Reflections on knowledge and gender: am I a feminist?
This caught my attention today:
In case the quote isn’t visible, Sarraute says:
The idea of ‘women’s writing’ shocks me. I think that in art we are androgynous
I was talking about gender with a colleague yesterday because I have submitted a seminar paper to a women’s philosophy group and my colleague asked ‘why’? How does being a ‘woman’ make the philosophy any different and why should women, in particular, be ‘mentored’?
I don’t think that I thought of it in gendered terms. My motivations for submitting to this particular seminar were not that it is ‘for women’ philosophers but because the call for submissions came with an opportunity to be mentored. I’d have submitted regardless of the ‘gender’ conditions, but I accept that it discriminates against non-women.
This ‘being a woman’ issue (replace with any other ‘Other’) seems to endure, even in the 21st century (eg. Athene Donald on women scientists; in sport, ‘this girl can‘) and perhaps the reasons it still endures include at least the following:
- historical legacies: women have throughout history been excluded from prominent discourses (eg politics, economics, philosophy, architecture, golf clubs, etc.). Because men have created and then colonised these discursive spaces, the discourse (understood as ways of thinking) has been male, and therefore women haven’t accrued the historical and transformative confidence/competence needed to be part of these domains.
Because of this historical deficit (which is quantitative, not qualitative), I am in favour of positive discrimination as a way of redressing the imbalance until parity is established: it takes time, shifts in perception, and institutional endorsements for new ways of thinking (perspectives) to become established;
- contested knowledge(s): the history of thought shows that what counts as ‘truth’ is a formative, negotiated, processual perspective, not a summative one. Each one of us wants our ‘truth’ to be accepted, and since men have historically dominated all discourses, they haven’t wanted women to question the ‘(dis)order’ they have created. Women disrupt that order (as do all ‘Others’) and therefore need to be silenced.
Imagine, for example, what our cityscapes might look like if women had dominated architectural discourses …
We might all be living alongside each other rather than on top of each other; our sense of personal space would be different (we would be looking left-right (horizontally), not up-down (vertically), meaning that we would all be visible to each other; and maybe social communities rather than hierarchies would have formed. Maybe the world’s population would be more manageable because women would have control of their bodies, opt for fewer babies due to the lack of vertical space (there is only so much you can expand side-ways), and favour a more qualitative approach to life that didn’t involve growth and expansion at all costs! Maybe ….
But there is an annoying assumption underlying this distinction into genders: it assumes that all (fe)males think similarly (which is impossible). Women are as diverse as the human race is diverse. Therefore, if there is any sense in Sarraute’s claim that in art we are ‘androgynous’ (meaning ‘all the same’), it is not because we are ‘genderless’, but because we should not single out gender as the lens through which to judge art (or science, sport, etc.). Rather, we should take ‘humaness’ into account. However, because human ‘thinking’ has been shaped by histories and social epistemologies of inclusion and exclusion, it is hard NOT to take gender into account because being female may explain why, in general macro terms, women have different perspectives on knowledge compared to men.
I’m not arguing that women wouldn’t have worked out the fundamentals of maths and physics. That kind of thinking is not gendered, it’s functional. But the way they might have arrived at that knowledge and the use to which they might have put that knowledge, might have been different. That’s what I mean by ‘different perspectives’ on knowledge. Zaha Hadid’s architecture doesn’t rely on ‘female’ physics so knowing whether she is a woman or not makes no difference in that sense. But knowing she is a woman, i.e. the social product of a history, does make a difference to the way I contextualise her work and relate to it.
I do like Sarraute’s quote (I read her beautiful ‘Enfance’ when I was at secondary school) because I think the same can be said for parenting: good parenting has nothing to do with gender, but with good parenting! However, being gendered comes with historical affordances and constraints that can affect the way we perceive a work of intellect and what we do with it, not its quality.
Does that make me a feminist? What is your take on 21st century feminism?