Difference Feminism

Reposted from the first Butterflies and Wheels.

Second wave feminism has always had a radical strand. It has always been about   more than equal pay. It was also, for instance, about exposing and then discarding   banal conventional unreflective ideas that led to banal conventional unreflective behaviour. Ideas about cooking and cleaning being somehow naturally women’s work, for example, which led to men cheerfully lounging about while women put in what Arlie Hochschild calls a second shift. And even more than that, unexamined ideas about what women are like, what they want, what they should be and do.   David Lodge once remarked that women became much more interesting after feminism,   and his own novels bear this out, as do those of Michael Frayn and other male novelists who started writing in the ’50s or ’60s. The pre-1970 female characters are non-entities, the post-1970 ones – Robyn Penrose in Nice Work, Kate in Headlong – take up a lot of space. The very way women are perceived and noticed and thought about changed with feminism, and that would not have   happened if mere institutional reform had been the only goal.

But there are radical ideas and then there are radical ideas. One of the less helpful ones was difference feminism. The foundations of this shaky edifice were laid in the ’70s, when a popular rhetorical move was to label many usually well-thought-of attributes and tools–reason, logic, science, “linear” thinking, abstract ideas, analysis, objectivity, argument–as male, and dub their opposite female. So by a contortion that defies “male” logic, it somehow became feminist   to confine women all over again to intuition, guesswork, instinct, feelings, subjectivity, and arm-waving.

This school of thought became mainstream in 1982 with the publication of Carol   Gilligan’s highly influential In a Different Voice. Gilligan claims that women have their own special version of morality rooted in relationships and   caring rather than abstract notions of justice and equity. This of course sounds startlingly like the patronizing pat on the head with which women were barred   from public life in the 19th century, because the dear creatures were simply too good for that mucky arena. It is quite a feat of legerdemain to take what   had been thought a classic bit of sexist mystification and turn it into new feminist wisdom.

But however perverse or odd it may seem, and though her research has been sharply criticised,[1] Gilligan’s views were and are indeed popular. The criticisms were in small academic publications, while Gilligan got an admiring profile in the New York Times Magazine in 1990, complete with cover picture. In the wake of In a Different Voice came epigones such as Nell Noddings’ Caring, Sara Ruddick’s Maternal Thinking, and Belenky, Clinchy,   Goldberger and Tarule’s Women’s Ways of Knowing. The last-named book, based on interviews with 135 women, claims that women are uncomfortable with   argument and disagreement, and that they have a different approach to knowledge   that emphasizes collaboration, consensus, mutual understanding. Women’s Ways   of Knowing declares in the final paragraph, “We have argued in this book   that educators can help women develop their own authentic voices if they emphasize connection over separation, understanding and acceptance over assessment, and   collaboration over debate…if instead of imposing their own expectations and arbitrary requirements, they encourage students to evolve their own patterns of work based on the problems they are pursuing.” What a flawless recipe for   infantilization and mental abdication. If it were in a book dated 1886 we would all point and laugh, but tragically it is dated a century later.

Women’s Ways of Knowing raises questions about the evidence its findings   are based on, and about what to do with those findings. Critics have duly pointed   out that the interview subjects were told in advance that the topic was women’s   different approaches to knowledge, which is not quite the way to elicit uncontaminated testimony. But even apart from that, even if their findings were really findings rather than self-confirmed prophecies, there would still be a problem with the   conclusions the authors draw. If the evidence truly supported their idea that   women prefer to maintain “connectedness”, make everyone feel good, and promote   understanding and acceptance over judgment or assessment, then clearly the response   ought to be loud and urgent demands for remedial education for women starting   yesterday. In morality, ethics, social life, friendship, there is something   (though far from everything) to be said for preferring understanding and acceptance   to judgment and assessment, but in epistemology or “ways of knowing” there is   just about nothing. Critical thinking is widely recognised to be a basic tool   for cognitive work, and surely the whole point of critical thinking is to know   what not to accept, to know how to judge and assess. It is all about   rejection, separation, negation, being “judgmental”; tolerance and love and   sympathy and sensitivity are the wrong tools for the job. A favourite move for   the different ways of knowing crowd is to quote an aphorism of Audre Lord’s, “the Master’s tools will never dismantle the Master’s house”, which fact perhaps demonstrates the result of eschewing logic. Why on earth would the Master’s tools not dismantle his house? If he goes to town or gets drunk and falls asleep   in the corn crib, his tools will work very nicely. But in any case feminists   need to resist any rhetorical move to hand those tools over to the Master, that   is, to claim that logic and reason and evidence and “linear thinking” and judgment   belong to men, and women should claim what’s left over. Carl Sagan used to like   to say, echoing Hume, that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,   and we should demand very very good evidence indeed (better than 135 women summoned to describe their different way with knowledge) before accepting the notion   that logic is male.

And the evidence is not particularly good, to put it mildly. The notorious   1990 American Association of University Women study of the putative fall in self-esteem of adolescent girls was assailed from all sides for its flawed methodology,   but it got a flood of media attention all the same. It inspired more studies and books such as Peggy Ornstein’s Schoolgirls and Mary Pipher’s best-selling Reviving Ophelia, and wasted the time of countless girls in “self-esteem” classes when they might have been learning history or math. Bizarre claims resting   on flawed evidence generated even more bizarre claims resting on yet more flawed   evidence, in a spiral of epistemological breakdown. If only everyone had done less accepting and more judging. Susan Haack sums the matter up:

“But even if there were such a thing, the case for feminist epistemology would   require further argument to show that women’s ‘ways of knowing’ (scare quotes   because the term is tendentious, since ‘knows’ is a success-word) represent   better procedures of inquiry or subtler standards of justification than the male…[W]hat my experience rather suggests is that the questions of the epistemological tradition are hard, very hard, for anyone, of whatever sex (or gender), to answer or even significantly to clarify.”[2]

We have certainly gone to a great deal of trouble in order to come back to   where we started. Women are sweet, women are soft-headed, women are nicer than   men and don’t like all that pesky judgmental science and logic and reason and argument and disagreement. If this were true it ought to be changed, but there is little reason to think it is true. We thought we had escaped the tyranny of low expectations for women, we thought we had crashed that prison and freed   ourselves to be as tough and hard-headed and autonomous and wide-ranging as   men–and now here come the beaming Ed School professors to tell us No, no, that’s   all wrong, that’s the male way of doing things. We are women and we have to   park our brains at the door and be nice and warm and caring and empathic and fuzzy. That’s the sort of thing that makes a self-respecting feminist want to   be as opinionated and cold and uncompromising and downright ruthless as she   can find it in her to be. Janet Radcliffe Richards puts it this way:

“It is hard to imagine anything better calculated to delight the soul of patriarchal   man than the sight of women’s most vociferous leaders taking an approach to   feminism that continues so much of his own work: luring women off into a special   area of their own where they will remain screened from the detailed study of   philosophy and science to which he always said they were unsuited, teaching them indignation instead of argument, fantasy and metaphor instead of science, and doing all this by continuing his very own technique of persuading women   that their true interests lie elsewhere than in the areas colonized by men.”[3]

Feminists need to keep their eyes on the prize, as the saying goes, and resist   with every fibre of their being attempts to persuade them that the most fascinating,   inspiring, exhilarating, productive, truth-generating fields of intellectual endeavour are the private property of men and that authentic women are too maternal   and caring and touchy-feely to be good at them. A more perverse, backward-looking, destructive idea is hard to imagine, and the fact that it comes from friends rather than enemies is one of the surrealistic jokes of modern life.

Footnotes 1 Colby, Anne & William Damon. “Listening to a Different   Voice: A Review of Gilligan’s In a Different Voice.” Merrill-Palmer Quarterly   29, 4 (October 1983). Walker, Lawrence J. “Sex Differences in the Development   of Moral Reasoning: A Critical Review.” Child Development 55 (1984).

2 Haack, Susan. Manifesto of a Passionate Moderate The   University of Chicago Press (1998).

3 Radcliffe Richards, Janet. “Why Feminist Epistemology Isn’t”. The Flight From Science and Reason ed. Paul Gross, Norman Levitt, Martin   Lewis, New York Academy of Sciences (1997).


  1. chana says

    I totally agree with your criticisms of Difference Feminism here, and I certainly don’t think difference feminism is right in the least, but I do think there’s a steelmanned version of Difference Feminism that is worth understanding. It seems to me that one way women are subjugated is to be linked to and associated with bad or subordinate things: weakness, emotion, vulnerability, etc. So what feminists did is said “we have a right to those good things too!” So they fought for the right to vote and equal pay and no sexual harassment. But another way the feminist analysis could have gone is to say, “well, maybe women were associated with bad things, but maybe things that weren’t bad became considered as such because they were associated with women.” So the response to that isn’t “women can do the “man” things”, it’s “women things are good too!” and that’s how you get difference feminism.

    I think this is interesting, because as skeptics, we can get the best of both worlds by deciding what the good things are and demand that everyone get access to them. Some of these things are historically coded male: logic, political power, financial success. Some are historically coded female: caring, family life, community orientation. But it’s a good reminder that feminism shouldn’t get too wrapped up in decrying that which is traditionally considered female, like femininity or emotionality. Not that the mainstream movement has, but there are undercurrents of shaming women for being sexy/wearing high heels, and exalting the women who can beat up on the boys. Gender nonconformity is the shit, but that goes both ways, and I think it’s pretty anti-feminist to hate on femininity.

    I’m not saying you disagree with any of this (though perhaps you do!), but I think it’s a good reminder to keep both avenues of analysis open.

    Thanks for the great post.

  2. says

    Yes. There’s a lot to that. But…the “logic is male” stuff gets me way more enraged – and then, in denying that you’re also denying the other, so it all comes out right.

  3. Brian says

    Tarule’s book was assigned reading in some of my college’s courses. I had a friend who thought it was hilarious, just from the title, and he would occasionally make references to “Women’s Ways of Ordering Pizza”, and the like. A continuation of the surrealistic joke — the cutting-edge feminists were taking this book seriously, while the snap-judgement frat-boy types were serving up the sarcastic mockery it so richly deserved.

  4. great1american1satan says

    I remember FtB’s resident trans*ladies were decrying the concept of gender as a continuum for a rather complex reason that made sense to me at the time, but I no longer recall what that was. Nonetheless, at the moment, it feels like there’s something worth keeping in that. Namely the idea there’s enough overlap between male and female in terms of almost any metric that making assertions about what is best for one gender or another seems like the veriest of bollocks.

    Let’s say we wanted to shove all the young ladies into gentlefuzzyempathy class. What about intersex or trans kids? Where do they go and who decides? And even without invoking those outliers, huge amounts of cisgendered straight people are non-gender conforming in myriad ways.

  5. says

    It’s funny how us saying, “We’ve looked at your argument, inside and out, and compared it to the best evidence we have right now. It doesn’t stand, so now we’re done with it. Take it away”, gets turned around and presented as, “We don’t do argument.”

    And by funny, I mean slimy.

  6. says

    I can’t count the number of times I had to read or watch Carol Gilligan in college. Speech class, sociology classes, Women’s Studies classes (I was in school from about ’03-’08)…all presented without any indication that her research was in question or her conclusions controversial. I chastised myself for being uncomfortable with what I was learning, because I didn’t want to put my personal feelings over established science, and I felt like I had to accept what the “experts” clearly told me were established facts. It wasn’t until just a couple years ago that I found Gilligan (and those who followed) weren’t as universally accepted as i had been taught.

  7. Claire Ramsey says

    That ridiculousness is rampant amongst the Youth of America. Even though they probably don’t know its origins. I can’t tell you the number of times that students, 99% of whom were women, complained about me when I was teaching. Their big “insult” was that I was too much like a man professor. I wasn’t a nice lady. I wasn’t empathic or gentle or interested in caring reationships with them (although I listened to them, probably too much) and I persistently demanded evidence and I (gasp) corrected them when they were wrong. I was just about always polite and respectful, but obviously not what they thought a woman professor should be. It was heart rending how many of them felt that nothing was either wrong or right, but that anything was up for discussion about beliefs. I recall talking to a woman at length about what she “believed” about audiology. . . a field that is based on measurement, with just about no room for someone’s beliefs. I sure wish I’d had more men students, so I could have seen how they behaved when I “acted like a man.”

  8. says

    @ Claire Ramsey #8

    When I was in college, I had one professor (a women’s history class, I think) who was absolutely insistent that women (and women’s studies) be held to the same standards of science, evidence, review, etc. and by denying women training in logic, critical thinking, and the hard sciences we were intellectually crippling half the population. She was very passionate on the subject, talked a lot about it in class in out. It’s so embarrassing, but I remember being absolutely indignant that she would say things like that. Didn’t she know that women had a different way of knowing? How could she be so sexist to think that only male intelligence (read: logic, empiricism) was valuable, and the female intelligence was second-rate? How dare she put so much stock in science, didn’t she know science was an oppressive male system that excluded women?

    Ugh. So glad that I grew up. Also, that I was an insecure kid and kept my mouth shut, so I didn’t share my stupidity with an audience.

    (I mean, sure, there’s a grain of truth in the notion that science and academics did exclude women, and therefore came to some very faulty conclusions, but that doesn’t mean you throw out science, obviously, you just improve it. Carol Gilligan–and all those professors I had who uncritically promoted her–warped my fragile teenage mind.)

  9. leftwingfox says

    Difference feminism was the first exposure I had to activist feminism growing up in the 80’s and 90’s, partially through my mother (although heavily tempered through a much more practical second-wave feminism), but largely through my flighty drama teacher in high school. I’ll admit, it soured me on the idea of feminism as a movement, even though I still agreed with the fundamental concept.

    It wasn’t until the internet and exposure to third-wave feminists like Amanda Marcotte, and the collected arguments of anti-feminists that I really came to embrace the movement.

  10. carlie says

    Thank you for this! I’ve never formally studied feminism as a movement, so I’ve just picked up bits and pieces along the way. This post explains a lot.

  11. atheist says

    “Difference Feminism”: Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus.

    Feminism: We are all from the Earth.

  12. stevebowen says

    I heard exactly this on BBC Radio 4 this morning in an item bewailing lack of ambition in inner city schoolgirls. It was all about the self esteem, not about the poor education and preconcieved career paths they’re given.

  13. MEM says

    @EEB #9

    I had a college experience that was just the opposite. I was a psychology major, and as an elective I took Psychology of Women, which used Gilligan’s book among others. I don’t remember a lot about the class except that I didn’t get it – it seemed very subjective and un-analytical. I guess I don’t know how to think like a woman; I ended up with a C and was very unhappy about it.

  14. Martha says

    It seems to me that Gilligan and others went too far in making a valuable point, thus unfortunately rendering it absurd. I think they were trying to say that many traits traditionally viewed as feminine are underrated strengths: collaboration, emotional intelligence, team building. I remember a feminist in the late 80s or early 90s saying that these traits were much maligned as feminine until Western business learned that they became perceived as Japanese. This was of course at a time of great concern that the Japanese who were kicking US industry’s ass.

    I agree that those traits are underrated in our society, especially within the atheist community. Frankly, the atheist community now is a lot like the chemistry world in which I came of age as a scientist in the late 80’s and early 90’s. I used to think that the problem was that scientist were judged on too many traits that were unrelated to doing science well, but I now think that was too generous an interpretation. In fact, the value system actually discouraged collaboration in a way slowed the pace of discovery just to ensure that each scientist got full credit for his (usually) discoveries. That culture is now slowly changing. Nonetheless, I’d say that both the science and atheist communities value a simplistic skepticism more than they value getting at harder truths. Anybody with reasonable training can find minor flaws in an argument or idea. That’s easy. The hard part is finding the core of a really good idea in a mediocre one and developing it in a constructive way. We need to value that more, in science and in society.

  15. says

    I remember FtB’s resident trans*ladies were decrying the concept of gender as a continuum for a rather complex reason that made sense to me at the time, but I no longer recall what that was. Nonetheless, at the moment, it feels like there’s something worth keeping in that.

    one such criticism is that making a continuum still gets us the idea that some things are masculine, and some things are feminine, and that you can be “more” feminine or “less” feminine based on how close to the feminine end of a spectrum you get. Which is still ascribing binaries and genderedness to things that shouldn’t be considered gendered.

    I chastised myself for being uncomfortable with what I was learning, because I didn’t want to put my personal feelings over established science, and I felt like I had to accept what the “experts” clearly told me were established facts.

    if your sociology classes told you to blindly accept what you’re reading in class because “experts”, you should demand a refund O.o
    critically analyzing the idea of expertise and biases behind what superficially looks “objective” or unbiased is one of the tools sociology should be providing students.

    I think they were trying to say that many traits traditionally viewed as feminine are underrated strengths: collaboration, emotional intelligence, team building.

    yeah. femmephobia extends beyond the judgment of pink, frilly things as “lesser”, it also does it to other concepts arbitrarily assigned female/feminine. some of these value judgments still persist (competition over cooperation for example; the reason it was so surprising when CERN didn’t just award a contract to the team that “won” the competition was that cooperative efforts are undervalued pretty much everywhere in favor of pure competition).
    The solution in the long term is to stop gendering everything and then assigning lesser value to the feminine stuff, rather than inverting the value-scale

  16. johnthedrunkard says

    Fashionable Nonsense, the Sokal book not the subtitle for Butterflies and Wheels, also spoke of the intrusion of preposterous woo into academic feminism.

    How much slime-pittery and trolling has been encouraged by the memory of the truly lunatic crap spread around in those days?

    Of course REAL feminists, addressing real issues in the real world, don’t need to waste their time on the old ‘Chalice and the Blade,’ ‘Women’s ways of Reinforcing Status Quo’ crap. Men seem to need a lot of help getting past it though.

  17. says

    Thanks for the post Ophelia. I definitely had exposure some of these difference memes in my upbringing. Even before I realized I was a feminist, this stuff didn’t sit quite right with me, but just sort of let sleeping dogs lie. Now, with hopefully lessening ignorance, it just seems ridiculous to make such a sweeping generalization about one sex (or the other). I’m hard pressed to think of a more egregious case of mistaking a rather questionable correlation for causation.

  18. Dave Ricks says

    I value the stories EEB and changerofbits told here, because they document what was really happening back in the day. So where Jadehawk wrote EEB should ask for a refund, I just want to say, we didn’t spring out of Zeus’s head fully formed wearing a full suit of armor with a helmet and holding a spear.

  19. says

    The solution in the long term is to stop gendering everything and then assigning lesser value to the feminine stuff, rather than inverting the value-scale


  20. says

    How much slime-pittery and trolling has been encouraged by the memory of the truly lunatic crap spread around in those days?

    It provided great big bundles of straw.


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