Feminist Philosophers

16.1 Mary Wollstonecraft

Mary Wollstonecraft was an 18th-century political radical, novelist, social critic, and one of the great forebears of feminist thought; her work is still relevant today. By law and by custom, middle-class Englishwomen in Wollstonecraft’s day were thought to be subordinate to men. They lived under the weight of effectively existing for the sake of men.

Wollstonecraft argues that humanity’s true happiness and perfection lie in cultivating rationality, virtue, and knowledge. Yet, in women these capacities were stunted. The result was a devastating dehumanization.

16.2 Simone de Beauvoir

French philosopher, novelist, and feminist Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex was an influential study of the inequality and injustice that defined the female condition—and in many cases, it likely still does. Beauvoir’s answer to the question, “What is Woman?” marks a crucial distinction between biology (sex) and gender (largely a reflection of societal norms). For Beauvoir, one is not born a woman, but rather becomes one. That becoming is socially determined by male expectations and prerogatives. In this way, woman has been defined as Other.

Female oppression is lifted, according to Beauvoir, only by real freedom and true equality. This equality extends from education to working conditions and salaries, sexuality, marriage, and so on.

16.3 Feminist Ethics

Feminist ethics is an approach to morality aimed at advancing women’s interests, underscoring their distinctive experiences and characteristics, and advancing the obvious truth that women and men are morally equal.

Carol Gilligan presents a central moral perspective in feminist ethics. In her 1982 book In a Different Voice, Gilligan advances the ethics of care, which emphasizes the unique demands of specific situations and the virtues and feelings that are central to close personal relationships.

16.4 Feminist Perspectives on Knowledge

The “situated knower” and “situated knowledge” are at the heart of feminist epistemology. Since gender has skewed traditional epistemology toward the dominant male perspective and has thus adversely affected women and other disadvantaged groups, the remedy is to develop theories of knowledge based on alternative conceptions of gender and power. These theories reflect the distinctive kinds of knowledge peculiar to different social groups.

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