Retrospective on my discipline: Philosophy
By Lynda Lange
In the nineteen seventies I came to Toronto to work on a doctorate in philosophy. By the time I graduated at the end of the decade, I had done the very first doctoral dissertation in feminist philosophy in Canada, and possibly in the United States as well. My dissertation was a feminist critique of the political philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. People studying literature were probably ahead of the philosophers in the early days of feminist critique. However, in academic philosophy it was a battle all the way at that time, even as women’s movement grew in impact in wider society. Philosophical education required eventual acceptance of the uniqueness, however impossible to define, of what philosophy is. I remember the beginning of a course in ethics during my master’s programme at the University of Manitoba, when the professor started with a few questions that he said were designed to see if we were good candidates for the course. One question was “Do you think that philosophy should be relevant?” Too bad for the students who said “yes”. So I spent a number of years, a lot of it actually rather enjoyable, since I loved a good argument, defending a feminist approach against the charge that it was “not philosophy”.
While a graduate student, I was scheduled to teach a course called Contemporary Social Issues. This course gave instructors liberty to choose the social issues they would discuss. Naturally I chose issues related to what we then called “the women’s movement”. A class of about forty-five students appeared the first day in a classroom at Victoria College. “The truth shall make you free” was carved in stone over the entrance, which helped me keep up my courage. When I had explained what the course would be about and invited questions, a young man spoke up to ask if it would “all be biased”? Almost all of the students dropped the course. But… when I returned for the next class (because I had to) they had all been replaced by newly registered students! The word must have gone around very quickly.
My field become “feminist philosophy” as that eventually came to be named as a field of specialization, and I still think that my discipline is philosophy. Other women and myself began with a fundamental critique of political philosophy. Although it purported to be universal, or at any rate disinterested, at the basic level of assumption it could be revealed to be actually about the experience in the public sphere of Western men of a certain social class or race. Those who unavoidably had other sorts of experiences, such as women, colonized, or racialized peoples, simply did not fit into the picture. The classic denigration of feminists back then was that they were women who wanted to be men. The hell of it was that in this canonical tradition of political philosophy going all the way back to Aristotle, only men of a certain class were viewed as full-fledged human persons. We wanted to be persons, certainly, but how, when the only model was that of a “man”?
The necessary second stage of feminist philosophy was the effort to get out of this catch-22 and theorize the social, economic, and political situations specific to women. Of course this area was all about sex and reproduction. These vast areas of human experience had been bracketed within notions of the (male headed) family and of a private sphere where the rules and rights and procedures held sacrosanct in the public sphere did not apply. For one example, the bodily integrity of the person that makes assault, confinement, or kidnapping very serious crimes was out the window when by definition a man could not rape his wife. Legally she was deemed to have consented once and for all by getting married. This was a bargain in which his role was supposed to be to protect her, that is, protect her from other men, since she was a kind of property for him. And as we know, although rape outside of marriage was defined as a very serious criminal offence, the law was more honoured in the breach than in the observance, with very low rates of reporting and even lower rates of conviction. The idea of “sexual harassment” as we understand it now, as well as the term itself, simply did not exist when women’s movement began to take off in the early nineteen seventies. Rape within marriage is now in the criminal code, as is beating your children, also formerly thought to be a prerogative of (male) heads of families.
My own early work in these areas was to theorize what I called “reproductive labour”. This is the enormous amount of human effort involved in reproducing and maintaining the physical and emotional existence of each generation. Some of this work is done by people paid to work in schools, hospitals, and old age homes. However, the much larger part has always been done by women without any personal or independent remuneration, except legally they have been entitled to the basic “necessities of life” within the family. Of course this has always varied enormously with the wealth of the family and the disposition of the male “head of the family”. It was relatively easy to demonstrate how much time and effort women did (and do still) devote to this work. More fundamentally, it was necessary to argue for the theoretical point that this is actually “labour”! Since we were all leftists to one degree or another, and all had at least a nodding acquaintance with Marxism, it was critical to establish that the enormous social area virtually universally understood as “women’s work” was work (or labour), since labour is what is uniquely human and brings about historical change. Everyone readily sees that time and effort expended for pay is work. But what was the huge amount of time and effort by women who were not paid for this activity? In the canon of political philosophy, it was considered “natural”, an unchanging disposition of women more or less outside history. There is no official training or other qualification; any woman can do it. A fundamentally important effect of this has always been that when this work is paid for, it is valued very little and the pay is low. Of equal importance was the insistence that there should be much more public or collective responsibility for this labour, especially with an affordable high quality national daycare system. We were young then, with children, and took for granted the long term care facilities that were alleviating women’s age-old role in the family of caring for the elderly who cannot care for themselves.
While feminist philosophers argued about these issues in general terms, an avalanche of feminist research happened in sociology, history, and other disciplines, that documented how these things occurred in fact. With academic and other successes by women, it was declared rather precipitately along the way that feminism was dead. Feminist theory had presumably lost its cutting edge.
However, it appears that feminism was only dozing for a while. I never dreamt that more than forty years later these problems would be not only widely recognized but even central in mainstream controversy. The “me too” movement brought the problem of sexual harassment and predation roaring back to widely accepted relevance. Now the covid-19 pandemic has put a spotlight on the essential work of care done largely by women in low paid occupations. Economists have declared that what is needed is a she-covery from the economic effects of the lockdowns, since women are the largest percentage of those who have lost jobs. Not only should care work of all kinds be better paid, with better working conditions, but, according to many commentators, a national accessible day care system is essential for present economic recovery so that women in particular are able to go back to work. When this demand of women’s movement was first being made, publicly funded daycare was considered radical and too socialistic, something like free university tuition. Wait a minute. Don’t we want that too?
June 30, 2020.