Feminist Philosophy

Two Definitions and Some Examples

Carol Gilligan, 2005
Carol Gilligan, 2005. Paul Hawthorne/Getty Images

"Feminist philosophy” as a term has two definitions which may overlap, but have different applications.

The Philosophy Underlying Feminism

The first meaning of feminist philosophy is to describe the ideas and theories behind feminism.  As feminism itself is quite diverse, there are different feminist philosophies in this sense of the phrase.  Liberal feminism, radical feminism, cultural feminism, socialist feminism, ecofeminism, social feminism – each one of these varieties of feminism has some philosophical foundations.

A Feminist Critique of Traditional Philosophy

The second meaning of feminist philosophy is to describe attempts within the discipline of philosophy to critique traditionalist philosophy by applying feminist analysis.

Some typical arguments of this feminist approach to philosophy center on how traditional methods of philosophy have accept that the social norms about “male” and “masculinity” are the right or only path:

  • stressing reason and rationality over other kinds of knowing.
  • an aggressive style of argument
  • using male experience and ignoring female experience

Other feminist philosophers criticize these arguments as themselves buying into and accepting social norms of appropriate feminine and masculine behavior: women are also reasonable and rational, women can be aggressive, and not all male and female experience is the same.

A Few Feminist Philosophers

These examples of feminist philosophers will show the diversity of ideas represented by the phrase.

Mary Daly taught for 33 years at Boston College. Her radical feminist philosophy -- thealogy she sometimes called it -- criticized androcentrism in traditional religion and tried to develop a new philosophical and religious language for women to oppose patriarchy. She lost her position over her belief that, because women have so often been silenced in groups that included men, her classes would include only women and men could be taught by her privately.

Hélène Cixous, one of the best known French feminists, criticizes Freud's arguments about separate paths for male and female development based on the Oedipus complex. She built on the idea of logocentrism, the privileging of the written word over the spoken word in Western culture, to develop the idea of phallogocentrism, where, to simplify, the binary tendency in Western language is used to define women not by what they are or have but by what they are not or do not have.

Carol Gilligan argues from the perspective of a “difference feminist” (arguing that there are differences between men and women and that equalizing behavior is not the goal of feminism). Gilligan in her study of ethics critiqued the traditional Kohlberg research which asserted that principle-based ethics was the highest form of ethical thinking.  She pointed out that Kohlberg only studied boys, and that when girls are studied, relationships and care are of more importance to them than principles.

Monique Wittig, a French lesbian feminist and theorist, wrote about gender identity and sexuality. She was a critic of Marxist philosophy and advocated for the abolition of gender categories, arguing that "women" only exist if "men" exist.

Nel Noddings has grounded her philosophy of ethics in relationships rather than justice, arguing that justice approaches are rooted in the male experience, and caring approaches rooted in the female experience. She argues that the caring approach is open to all people, not just women.  Ethical caring is dependent on natural caring, and grows out of it, but the two are distinct.

Martha Nussbaum argues in her book Sex and Social Justice denies that sex or sexuality are morally relevant distinctions in making social decisions about rights and freedoms. She uses the philosophical concept of “objectification” which has roots in Kant and was applied in a feminist context to radical feminists Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon, defining the concept more fully.

Some would include Mary Wollstonecraft as a key feminist philosopher, laying the groundwork for many who came after.