Feminism brings many things to philosophy including not only a variety of particular moral and political claims, but ways of asking and answering questions, constructive and critical dialogue with mainstream philosophical views and methods, and new topics of inquiry. Feminist philosophers work within all the major traditions of philosophical scholarship including analytic philosophy, American Pragmatist philosophy, and Continential philosophy. Entries in this Encyclopedia appearing under the heading “feminism, approaches” discuss the impact of these traditions on feminist scholarship and examine the possibility and desirability of work that makes links between two traditions. Feminist contributions to and interventions in mainstream philosophical debates are covered in entries in this encyclopedia under “feminism, interventions”. Entries covered under the rubric “feminism, topics” concern philosophical issues that arise as feminists articulate accounts of sexism, critique sexist social and cultural practices, and develop alternative visions of a just world. In short, they are philosophical topics that arise within feminism.
Although there are many different and sometimes conflicting approaches to feminist philosophy, it is instructive to begin by asking what, if anything, feminists as a group are committed to. Considering some of the controversies over what feminism is provides a springboard for seeing how feminist commitments generate a host of philosophical topics, especially as those commitments confront the world as we know it.
2. What is Feminism?
2.1 Feminist Beliefs and Feminist Movements
The term ‘feminism’ has many different uses and its meanings are often contested. For example, some writers use the term ‘feminism’ to refer to a historically specific political movement in the US and Europe; other writers use it to refer to the belief that there are injustices against women, though there is no consensus on the exact list of these injustices. Although the term “feminism” has a history in English linked with women's activism from the late 19th century to the present, it is useful to distinguish feminist ideas or beliefs from feminist political movements, for even in periods where there has been no significant political activism around women's subordination, individuals have been concerned with and theorized about justice for women. So, for example, it makes sense to ask whether Plato was a feminist, given his view that women should be trained to rule (Republic, Book V), even though he was an exception in his historical context. (See e.g., Tuana 1994.)
Our goal here is not to survey the history of feminism — as a set of ideas or as a series of political movements — but rather is to sketch some of the central uses of the term that are most relevant to those interested in contemporary feminist philosophy. The references we provide below are only a small sample of the work available on the topics in question; more complete bibliographies are available at the specific topical entries and also at the end of this entry.
In the mid-1800s the term ‘feminism’ was used to refer to “the qualities of females”, and it was not until after the First International Women's Conference in Paris in 1892 that the term, following the French term féministe, was used regularly in English for a belief in and advocacy of equal rights for women based on the idea of the equality of the sexes. Although the term “feminism” in English is rooted in the mobilization for woman suffrage in Europe and the US during the late 19th and early 20th century, of course efforts to obtain justice for women did not begin or end with this period of activism. So some have found it useful to think of the women's movement in the US as occurring in “waves”. On the wave model, the struggle to achieve basic political rights during the period from the mid-19th century until the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920 counts as “First Wave” feminism. Feminism waned between the two world wars, to be “revived” in the late 1960's and early 1970's as “Second Wave” feminism. In this second wave, feminists pushed beyond the early quest for political rights to fight for greater equality across the board, e.g., in education, the workplace, and at home. More recent transformations of feminism have resulted in a “Third Wave”. Third Wave feminists often critique Second Wave feminism for its lack of attention to the differences among women due to race, ethnicity, class, nationality, religion (see Section 2.3 below; also Breines 2002; Spring 2002), and emphasize “identity” as a site of gender struggle. (For more information on the “wave” model and each of the “waves”, see Other Internet Resources.)
However, some feminist scholars object to identifying feminism with these particular moments of political activism, on the grounds that doing so eclipses the fact that there has been resistance to male domination that should be considered “feminist” throughout history and across cultures: i.e., feminism is not confined to a few (White) women in the West over the past century or so. Moreover, even considering only relatively recent efforts to resist male domination in Europe and the US, the emphasis on “First” and “Second” Wave feminism ignores the ongoing resistance to male domination between the 1920's and 1960's and the resistance outside mainstream politics, particularly by women of color and working class women (Cott 1987).
One strategy for solving these problems would be to identify feminism in terms of a set of ideas or beliefs rather than participation in any particular political movement. As we saw above, this also has the advantage of allowing us to locate isolated feminists whose work was not understood or appreciated during their time. But how should we go about identifying a core set of feminist beliefs? Some would suggest that we should focus on the political ideas that the term was apparently coined to capture, viz., the commitment to women's equal rights. This acknowledges that commitment to and advocacy for women's rights has not been confined to the Women's Liberation Movement in the West. But this too raises controversy, for it frames feminism within a broadly Liberal approach to political and economic life. Although most feminists would probably agree that there is some sense of “rights” on which achieving equal rights for women is a necessary condition for feminism to succeed, most would also argue that this would not be sufficient. This is because women's oppression under male domination rarely if ever consists solely in depriving women of political and legal “rights”, but also extends into the structure of our society and the content of our culture, and permeates our consciousness (e.g., Bartky 1990).
Is there any point, then, to asking what feminism is? Given the controversies over the term and the politics of circumscribing the boundaries of a social movement, it is sometimes tempting to think that the best we can do is to articulate a set of disjuncts that capture a range of feminist beliefs. However, at the same time it can be both intellectually and politically valuable to have a schematic framework that enables us to map at least some of our points of agreement and disagreement. We'll begin here by considering some of the basic elements of feminism as a political position or set of beliefs. For a survey of different philosophical approaches to feminism, see “Feminism, approaches to”.
2.2 Normative and Descriptive Components
In many of its forms, feminism seems to involve at least two groups of claims, one normative and the other descriptive. The normative claims concern how women ought (or ought not) to be viewed and treated and draw on a background conception of justice or broad moral position; the descriptive claims concern how women are, as a matter of fact, viewed and treated, alleging that they are not being treated in accordance with the standards of justice or morality invoked in the normative claims. Together the normative and descriptive claims provide reasons for working to change the way things are; hence, feminism is not just an intellectual but also a political movement.
So, for example, a Liberal approach of the kind already mentioned might define feminism (rather simplistically here) in terms of two claims:
- (Normative) Men and women are entitled to equal rights and respect.
- (Descriptive) Women are currently disadvantaged with respect to rights and respect, compared with men […in such and such respects and due to such and such conditions…].
On this account, that women and men ought to have equal rights and respect is the normative claim; and that women are denied equal rights and respect functions here as the descriptive claim. Admittedly, the claim that women are disadvantaged with respect to rights and respect is not a “purely descriptive” claim since it plausibly involves an evaluative component. However, our point here is simply that claims of this sort concern what is the case not what ought to be the case. Moreover, as indicated by the ellipsis above, the descriptive component of a substantive feminist view will not be articulable in a single claim, but will involve an account of the specific social mechanisms that deprive women of, e.g., rights and respect. For example, is the primary source of women's subordination her role in the family? (Engels 1845; Okin 1989) Or is it her role in the labor market? (Bergmann 2002) Is the problem males' tendencies to sexual violence (and what is the source of these tendencies?)? (Brownmiller 1975; MacKinnon 1987) Or is it simply women's biological role in reproduction? (Firestone 1970)
Disagreements within feminism can occur with respect to either the descriptive or normative claims, e.g., feminists differ on what would count as justice or injustice for women (what counts as “equality,” “oppression,” “disadvantage”, what rights should everyone be accorded?) , and what sorts of injustice women in fact suffer (what aspects of women's current situation are harmful or unjust?). Disagreements may also lie in the explanations of the injustice: two feminists may agree that women are unjustly being denied proper rights and respect and yet substantively differ in their accounts of how or why the injustice occurs and what is required to end it (Jaggar 1994).
Disagreements between feminists and non-feminists can occur with respect to both the normative and descriptive claims as well, e.g., some non-feminists agree with feminists on the ways women ought to be viewed and treated, but don't see any problem with the way things currently are. Others disagree about the background moral or political views.
In an effort to suggest a schematic account of feminism, Susan James characterizes feminism as follows:
Feminism is grounded on the belief that women are oppressed or disadvantaged by comparison with men, and that their oppression is in some way illegitimate or unjustified. Under the umbrella of this general characterization there are, however, many interpretations of women and their oppression, so that it is a mistake to think of feminism as a single philosophical doctrine, or as implying an agreed political program. (James 1998, 576)
James seems here to be using the notions of “oppression” and “disadvantage” as placeholders for more substantive accounts of injustice (both normative and descriptive) over which feminists disagree.
Some might prefer to define feminism in terms of a normative claim alone: feminists are those who believe that women are entitled to equal rights, or equal respect, or…(fill in the blank with one's preferred account of injustice), and one is not required to believe that women are currently being treated unjustly. However, if we were to adopt this terminological convention, it would be harder to identify some of the interesting sources of disagreement both with and within feminism, and the term ‘feminism’ would lose much of its potential to unite those whose concerns and commitments extend beyond their moral beliefs to their social interpretations and political affiliations. Feminists are not simply those who are committed in principle to justice for women; feminists take themselves to have reasons to bring about social change on women's behalf.
Taking “feminism” to entail both normative and empirical commitments also helps make sense of some uses of the term ‘feminism’ in recent popular discourse. In everyday conversation it is not uncommon to find both men and women prefixing a comment they might make about women with the caveat, “I'm not a feminist, but…”. Of course this qualification might be (and is) used for various purposes, but one persistent usage seems to follow the qualification with some claim that is hard to distinguish from claims that feminists are wont to make. E.g., I'm not a feminist but I believe that women should earn equal pay for equal work; or I'm not a feminist but I'm delighted that first-rate women basketball players are finally getting some recognition in the WNBA. If we see the identification “feminist” as implicitly committing one to both a normative stance about how things should be and an interpretation of current conditions, it is easy to imagine someone being in the position of wanting to cancel his or her endorsement of either the normative or the descriptive claim. So, e.g., one might be willing to acknowledge that there are cases where women have been disadvantaged without wanting to buy any broad moral theory that takes a stance on such things (especially where it is unclear what that broad theory is). Or one might be willing to acknowledge in a very general way that equality for women is a good thing, without being committed to interpreting particular everyday situations as unjust (especially if is unclear how far these interpretations would have to extend). Feminists, however, at least according to popular discourse, are ready to both adopt a broad account of what justice for women would require and interpret everyday situations as unjust by the standards of that account. Those who explicitly cancel their commitment to feminism may then be happy to endorse some part of the view but are unwilling to endorse what they find to be a problematic package.
As mentioned above, there is considerable debate within feminism concerning the normative question: what would count as (full) justice for women? What is the nature of the wrong that feminism seeks to address? E.g., is the wrong that women have been deprived equal rights? Is it that women have been denied equal respect for their differences? Is it that women's experiences have been ignored and devalued? Is it all of the above and more? What framework should we employ to identify and address the issues? (See, e.g., Jaggar 1983; Young 1990a; Tuana and Tong 1995.) Feminist philosophers in particular have asked: Do the standard philosophical accounts of justice and morality provide us adequate resources to theorize male domination, or do we need distinctively feminist accounts? (E.g., Okin 1979; Hoagland 1989; Okin 1989; Ruddick 1989; Benhabib 1992; Hampton 1993; Held 1993; Tong 1993; Baier 1994; Moody-Adams 1997; Walker 1998; Kittay 1999; Robinson 1999; Young 2011; O'Connor 2008).
Note, however, that by phrasing the task as one of identifying the wrongs women suffer (and have suffered), there is an implicit suggestion that women as a group can be usefully compared against men as a group with respect to their standing or position in society; and this seems to suggest that women as a group are treated in the same way, or that they all suffer the same injustices, and men as a group all reap the same advantages. But of course this is not the case, or at least not straightforwardly so. As bell hooks so vividly pointed out, in 1963 when Betty Friedan urged women to reconsider the role of housewife and demanded greater opportunities for women to enter the workforce (Friedan 1963), Friedan was not speaking for working class women or most women of color (hooks 1984, 1-4). Neither was she speaking for lesbians. Women as a group experience many different forms of injustice, and the sexism they encounter interacts in complex ways with other systems of oppression. In contemporary terms, this is known as the problem of intersectionality (Crenshaw 1991). This critique has led some theorists to resist the label “feminism” and adopt a different name for their view. Earlier, during the 1860s–80s, the term ‘womanism’ had sometimes been used for such intellectual and political commitments; more recently, Alice Walker has proposed that “womanism” provides a contemporary alternative to “feminism” that better addresses the needs of Black women and women of color more generally (Walker 1990).
2.3 Feminism and the Diversity of Women
To consider some of the different strategies for responding to the phenomenon of intersectionality, let's return to the schematic claims that women are oppressed and this oppression is wrong or unjust. Very broadly, then, one might characterize the goal of feminism to be ending the oppression of women. But if we also acknowledge that women are oppressed not just by sexism, but in many ways, e.g., by classism, homophobia, racism, ageism, ableism, etc., then it might seem that the goal of feminism is to end all oppression that affects women. And some feminists have adopted this interpretation, e.g., (Ware 1970), quoted in (Crow 2000, 1).
Note, however, that not all agree with such an expansive definition of feminism. One might agree that feminists ought to work to end all forms of oppression — oppression is unjust and feminists, like everyone else, have a moral obligation to fight injustice — without maintaining that it is the mission of feminism to end all oppression. One might even believe that in order to accomplish feminism's goals it is necessary to combat racism and economic exploitation, but also think that there is a narrower set of specifically feminist objectives. In other words, opposing oppression in its many forms may be instrumental to, even a necessary means to, feminism, but not intrinsic to it. E.g., bell hooks argues:
Feminism, as liberation struggle, must exist apart from and as a part of the larger struggle to eradicate domination in all its forms. We must understand that patriarchal domination shares an ideological foundation with racism and other forms of group oppression, and that there is no hope that it can be eradicated while these systems remain intact. This knowledge should consistently inform the direction of feminist theory and practice. (hooks 1989, 22)
On hooks' account, the defining characteristic that distinguishes feminism from other liberation struggles is its concern with sexism:
Unlike many feminist comrades, I believe women and men must share a common understanding — a basic knowledge of what feminism is — if it is ever to be a powerful mass-based political movement. In Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, I suggest that defining feminism broadly as “a movement to end sexism and sexist oppression” would enable us to have a common political goal…Sharing a common goal does not imply that women and men will not have radically divergent perspectives on how that goal might be reached. (hooks 1989, 23)
hooks' approach depends on the claim that sexism is a particular form of oppression that can be distinguished from other forms, e.g., racism and homophobia, even though it is currently (and virtually always) interlocked with other forms of oppression. Feminism's objective is to end sexism, though because of its relation to other forms of oppression, this will require efforts to end other forms of oppression as well. For example, feminists who themselves remain racists will not be able to fully appreciate the broad impact of sexism on the lives of women of color. Furthermore because sexist institutions are also, e.g., racist, classist and homophobic, dismantling sexist institutions will require that we dismantle the other forms of domination intertwined with them (Heldke and O'Connor 2004). Following hooks' lead, we might characterize feminism schematically (allowing the schema to be filled in differently by different accounts) as the view that women are subject to sexist oppression and that this is wrong. This move shifts the burden of our inquiry from a characterization of what feminism is to a characterization of what sexism, or sexist oppression is.
As mentioned above, there are a variety of interpretations — feminist and otherwise — of what exactly oppression consists in, but the leading idea is that oppression consists in “an enclosing structure of forces and barriers which tends to the immobilization and reduction of a group or category of people” (Frye 1983, 10-11). Not just any “enclosing structure” is oppressive, however, for plausibly any process of socialization will create a structure that both limits and enables all individuals who live within it. In the case of oppression, however, the “enclosing structures” in question are part of a broader system that asymmetrically and unjustly disadvantages one group and benefits another. So, e.g., although sexism restricts the opportunities available to — and so unquestionably harms — both men and women (and considering some pairwise comparisons may even have a greater negative impact on a man than a woman), overall, women as a group unjustly suffer the greater harm. It is a crucial feature of contemporary accounts, however, that one cannot assume that members of the privileged group have intentionally designed or maintained the system for their benefit. The oppressive structure may be the result of an historical process whose originators are long gone, or it may be the unintended result of complex cooperative strategies gone wrong.
Leaving aside (at least for the moment) further details in the account of oppression, the question remains: What makes a particular form of oppression sexist? If we just say that a form of oppression counts as sexist oppression if it harms women, or even primarily harms women, this is not enough to distinguish it from other forms of oppression. Virtually all forms of oppression harm women, and arguably some besides sexism harm women primarily (though not exclusively), e.g., body size oppression, age oppression. Besides, as we've noted before, sexism is not only harmful to women, but is harmful to all of us.
What makes a particular form of oppression sexist seems to be not just that it harms women, but that someone is subject to this form of oppression specifically because she is (or at least appears to be) a woman. Racial oppression harms women, but racial oppression (by itself) doesn't harm them because they are women, it harms them because they are (or appear to be) members of a particular race. The suggestion that sexist oppression consists in oppression to which one is subject by virtue of being or appearing to be a woman provides us at least the beginnings of an analytical tool for distinguishing subordinating structures that happen to affect some or even all women from those that are more specifically sexist (Haslanger 2004). But problems and unclarities remain.
First, we need to explicate further what it means to be oppressed “because you are a woman”. E.g., is the idea that there is a particular form of oppression that is specific to women? Is to be oppressed “as a woman” to be oppressed in a particular way? Or can we be pluralists about what sexist oppression consists in without fragmenting the notion beyond usefulness?
Two strategies for explicating sexist oppression have proven to be problematic. The first is to maintain that there is a form of oppression common to all women. For example, one might interpret Catharine MacKinnon's work as claiming that to be oppressed as a woman is to be viewed and treated as sexually subordinate, where this claim is grounded in the (alleged) universal fact of the eroticization of male dominance and female submission (MacKinnon 1987; MacKinnon 1989). Although MacKinnon allows that sexual subordination can happen in a myriad of ways, her account is monistic in its attempt to unite the different forms of sexist oppression around a single core account that makes sexual objectification the focus. Although MacKinnon's work provides a powerful resource for analyzing women's subordination, many have argued that it is too narrow, e.g., in some contexts (especially in developing countries) sexist oppression seems to concern more the local division of labor and economic exploitation. Although certainly sexual subordination is a factor in sexist oppression, it requires us to fabricate implausible explanations of social life to suppose that all divisions of labor that exploit women (as women) stem from the “eroticization of dominance and submission”. Moreover, it isn't obvious that in order to make sense of sexist oppression we need to seek a single form of oppression common to all women.
A second problematic strategy has been to consider as paradigms those who are oppressed only as women, with the thought that complex cases bringing in additional forms of oppression will obscure what is distinctive of sexist oppression. This strategy would have us focus in the U.S. on White, wealthy, young, beautiful, able-bodied, heterosexual women to determine what oppression, if any, they suffer, with the hope of finding sexism in its “purest” form, unmixed with racism or homophobia, etc. (see Spelman 1988, 52-54). This approach is not only flawed in its exclusion of all but the most elite women in its paradigm, but it assumes that privilege in other areas does not affect the phenomenon under consideration. As Elizabeth Spelman makes the point:
…no woman is subject to any form of oppression simply because she is a woman; which forms of oppression she is subject to depend on what “kind” of woman she is. In a world in which a woman might be subject to racism, classism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, if she is not so subject it is because of her race, class, religion, sexual orientation. So it can never be the case that the treatment of a woman has only to do with her gender and nothing to do with her class or race. (Spelman 1988, 52-3)
Recent accounts of oppression are designed to allow that oppression takes many forms, and refuse to identify one form as more basic or fundamental than the rest. For example, Iris Young describes five “faces” of oppression: exploitation, marginalization, powerlessness, cultural imperialism, and systematic violence (Young 1990c, Ch. 2). Plausibly others should be added to the list. Sexist or racist oppression, for example, will manifest itself in different ways in different contexts, e.g., in some contexts through systematic violence, in other contexts through economic exploitation. Acknowledging this does not go quite far enough, however, for monistic theorists such as MacKinnon could grant this much. Pluralist accounts of sexist oppression must also allow that there isn't an over-arching explanation of sexist oppression that applies to all its forms: in some cases it may be that women's oppression as women is due to the eroticization of male dominance, but in other cases it may be better explained by women's reproductive value in establishing kinship structures (Rubin 1975), or by the shifting demands of globalization within an ethnically stratified workplace. In other words, pluralists resist the temptation to “grand social theory,” “overarching metanarratives,” “monocausal explanations,” to allow that the explanation of sexism in a particular historical context will rely on economic, political, legal, and cultural factors that are specific to that context which would prevent the account from being generalized to all instances of sexism (Fraser and Nicholson 1990). It is still compatible with pluralist methods to seek out patterns in women's social positions and structural explanations within and across social contexts, but in doing so we must be highly sensitive to historical and cultural variation.
2.4 Feminism as Anti-Sexism
However, if we pursue a pluralist strategy in understanding sexist oppression, what unifies all the instances as instances of sexism? After all, we cannot assume that the oppression in question takes the same form in different contexts, and we cannot assume that there is an underlying explanation of the different ways it manifests itself. So can we even speak of there being a unified set of cases — something we can call “sexist oppression” — at all?
Some feminists would urge us to recognize that there isn't a systematic way to unify the different instances of sexism, and correspondingly, there is no systematic unity in what counts as feminism: instead we should see the basis for feminist unity in coalition building (Reagon 1983). Different groups work to combat different forms of oppression; some groups take oppression against women (as women) as a primary concern. If there is a basis for cooperation between some subset of these groups in a given context, then finding that basis is an accomplishment, but should not be taken for granted.
An alternative, however, would be to grant that in practice unity among feminists cannot be taken for granted, but to begin with a theoretical common-ground among feminist views that does not assume that sexism appears in the same form or for the same reasons in all contexts. We saw above that one promising strategy for distinguishing sexism from racism, classism, and other forms of injustice is to focus on the idea that if an individual is suffering sexist oppression, then an important part of the explanation why she is subject to the injustice is that she is or appears to be a woman. This includes cases in which women as a group are explicitly targeted by a policy or a practice, but also includes cases where the policy or practice affects women due to a history of sexism, even if they are not explicitly targeted. For example, if women are deprived an education and so are, on the whole, illiterate. And if under these circumstances only those who are literate are entitled to vote. Then we can say that women as a group are being disenfranchised and that this is a form of sexist oppression because part of the explanation of why women cannot vote is that they are women, and women are deprived an education. The commonality among the cases is to be found in the role of gender in the explanation of the injustice rather than the specific form the injustice takes. Building on this we could unify a broad range of feminist views by seeing them as committed to the (very abstract) claims that:
- (Descriptive claim) Women, and those who appear to be women, are subjected to wrongs and/or injustice at least in part because they are or appear to be women.
- (Normative claim) The wrongs/injustices in question in (i) ought not to occur and should be stopped when and where they do.
We have so far been using the term ‘oppression’ loosely to cover whatever form of wrong or injustice is at issue. Continuing with this intentional openness in the exact nature of the wrong, the question still remains what it means to say that women are subjected to injustice because they are women. To address this question, it may help to consider a familiar ambiguity in the notion “because”: are we concerned here with causal explanations or justifications? On one hand, the claim that someone is oppressed because she is a woman suggests that the best (causal) explanation of the subordination in question will make reference to her sex: e.g., Paula is subject to sexist oppression on the job because the best explanation of why she makes $1.00 less an hour for doing comparable work as Paul makes reference to her sex (possibly in addition to her race or other social classifications). On the other hand, the claim that someone is oppressed because she is a woman suggests that the rationale or basis for the oppressive structures requires that one be sensitive to someone's sex in determining how they should be viewed and treated, i.e., that the justification for someone's being subject to the structures in question depends on a representation of them as sexed male or female. E.g., Paula is subject to sexist oppression on the job because the pay scale for her job classification is justified within a framework that distinguishes and devalues women's work compared with men's.
Note, however, that in both sorts of cases the fact that one is or appears to be a woman need not be the only factor relevant in explaining the injustice. It might be, for example, that one stands out in a group because of one's race, or one's class, or one's sexuality, and because one stands out one becomes a target for injustice. But if the injustice takes a form that, e.g., is regarded as especially apt for a woman, then the injustice should be understood intersectionally, i.e., as a response to an intersectional category. For example, the practice of raping Bosnian women was an intersectional injustice: it targeted them both because they were Bosnian and because they were women.
Of course, these two understandings of being oppressed because you are a woman are not incompatible; in fact they typically support one another. Because human actions are often best explained by the framework employed for justifying them, one's sex may play a large role in determining how one is treated because the background understandings for what's appropriate treatment draw invidious distinctions between the sexes. In other words, the causal mechanism for sexism often passes through problematic representations of women and gender roles.
In each of the cases of being oppressed as a woman mentioned above, Paula suffers injustice, but a crucial factor in explaining the injustice is that Paula is a member of a particular group, viz., women (or females). This, we think, is crucial in understanding why sexism (and racism, and other -isms) are most often understood as kinds of oppression. Oppression is injustice that, first and foremost, concerns groups; individuals are oppressed just in case they are subjected to injustice because of their group membership. On this view, to claim that women as women suffer injustice is to claim that women are oppressed.
Where does this leave us? ‘Feminism’ is an umbrella term for a range of views about injustices against women. There are disagreements among feminists about the nature of justice in general and the nature of sexism, in particular, the specific kinds of injustice or wrong women suffer; and the group who should be the primary focus of feminist efforts. Nonetheless, feminists are committed to bringing about social change to end injustice against women, in particular, injustice against women as women.
3. Topics in Feminism: Overview of the Encyclopedia Sub-Entries
Given a schematic framework for considering different forms of feminism, it should be clearer how philosophical issues arise in working out the details of a feminist position. The most straightforward philosophical commitment will be to a normative theory that articulates an account of justice and/or an account of the good. Feminists have been involved in critiquing existing normative theories and articulating alternatives for some time now. A survey of some of this work can be found under “Feminism, interventions”, in the sub-entries within “Feminist Political Philosophy”, viz., Liberal Feminism, Materialist Feminism, and Radical Feminism. (See also Hampton 1993; Jaggar 1983; Kittay 1999; MacKinnon 1989; Nussbaum 1999; Okin 1979; Okin 1989; Pateman 1988; Schneir 1972; Schneir 1994; Silvers 1999; Young 1990.)
However, there is also important philosophical work to be done in what we have been calling the “descriptive” component of feminism. Careful critical attention to our practices can reveal the inadequacy of dominant philosophical tropes. For example, feminists working from the perspective of women's lives have been influential in bringing philosophical attention to the phenomenon of care and care-giving (Ruddick 1989; Held 1995; Held 2007; Hamington 2006), dependency (Kittay 1999), disability (Wilkerson 2002; Carlson 2009) women's labor (Waring 1999; Delphy 1984; Harley 2007), scientific bias and objectivity (Longino 1990), and have revealed weaknesses in existing ethical, political, and epistemological theories. More generally, feminists have called for inquiry into what are typically considered “private” practices and personal concerns, such as the family, sexuality, the body, to balance what has seemed to be a masculine pre-occupation with “public” and impersonal matters. Philosophy presupposes interpretive tools for understanding our everyday lives; feminist work in articulating additional dimensions of experience and aspects of our practices is invaluable in demonstrating the bias in existing tools, and in the search for better ones.
Feminist explanations of sexism and accounts of sexist practices also raise issues that are within the domain of traditional philosophical inquiry. For example, in thinking about care, feminists have asked questions about the nature of the self; in thinking about gender, feminists have asked what the relationship is between the natural and the social; in thinking about sexism in science, feminists have asked what should count as knowledge. In some such cases mainstream philosophical accounts provide useful tools; in other cases, alternative proposals have seemed more promising.
In the sub-entries included under “feminism (topics)” in the Table of Contents to this Encyclopedia, authors survey some of the recent feminist work on a topic, highlighting the issues that are of particular relevance to philosophy. These entries are:
See also the entries in the Related Entries section below.
- Alexander, M. Jacqui and Lisa Albrecht, eds. 1998. The Third Wave: Feminist Perspectives on Racism, New York: Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press.
- Anderson, Elizabeth. 1999. “What is the Point of Equality?” Ethics, 109(2): 287-337.
- Anzaldúa, Gloria, ed. 1990. Making Face, Making Soul: Haciendo Caras, San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books.
- Baier, Annette C. 1994. Moral Prejudices: Essays on Ethics, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Barker, Drucilla and Edith Kuiper. 2010 Feminist Economics, New York: Routledge.
- Barrett, Michèle. 1991. The Politics of Truth: From Marx to Foucault, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
- Bartky, Sandra. 1990. “Foucault, Femininity, and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power.” In her Femininity and Domination, New York: Routledge, 63-82.
- Basu, Amrita. 1995. The Challenge of Local Feminisms: Women's Movements in Global Perspective, Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
- Baumgardner, Jennifer and Amy Richards. 2000. Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future, New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.
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Other Internet Resources
Resources listed below have been chosen to provide only a springboard into the huge amount of feminist material available on the web. The emphasis here is on general resources useful for doing research in feminist philosophy or interdisciplinary feminist theory, e.g., the links connect to bibliographies and meta-sites, and resources concerning inclusion, exclusion, and feminist diversity. The list is incomplete and will be regularly revised and expanded. Further resources on topics in feminism such as popular culture, reproductive rights, sex work, are available within each sub-entry on that topic.
“Waves” of Feminism
Feminism and Class
Marxist, Socialist, and Materialist Feminisms
Women and Labor
Feminism and Disability
Feminism, Human Rights, Global Feminism, and Human Trafficking
Feminism and Race/Ethnicity
African-American/Black Feminisms and Womanism
Asian-American and Asian Feminisms
American Indian, Native, Indigenous Feminisms
Feminism, Sex, Sexuality, Transgender, and Intersex
Thanks to Elizabeth Harman for research assistance in preparing this essay. Thanks also to Elizabeth Hackett, Ishani Maitra, and Ásta Sveinsdóttir for discussion and feedback. Thanks to Leslee Mahoney for the 2011 revisions.
1. Kant on sexuality and objectification
Immanuel Kant's views on sexual objectification have been particularly influential for contemporary feminist discussions on this topic. Kant thought that sexuality is extremely problematic when exercised outside the context of monogamous marriage, arguing that in such instances it leads to objectification. He characteristically writes in the Lectures on Ethics that “sexual love makes of the loved person an Object of appetite; as soon as that appetite has been stilled, the person is cast aside as one casts away a lemon which has been sucked dry. … as soon as a person becomes an Object of appetite for another, all motives of moral relationship cease to function, because as an Object of appetite for another a person becomes a thing and can be treated and used as such by every one” (Kant Lectures on Ethics, 163).
Objectification, for Kant, involves the lowering of a person, a being with humanity, to the status of an object. Humanity, for Kant, is an individual's rational nature and capacity for rational choice. The characteristic feature of humanity is an individual's capacity for rationally setting and pursuing her own ends. A being with humanity is capable of deciding what is valuable, and of finding ways to realise and promote this value. Humanity is what is special about human beings. It distinguishes them from animals and inanimate objects. Because human beings are special in this sense they have, unlike animals and objects, a dignity (an ‘inner worth’, as opposed to a ‘relative worth’) (Kant 1785, 42). It is crucial, for Kant, that each person respects humanity in others, as well as humanity in their own person. Humanity must never be treated merely as a means, but always at the same time as an end (Kant 1797, 209).
Kant is worried that when people exercise their sexuality outside the context of monogamous marriage, they treat humanity merely as a means for their sexual purposes. In the Lectures on Ethics Kant often speaks about ‘degradation’, ‘subordination’, and ‘dishonouring’ of humanity when exercise of sexuality is involved. He goes so far as to say that sexual activity can lead to the loss or ‘sacrifice’ of humanity (Kant Lectures on Ethics, 163–4). The loved person loses what is special to her as a human being, her humanity, and is reduced to a thing, a mere sexual instrument. Kant's notion of objectification, therefore, focuses largely on instrumentality: the treatment of a person as a mere tool for the lover's purposes. Objectification, for Kant, involves regarding someone “as an object, something for use” (Herman 1993, 57). According to Alan Soble, for Kant, “both the body and the compliant actions of the other person are tools (a means) that one uses for one's sexual pleasure, and to that extent the other person is a fungible, functional thing” (Soble 2002a, 226). The idea that within sexual relationships people are reduced to objects, that they lose their rational nature, is an extreme one. Halwani rightly points out that this reduction to the status of an object rarely happens in sexual objectification. He explains that “Outside rape, it is rare to treat our sexual partners as objects: not only are we aware of their humanity; we are also mindful of it.” (Halwani 2010, 193) Halwani offers a more sensible reading of Kant's claim here, in admitting that there is truth to the idea that “Sexual desire is powerful enough to make reason its own tool; it can subvert our rational capacity to set ends” (Halwani 2010, 209). In this way, people can “endanger their dignity by undermining their reason” (Halwani 2010, 209). Therefore, even though the view that humanity is completely destroyed when people exercise their sexuality is an unappealing one, it is not unreasonable to think that, in some cases, sexual desire and exercise of sexuality can undermine our rationality.
Kant thought that in theory both men and women can be objectified, but he was well aware that in practice women are the most common victims of objectification. This is obvious in Kant's discussions of prostitution and concubinage. Exercise of sexuality within these morally problematic sexual contexts leads to the reduction of women (prostitutes and concubines) to men's objects of appetite.
Kant defines prostitution as the offer for profit of one's person for another's sexual gratification. A person, Kant holds, cannot allow others to use her body sexually in exchange for money without losing her humanity and becoming an object. He explains that “… a man is not at his own disposal. He is not entitled to sell a limb, not even one of his teeth. But to allow one's person for profit to be used for the satisfaction of sexual desire, to make of oneself an Object of demand, is to dispose over oneself as over a thing” (Kant Lectures on Ethics, 165). The prostitute's commodification necessarily leads to her objectification; she is reduced to “a thing on which another satisfies his appetite” (Kant Lectures on Ethics, 165). Kant states that “human beings are … not entitled to offer themselves, for profit, as things for the use of others in the satisfaction of their sexual inclinations. In so doing, they would run the risk of having their person used by all and sundry as an instrument for the satisfaction of inclination” (Kant Lectures on Ethics, 165). Kant blames the prostitute for her objectification. He takes her to be responsible for sacrificing her humanity, in offering herself as an object for the satisfaction of the clients' sexual desires.
The other relationship in which objectification is, for Kant, clearly present is concubinage. According to Kant, concubinage is the non-commodified sexual relationship between a man and more than one woman (the concubines). Kant takes concubinage to be a purely sexual relationship in which all parties aim at the satisfaction of their sexual desires (Kant Lectures on Ethics, 166). The inequality that is involved in this relationship makes it problematic. Kant explains that “the woman surrenders her sex completely to the man, but the man does not completely surrender his sex to the woman” (Kant Lectures on Ethics, 169). Since body and self are for Kant inseparable and together they constitute the person, in surrendering her body (her sex) exclusively to her male partner, the woman surrenders her whole person to the man, allowing him to possess it. The man, by contrast, who has more than one sexual partner, does not exclusively surrender himself to the woman, and so he does not allow her to possess his person. In allowing her male partner to possess her person, without herself being able to similarly possess his person, Kant believes that eventually the concubine (and this also applies to the woman in any other polygamous relationship, including polygamous marriage) loses her person and is made ‘into a thing’ (Kant Lectures on Ethics, 166).
The only relationship in which two people can exercise their sexuality without the fear of reducing themselves to objects is monogamous marriage. Monogamy is required to ensure that there is equality and reciprocity in the surrender and ownership of the two spouses' persons. The spouses exclusively surrender their persons to one another, so neither of them is in danger of losing his or her person and becoming an object. This perfect equality and reciprocity between the spouses is described by Kant as follows: “… if I yield myself completely to another and obtain the person of the other in return, I win myself back; I have given myself up as the property of another, but in turn I take that other as my property, and so win myself back again in winning the person whose property I have become. In this way, the two persons become a unity of will” (Kant Lectures on Ethics, 167). Furthermore, this mutual exchange of the two spouses' persons must, for Kant, be legally enforced. Kant explains that marriage is “sexual union in accordance with law” (Kant 1797, 62). He wants something external, the law, to guarantee this lifelong ownership of the two parties' persons in marriage. He argues that this legal obligation to surrender one's person to one's spouses makes marriage different from a monogamous relationship between two unmarried partners.
2. Pornography and objectification
Like Kant, anti-pornography feminists Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin take inequality to be tightly linked to objectification. In the eyes of both these feminists and Kant, there is the powerful objectifier on the one hand, and on the other hand there exists his powerless victim. Due to their unequal power, the former objectifies the latter.
Kant is concerned with inequality taking place within polygamous relationships. MacKinnon and Dworkin, on the other hand, believe that inequality is a much more widespread and pervasive phenomenon. It covers all aspects of our society. MacKinnon and Dworkin emphasise that we live in a world of gender inequality. A person's gender is, for MacKinnon, clearly distinguished from a person's sex. Gender, being a man or a woman, is socially constructed, whereas sex, being male or female, is biologically defined. Within our patriarchal societies, men and women have clearly defined roles: women (all women, women as a group) are objectified, whereas men (all men, men as a group) are their objectifiers (MacKinnon 1987, 6, 32–45, 50; MacKinnon 1989a, 113–4, 128, 137–40; Haslanger 1993, 98–101) (For more on sex and gender, see also the entries feminist perspectives on sex and gender and feminist perspectives on power. Even though MacKinnon does acknowledge that a female (sex) individual can be an objectifier and a male (sex) individual can be objectified, she takes it that the former is a man and the latter is a woman, since in her view a man (gender) is by definition the objectifier and a woman (gender) is by definition the objectified.
This situation of gender inequality which troubles our societies and is so tightly linked to the objectification of women is, MacKinnon and Dworkin believe, created and sustained by men's consumption of pornography. Mackinnon defines pornography as “the graphic sexually explicit subordination of women though pictures or words that also includes women dehumanised as sexual objects, things, or commodities; enjoying pain or humiliation or rape; being tied up, cut up, mutilated, bruised, or physically hurt; in postures of sexual submission or servility or display; reduced to body parts, penetrated by objects or animals, or presented in scenarios of degradation, injury, torture; shown as filthy or inferior; bleeding, bruised, or hurt in a context that makes these conditions sexual” (MacKinnon 1987, 176).
In our society, MacKinnon holds, pornography defines women's role as sexual objects available for men's consumption: “Pornography defines women by how we look according to how we can be sexually used. … Pornography participates in its audience's eroticism through creating an accessible sexual object, the possession and consumption of which is male sexuality, as socially constructed; to be consumed and possessed as which, is female sexuality, as socially constructed” (MacKinnon 1987, 173). According to MacKinnon, pornography is responsible for both men's and women's conception of women as objects available for men's consumption.
MacKinnon and Dworkin's understanding of objectification is similar to Kant's. For both of them, like for Kant, objectification involves treating a person, someone with humanity, as an object of merely instrumental worth, and consequently reducing this person to the status of an object for use. The objectified individual is made into a tool for others' sexual purposes. Objectification, therefore, constitutes a serious harm to a person's humanity.
Dworkin uses Kantian language to describe the phenomenon of sexual objectification: “Objectification occurs when a human being, through social means, is made less than human, turned into a thing or commodity, bought and sold. When objectification occurs, a person is depersonalised, so that no individuality or integrity is available socially or in what is an extremely circumscribed privacy. Objectification is an injury right at the heart of discrimination: those who can be used as if they are not fully human are no longer fully human in social terms; their humanity is hurt by being diminished” (Dworkin 2000, 30–1). When a person is treated as less than human, as merely an object for another's use, she becomes, according to Dworkin, less than human. In this way, her humanity is harmed by being diminished.
MacKinnon too describes objectification is similar terms. She writes: “… A sex object is defined on the basis of its looks, in terms of its usability for sexual pleasure, such that both the looking—the quality of gaze, including its points of view—and the definition according to use become eroticised as part of the sex itself. This is what the feminist concept of ‘sex object’ means” (MacKinnon 1987, 173). She furthermore holds: “A person, in one Kantian view, is a free and rational agent whose existence is an end in itself, as opposed to instrumental. In pornography women exist to the end of male pleasure” (MacKinnon 1987, 173). Insofar as an individual has only instrumental value, she is clearly not regarded as an end in herself.
MacKinnon and Dworkin have argued that, even if women consent to their being used as mere means for men's sexual purposes, this is not sufficient to make such use permissible. For instance, these feminists claim that women in the pornographic industry consent to be used as objects simply out of lack of options available to them within our patriarchal society. Women's consent, therefore, is not true consent. MacKinnon writes: “The sex is not chosen for the sex. Money is the medium of force and provides the cover of consent” (Mackinnon 1993, 28). This does not only hold for women in pornography. For MacKinnon and Dworkin, all women's consent to be sexually used by men cannot be true consent under the existing conditions of gender inequality. They hold that women are not truly blameworthy for their reduction to things of merely instrumental value. Women's objectification is demanded and inflicted by men in our societies. It is men who want, and also, Dworkin claims, need to use women as objects, and demand them to be object-like (Dworkin 1997, 142–3).
Kant compares the objectified individual to a lemon, used and discarded afterwards, and elsewhere to a steak consumed by people for the satisfaction of their hunger (Kant Lectures on Ethics, 163 and 165). In a similar manner, MacKinnon blames pornography for teaching its consumers that women exist to be used by men. A woman, according to MacKinnon, becomes comparable to a cup (a thing), and as such she is valued only for how she looks and how she can be used (MacKinnon 1987, 138). Similarly, Dworkin talks about men being the only “human centre” of the world, surrounded by objects for use, including women. A man experiences his power, according to Dworkin, in using objects, both inanimate objects and “persons who are not adult men” (Dworkin 1989, 104).
Kant took exercise of sexuality to be inherently problematic. For Dworkin and MacKinnon, on the other hand, what is problematic is not sexuality per se, but rather sexuality as constructed through pornography. These feminists believe that objectification is a consequence of gender inequality and it is created and sustained by pornography's existence and consumption. Pornography, according to MacKinnon, makes women's sexuality into “something any man who wants to can buy and hold in his hands… She becomes something to be used by him, specifically, an object of his sexual use” (MacKinnon 1987, 138). MacKinnon fears that use can easily be followed by violence and abuse. Since women are things (as opposed to human beings), it seems to men that there is nothing problematic with abusing them. The object status of women, then, is the cause of men seeing nothing problematic with violent behaviour towards women.
Moreover, MacKinnon notes, women in pornography are presented as enjoying how they are being used and violated by men: “In pornography, women desire disposition and cruelty. Men … create scenes in which women desperately want to be bound, battered, tortured, humiliated, and killed. Or merely taken and used. Women are there to be violated and possessed, men to violate and possess us…” (MacKinnon 1987, 148). Dworkin similarly writes: “Men do not believe that rape and battery are violations of female will in part because men … have consumed pornography in the private world of men for centuries. … The most enduring sexual truth in pornography is that sexual violence is desired by the normal female, needed by her, suggested or demanded by her” (Dworkin 1989, 166). Pornography, then, teaches its consumers that, not only is it permissible to treat women in these ways, but also that women themselves enjoy being used, violated and abused by men.
The idea that pornography causes men to treat women as objects to be used and abused has been defended by a number of feminists. Alison Assiter argues that what is wrong with pornography is that it reinforces desires on the part of men to treat women as objects (as mere means to achieve their purposes) (Assiter 1988, 68). Rae Langton also discusses the possibility of such a causal connection between men's consumption of pornography and women's objectification. She writes: “As a matter of human psychology, when men sexually use objects, pornographic artifacts, as women, they tend to use real woman as objects. One weaker variant of this causal claim might be restricted to a subset of pornography… As a matter of human psychology, when men sexually use objects as women, and those objects are pornographic artifacts, whose content is violent or misogynistic, then they will tend to use real women as objects” (Langton 1995, 178).)
MacKinnon, however, holds that the connection between men's use of pornography and women's objectification is not simply a causal one. She has famously claimed that pornography involves “sex between people and things, human beings and pieces of paper, real men and unreal women”. And, as a result for MacKinnon, “the human [women, in particular] becomes a thing” (MacKinnon 1993, 109 and 25). Men's consumption of pornography, then, is (constitutes) women's objectification. (This is admittedly a puzzling claim, but one which I will not delve into further here. Detailed defenses of the claim have been offered by Melinda Vadas (Vadas 2005) and Rae Langton (Langton 1995), and a criticism has been put forward by Jennifer Saul (Saul 2006).)
Kant thought that the solution to sexual objectification is marriage. This is because he conceived this relationship as one of perfect equality and reciprocity between the spouses. Each of them surrenders his or her person to the other and receives the person of the other in return. This way, Kant believed, neither of them is objectified by losing his or her person (For a detailed discussion of Kantian marriage see Herman 1993 and Papadaki 2010b.). For Dworkin and MacKinnon, however, Kant's suggested solution is inappropriate. Objectification, according to these feminists, is present within all heterosexual relationships in our society and harms women's humanity. Marriage, or any other heterosexual relationship for that matter, is clearly not regarded as an exception by them. According to MacKinnon and Dworkin, the way to fight objectification is to fight gender inequality, which is created and sustained by men's consumption of pornography. They take it that pornography has power and authority over its audience (men and boys). This view is also defended by Langton, who argues that it does not matter that the speech of pornographers is not generally held in high esteem. What matters, rather, is that men and boys learn about sex primarily through pornography. Pornography passes the message to its audience that women are objects readily available for men's consumption (Langton 1993, 312).
The view that pornography has this amount of influence over men and plays such a central role in women's objectification has received criticism. Deborah Cameron and Elizabeth Frazer question the idea that men are conditioned to behave in certain ways as a consequence of pornography consumption. What is problematic with this idea, according to them, is that men are presented as incapable of critically interpreting pornographic materials, and as simply imitating what they see in pornography (Cameron & Frazer 2000, 248–251).
Even assuming that pornography does indeed pass the message that women are object-like to its consumers, however, it has been suggested that pornography is not special with respect to sustaining gender inequality and women's objectification. Leslie Green explains that the idea that women are mere objects/tools is reinforced through parental pressure, television, popular novels, music videos and fashion. What we need to do, Green says, is change our society, in a way that women's subjectivity will be acknowledged (Green 2000, 43–52). Nussbaum too argues that we should not see pornography as the primary cause of women's objectification. Sexual objectification is, according to Nussbaum, often caused by social inequality, but there is no reason to believe that pornography is the core of such inequality (Nussbaum 1995, 286, 290).
A similar view has been put forward by Ronald Dworkin, according to whom: “It might be odd that feminists have devoted such energy to that campaign [the campaign for outlawing pornography]… No doubt mass culture is in various ways an obstacle to sexual equality, but the most popular forms of that culture—the view of women presented in soap operas and commercials, for example—are much greater obstacles to that equality than the dirty films watched by a small minority” (R. Dworkin 1993, 36). (For further discussions about pornography, see also the entries on feminist perspectives on sex markets and on pornography and censorship.)
3. Feminine appearance and objectification
It has been pointed out by some feminist thinkers that women in our society are more identified and associated with their bodies than are men, and, to a greater extent than men, they are valued for how they look (Bordo 1993, 143; Bartky 1990). In order to gain social acceptability, women are under constant pressure to correct their bodies and appearance more generally, and make them conform to the ideals of feminine appearance of their time, the so-called ‘norms of feminine appearance’ (the standards of appearance women feel they should be living up to) (Saul 2003, 144). Some feminists have argued that, in being preoccupied with their looks, women treat themselves as things to be decorated and gazed upon.
In her book Femininity and Domination, Sandra Bartky uses Marx's theory of alienation to explain the objectification that results from women's preoccupation with their appearance. A feature of Marx's theory of alienation is the fragmentation of the human person, this “splintering of human nature into a number of misbegotten parts”. For Marx, labour is the most distinctively human activity, and the product of labour is the exteriorisation of the worker's being. Under capitalism, however, workers are alienated from the products of their labour, and consequently their person is fragmented (Bartky 1990, 128–9).
Bartky believes that women in patriarchal societies also undergo a kind of fragmentation “by being too closely identified with [their body]… [their] entire being is identified with the body, a thing which… has been regarded as less inherently human than the mind or personality” (Bartky 1990, 130). All the focus is placed on a woman's body, in a way that her mind or personality are not adequately acknowledged. A woman's person, then, is fragmented. Bartky believes that through this fragmentation a woman is objectified, since her body is separated from her person and is thought as representing the woman (Bartky 1990, 130).
Bartky explains that, typically, objectification involves two persons, one who objectifies and one who is objectified. (This is also the idea of objectification put forward by Kant as well as by MacKinnon and Dworkin.) However, as Bartky points out, objectifier and objectified can be one and the same person. Women in patriarchal societies feel constantly watched by men, much like the prisoners of the Panopticon (model prison proposed by Bentham), and they feel the need to look sensually pleasing to men (Bartky 1990, 65). According to Bartky: “In the regime of institutionalised heterosexuality woman must make herself ‘object and prey’ for the man. … Woman lives her body as seen by another, by an anonymous patriarchal Other” (Bartky 1990, 73). This leads women to objectify their own persons. Bartky argues that the woman “[takes] toward her own person the attitude of the man. She will then take erotic satisfaction in her physical self, revelling in her body as a beautiful object to be gazed at and decorated”. Such an attitude is called ‘narcissism’, which is defined by Bartky as the infatuation with one's bodily being (Bartky 1990, 131–2).
In being infatuated with their bodily beings, Bartky argues that women learn to see and treat themselves as objects to be gazed at and decorated, they learn to see themselves as though from the outside. Narcissism, as Simone de Beauvoir also points out, “consists in the setting up of the ego as a double ‘stranger’” (Beauvoir 1961, 375). The adolescent girl “becomes an object and she sees herself as an object; she discovers this new aspect of her being with surprise: it seems to her that she has been doubled; instead of coinciding exactly with herself, she now begins to exist outside” (Beauvoir 1961, 316) (See the entry on Simone de Beauvoir.) However, this ‘stranger’ who inhabits women's consciousness, Bartky writes, is hardly a stranger; it is, rather, the woman's own self (Bartky 1993, 134).
As Nancy Bauer holds, drawing on Beauvoir, women will always have reasons to succumb to the temptation of objectifying themselves. Bauer mentions the widespread recent phenomenon of female college students who claim that they gain pleasure in performing unilateral oral sex on male students. A woman who turns herself into an “object of the helpless desire of a boy”in this way, Bauer explains, experiences a sense of power and pleasure, which, however, are not unadulterated (Bauer 2011, 124). A great theme of The Second Sex, Bauer concludes, is that, in order to achieve full personhood, it is necessary not only that men stop objectifying women, but also that “women care about abjuring the temptation to objectify themselves” (Bauer 2011, 128).
Bartky talks about the disciplinary practices that produce a feminine body and are the practices through which women learn to see themselves as objects. First of all, according to her, there are those practices that aim to produce a body of a certain size and shape: women must conform to the body ideal of their time (i.e. a slim body with large breasts), which, Bartky holds, requires women to subject their bodies to the ‘tyranny of slenderness’ (put themselves through constant dieting and exercise) (Bartky 1990, 65–7). Susan Bordo also emphasises the fact that women are more obsessed with dieting than are men. This is linked to serious diseases such as anorexia and bulimia. Ninety percent of all anorexics, Bordo points out, are women (Bordo 1993, 143, 154). Furthermore, a large number of women have plastic surgery, most commonly liposuction and breast enlargement, in order to make their bodies conform to what is considered to be the ideal body.
According to Bartky, the second category of these disciplinary practices that produce a feminine body are those that aim to control the body's gestures, postures, and movements. Women, she holds, are more restricted than men in the way they move, and they try to take up very little space as opposed to men, who tend to expand to the space available. Women's movements are also restrained by their uncomfortable clothes and shoes (Bartky 1990, 68–9). The final category of the disciplinary practices, Bartky holds, are those that are directed towards the display of a woman's body as an ‘ornamented surface’: women must take care of their skin and make it soft, smooth, hairless and wrinkle-free, they must apply make-up to disguise their skin's imperfections. Our culture demands the ‘infantilisation’ of women's bodies and faces (Bartky 1990, 71–2).
According to Bartky: “… whatever else she [a woman] may become, she is importantly a body designed to please or to excite” (Bartky 1990, 80). Iris Marion Young adds that women's preoccupation with their appearance suppresses the body potential of women: “Developing a sense of our bodies as beautiful objects to be gazed at and decorated requires suppressing a sense of our bodies as strong, active subjects…” (Young, 1979).
Who is responsible for women's situation? According to Bartky: “The disciplinary power that inscribes femininity in the female body is everywhere and it is nowhere; the disciplinarian is everyone and yet no one in particular” (Bartky 1990, 74). The message that women should look more feminine is everywhere: it is reinforced by parents, teachers, male partners, and it is expressed in various ways throughout the media. Men, then, are not the only ones to blame for women's situation. Because of the pervasiveness of this disciplinary power that inscribes femininity, women's constant preoccupation with appearance has come to be regarded as something natural and voluntary; it is something that women have internalised. Therefore, it is far from easy for women, in Bartky's view, to free themselves from their objectification.
Not all feminists, however, share the concern about the inevitability of objectification involved in women's appearance-related pursuits. Janet Richards takes women's preoccupation with their looks to be a matter of personal preference, and not a feminist matter. She claims that there is nothing inherently degrading or objectifying with women trying to be sensually pleasing (Richards 1980, 184–204). Natasha Walter too takes it that women's preoccupation with their appearance is not necessarily objectifying. She also points to the fact that men in our societies engage into self-decoration and seek to be admired by women (Walter 1998, 86–102).
Bordo herself acknowledges the fact that men have increasingly started to spend more time, money and effort on their appearance (Bordo 1999). She emphasises the fact that men's magazines today, like women's, are full of articles and advice on how men should look: how to be more muscular, what clothes to wear, what creams and other cosmetics to use, etc. Men feel the need to make their looks conform to the prevailing ideals of masculinity. Bordo believes that it is consumer capitalism that drives men to be increasingly concerned with their appearance: “Why should [the cosmetics, diet, exercise, and surgery industries] restrict themselves to female markets, if they can convince men that their looks need constant improvement too?,” she asks (Bordo 1999, 220).
The fact that men too face pressure to look a certain way, and engage in constant efforts to improve their appearance, however, is not on its own sufficient to show that women's (and men's) preoccupation with appearance is not objectifying. According to Saul, “The increasing pressure on men to conform to unattainable standards of beauty is far from a sign of progress: it is, instead, a sign that the problem has grown” (Saul 2003, 168).
4. Objectivity and Objectification
MacKinnon introduced the idea that there are important connections between objectivity and objectification. MacKinnon writes: “The stance of the ‘knower’ … is … the neutral posture, which I will be calling objectivity—that is the nonsituated distanced standpoint… [This] is the male standpoint socially … [The] relationship between objectivity as the stance from which the world is known and the world that is apprehended in this way is the relationship of objectification. Objectivity is the epistemological stance of which objectification is the social process, of which male dominance is the politics, the acted out social practice. That is, to look at the world objectively is to objectify it” (MacKinnon 1987, 50). Her claim has become the focus of recent feminist investigation. Drawing on MacKinnon's work, Rae Langton and Sally Haslanger have explored the idea that objectification is often hidden, and ‘masked’ as objectivity.
According to Haslanger, in trying to be objective about our world and function within it, we go about trying to discover things' natures. An object's nature is essential to it, and any change to it will inevitably destroy it. An object cannot exist without those properties that constitute its nature. Discovering an object's nature enables us to explain the behaviour of that object under normal circumstances. This means that in practical decision-making, we must be attentive to objects' natures (Haslanger 1993, 103, 105). She writes: “It won't do to try to fry an egg on a paper plate; there is no point in trying to teach a rock how to read. Because the world is not infinitely malleable to our wants or needs, reasonable decision making will accommodate ‘how things are’, where this is understood as accommodating the natures of things, the background conditions constraining our actions” (Haslanger 1993, 105).
A plausible strategy for discovering a thing's nature is to look for observed regularities. This is because natures are responsible for the regular behaviour of things under normal circumstances. For example, I observe that my ferns die if deprived of water. I therefore come to believe that the nature of ferns is such that they cannot survive without water. I adjust my decision-making in accordance with this observed regularity, and so water my ferns to prevent them from dying. In observing the regularity that ferns die when depraved of water, I have concluded that this is due to ferns' nature. Haslanger points out that this procedure of drawing on observed regularities to set constraints on our practical decision making seems to be “a paradigm of ‘neutral,’ ‘objective,’ or ‘reasonable’ procedure” (Haslanger 1993, 105).
The above procedure, however, can be problematic. This becomes obvious when moving to the social world. For example, aiming to discover women's nature following the above procedure in patriarchal societies (like ours, according to MacKinnon) is highly problematic. MacKinnon believes that it is an observed regularity in our societies that women are submissive and object-like (and men are women's objectifiers). This means that one might be led to the belief that women are by their nature submissive and object-like. (It should be noted here that MacKinnon, and also Haslanger and Langton following her, use ‘men’ and ‘women’ to refer to gender categories, which are socially (not biologically) defined: one is a woman or a man by virtue of one's social position. (See the entry on feminist perspectives on sex and gender.) However, the belief that women are naturally submissive and object-like is false, since women have been made to be like that.
Women's object-like status is not a natural fact, but rather a consequence of gender inequality. In structuring our world in such a way as to accommodate this allegedly natural fact about women, we sustain the existing situation of gender inequality. As MacKinnon vividly puts it: “if [we] look neutrally on the reality of gender so produced, the harm that has been done will not be perceptible as harm. It becomes just the way things are” (MacKinnon 1987, 59). Haslanger adds: “Once we have cast women as submissive and deferential ‘by nature’, then efforts to change this role appear unmotivated, even pointless. … These reflections suggest that what appeared to be a ‘neutral’ or ‘objective’ ideal, namely, the procedure of drawing on observed regularities to set constraints on practical decision making—is one which will, under conditions of gender hierarchy reinforce the social arrangements on which such hierarchy depends” (Haslanger 1993, 106).
Drawing on MacKinnon, Haslanger suggests that there are four conditions that are necessary in order for person A to objectify person B:
- Person Aviews and treats person B as an object for the satisfaction of A's desire;
- Where person Adesires person B to have some property, AforcesB to have that property;
- Person Abelieves that person B has that property;
- Person A believes that person B has that property by nature (Haslanger 1993, 102–3).
When it comes to women's sexual objectification by men, the above conditions go as following:
- Men view and treat women as objects of male sexual desire;
- Men desire women to be submissive and object-like and force them to submit;
- Men believe that women are in fact submissive and object-like;
- Men believe that women are in fact submissive and object-like by nature.
According to Haslanger, in order for an objectifier to ‘mask’ his power and believe that the observed differences between men and women are consequences of their natures, he must resort to a norm of aperspectivity; he must believe that his observations are not conditioned by his own social position, and that he has no impact on the circumstances under observation. Haslanger discusses a norm, which is often used by objectifiers, the norm of Assumed Objectivity, which consists of the following four sub-norms:
- Epistemic neutrality: one must take a genuine regularity in the behaviour of something to be a consequence of its nature.
- Practical neutrality: one must constrain one's decision making to accommodate things' natures.
- Absolute aperspectivity: one must count observed regularities as “genuine” when: (i) observations occur under normal circumstances, (ii) observations are not conditioned by the observer's social position, (iii) the observer has not influenced the behaviour of items under observation.
- Assumed aperspectivity: one must believe that any regularity one observes is a “genuine” regularity, and so reveals the nature of the things under observation (Haslanger 1993, 106–7).
Haslanger argues that, under conditions of social hierarchy, the Norm of Assumed Objectivity would perpetuate the existing patterns of women's objectification. Therefore, our efforts at social change would become unmotivated. The norm in question should be rejected in this case because it has bad practical consequences for women, while serving the interests of men (it is pragmatically bad). Furthermore, Haslanger argues that the norm of Assumed Objectivity should be rejected because it yields false beliefs, like the belief that women are submissive and object-like by their nature (it is epistemically bad) (Haslanger 1993, 108–115).
Langton agrees with Haslanger that, under conditions of social hierarchy, the norm of Assumed Objectivity is problematic and therefore should be rejected. Her reasons are twofold: First of all, (as Haslanger also noted) because it yields false beliefs; beliefs which do not fit the world at all, like the belief that women are object-like by nature. Secondly, because it yields true but unjustified beliefs, beliefs that are true “for the wrong reasons” (Langton 1993, 383); for example, the belief that women are actually submissive and object-like. The belief is unjustified, according to Langton, because of its direction of fit. In this case, Langton explains, instead of men arranging their belief to fit the world, the world arranges itself to fit the belief of men. Those people who occupy a position of power and pursue the norm of Assumed Objectivity will make the world conform to their belief (Langton 1993, 383).
Langton explains that objectivity is about the ways in which the mind conforms to the world (the way in which our beliefs arrange themselves to fit the world). When someone is objective, his or her beliefs have the right direction of fit: the beliefs are arranged in order to fit the way the world is. Objectification, on the other hand, is about the ways in which the world conforms to mind (conforms to our beliefs). An objectifier's beliefs have the wrong direction of fit: the objectifier arranges the world in order to fit his or her beliefs, which are influenced by his or her desires, instead of arranging his or her beliefs to fit the way the world actually is. Objectification, then, is a process in which the social world comes to be shaped by desire and belief. An objectifier thinks that her or his beliefs have come to fit the world, where in fact the world has come to fit her or his beliefs.
When it comes to the objectification of women, Langton explains that women become submissive and object-like because of men's desires and beliefs. Men desire women to be this way, and, if they have power, they force women to become this way. Following the norm of Assumed Objectivity, then, men form the belief that women are in fact submissive and object-like, and also that women are like that due to their nature. So, when it comes to women's objectification, the world conforms to men's minds. Men's beliefs, however, have the wrong direction of fit because men arrange the world to fit their beliefs and desires about women being submissive and object-like. The norm of Assumed Objectivity, then, yields the belief that women are submissive and object-like, which is true but has the wrong direction of fit (Langton 2000, 138–142), along with the false belief that women are naturally this way. (For a further discussion about beliefs with an anomalous direction of fit, as well as a discussion of the mechanisms that are responsible for generating them, see also Langton's work on ‘projection’ and its role in women's objectification in her 2004 article “Projection and Objectification”. For a criticism of Langton's argument that the norm of Assumed Objectivity is responsible for yielding beliefs that are true but have a wrong direction of fit, see Papadaki 2008.)
5. The possibility of positive objectification
So far, we have looked at various concerns regarding the wrongness involved in objectification. A number of thinkers, however, have challenged the idea that objectification is always morally problematic.
Alan Soble questions the widely held Kantian view according to which human dignity is something that people have. He argues that objectification is not inappropriate. Everyone is already only an object and being only an object is not necessarily a bad thing. In one sense, then, no one can be objectified because no one has the higher ontological status that is required to be reduce-able by objectification. In another sense, everyone is vulnerable to objectification, and everyone can and may be objectified, because to do so is to take them to their correct ontological level. He writes:
The claim that we should treat people as ‘persons’ and not dehumanise them is to reify, is to anthropomorphise humans and consider them more than they are. Do not treat people as objects, we are told. Why not? Because, goes the answer, people qua persons deserve not to be treated as objects. What a nice bit of illusory chauvinism. People are not as grand as we make them out to be, would like them to be, or hope them to be. (Soble 2002b, 53–4)
In the case of pornography, then, there is nothing wrong, according to Soble, with treating pornographic actors and models as objects for sexual pleasure and deny their humanity. That is because there is no negative objectification that needs to be taken into moral account. Soble adds that pornography's task is in fact a good one; pornography takes these people (both men and women), who according to him are good at sex, and makes sure that they do something with their lives (Soble 2002b).
Leslie Green is another thinker who argues that it is permissible and also required to treat people as objects. As Green explains, people are embodied, extended in space, they exist in time, and they are subject to the laws of nature. People, however, are clearly more than objects. What is problematic therefore, according to Green, is to treat a person merely as an object, merely as a means to one's own ends. We can treat other people as means only if we at the same time respect their integrity as agents with their own purposes (Green 2000, 44).
Green points to Kant's Categorical Imperative, according to which the prohibition is against treating a person merelyas means, and not at the same time as an end. As Green emphasises, there is no prohibition against treating a person as a means (as an instrument) (Green 2000, 44). In fact, Green holds, “we must treat others as instruments, for we need their skills, their company, and their bodies—in fact, there is little that we social creatures can do on our own, and so little that is fulfilling” (Green 2000, 45–6). According to Green, when people are old, severely disabled, or chronically unemployed what they fear the most is that they no longer are of use to others. As Green puts it, “they miss not only their diminished agency, but also their diminished objectivity. … They become … subjectified” (Green 2000, 46).
Martha Nussbaum too aims to challenge the widely-held idea that objectification is inconsistent with respect for a person's humanity. She offers a systematic analysis of objectification, a concept not at all easy to define and one that writers on the topic have not sufficiently clarified, as she acknowledges (Nussbaum 1995, 251).
Objectification, for Nussbaum is the seeing and/or treating a person as an object; it involves treating one thing as another: one is treating as an object what in fact is not an object, but a human being (Nussbaum 1995, 256–7). Nussbaum, then, disagrees with Green's view that people are partly objects. According to Nussbaum, there are seven features are involved in the idea of objectification: instrumentality, denial of autonomy, inertness, fungibility, violability, ownership, denial of subjectivity. (A detailed exposition of these seven features is provided in the introduction of this entry.)
According to Nussbaum, a person is objectified, when they are seen and/or treated in one or more of the above seven ways. Instrumentality, then, Nussbaum points out, the core notion of Kant/MacKinnon/Dworkin's as well as Green's conceptions of objectification, is only one of the ways a person can be treated as an object. (Nussbaum does believe, however, that, among these seven notions, instrumentality is especially problematic, and is often linked to other forms of objectification (Nussbaum 1995, 265)). Nussbaum's conception of objectification, then, is broader than Kant/MacKinnon/Dworkin's because objectification for Nussbaum is not merely defined in terms of instrumentalisation, and also because it can take place when a person is only seen, but not treated, as an object (seen in one or more of the above seven ways that she mentions).
According to Nussbaum, objectification need not have devastating consequences to a person's humanity. In fact, Nussbaum criticises MacKinnon and Dworkin for conceiving of objectification as a necessarily negative phenomenon (Nussbaum 1995, 273). Nussbaum believes that it is possible that “some features of objectification… may in fact in some circumstances… be even wonderful features of sexual life”, and so “the term objectification can also be used… in a more positive spirit. Seeing this will require … seeing how the allegedly impossible combination between (a form of) objectification and equality, respect, and consent might after all be possible” (Nussbaum 1995, 251).
According to Nussbaum, then: “In the matter of objectification context is everything. … in many if not all cases, the difference between an objectionable and a benign use of objectification will be made by the overall context of the human relationship” (Nussbaum 1995, 271); “… objectification has features that may be either good or bad, depending upon the overall context” (Nussbaum 1995, 251). Objectification is negative, when it takes place in a context where equality, respect and consent are absent. (Among the negative objectification cases she discusses in her article are Hankinson's Isabelle and Veronique, the magazine Playboy, and James's The Golden Bowl). And it is benign/positive, when it is compatible with equality, respect and consent. Nussbaum gives an example of benign objectification: “If I am lying around with my lover on the bed, and use his stomach as a pillow there seems to be nothing at all baneful about this, provided that I do so with his consent (or, if he is asleep, with a reasonable belief that he would not mind), and without causing him pain, provided as well, that I do so in the context of a relationship in which he is generally treated as more than a pillow” (Nussbaum 1995, 265).
Nussbaum believes that ‘Lawrentian objectification’ (objectification occurring between the lovers in D. H. Lawrence's novels) is a clear example of positive objectification. The passage from Lady Chatterley's Lover that she quotes in her article describes a sex scene between two lovers. Connie and Mellor, in a context characterised by rough social equality and respect, identify each other with their body parts, they “… put aside their individuality and become identified with their bodily organs. They see one another in terms of those organs” (Nussbaum 1995, 275). Consequently, the two lovers deny each other's autonomy and subjectivity, when engaging in the sex act.
However, Nussbaum explains, “when there is loss of autonomy in sex, the context is… one in which on the whole, autonomy is respected and promoted. … Again, when there is loss of subjectivity in the moment of lovemaking, this can be and frequently is accompanied by an intense concern for the subjectivity of the partner at other moments…” (Nussbaum 1995, 274–6). As Nussbaum also emphasises in her latest essay on objectification, a person's “chosen resignation of autonomous self-direction, or her willed passivity may be compatible with, and even a valued part of, a relationship in which the woman is treated as an end for her own sake… as a full fledged human being” (Nussbaum 2007, 51). Furthermore, Connie and Mellor do not treat each other merely as means for their purposes, according to Nussbaum. Even though they treat each other as tools for sexual pleasure, they generally regard each other as more than that. The two lovers, then, are equal and they treat one another as objects in a way that is consistent with respecting each other as human beings.
Nussbaum's list of the seven features involved in objectification and the relations that exist between them provides perhaps the most systematic analysis of the concept of objectification to date. But Papadaki has argued that Nussbaum's conception is too broad (Papadaki 2010a). A person is objectified, according to Nussbaum, if they are seen and/or treated as an object (in one or more of the seven ways that she mentions). If every time a person is treated (or merely seen) by another, say, as an instrument (not a mere instrument) for some further purpose, we take it that the person in question is objectified, then it seems that in our daily lives we objectify nearly everyone, including ourselves. Inevitably, we use each other and ourselves instrumentally all the time (for instance, I use a taxi driver as a means to get to my destination, I use myself as a means to prepare a meal, etc). Papadaki argues that if objectification is to be a meaningful concept, we need to restrict it. Halwani is also in favor of a narrower conception of objectification. He argues that we are better off with a definition of objectification that includes “only treatment or behavior towards someone”. According to this view, if someone merely sees or regards another in a sexual way, there is no objectification. Such a definition, Halwani suggests, “…is less cluttered and more accurately reflects the problem with objectification: its impact on the objectified (often thought as victims)” (Halwani 2008, 342 and Halwani 2010, 187–8). He believes that we are better off arguing that, in Nussbaum's positive objectification cases, there is no objectification to begin with. This is better than “engaging in mental gymnastics to try to show that there is objectification but that it is okay or good” (Halwani 2010, 197). Nussbaum herself seems to be concerned, at times, about her objectification category being too inclusive. For example, she states that sometimes we do not treat the occurrence of only one of the seven notions on her list as sufficient for objectification (Nussbaum 1995, 258). However, Papadaki suggests, she does not give us enough guidance as to how we can decide whether objectification is present when a person is treated in one of the seven ways she mentions. In addition she suggests that once objectification's association with the morally problematic is weakened, there is the risk that the fight against (negative) objectification might be undermined (Papadaki 2010a, 27- 31).
6. The futility of specifying the marks and features of objectification
Recently, Nancy Bauer has expressed scepticism regarding the possibility of laying out a set of criteria for what counts as sexual objectification. She argues that it is difficult to specify the marks and features of a term that plays a normative role in our mutually shared worldview. And if the term in question is important to my outlook, but not yours, she claims that it is impossible for me to specify criteria for the term's application that pick out the phenomenon from your point of view. She writes: “If the term ‘sexual objectification’ is critical in helping you make sense of the world as you see it, then, more or less, you will know sexual objectification when you see it. … Insofar as the philosophical literature sets out to delineate the marks and features of sexual objectification, it is bound not only to fail but to miss the very phenomenon it seeks to illuminate” (Bauer, forthcoming, part I).
Regarding the feminist concept of sexual objectification, Bauer explains that it was coined as part of a feminist shift in how to understand the world and one's experience in it. According to the shift in question, in a context in which women experience widespread, systematic, diachronic, and structural disadvantages, certain ways of perceiving and representing women tend to cause them material and psychological harm. Bauer argues that once someone participates in this shift, the term ‘sexual objectification’ will ‘light up’ the relevant phenomena, and the person in question will see objectification everywhere she looks in contemporary culture. This is the case even if she is not in a position to exactly specify its marks and features. Bauer explains that ‘lighting up’ in certain cases may take the form of a conversion experience that consists in our seeing things that we did not see before. For Bauer, the metaphor of ‘lighting up’ is crucial in thinking about sexual objectification and other terms that make sense only in a context of a systematic normative way of understanding the world (what she calls a ‘worldview’ (Bauer, forthcoming, part II)).
Undoubtedly, objectification is a concept difficult to define, as Nussbaum also acknowledges, since it turns out to be ‘slippery’ and ‘multiple’ (Nussbaum 1995, 251). How to best to define objectification, if we can define it at all, and whether this notion should be restricted to describe the morally objectionable, or expanded to cover benign and/or positive aspects of the way we see and treat each other in our daily lives is an ongoing debate. Much recent feminist work has been devoted to comprehensive philosophical analyses of objectification, which will hopefully lead to more complete and coherent understandings of this notion.
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Other Internet Resources
- Feminists Against Censorship, maintained by Avedon Carol.
- Internet Pornography Statistics, by Jerry Ropelato, at Top Ten Reviews.
- Sexual Suggestiveness in Online Ads: Effects of Objectification on Opposite Genders, by Sriram Kalyanaraman, Michael Redding, and Jason Steele, Media Effects Research Laboratory, Pennsylvania State University, 2000.
- Feminist Philosophers, blog.
- Ms. Blog, Sexual Objectification, Part I: What is it?, maintained by Caroline Heldman.
- Ms. Blog, Sexual Objectification, Part II: The harm, maintained by Caroline Heldman.