A Brief Introduction to Feminist Ethics
This Sunday’s teaching will be on the feminist ethic of care. Because it will focus on this specific offshoot of feminist ethics, this newsletter’s goal is to introduce feminist ethics in general. Earlier authors as far back as Plato discussed gender and its influence on societal roles, but such writings typically did not aim to disrupt the subordination of women. For example, while Plato advocated that women could fulfill any role or office that a man could, he also conceded that men would usually do better at whatever the task may be. So while western thinkers have long thought on gender, few if any did so in the manner developed in the last century.
In the west, academic feminist ethics has its roots in philosophical movements of the 1970s, but looking beyond academia evidence of feminist movements can be found as early as 1914 when a magazine wrote “the time has come to define feminism”. French writer and philosopher Simone de Beauvoir was perhaps the first to name the distinction between biological sex and gender in the 1940s, articulated in the now famous phrase “one is not born but becomes a woman”. She argues in her book The Second Sex that existence precedes essence. To unpack my understanding of that phrase in Christian language, it means that we are part of the body of Christ before we are anything else; that we have in us a manner of being that is genderless, sexless, classless, without race, and without form and substance. It is from this recognition of a deeply rooted being in each of us prior to all our other characteristics that in part allows us to look at the influence of the flood of identities and characteristics that emerge later.
Working from this recognition that we all have a real existence prior to and thus separable from gender and biological sex, Beauvoir argues that woman throughout history has been defined by men in men’s terms. This act of men defining for women who and what they are has been a key part of the oppression of women. Evidenced as far back as Aristotle and seen also in our own Christian Bible, the men who have been allowed to be seen as thinkers used that power to classify women as the opposite to everything that was male. In broad strokes, that to be man was greater and to woman was lesser.
It is from this historical background of oppression that feminist ethics evolved, and in general feminist ethics aims to understand, critique, and correct three things:
A binary view of gender where masculinity and femininity are permitted to and often forced onto individuals based on their biological sex.
The widespread privilege that has been historically available to men relative to women.
How beliefs about gender maintain oppressive systems and practices that harm others. Systems that have and continue to harm women and men, but particularly women.
What has emerged from this work to understand, critique, and correct the consequences of historically male-defined womanhood is a normative ethic about how things ought to be and how people and institutions ought to behave. The teaching on Sunday will pick up from this point looking at the ethic of care as one example of a type of feminist ethic. For those looking for more, I strongly suggest the free and online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy which was my primary resource for this post.