What Is Feminist Ethics?

Write a short, objective summary of  250-500 words which summarizes the main ideas being put forward by the author in this selection.




From What Is Feminist Ethics?



A few years ago, a dentist in Ohio was convicted of having sex with his female patients while they were under anesthesia. I haven’t been able to discover whether he had to pay a fine or go to jail, but I do remember that the judge ordered him to take a course in ethics. And I recall thinking how odd that order was. Let’s suppose, as the judge apparently did, that the dentist really and truly didn’t know it was wrong to have sex with his anesthetized patients (this’ll stretch your imagination, but give it a shot). Can we expect-again, as the judge apparently did–that on completing the ethics course, the dentist would be a better, finer man?

Hardly. If studying ethics could make you good, then those of us with PhDs in moral philosophy would be absolute saints. I can’t speak for all of us, of course, but though my colleagues are decent enough, they’re no more moral than anyone else. Ethics doesn’t improve your character. Its subject is morality, but its relationship to morality is that of a scholarly study to the thing being studied. In that respect, the relationship is a little like the relationship between grammar and language. Let’s explore that analogy. People who are linguistically competent in English don’t have to stop and think about the correctness of the sentence “Bellatrix gave it to him.”But here’s a harder one. Should you say, “Bellatrix gave it to him who must not be named” or “Bellatrix gave it to he who must not be named”? To sort this out, it helps to know a little grammar: the systematic, scholarly description of the structure of the language and the rules for speaking and writing it. According to those rules, the object of the preposition “to” is the entire clause that comes after it, and the subject of that clause is “he.” So, even if it sounds peculiar to you, the correct answer is, “Bellatrix gave it to he who must not be named.”

In a roughly similar vein, morally competent adults don’t have to stop to think about whether it’s wrong to have sex with one’s anesthetized patients. But if you want to understand whether it’s wrong to have large signs in bars telling pregnant women not to drink, or to sort out the conditions under which an act is rape, it helps to know a little ethics. The analogy between grammar and ethics isn’t exact, of course. For one thing, there’s probably more agreement about what’s linguistically correct than about what’s morally correct. For another, grammarians are concerned only with the structure of language, not with the meaning or usage of particular words. In both cases, though, the same point can be made:

You already have to know quite a lot about how to behave, either linguistically or morally, before there’s much point in studying either grammar or ethics. WHAT IS FEMINISM?

What, then, is feminism? As a social and political movement with a long, intermittent history, feminism has repeatedly come into public awareness, generated change, and then disappeared again. As an eclectic body of theory, feminism entered colleges and universities in the early 1970s as a part of the women’s studies movement, contributing to scholarship in every academic discipline, though probably most heavily in the arts, social sciences, literature, and the humanities in general. Feminist ethics is a part of the body of theory that is being developed primarily in colleges and universities.

Many people think of feminism as a movement that aims to make women the social equals of men, and this impression has been reinforced over the decades by references to feminism and feminists in the newspapers, on social media and television, and in the movies.

But bell hooks has pointed out in Feminist Theory from Margin to Center (1984, 18-19) that this way of defining feminism raises some serious problems. Which men do women want to be equal to?

Women who are socially well off wouldn’t get much advantage from being the equals of the men who are poor and lower class, particularly if they are black or brown; here hooks makes an early nod to the concept of intersectionality, about which more later. Her point is that there are no women and men in the abstract. They’re poor, black, young, Hispanic, old, transgender, able-bodied, upper class, gay, down on their luck, Native American, straight, and all the rest of it. When a woman doesn’t think about this, it’s probably because she doesn’t have to. And that’s usually a sign that her own social position is privileged. In fact (this is an example of Lindemann’s ad hoc Rule Number 39), privilege often means that there’s something uncomfortable going on that others have to pay attention to but you don’t. So, when hooks asks which men women want to be equal to, she’s reminding us that there’s an unconscious presumption of privilege built right in to this sort of demand for equality.

There’s a second problem with the equality definition. Even if we could figure out which men are the ones to whom women should be equal, that way of putting it suggests that the point of feminism is somehow to get women to measure up to what (at least some) men already are. Men remain the point of reference, theirs are the lives that women would naturally want to live. If the first problem with the equality definition is “Equal to which men?” the second problem could be put as “Why equal to men?” Reforming a system in which men are the point of reference by allowing women to perform as their equals encourages women to concentrate on men and their preoccupations instead of women themselves. For that reason, many feminists believe that feminism is first and foremost about women.

But characterizing feminism as about women has its problems too. What, after all, is a woman? In her 1949 book The Second Sex, the French feminist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir famously observed,

“One is not born, but becomes a woman. No biological, psychological, or economic fate determines the figure that the human female presents in society: it is civilization as a whole that produces this creature, intermediate between male and eunuch, which is described as feminine” ([1949] 1974, 301). Her point is that while plenty of human beings are born female, “woman” is not a natural fact about them, it’s a social invention. According to this invention, which is widespread in “civilization as a whole,” man represents the positive, typical human being, while woman represents only the negative, the not-man. She’s the Other against whom man defies himself: she’s all the things that he isn’t. And she exists only in relation to him. In a later essay called “One Is Not Born a Woman.” Monique Wittig (1981, 49) adds that because women belong to men sexually as well as in every other way, women are necessarily heterosexual. For that reason, she argues, lesbians aren’t women.

But, you’re probably thinking, everybody knows what a woman is, and lesbians certainly are women. You’re absolutely right. These French feminists aren’t denying that there’s a perfectly ordinary use of the word woman by which it means exactly what you think it means. But they’re explaining what this comes down to if you look at it from a particular point of view. Their answer to the question,

“What is a woman?” is that women are different from men. But they don’t mean this in a trivial sense. They re saying that “woman” refers to nothing but difference from men, so that apart from men, women are nothing and everything. Think of “not iPhone” and you’ll see what I mean. “Man” is the positive term, “woman” the negative one, but what matters is that she’s not a man.

A later generation of feminists have agreed with Beauvoir and Wittig that women are different from men, but rather than seeing the difference as simply negative, they put it in positive terms, affirming feminine qualities as a source of personal strength and pride. For example, the philosopher Virginia Held thinks that women’s moral experience as mothers, attentively nurturing their children, may serve as a better model for social relations than the contract model the free market provides. The poet Adrienne Rich celebrated women’s passionate nature (as opposed, in stereotype, to the rational nature of men), regarding emotions as morally valuable rather than as signs of weakness.

Defining feminism as about the positive differences between men and women, though, creates yet another set of problems. In her

1987 Feminism Unmodified, the feminist legal theorist Catharine A.

MacKinnon points out that this kind of difference, as such, is a symmetrical relationship: If I’m different from you, then you’re different from me in exactly the same respects and to exactly the same degree. “Men’s differences from women are equal to women’s differences from men,” she writes. “There is an equality there. Yet the sexes are not socially equal” (1987, 37). No amount of attention to the differences between men and women explains why men, as a group, are more socially powerful, valued, advantaged, or free than women. For that, you have to see differences as counting in certain ways, and certain differences being created precisely because they give men power over women. (This theory, then, is sometimes called power feminism.)

My own view is that feminism isn’t-or at least not directly-about equality, and it isn’t about women, and it isn’t about difference.

It’s about power. Specifically, it’s about the pattern, widespread across cultures and history, that distributes power asymmetrically to favor men over women, creating and maintaining social institutions and practices that systematically put men’s interests and preoccupations ahead of women’s. This asymmetry has been given many names, including the subjugation of women, sexism, male dominance, patriarchy, systemic misogyny, phallocracy, and the oppression of women. A number of feminist theorists simply call it gender, and throughout this book, I will too.


Most people think their gender is a natural fact about them, like their hair and eye color: “Jack is five foot eleven, red-headed, and a man.”But gender is a norm, not a fact. It’s a prescription for how people are supposed to act (or not act), what they must or mustn’t wear, how they’re supposed to sit, walk, or stand, what kind of person they re supposed to marry, what sorts of things they’re supposed to be interested in or good at, and what they’re entitled to. And because it’s an effective norm, it actually creates the gender binary of differences between men and women in these areas.

Gender doesn’t just tell women to behave one way and men another, though. It’s a power relation, so it tells men that they’re entitled to do and have things that women aren’t entitled to, and it tells women that they’re supposed to defer to men and serve them. It says, for example, that men are supposed to occupy positions of religious authority and women are supposed to run the church suppers. It says that women are supposed to take care of their children and frail elderly family members but fathers have more important things to do. And, in general, it says that the things associated with femininity are supposed to take a back seat to the things coded masculine. Think of the many tax dollars allocated to the military as compared with the few tax dollars allocated to the arts. Think about how nurses are paid as compared to how stockbrokers are paid. And think about how many presidents of the United States have been women. Gender operates through social institutions (like marriage and the law) and practices (like manufacture and medicine) by disproportionately conferring entitlements and the control of resources on men, while disproportionately assigning women to subordinate positions in the service of men’s interests.

To make this power relation seem perfectly natural, like the fact that plants grow up instead of down, or that female mammals nurse their young, gender constructs its norms for behavior around what’s supposed to be the natural biological distinction between the sexes.

According to this distinction, people who have penises and testicles, XY chromosomes, and beards as adults belong to the male sex, while people who have clitorises and ovaries, XX chromosomes, and breasts as adults belong to the female sex, and those are the only sexes there are. God wills it so. Gender, then, is the complicated set of cultural meanings that sets up a binary. Your sex is either male or female, and your gender, either masculine or feminine, corresponds socially to your sex.

As a matter of fact, though, sex isn’t quite so straightforward.

Some people with XY chromosomes don’t have penises and never develop beards, because they don’t have the receptors that allow them to make use of the male hormones that their testicles produce: these are people with androgen insensitivity syndrome, and they look like any other women. Some people have ambiguous genitals or internal reproductive structures that don’t correspond in the usual manner to their external genitalia. How should we classify these intersex people? People with Turner’s syndrome don’t have XX chromosomes at all–theirs are XO. People with Klinefelter’s syndrome have three sex chromosomes: XXY. Mother nature is a good bit looser in her categories than the simple male/female distinction acknowledges. Most human beings can certainly be classified as either male or female, but a considerable number of them fall somewhere in between.

The powerful norm of gender doesn’t acknowledge the existence of the outliers, though. When, for example, have you ever filled out an application for a job or a driver’s license or a passport that gave you a choice other than M or F? By basing its distinction between masculine and feminine of the existence of two and only two sexes, gender makes the inequality of power between men and women appear natural and therefore legitimate.


If feminism is about gender, and gender is the name for a social system that distributes power unequally among men, genderqueer people, trans and intersex people, and women, then you’d expect feminist ethicists to try to understand, criticize, and correct how gender operates within our moral and social beliefs and practices. They do just that. In the first place, they challenge, on moral grounds, the powers men have over women, and they claim for women, again on moral grounds, the powers that gender denies them. Since the moral reasons for opposing gender are similar to the moral reasons for opposing power systems based on social markers other than gender, feminist ethicists also offer moral arguments against systems based on categories such as class, race, physical or mental ability, sexuality, and age. And because all these systems, including gender, are powerful enough to conceal many of the forces that keep them in place, it’s often necessary to make the forces visible by explicitly identifying–and condemning–the various ugly ways they allow some people to treat others. This is a central task for feminist ethics.

Feminist ethicists also produce theory about the moral meaning of various kinds of legitimate relations of unequal power, including relationships of dependency and vulnerability, relationships of trust, and relationships based on something other than choice. Parent-child relationships, for example, are necessarily unequal and for the most part unchosen. Even for parents who choose to have children, most don’t choose to have the particular children they do, nor do children choose their parents. This raises questions of involuntary obligations, and these too are topics for feminist ethics. Similarly, when you trust someone, that person has power over you. Whom should vou trust, for what purposes, and when is trust not warranted? What’s involved in being trustworthy, and what must be done to repair beaches of trust? These too are questions for feminist ethics.

Third, feminist ethicists look at the various forms of power that are required for morality to operate properly at all. How do we learn right from wrong in the first place? We usually learn it from our parents, whose power to permit and forbid, praise and punish, is essential to our moral training. For whom or what are we ethically responsible? Often this depends on the kind of power we have over the person or thing in question. If, for instance, someone is particularly vulnerable to harm because of something I’ve done, I might well have special duties toward that person. Powerful social institutions such as the market, government, medicine, and religion typically dictate what’s morally required of us and to whom we are morally answerable. Relations of power set the terms for who must answer to whom, who has authority over whom, and who gets excused from certain kinds of accountability to whom. But because so many of these power relations are illegitimate in that they’re instances of gender, racism, or other kinds of bigotry, figuring out which ones are morally justified is a task for feminist ethics.


So far it sounds as if feminist ethics devotes considerable attention to description, as if feminist ethicists were like poets or painters who want to show you something about reality that you might otherwise have missed. Indeed, many feminist ethicists emphasize the importance of understanding how social power actually works, rather than concentrating solely on how it ought to work-the debunking project, as it’s been called. But why, you might ask, should ethicists worry about how power operates within societies? Isn’t it up to sociologists and political scientists to describe how things are, while ethicists concentrate on how things ought to be?

As the philosopher Margaret Urban Walker has pointed out in

Moral Contexts, there’s a tradition in Western philosophy going all the way back to Plato, to the effect that morality is something ideal and that ethics, being the study of morality, properly examines only that ideal. According to this tradition, notions of right and wrong as there found in the world are unreliable and shadowy manifestations of something lying outside of human experiences, something to which we ought to aspire but can’t hope to reach. Plato’s Idea of the Good, in fact, is precisely not of this earth, and only the gods could trulv know it. Christian ethics incorporates Platonism into its insistence that earthly existence is fraught with sin and error and that heaven is our real home. Kant too insists that moral judgments transcend the histories and circumstances of people’s actual lives, and most moral philosophers of the twentieth century have likewise shown little interest in how people really live and what it’s like for them to live that way. “They think,” remarks Walker, “that there is little to be learned from what is about what ought to be” (2001, 3).

In Chapter 5 [omitted here] we’ll take a closer look at what goes wrong when ethics is done that way, but let me just point out here that if you don’t know how things are, your prescriptions for how things ought to be won’t have much practical effect. Imagine a doctor trying to treat a patient without having a good diagnosis. She might have a very fine idea about the outcome she hopes for, but if she doesn’t know what’s wrong, at best she’ll perform an irrelevant procedure and at worst she’ll kill the patient. If, as many feminists have noted, a crucial fact about human selves is that they’re always embedded in a vast web of relationships, then the forces at play ® within those relationships must be understood. It’s knowing how people are situated with respect to these forces, what they’re going through as they’re subjected to them, and what life is like in the face of them, that lets you decide which of the forces are morally justified.

Careful description of how things are is a crucial part of feminist methodology, because the power that puts certain groups of people at risk of harm and denies them full access to the good things their society has to offer, or treats them as if they were useful only for other people’s purposes, is often hidden and hard to see. If this power isn’t seen, it’s likely to remain in place, doing untold amounts of damage to great numbers of people.

All the same, feminist ethics is normative as well as descriptive.

It’s fundamentally about how things ought to be, while description plays the crucial but secondary role of helping us to figure that out.

Normative language is the language of “ought” instead of “is,” the language of “worth” and “value,” “right” and “wrong,” “good” and

“bad.” Feminist ethicists differ on a number of normative issues, but as the philosopher Alison Jaggar has famously put it, they all share two moral assumptions: “That the subordination of women is morally wrong and that the moral experience of women is worthy of respect” (1991, 95). The first assumption–that women’s interests ought not to be set systematically in the service of men’s-can be understood as a moral challenge to power under the guise of gender.

The second assumption–that women’s experience must be taken seriously-can be understood as a call to challenge how that power operates. These twin assumptions are the two normative legs on which any feminist ethics stands.


If moral theorizing dates back over two thousand years in Western thought, a newer tradition only a couple of centuries old has split off morality from politics. According to this tradition, which can be traced to Kant and some other Enlightenment philosophers, morality concerns the relations between persons, whereas politics concerns the relations among nation-states, or between a state and its citizens.

So, as Iris Marion Young explains, ethicists have tended to focus on intentional actions by individual persons, conceiving of moral life as

“conscious, deliberate, a rational weighing of alternatives,” whereas political philosophers have focused on impersonal governmental systems, studying “laws, policies, the large-scale distribution of social goods, countable quantities like votes and taxes” (1990, 149).

For feminists, on the other hand, the line between ethics and political theory isn’t quite so bright as this tradition makes out. It’s not always easy to tell where feminist ethics leaves off and feminist political theory begins. There are two reasons for this. In the first place, while ethics certainly concerns personal behavior, there is a long-standing insistence on the part of feminists that the personal is political. In a 1970 essay called “The Personal Is Political.” the political activist Carol Hanisch observed that “personal problems are political problems. There are no personal solutions at this time”

(204-5). What Hanisch meant is that even the most private areas of everyday life, including such intensely personal areas as sex, can function to maintain abusive power systems like gender. If a heterosexual woman believes, for example, that contraception is primarily her responsibility because she’ll have to take care of the baby if she gets pregnant, she’s propping up a system that lets men evade responsibility not only for pregnancy, but for their own offspring as well. Conversely, while unjust social arrangements such as gender and race invade every aspect of people’s personal lives,

“there are no personal solutions,” either when Hanisch wrote those words or now, because to shift dominant understandings of how certain groups may be treated, and what other groups are entitled to expect of them, requires concerted political action, not just personal efforts.

The second reason why it’s hard to separate feminist ethics from feminist politics is that feminists typically subject the ethical theory they produce to critical political scrutiny, not only to keep untoward political biases out, but also to make sure that the work accurately reflects their feminist politics. Many nonfeminist ethicists, on the other hand, don’t acknowledge that their work reflects their politics, because they don’t think it should. Their aim, by and large, has been to develop ideal moral theory that applies to all people, regardless of their social position or experience of life, and to do that objectively, without favoritism, requires them to leave their own personal politics behind. The trouble, though, is that they aren’t really leaving their own personal politics behind. They’re merely refusing to notice that their politics is inevitably built right in to their theories. (This is an instance of Lindemann’s ad ho Rule Number 22: Just because you think you’re doing something doesn’t mean you’re doing it.)

Feminists, by contrast, are generally skeptical of the idealized moral theory nonfeminists favor, and they’re equally doubtful that objectivity can be achieved by stripping away what’s distinctive about people’s experiences or commitments. Believing that it’s no wiser to shed one’s political allegiances in the service of ethics than it would be to shed one’s moral allegiances, feminists prefer to be transparent about their politics as a way of keeping their ethics intellectually honest.

"Get 15% discount on your first 3 orders with us"
Use the following coupon

Order Now
0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply