The Feminist Critique


As faithful readers of Dr. Bossypant’s blogs, you may not realize how much restraint she has used writing about the moral/ethical information she has posted thus far. Regardless of the disparate views on ethics and morality summarized to this point, most originally shared a glaring omission. With the exception of the writings of John Stuart Mill, females were ignored, maligned, or “feminine virtue” was defined as women performing well in assigned positions of less influence and authority than their male counterparts. Aristotle believed that females were defective males, and punishment for doing badly as a man might be to come back as a female next time.

Taking his cue from Aristotle, St. Thomas of Aquinas wrote that in women, “reason flourishes very little because of the imperfect nature of their body.”  Freud believed that women lacked superego development, and were therefore morally inferior. Oh, sadly, there’s no shortage of such examples from religious and philosophical writings. For thousands of years with few exceptions, it has been morally permissible, or morally encouraged, to view and treat women as second-class, adjunct, inferior, and/or subjugated to men. As they say these days, Oh.My.God. What a load of hierarchical, wrong-headed bunk.

The truth is, since humans have been scratching ideas out on cave walls, women have been writing moral philosophy and psychology, often from a starting point very different from their male colleagues. But unless you take a course in the history of feminist ethics, the brilliant voices of these philosophers: Sappho, Hypatia, Hildegard, Heloise, Wollstonecraft, Harriet Taylor Mill, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman (to name but a few) are likely unfamiliar to you.

Of course, the current versions of the main ethical positions we’ve gone over in previous blogs have become, at least on the surface, gender-neutral. All humans are supposedly included. Further, feminist theorists and ethicists increasingly have a voice in the critique and evolution of moral philosophy.  And arising from Carol Gilligan’s pioneering research and thinking, feminists have added yet another lens through which we can explore and pursue moral lives. We’ll cover that one in the next blog, but for now, let’s consider…

The Feminist Critique

Over thirteen years ago, Harriet Woods wrote:

It is true that we still are far from fully represented in decision-making bodies and that politics remain a male game; but that’s no excuse for failing to use the power we have to make this a more livable world.

Dr. Bossypants is very disappointed to report that we still have a great deal of work to do to make this a more livable world.

In a word, the feminist critique of most traditional theories of morality is power.  Margaret Urban Walker wrote, “The most obvious way feminist ethics and politics connect morality and power is in examining the morality of specific distributions and exercises of power.”

The moral use of power is a complicated endeavor. This may come as a shock to you, but we don’t tend to select leaders based on their overall moral fiber. In an ideal world, those entrusted with power would be the more virtuous among us, and thereby freer from corruption, bias, and self-serving practices. The reality with which most of us are familiar is quite the opposite. The more power someone has to influence others and the social order, the more susceptible they become to misuse of the power.

Access to shared power is a global moral issue. In Beijing, at the UN Conference for women in 1995, Madeleine Albright stated, “Enter any community in any country, and you will find women insisting—often at great risk—on their right to an equal voice and equal access to the levers of power.” Still true. Still tragically costly. Holy ****, so very, very costly. Ok. Calm down, Dr. Bossypants. Social change take a very long time, requiring enormous sacrifice, enduring many regressions and backlashes….

So, dear reader, what is your experience with and attitude toward power? Have you seen individuals wield power in mostly positive ways or mostly negative ways? The need for power (or recognition or achievement) is a natural human need. Is it possible that racism, sexism, and all the other “isms” originate in the fear of loss of power? What is it like for you when you have power over others? What do you think is necessary so that power does not have a corrupting effect on people?

At this point in our “his” story, the earth is screaming for some answers and some new ways of being. We owe it to our species to get this figured out a bit better.


3 thoughts on “The Feminist Critique

  1. It’s said that power corrupts, but I disagree: power merely has requirements, which the average person does not meet; without meeting those requirements, they do indeed become corrupt. But associating power with corruption because the average person can’t handle it is.. blatantly idiotic: the average person believes in magic; using them for any metric is unsound.

    Having power over others, for myself, is a complete and total nightmare: I’m moral. Being moral and stuck in a backwards society, I have to find ways to genuinely care for the people in my charge, despite their commonly having difficulty assessing their own actions rationally, and society disapproving of my methodology. Basically: given that most people are biased toward themselves, and social norms support that behavior, leadership is nothing but a unpleasant burden to me. Of course, give me sane people, in a sane society, and I would enjoy helping people better their lives.

    That subject aside, I’ve always found the validity of feminism questionable, given their permanent omission [and regular censorship] of negative social influences originating more commonly from females than males: if one wants to solve a problem, they objectively look at all causes, not avoiding those which make themselves feel bad. Keep in mind I’m referring to first-world-feminists complaining about first-world-problems.

    And there’s the argument that, if females are 50 percent of the population, and by their own admission have failed for thousands and thousands of years to meaningfully impact controlling echelons of society, then it can be easily inferred they are indeed less capable than males. I’m not saying that’s the case, merely pointing out the invalidating flaw in the argument at the core of their beliefs.

    I realize you have no way of confirming it, but I’m not sexist at all: I have the decency to hate people based on their unique and individual faults, which I carefully assess and confirm. I just find first-world-feminism blatantly laughable, and infact detrimental to female culture: first-world-feminism’s unintentionally goal to be excusing the princess complex, not pursuing equality.

  2. I think fear underlies so many of our less than admirable behaviors. Fear of offending, of irrelevance, impotence, scarcity, loss of control, and of course, death. You name it. I’m always moved by those who can rise above fear to do what’s right and ethical in the situation. In small ways or large.

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