is obvious that women and men are different from one another not only physically, but also mentally and emotionally. The exact nature of those differences is difficult to define. However, all efforts to eradicate the psychological and social differences between men and women have proved to be failures. Men and women just keep on being different.

    I believe that the drive of feminism should not be to create a society in which the differences between men and women have been erased, but rather to create a society in which equal value is placed on male and female qualities–whatever those qualities may be.

    To use a rather crude analogy, trying to make men and women the same other than in their physical reproductive systems is like trying to make cars and trucks the same. The fact is, cars and trucks are different–and it’s a good thing that they are! Sometimes what you need to get the job done is a car, and other times what you need to get the job done is a truck.

    My own thinking is more in line with Mills’s thinking. I believe that all positions in society should be open to men and women equally (without pressure or quotas), because then we will be most likely to get the person most suited to each position in that position. If men and women naturally sort themselves out into somewhat different sets of roles and professions, that is simply the natural result of the fact (as I believe) that men and women have subtle but real differences not only physically, but mentally and emotionally as well.

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