Gender Is the Philosophical Issue of Our Age

by Jennifer Hockenbery Dragseth

Today’s public is engaged in conversations about gender. Facebook, Twitter, and coffee-shop conversations abound on the role of gender…in presidential politics, in The Danish Girl, in Caitlyn Jenner’s tabloid exploits, in Mexico’s epidemic of femicide, in Olympic qualifying standards, in health insurance protections, and so on. The following quotation is true today much more than it was in the 1980s when Luce Irigaray said it: “ Sexual Difference is one of the major philosophical issues, if not the issue, of our age.”[1] If academic philosophy wants to demonstrate its usefulness to students and the public, thoughtful engagement of the topic of gender should be pursued.

Yet, too often I find that philosophers consider the issue of gender to be a peripheral issue, contemplated for one day in Contemporary Issues in Ethics, or presented in a cross-listed women’s studies class on philosophy of gender—if, that is, the issue is considered at all. Indeed, I came through an entire undergraduate education and a doctoral program in philosophy without ever being assigned a single text on the issue. Relatedly, I was never assigned a single text by a woman philosopher either. A prevailing axiom in the philosophy departments in which I studied was that gender was not an issue of philosophical importance. Of course, in the coffee shop and in the bar, we students talked informally about gender roles in the department. But we did not do so with any philosophical rigor. The conversations were shallow, despite that the topics were urgent. A professor told me, in a conference my first year, about his need to confer with new female students to see if they were serious about philosophy. A graduate student told me she would never wear a skirt to class because she did not want to remind her teachers that she was female. A professor told me to be careful, because some of his colleagues might suspect I am too charming to be a serious thinker.

These comments and experiences, among many others, were the fodder for glib conversation, but no deep philosophical analysis occurred on the subject. We never discussed gender philosophically. We never asked ourselves, “What is the nature of gender? Is it real? What is the meaning of gender in our language game and cultural context?” Interestingly, even in philosophy of biology classes, the subject was never broached. We asked questions about the impossibility of defining health objectively, about the cultural reasons behind Linnaeus’s taxonomy, and about the arbitrary and subjective ways scientists label the boundaries of the self. Yet we did not read a single essay or have a single discussion about the subjectivity or cultural relativism surrounding the taxonomy of biological sex. And yes, I took this class after Butler had published Gender Trouble. Butler never made the reading list in any class I took, even though her Hegelian idealism, her Straussian skepticism, and her anti-scientific-realism made her a perfect fit for most of the faculty’s ideology. But because she was, by and large, applying her thinking to gender, she was considered someone writing about a fringe issue. She was considered a gender theorist, not a philosopher.

My first job interview was at the women’s college in Milwaukee, Wisconsin where I now teach. I was totally unprepared to answer several of the interview questions: How did I think teaching women would be different from teaching in a co-education classroom? What did I think my role was as a woman in the philosophical academy? Who were my favorite women philosophers? Fortunately for me, my fellow interviewees must have been equally unprepared, as I was hired anyway. More fortunately for me, I was commanded to teach at least one woman thinker in every course and to create a full course on the topic of gender as it is presented by women philosophers. I was forced to deeply and philosophically consider a question that I had always relegated to the area of sociology or cultural studies. I came to find that the topic of gender is one that requires deep thinking about ontology (Is there an essence to gender?), scientific realism (Is biological sex a cultural construct?), philosophy of religion (How does the use of gendered language affect the believer’s understanding of the divine?), ethics (Are our obligations to a person based on their biological sex? Do we have different social and moral obligations to men, women, intersex individuals, and transgendered persons?), and philosophy of mind (What is the relationship of the sexed body to the mind, and of the mind to creating a sexed body?) In short, once I recognized the philosophical questions that underpinned any substantial conversation about gender, I realized that gender had a place in every class I taught, from Philosophy of Religion to Philosophy of Science, from Ethics and Political Philosophy to virtually any course in the history of philosophy.

Pedagogically, I was interested to realize that my female students perked up during the sections of the class in which we read and discussed philosophy of gender. More interestingly, I realized but that my non-philosophical friends and family also perked up when I spoke of my work in this area. While my ponderings on Plato and Augustine’s epistemology had been politely tolerated at cocktail parties and family dinners, my discussions about gender were embraced with enthusiasm. Friends would introduce me to others at a party with the words, “You should ask her about queer theory and the Olympics,” or “You should ask her about Hildegard of Bingen and inclusive language in the church,” or “I bet you would be fascinated to know how nominalism about gender affects medical care for women patients.” Non-philosophically trained individuals understand the value of thinking through questions concerning sex and gender and are eager to apply philosophical thinking and vocabulary when it helps them converse about these questions. I was so encouraged, that I wrote my first book—not on Augustine’s epistemology as I had planned—on women philosophers and their discussion of gendered identity. Thinking Woman: A Philosophical Approach to the Quandary of Gender is an introduction to philosophical thinking about gender, but it is also an introduction to philosophical thinking as such. Being both, the book seeks to be intriguing to serious academic philosophers as well as to new students and interested lay readers. I am still interested in Augustine and epistemology, and maybe I will get to write that book soon, but I recognized that there was an interest and a need on this issue first.

My hope is that more and more philosophers in the classroom and in their publishing will consider gender to be central, rather than a peripheral philosophical issue. Interestingly, women in philosophy have long done so: Hildegard of Bingen in the 12th Century, Christine de Pizan in the 14th Century, and Mary Wollstonecraft in the 18th Century, are three of many historical women who applied philosophical thinking to the question of the nature and social purpose of biological sex. In the 20th and 21st century, there are many women philosophers who have engaged the question philosophically rather than sociologically, including Edith Stein, Simone de Beauvoir, Angela Davis, Donna Haraway, and Judith Butler. Indeed, philosophy of gender and good philosophical thinking from many different perspectives is already established. Philosophy instructors need only tap into these resources to engage the issue in their classrooms and their writing.

The fruits of considering philosophy of gender to be a central issue for the philosophical academy are two-fold. First, I think that the philosophical approach to gender is crucial as our society grapples with the medical, ethical, and political quandaries that surround gender issues today. Second, I think that philosophy, if it is to survive as an academic discipline, needs to demonstrate to students and the public the ways that philosophical thinking is useful and applicable. Precisely because philosophical thinking is useful, applicable, and necessary to society, philosophers must continually make that case.

[1] Irigaray, Luce, An Ethics of Sexual Difference. Trans. Carolyn Burke and Gillian C Gill. Ithaca; Cornell University Press, 1993; p. 5. Original French Edition: Ethique de la Difference Sexuelle, Paris: Les Editions de Minuit, 1984.

Dr. Jennifer Hockenbery Dragseth is Professor of Philosophy at Mount Mary University in Milwaukee, WI, where she teaches a variety of courses on the history of Western philosophy, women in philosophy, ethics, philosophy of religion, and Christian philosophy. She is the author of Thinking Woman: A Philosophical Approach to the Quandary of Gender and the editor of The Devil’s Whore: Reason and Philosophy in the Lutheran Tradition (Fortress Press, 2011. Reprinted IA Books, 2014). 

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2 thoughts on “Gender Is the Philosophical Issue of Our Age

  1. Gender does seem to be a huge issue in academic philosophy these days, and the experiences you note suggest its many reasons for being important. I do still have a couple hesitations about the argument, though I’m not sure I dare to voice them. I’m not sure how many people in your position realize that there are many men in the profession who do not feel free to make even the slightest suggestion of disagreement about the importance of this issue relative to others lest they be tarred as biased. The discourse in academia has become anything but free and frank. That said, men should not be making the short of comments you mention here about “whether the women students are serious.” That is just stupid and it seems that in many other professional fields women are taken very seriously. It is encouraging at least that there seem to be more women pursuing PhDs in philosophy.

  2. I have students take the IAT (https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/) Discrimination is ongoing and life still sucks for women. But, IMHO it isn’t primarily about what happens in classes but the way in which the real world sucks for us. Employment discrimination is what matters. There is nothing more important than the job you do, and women are still locked out of must jobs–i.e. blue collar jobs.

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