‘Let women make their own sandbox and play in it,’ Camille Paglia, in Free Women Free Men: Sex, Gender, Feminism, says with scathing irony. This soundbite forms part of her lengthy criticism of Women’s Studies, described in her book as ‘institutionalized sexism… a comfy, chummy morass of unchallenged groupthink.’ Effectively, she believes gendered academic disciplines are not only sheltered spaces lacking in intellectual rigour, but an easy way for university departments to fulfil faculty diversity quotas.
Harsh, you might think, and it is true that Paglia’s work is littered with deliberately provocative statements such as these. But with the news that Oxford’s Philosophy Faculty is to introduce a new undergraduate paper on feminist philosophy, her words seem more relevant than ever.
The paper is, of course, generally considered to be ‘a good thing’. Too often, these days, it seems that slapping the word ‘feminist’ in front of traditional academic disciplines – philosophy, history, literature – is thought a progressive move. Women are included in our subject now, they have their own paper! I would argue the exact opposite.
This isn’t to say that feminist philosophy isn’t important. In fact, it is essential. Traditionally – or at least for the 20 or so years in which it has been recognised in the mainstream – feminist philosophy is bipartite. Firstly, it applies philosophical concepts to feminism. Theories of causality, for example, are applied when considering the cause of female oppression, or existentialist theory is applied when examining women’s notions of existence and freedom. Secondly, it establishes a feminist critique of traditional philosophy and its bibliography, challenging the old white man and his profound philosophical truths, truths based almost entirely on male experience.
In the former, philosophy aids feminism, while in the latter, feminism aids philosophy. Yet the Faculty, rather than incorporating gender into the current papers, have decided to isolate it. The implications are many and damaging. Feminist philosophers are not part of ‘normal’ philosophy, it tells us. They focus on gender: their work isn’t universal, they form a narrow-minded subsection. Given that the wider feminist movement is still recovering from its unfair presentation as men-hating radicalism, this is a step in the wrong direction. Segregating feminist philosophy implies that gender should be considered only in a certain context. Is a feminist critical perspective of Aristotle, for example, only relevant when taking this paper? Even unintentionally, this is the message being sent.
And who will be the undergraduates that choose the paper? Faculty members stress that it is not just for female students, but it is a pipe dream to believe feminist philosophy will be picked up by anyone other than those already sensitized to and passionate about gender equality. I imagine a lecture theatre full of eager-eyed left-wing girls clutching a battered copy of the The Handmaid’s Tale, and this is not a criticism – I myself am one of these. It is a generalisation, but Paglia’s concept of the ‘unchallenged groupthink’ rings somewhat true. By allowing undergraduates to choose to consider gender, rather than it forming a basic part of their curriculum, the University will actually exclude those who most need to study it– those who feel sexism does not apply to them. The myth that feminism only helps women is once again institutionally perpetuated.
The point is, feminism is not a hat which you can take on and off– it is not a button to be pressed, a lever to be pulled, a temporary lens by which to view the world. Just like philosophy, feminism is fundamental and universal. It is insulting to treat it as just another way of looking at things.