Feminist Epistemology and Gender
According to general knowledge (especially the general knowledge of a student enrolled at the Department of Gender Studies), the notion of gender has played the significant role in the Western feminist thought since the second half of the 20th century. However, there are number of countries in the other parts of world where this term is still generally assumed to be connected with certain linguistic characteristics, being a mere grammatical category for differentiation between masculine and feminine words.
In addition to this, there are still other countries, where the language does not contain any reference to gender, that is, the language is gender-neutral. Georgia is among such countries and, in fact, introducing the word “gender” has been extremely difficult and tense in the country. Actually, even the academic world in Georgia is very reluctant to accept this term as functioning tool for the understanding of socially constructed notions.
In December 2003, a Georgian woman lecturer who calls herself “feminist” told me that the notion of gender is artificially constructed by “Western feminists” who are mostly lesbians and want to somehow justify their lesbianism by means of gender analysis. This is a vivid example that gender as it is defined in Western feminist thinking is somewhat problematic for Eastern European states, especially if there is no category of “gender” in their language (like Georgian language). In my essay I will try to outline some problems that concern the generalization of “gender understanding” from feminist epistemological point of view.
These problems may be crucial for establishing “gender” in countries where there has been no “gender” so far, and feminist epistemology is to be concerned about it. Besides, I will question the necessity of generalization under term of “gender” from feminist epistemological point of view particularly in Georgia. The key problem while trying to introduce the appropriate feminist understanding in countries like Georgia is the trouble of how to define the adequate tools and methods in order to explain the role and meaning of gender not only at an academic level but also in a broad cultural environment.
There is lack of feminist tradition (if any) in my country which together with different historical, social, cultural, and political conditions leads to the necessity at first to explore the conceptual tools developed by the Western feminists so that afterwards to introduce it into the country. Category of gender has been one such tools since Simon de Beauvoir wrote in 1940s: “One is not born a woman but becomes one” (Beauvoir, 1949). Such basic a category as category of gender is for the understanding of feminist theory in whole, is it nevertheless quite complex and entangled issue in the latest and current feminist discourse.
Numerous discussions, disagreements, theories, controversies exist about this category. These problems connected with gender must be elaborated upon in order for the category of gender to be useful for feminist thinking and feminist scholarship in Georgia and other Eastern states, where no such category was observed before the term “gender” was introduced by feminists. For this purpose, let me at first elaborate briefly on the theoretical and philosophical framework of sex/gender dichotomy with which feminist epistemology is concerned.
Feminist theory was initially concerned about the distinction between sex and gender as it served to emphasize the social and cultural origins of differences between women and men It became widely accepted that while “sex” referred to those differences between women and men that were biologically given, that is, grounded in the difference in women’s and men’s bodies, “gender” referred to the difference between women and men that were a product of society.
In short, feminists came to view differences between women and men as having two dimensions: (1) the biological and (2) the social, with “sex” referring to the former, and “gender” to the latter. (Nicholson, 1998, p. 289) Notion of gender as a historical, social, cultural, and political category in the context of feminist philosophical thought was underlined in the second part of 20th century, more precisely – in 1970s. For the purpose of this paper, I do not intend to discuss in depth the theories and arguments that were articulated since that time.
Their majority was based on the conceptual dichotomy between biologically assumed sex and socially constructed gender, and is well known in the contemporary feminist scholarship. Notion of gender started to function as an effective tool for theoretical purposes in order to explore socio-cultural mechanisms as well as how femininity and womanhood is constructed. In addition, as Nicholson explains it, sex/gender distinction challenges and serves as a tool for overcoming the “biological foundationalism” which is linked to “sex” and is seen as “unchanging constant” (Nicholson, 1998, p. 291).
This “biological foundationalism” or “biological determinism” stated that biological factors, namely, chromosomes and hormones, bring about sexual differentiation independently of the socio-cultural environment. Sex/gender distinction was considered by numerous Western feminist philosophers and theorists as an important point occurring in feminist scholarship. One of the famous feminist scholars Susan Bordo commented on it that “they cleared the space, described a new territory which radically altered the male normative terms of discussion about reality and experience” (Bordo, 1990, p. 37).
Many feminist philosophers viewed gender as a possible appropriate basis for argumentation against traditionally regarded as essential difference, that is, biological, sexual difference. At the same time, they thought, that gender would lead to underline another type of difference – culturally, socially, and politically-based difference between sexes. Indeed, the category of gender has been widely used to express exactly these differences. Western feminist theory extensively challenged previously accepted philosophical understandings about sex and gender.
To name but a few, it criticized Cartesian voluntarism that offers the claim that everybody can reject his/her sexual characteristic, both mental and physical. Heini?? maa called the two different ways of using sex and gender the substantive and the formal use explaining that “The substantive understanding of the sex/gender distinction is based on the body/mind dichotomy, whereas the formal understanding is founded is founded on the dichotomy between culture and nature” (Heini?? maa, 1997, p. 30).
Initially, this distinction was perceived in the mode of reality, which means a differentiation of characteristics that belong either to the category of gender or to the category of sex. American feminists usually related gender to the mental and behavioral features, and sex – to the characteristics, that is, anatomical, genetic, and hormonal features. As scholarship of feminist epistemology and feminist theory moved on, these definitions of sex and gender were replaced by the formal mode which simplified the issue as naming of features belonging to one or the other category became no more required.
This formal mode only provides criteria on the basis of which one can place the individual characteristics to one or another category. Notwithstanding this phenomenon, some feminists would continue creating the monocausal explanations of the difference, and exactly this issue became the one of the major focuses of much criticism about sex/gender distinction. Many feminists came to recognize that all distinctions, even those named biological or natural, were formulated from within a particular theoretical perspective. This means that even the biological distinction between women and men was socially constructed.
Many feminists like Nicholson named the old conceptual framework problematic and challenged the usefulness of that distinction (Nicholson, 1998, pp. 290-291). Furthermore, feminists started to argue, that category of gender itself is linked with a number of methodological difficulties and problems that made it a controversial term. “While the body is always viewed from within a particular theoretical framework, and thus is a part of and not separate from “gender”, across all or most of human history one interpretation of the body has contributed to some commonality in what it means to be a “man” or “woman”.
Consequently, what became central to feminist debate was less the question of the relationship between “sex” and “gender” and more the question: does “gender” – or the social construction of what it means to be a “woman” or “man”- possess any unitary or “essential” element across cultures? “(Nicholson, 1998, p. 292). While considering this question, we have the problem of an epistemology of gender in the common feminist epistemology, which means that there is a problem of epistemological and methodological role of gender theorizing in contemporary feminist thinking and scholarship.
This epistemology of gender, as Nicholson (1998) rightly put it out, is mutually connected with the question of essentialism, posing the question whether the category of gender leads per se to universalizing and essentialist explanations. Theories using gender as their analytic category and at the same time homogenizing the heterogeneity and diversity among women cannot be authentic and trustworthy theories. Gender became a problematic concept because of its allegedly essentialist character, and initiated arousal of serious doubts among the authors influenced by postmodernism.
Flax (1990) distinguishes between two levels of studying about gender: gender as a tool/category/construction helping academic discourse to locate notion of being a woman or a man in particular boundaries of time, culture or society, and gender as a social relation, specifically related to dominance and power. For the purpose of this paper, I concentrate on the gender as a construction, philosophical or theoretical category, which operates as a conceptual tool for including and articulating of so-called women issues.
Let me now analyze the question that is related to the adequacy and productivity of gender as this above-mentioned tool when used for construction of feminist scholarship and research. The ways of how gender is created through an asymmetrical and social division of work and the difference shown between the sexes constitute a significant field of feminist philosophy or feminist epistemology and theory in general. In the feminist philosophical thinking of these last years a growing skepticism towards gender is projecting.
Bordo (1990) calls it “gender skepticism” and concludes that Such skepticism is by no means universal; contemporary feminism remains a diverse and pluralist enterprise. Nor does gender-skepticism take one characteristic form. Rather, it has emerged [… ] across disciplines and theoretical affiliation, speaking in different voices and crystallized around different concerns.
Like all cultural formations, feminist gender-skepticism is complexly constructed out of diverse elements – intellectual, psychological, institutional, and sociological (p. 35) Thus, we learn that this skepticism does not provide a somewhat stable position that could be unanimously accepted or rejected. Messaged from various fields of theoretical positions and theory say that notion of gender simultaneously reveals one type of difference (difference between two sexes) and hides another (difference among women) (Bordo, 1990, p. 135). This skepticism is concerned about universalization of the category of gender, which creates a universal woman.
According to Strickland, this can be described in the following manner: There has been criticism of much feminist theory, from black, “Third World”, lesbian and other feminists, and women who don’t identify with feminism, who feel that their knowledge and experience has been ignored, marginalized or silenced by a feminism that reflects the perspective of white, western, middle-class women. It has been claimed that feminist theory itself also indulges in false universalism and a lack of critical awareness of its own situatedness.
Instead of “Man” we are now presented with a generic “Woman”, a term, like the universal “man” or “human”, that hides or denies differences in situation and experience, privilege and power – its content based not on actual commonalities between people, but on experiences and interests of some who have position and ability to impose these terms and define what they mean for themselves and other (Strickland, 1993, p. 65). If the problem of difference of women according to their gender can be summarized and moves into theory, such theory is often blamed and criticized for application of above-mentioned “universal” woman, which means too much generalization and homogenization of women’s diversity and heterogeneity.
Such a theory oppresses and/or excludes subjects that do not wish to adjust to this universal definition of the female gender. Feminist epistemology has to deal not only with falseness of such theory, but also with the fact that the outcomes of such scholarship are politically incorrect (if we have in mind the feminist political point of view) and unacceptable just because of its nature is to exclude, hegemonize and oppress.
And in fact, feminism should regard and appreciate the claims of “difference” between women. “The hope of speaking from some Archimedean point [… ] places feminist theory at odds with its political ideals of inclusiveness. To try to identify unitary themes in the experiences or perspectives of women may require the suppression of voices different from our own” (Nicholson, 1990, p. 6).
On the same vein, Butler in her “Response to Bordo’s “Feminist Skepticism and the ‘Maleness’ of Philosophy” argued that the political efficacy of feminism does not depend on the capacity to speak from the perspective of “women” and that the insistence on the heterogeneity of the category of women does not imply an opposition to abstraction but rather moves abstract thinking in a self-critical and democratizing direction: “There is an internal imperative not to subordinate, erase and colonize the diverse women who are ostensibly represented by the term” (Butler, 1992, p. 63).
I guess there is no doubt that this very important imperative would be accepted by feminist theorists. However, the problem that has arisen from the epistemological and theoretical point of view is still on a stage: how can we build a theory, when it is clear that all theorizing is in some extent generalizing? How is it possible to construct a theory without a certain degree of generalization and universalization? Is the category of gender a tool inevitably leading to homogenization and, thus, to simplification?
There have been many debates about these issues, especially in 80s and 90s, but after that it has been a bit neglected. However, being neglected and under-discussed in current scholarship does not mean that the issue was solved. There are lots of feminist critiques of Western philosophical thought that were based on the category of gender. Some of them, like Tanesini, looked at the concept of gender from the point of view of pure language, stating that meaning of the certain words (reason, knowledge, science, body, history) are labeled by gender and/or hide gender-biased notion (Tanesini, 1994).
One of the fundamental postulate of Western philosophy that conveys the essence of philosophy as a product of universal, objective, and unhistorical reason, has been one of the main point to be criticized by feminist thinkers as an essence of masculinity presented in this Western, traditional philosophy. As Grimshaw (1996) argues, this reason has been assumed to be universal and objective. The human subject have often been linked with so-called “rational mind” that has no class, race, gender, historical and social location, and even no body.
But from a feminist epistemological perspective, questions about the social location of people who claims to be knowledgeable, are not extrinsic to philosophy (Grimshaw, p. 734). As a result, this human subject in philosophy is a male subject rather than “universal” unisex or sexless subject. Thus, it becomes evident, that the assumed gender-neutrality of the philosophical concepts and terms only conceals their gendered nature, and that these concepts are always gender-coded.
Scholars of feminist epistemology have tried to identify number of areas of scholarship in which the influence of application of gender as an analytical tool has been active and actually provable. For instance, Anderson (1995) distinguishes between four such areas: gender structures (division of labour in society, including the divisions between intellectual and manual and service labor), gender symbolism, androcentrism (in biology, the social sciences, and cultural and literary studies), and sexism (both in theory and practice) (p. p. 57, 58).
Some postmodern feminists are concerned about above-mentioned gender skepticism. These are scholars who emphasize the heterogeneity among women and point out that sweeping generalizations that are based only on the partial experience of the particular group of women are illegitimate. However, despite the fact that generalizations may act to obscure, homogenize and exclude, “they can also reveal and illuminate, and an overemphasis on heterogeneity can itself obscure the validity and possible utility of such categories for social critique” (Fisher, 1992, p. 175).
Extreme skepticism and wish to give up considerations about the category of gender seems dangerous for feminist epistemology and feminist philosophical thinking (Bordo, 1990). This point of view can be backed up while thinking about Georgia in the terms of feminist epistemology. For instance, to understand and realize the phenomenon about the violence against women, it is necessary to have some concept about gender in the academic field so that to claim that the violence against women is gender-based violence, otherwise the problem will remain only on the individual and not at the common-pattern level.
Only category of gender filters this problem through the lenses of gender hierarchy and makes it possible to assess this kind of violence according to the imbalance of power distribution. There is specific kind of violence against women namely bride-kidnapping in Georgia that is justified again by women’s gender’s inferiority and women’s femininity (though there is no real connection between these characteristics and itself violence from academic cognitive point of view).
Notion of femininity is firmly connected with gender and since we know that gender is something constantly under creation and recreation, something socially constructed, then it is understandable that the essence of “women’s nature” is to be questioned in its common sense as well as specifically in Georgia (as in a quite sexist country). From all these I can conclude that gender as the conceptual tool should not be abandoned by feminist thinking.
I believe this tool is inevitable for shaping and establishing feminist epistemologies in every country including (by all means) Georgia, especially when there is no significant work done in the field of feminist research in this country. Of course there is still much to be done in this domain, however, giving up the category of gender will mean a priori delegitimazing “the exploration of experimental continuity and structural ground among women” (Bordo, 1990, p. 142), which would be detrimental for further development of feminist consciousness.
In fact, bearing in mind that gender as a tool of analysis is exactly the issue that a good many Georgian academic men (and gender-blind women, that is, women without proper understanding of gender issues as well as women who a priori reject every notion of feminism as something dangerous and misleading for the serious academic scholarship) oppose to introduce into the academic domain (let alone their private or social lifes), feminist scholars (and I hope I am one of them) have to be concerned about articulating this tool for the projection of both de facto inequality of power distribution and a priori falseness of gender-based generalization. Feminism as academic scholarship still is to construct its own path amidst the academic, “traditional” philosophy in Georgia, and I believe that gender as a conceptual tool bears the most important capacity for it.
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