Feminist Ethics


Feminist Ethics Essay, Research Paper

Most people assume that the philosophical story can be told entirely by the men

who dominate it. They ignore the insights and perspectives of nonwhites and women

who make up the majority of the world, while at the same time realizing that if asked,

they would say that everyone’s voice is equally important. Without realizing it, or maybe

some individuals willingly enter into a social contract that does not allow everyone to be

treated equally. Women have been treated as lesser peoples for ages and it is only

recently that these women have begun to fight back against the discrimination that has

been forced upon them for so many oppressing centuries.

The feminist critique begins by looking at the differences between men and

women and the male dominated society in which we live. Women are treated differently

from men practically the moment they are born. As children, little girls are given dolls

and boys are given cars to play with, without checking to see which one each is most

likely to enjoy. We treat the two in different manners, speak to them in different voices,

and praise them for different behavior. With this sort of conduct it is not a spectacle that

women and men grow up with contrasting views and divergent life experiences.

The idea of gender equality has several different aspects. Feminists agree that

there should be gender equality, but they don’t inevitably agree on what is female and

male human nature, nor on what exactly our procedures should be in order to conflict

gender discrimination. The philosophies of feminism are in a process of development,

responding to the past, present, and the challenges of the future. One aspect is classical

feminism, which asks that men and women be considered persons first and sexual beings

second. Another is difference feminism, which relays that women and men have

primarily different qualities and that both genders should learn from one another.

Radical feminism, that has sometimes received bad press because some radical feminists

may seem to be extremists, is a facet of feminism that seeks out and exposes the root of

the problem of gender discrimination. There is also a form of feminism that is severely

criticized by many feminists, called equity feminism. An equity feminist holds that the

battle for equality has been won, that we should not think of women as victims of a

patriarchy any longer, and that we can now adopt any kind of gender roles we like

because gender discrimination is a thing of the past.

If women’s and men’s minds’ and ways of thinking have matured in such different

ways, how then can we expect that only Caucasian men are able to explain all there is to

know about the world? In Alison Jaggar’s “Feminist Ethics: Some Issues for the

Nineties” she lists three criteria for a feminist ethical theory.

1. Guide to Actions – The theory must be practical, transitional, and nonutopian.

It must be an extension of politics instead of a retreat from it. It should also be

sensitive to symbolic meanings, as well as realizing the consequences for actions

as gendered subjects in a male dominated society. It must contain conceptual

resources for identifying and acknowledging varieties of struggles women have

been labored with. It must recognize the often unnoticed ways in which women

and people of the underclass and of color have refused domination and

spurned cooperation while perceiving that collisions are inevitable and it must

also acknowledge that totally clean hands in such a situation is an impossibility.

2. Guide to Moral Issues and Intimate Relationships – Since much of women’s

struggle has been in the kitchen and the bedroom, as well as on the factory floor

and in the face of dilemma, a second specification for feminist ethics is that it

should be able to handle moral issues in both public and private domains. It must

also provide guidance on the matter of intimate relationships, such as affection

and sexuality. The doctrine must also contain guidelines for dealing with large

numbers of people, strangers included.

3. Takes Moral Experiences of All Women Seriously – Feminist ethics must take

the experiences of women seriously, though not uncritically. An essential respect

for women’s moral experience is a necessity to acknowledging women’s capacities

as moralists and to defying conventional stereotypes of women as less than whole

moral agents–as childlike or ‘natural’. It seems likely to suppose that women’s

distinctive social experience may make them principally responsive regarding the

implications of domination, especially gender domination, and particularly well

equipped to detect the male bias that governs so much of Western moral theory.

Alison Jaggar’s view of feminism is active, engaged, and political. She wants

people who think and write about ethics to also be active in supporting it. Also, for

Jaggar, feminist ethics is geared toward oppression, the left out, and the subordinated.

Mary C. Raugust’s essay entitled “Feminist Ethics and Workplace Values” nicely

illustrates Jaggar’s three points about what should be included in a feminist theory. A

disturbing occurrence in contemporary managerial and professional employment is the

discontent of some talented and successful women employees. The discontent

experienced by these women sometimes causes them to leave a good job to search for a

more satisfying career. The specific discontent arises from discomfort experienced in the

values demonstrated in workplace arrangements. Sexist discrimination is alive and well

and women walk away from jobs for numerous reasons: Inequities of pay and status,

boredom, lack of opportunity to learn new skills and to work at a variety of tasks, and

other discontents and desires. Raugust herself has a set of assumptions for the

consideration of workplace values:

- Traditional male ethics has failed to take account of women’s lives.

- Adding women’s experience to androcentric philosophical theories is not

sufficient; an alternate way of learning is demanded.

- Feminist ethical discourse attends to values of cooperation, relationship, and

interdependent nurturance.

- A feminist ethical epistemology is rooted in practical, everyday realities.

Since the 1970s sexual discrimination has been unacceptable in most Western

cultures, but it is only within the past few decades that sexual harassment has been

identified as a related but separate problem. Unfortunately it is not very clear what

sexual harassment means. What seems like sexual harassment to one person may not

look like it to another, and that’s why there are now guidelines to mark the boundaries.

According to the Fair Employment and Housing Act, sexual harassment consists of:

- Unwanted sexual advances

- Offering employment benefits in exchange for sexual favors

- Making or threatening reprisals after a negative response to sexual advances

- Visual conduct: leering, making sexual gestures, displaying of sexually

suggestive objects or pictures, cartoons or posters

- Verbal conduct: making or using derogatory comments, epithets, slurs, or jokes

- Verbal sexual advances or propositions

- Verbal abuse of a sexual nature; graphic verbal commentaries about an

individual’s body; sexually degrading words used to describe an individual;

suggestive or obscene letters, notes, or invitations

- Physical conduct: touching, assault, impeding or blocking movements

From this list it is obvious that concerning and touching an employee is sexual

harassment, regardless of whether the cornered person is male or female. In order to

determine whether or not sexual harassment has taken place, review boards often ask the

person making the complaint if he or she perceived the situation as being one of sexual

harassment; it is thus the perception of the victimized person that will stand in many


not the intention of the perceived victimizer.

Feminism is often referred to as having a ‘first wave,’ ’second wave,’ and ‘third

wave.’ These are chronological terms, forming a time line for the American women’s

movements. The first wave generally means feminism from its beginning to the

accomplishment of its most sought after goal, the right for women to vote. The second

wave refers to the reemergence of feminism in the late 1950s and early 1960s. For some

feminists, the second wave is still going strong; for others, it has been succeeded by the

third wave, the new feminism of the 1980s and 1990s, moving into the twenty-first


The philosophy and goal of the first wave was straightforward: Rights for women

to self-determination, rights to inherit and own property, even in marriage (as opposed to

the ownership of one’s inherited or earned property passing to one’s husband); rights to

raise one’s children; and above all the right to vote. The philosophy of the second wave

is more complex, because within this context, women had achieved the right to vote but

not gender equality in any real measure–not in education nor in the job market, politics,

or their private lives. The goals of many second wave feminists became equal pay for

equal work, equal job and education opportunities, and an end to the treatment of women

as though they were children without the ability to take care of themselves. The third

wave is the hardest to define philosophically. Many young women believe that the

second wave has paved the way for true equality, and they expect relationships between

men and women to reflect this political equality. Some third-wave feminists want to

attack the problem of gender discrimination radically; others believe that the work is

accomplished and that men and women are now free to explore whatever gender roles

suit them.

The French philosopher, Simone de Beauvoir, is one of the most powerful voices

for equal education and equal opportunities in the twentieth century. Until women begin

to think of themselves as a group, she says, they will believe that they are abnormal

human beings. And as long as men and women receive different educations and different

treatment from society, the situation will remain the same, and women will not feel

responsible for the state of the world but will regard herself as men regard her–as an

overgrown child. Of course women are weak, Beauvoir says. Of course they don’t use

male logic ( she is speaking of the uneducated women of pre-World War II ). Of course

woman is religious to the point of superstition. Of course she has no sense of history, and

of course she accepts authority. Of course she cries a lot over little things. She may even

be lazy, sensual, servile, frivolous, utilitarian, materialistic, and hysterical. She may be

all these things and more–everything male thinkers thought she was, but why is she all

these things? Because she has no power except by artifice. She has no education, so she

never has been taught about the cause and effect of history and the relative powers of

authority. She is caught up in a never-ending stream of housework which causes her to

be practically oriented. She nags because she realizes that she has no power to change

her situation and she is sensual becaue she is bored. In her book ‘The Second Sex’,

Beauvoir says, ‘The truth is that when a woman is engaged in an enterprise worthy of a

human being, she is quite able to show herself as active, effective, taciturn–and as

ascetic–as a man.’

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