Subjectivity

What Is Subjectivity in Women's and Gender Studies?

African American woman looking in mirror
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In postmodernist theory, subjectivity means to take the perspective of the individual self, rather than some neutral, objective, perspective, from outside the self's experience.  Feminist theory takes note that in much of the writing about history, philosophy and psychology, the male experience is usually the focus.  A women's history approach to history takes seriously the selves of individual women, and their lived experience, not just as linked to the experience of males.

As an approach to women's history, subjectivity looks at how a woman herself (the "subject") lived and saw her role in life.  Subjectivity takes seriously the experience of women as human beings and individuals.  Subjectivity looks at how women saw their activities and roles as contributing (or not) to her identity and meaning. Subjectivity is an attempt to see history from the perspective of the individuals who lived that history, especially including ordinary women. Subjectivity requires taking seriously "women's consciousness."

Key features of a subjective approach to women's history:

  • it is a qualitative rather than quantitative study
  • emotion is taken seriously
  • it requires a kind of historic empathy
  • it takes seriously the lived experience of women

In the subjective approach, the historian asks "not only how gender defines women's treatment, occupations, and so on, but also how women perceive the personal, social and political meanings of being female." From Nancy F.

Cott and Elizabeth H. Pleck, A Heritage of Her Own, "Introduction."

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy explains it this way: "Since women have been cast as lesser forms of the masculine individual, the paradigm of the self that has gained ascendancy in U.S. popular culture and in Western philosophy is derived from the experience of the predominantly white and heterosexual, mostly economically advantaged men who have wielded social, economic, and political power and who have dominated the arts, literature, the media, and scholarship."  Thus, an approach that considers subjectivity may redefine cultural concepts even of the "self" because that concept has represented a male norm rather than a more general human norm -- or rather, the male norm has been taken to be the equivalent of the general human norm, not taking into account actual experiences and consciousness of women.

Others have noted that male philosophical and psychological history is often based on the idea of separating from the mother in order to develop a self -- and so maternal bodies are seen as instrumental to "human" (usually male) experience.

Simone de Beauvoir, when she wrote “He is the Subject, he is the Absolute—she is the Other,” summarized the problem for feminists that subjectivity is meant to address: that through most of human history, philosophy and history have seen the world through male eyes, seeing other men as part of the subject of history, and seeing women as Other, non-subjects, secondary, even aberrations.

Ellen Carol DuBois is among those who challenged this emphasis: "There is a very sneaky kind of antifeminism here..." because it tends to ignore politics. ("Politics and Culture in Women's History," Feminist Studies 1980.) Other women's history scholars find that the subjective approach enriches political analysis.

Subjectivity theory has also been applied to other studies, including examining history (or other fields) from a standpoint of postcolonialism, multiculturalism, and anti-racism.

Objectivity

The goal of objectivity in the study of history refers to having a perspective that is free of bias, personal perspective, and personal interest.

 A critique of this idea is at the core of many feminist and post-modernist approaches to history: the idea that one can "step completely outside" one's own history,experience and perspective is an illusion.  All accounts of history choose which facts to include and which to exclude, and come to conclusions that are opinions and interpretations.  It's not possible to completely know one's own prejudices or to see the world from other than one's own perspective, this theory proposes.  Thus, most traditional studies of history, by leaving out the experience of women, pretend to be "objective" but in fact are also subjective.

Feminist theorist Sandra Harding has developed a theory that research which is based on women's actual experiences is actually more objective than the usual androcentric (male-centered) historical approaches.

 She calls this "strong objectivity."  In this view, rather than simply rejecting objectivity, the historian uses the experience of those usually considered "other" -- including women -- to add to the total picture of history.