Query from a reader

MV writes:

Next Fall I’ll be teaching an interdisciplinary humanities honors seminar on 20th Century Intellectual History, which is effectively a broadly humanities-focused course that could be called “Important Works published between 1900-1999 the Professor Wanted to Read this Semester.” The presumption is that we read a book a week, and ideally something that looks impressive sitting on the bookshelf in a Great Works sort of way.

I’ll be teaching 4 or so units on different subject matters, and I’m thinking about doing a unit on feminism. There is obviously an embarrassment of riches of great 20th century feminist texts, whether philosophical, literary, journalistic, or historical. What I’m looking for, though, is some intelligent dissent. I’m hoping you can help me with that because not much is coming to mind. Ideally, the writing would be some Impressive Book, but it need not be. If the best stuff is a series of disconnected articles or other media, that’s fine. The important thing for my purposes is to get the best critical work on the table, regardless of whether it is popular, academic, philosophical, literary, or other.

Thoughts about what I should take a look at?

14 thoughts on “Query from a reader

  1. I don’t really understand. In one way or another, feminist work is typically in dissent. Do you mean you’d like to set up some sort of dialectic? Between what and what?

  2. Sorry— I wasn’t as clear as I should have been.

    I’m trying to come up with, ideally, non-feminist writings that attempt to genuinely grapple with some or another strand of feminist work as such, without the anti- or non-feminist critical work being obviously driven by obvious stupidity or ignorance about actual feminist writing.

    In the event that it is helpful to picture what I’m talking about, I’m imagining the unit’s dialectic will be, roughly, Week 1- Important Feminist Text(s), Week 2- Non- or Quasi-Feminist Objections to Feminism (of some stripe), Week 3- Feminist philosophers writing on topics TBD.

    I’m looking for help with texts in Week 2. How I fill in weeks 1 & 3 is up in the air, partly a function of what (if anything) I find for week 2, as well as various other issues about balancing disciplinary content, chronological clusterings of work, and the like.

    Thanks in advance for any suggestions.

  3. If I understand you correctly, I have a few pairings I might suggest:

    You could start with reading a Kohlberg essay and then have them read Gilligan’s critique in In A Different Voice. It’s still wonderful.

    If you want something fun/literary, you could read A Handmaid’s Tale and contrast it with some religious fundamentalist literature (if not Plato’s Republic.)

    You might have them read Sartre’s Existentialism and Humanism and then de Beauvoir’s Ethics of Authenticity or parts of The Second Sex.

    I teach Female Chauvinist Pigs in my Intro Ethics class (Ariel Levy), the students love it, and it might be paired with a variety of things like Backlash or even the aforementioned Second Sex.

    Gender, Race, and Class by Angela David might be really nice, and would be a nice contrast to the white feminism of the 1970’s that it was rebelling against. And perhaps find an old edition of Our Bodies Ourselves and compare it to the new editions to see how feminism has changed.

    Just some things off the top of my head. I have struggled with some of the same issues in the past.

    Good luck.

  4. In “The Age of Extremes” and elsewhere, Eric Hobsbawm suggests that feminism is a form of identity politics, and that identity politics has contributed to a splitting of labor’s coalition against capital. Walter Benn Michaels argues in detail along similar lines. An article in Radical Philosophy a couple of years ago (sorry, no citation to hand) discusses French thinkers who view women as a constructed class, one form of the disadvantaged other, and their problems with Firestone’s Dialectic of Sex as a case for sex as intrinsic otherness.
    Has feminism let itself be narrowed to a cultural politics of the middle class? Can political change occur when diversity coopts potential leaders away from the exploited into the ruling class? The Left was notoriously unreceptive to women’s issues; has feminism subordinated political economics ?
    This line of thought may represent less an Objection to Feminism (though it has been used so) than questions of categories and priorities within shared values. In practice, of course, it can become a heated dispute as to what really matters, and to whom.

  5. I’m not certain that I fully understand what you’re looking for but it seems to work out to a 20th century book that addresses feminist topics (possibly but not necessarily in reaction to feminism) but is not itself a feminist work. If that is a good understanding, then the second (also third and fourth) of the volumes of Anais Nin’s juvenile diaries springs to mind. There were few people more focused on the act of being a woman than she and this extends outwards in the physical component of the feminine realm: the home and the body. She did not, if I remember correctly, consider herself to be a feminist, at least not in the early diaries. She took the dilemmas produced between womanly domesticity and her art and reacted as an artist not as a feminist. This at least has been my understanding of it. I believe that it in the third volume (I haven’t them to hand and it has been some years) that she comes under disapprobation from the other wives for having failed to make jam and responds by having her cook make it. It is very well told.

    That is a rather rambly suggestion but hope that it might help. The only other thing that springs to mind is Fitzgerald’s ‘This Side of Paradise’. Fitzgerald is not concerned with feminism but with his own soul but the way the female characters are serially and variously portrayed could lead on to some very interesting discussion about women’s roles and opportunities.

    This has, of course, remained in the realm of white/relatively white middle class land. If I can think of something that steps out of those bounds I’ll put it up.

  6. If, as I assume, your first week will be on Anglo-American feminism, maybe Week 2 could look at its alternative incarnation in the continental tradition. So maybe a French feminism reader, like the one edited by Kelly Oliver, or Toril Moi’s ‘Sexual/Textual Politics’, the first major English-language treatment of this course. Or an important work by one of the ‘French feminists’, such as Luce Irigaray’s This Sex Which Is Not One.

    Or postcolonial feminism, womanism, etc?

  7. I’m a little confused by what you want too, but my suggestion would be “The Second Sex” by Simone de Beauvoir. You couldn’t read it in a week, but it is interesting, important, looks good on a shelf, and has some major problems. Is that the sort of thing you are looking for? Something great but still flawed?

  8. I’m not sure there’s much in the way of intelligent dissent, if that’s taken to mean outright dissent, but it occurs to me that there might be an alternative way of doing something like this, namely, by having the second week to be alternative approaches to the empowerment of women that (1) aren’t what would usually be called feminist because they operate (to at least some extent) within traditional and conservative contexts and (2) from the perspective of which some common lines of feminist thought would have to be considered wrong (and vice versa). In a sense, one can look at roads that could have been taken but were not. I’m thinking of something like Edith Stein’s _Essays on Woman_; she was writing to improve the condition of women, but she takes an approach that would generally be classified as essentialist and conservative (woman as having a special, and even sacred, destiny to be wives and mothers, although Stein, of course, recognizes that women can be called to higher things). Going farther back, one thinks of the debate between Catharine Beecher and the Grimke sisters; Beecher worked to further women’s position in the world, but she did so by taking the domestic lives of women at her time as the starting point. There are a number of different ways to handle these things: Beecher, for example, shows in vivid detail just how much prejudice and discrimination against women harmed even their ability to do stereotypically ‘feminine’ things, which is an interesting line of argument in its own right (that the demands made on women were not only oppressive but actually incoherent, with women being expected to be effective wives and mothers and being refused the means to be so) and it allows room for looking into why feminists today tend to be wary of these kinds of approaches to improving the condition of women. These types of approaches are feminist in a very broad sense — there’s no question that both Beecher and Stein, for instance, were working to improve the lot of women, and both in fact did a great deal toward that end — and there is also no question that they are genuinely intelligent approaches to the problem. But they are also approaches that would be widely considered problematic today, and Beecher (and if I recall correctly, Stein) criticized approaches that would be more in line with what we think of as liberal feminism.

    The only alternative to this that gets fairly close to your outline that I can think of is Anna’s idea above.

  9. Brandon’s idea has merit. In particular, I second his recommendation of including Edith Stein – a superb thinker and an authentic feminist.

  10. Hi MV
    I like both Katherine’s and Brandon’s suggestions.
    Here’s something I’ve tried in an interdisciplinary Feminist Thought course that worked well. Since you’re doing intellectual history, I assume you’re covering art, lit., history as well as philosophy. I taught Linda Nochlin’s essay from the 70’s, “Why have there been no great women artists” (reprinted in Women, Art and Power), which gives a great assessment of the historical situation, but neglects some pretty great women artists. In a later book, Representing Women (you could think of it as Nochlin Re-presenting Women), Nochlin acknowledges the greatness and innovativeness of women artists such as Mary Cassatt and Kathe Kollwitz. The first essay is not anti-feminist but assumes women have been denied agency; the later work looks at how women did in fact find ways to claim their own agency as artists.

    Another approach might be in history and philosophy of science, say Kuhn’s essay “Essential Tensions” in Wk. 2 followed by Helen Longino’s “Essential Tensions – Phase 2” in Wk. 3. Kuhn is not raising anti-feminist objections/challenges, but the contrast between Kuhn and Longino could be very illuminating to consider what it is that feminism adds to our thinking about what scientists do.

  11. Yet another possibility — especially if one of your other units is some sort of political theory or philosophy — is to look at feminist debates over liberalism. You could start with either Catharine MacKinnon’s Toward a feminist theory of state or Alison Jaggar’s Feminist politics and human nature. Follow this up with Martha Nussbaum’s `The feminist critique of liberalism’, in her Sex and social justice. In week three, read Lisa Schwartzman’s response to Nussbaum in Challenging liberalism. Then finish off with Elizabeth Anderson’s response to Schwartzman, `Toward a non-ideal, relational methodology for political philosophy’, in the journal Hypatia, 24(4), Fall 2009, pp 131-45. There are other possibilities here, but I think this is an especially nice sequence of readings.

    But I also want to back up and question the course design a bit. A book a week? That’s about 16 books, depending on the length of your semester. Back-of-the-envelope, that comes to about $250 for texts and 4,000 pages of reading for a single class. That strikes me as beyond ambitious. Has this course been taught before at your school? If so, did they actually come close to covering a book per week without any students dying of exhaustion?

  12. I don’t want to cut off suggestions, so keep ’em coming if you have ’em. Thanks, though, for all the wonderful recommendations folks have posted.

    Re: Noumena’s question, yeah, this course has been taught pretty much every year at my institution for several decades, at a roughly book-a-week clip. All the courses in this honors program are designed with this reading load as the default from which particular courses deviate to greater and lesser degrees. Very little philosophy has been taught in this program, however; as far as I can tell, when it is taught the pace tends to be understandably slower.

    I’ve only taught it once before, and yes, the students did get tired (we kept that pace on about 12 of 15 weeks). Students don’t tend to complain much about it, though, as there is a degree of academic swagger involved in voluntarily doing this sort of thing. I know similar programs exist elsewhere (I did one myself when I was a student), and this stoic masochism seems to be part of such programs everywhere.

  13. Let me look for a moment at some background that JT’s excellent recommendation implicitly addresses. As you probably know, MV, one problem faced by both feminist philosophy and women in philosophy is that many people appear to think that women don’t really do what analytic philosophy thinks are the core areas: metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of language and maybe philosophy of mind. I think you could do everyone a favor by not reinforcing this. JT has mentioned one theme from history and philosophy of science, and the contrast between Longino and Kuhn sounds wonderful.

    Another contrast you might consider is the realism/anti-realism issue that’s been raised in discussions here about the NY Review of Book’s review of Boghossian by John Searle. Sandra Harding and Lorraine Code are both authors who have raised quite profound questions about realism. Harding’s “Whose Science” would be an interesting contrast to Boghossian. I do see from Amazon that Kathleen Lennon has a book coming from Routledge in June, and it might be very relevant – can’t really tell from the title.

  14. If by dissent you mean super-dissent, and you want something super-accessible to humanities students, how about “Who Stole Feminism?” by Christina Hoff Sommers? Some will say this is not “intelligent dissent”…but hey, it would stir up discussion.

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