Undoing Gender: New Experiments in Social Deconstruction

‘The emotional, sexual, and psychological stereotyping of females begins when the doctor says, “It’s a girl”,’ the American politician Shirley Chisholm once said. Exposed in this insight is the miraculous power of language; all that is required for something so fateful to be determined is not biological nature, not even social imposition, but, simply, speech. So seemingly simple is this mechanism, in fact, that some are doing their best to change it. It was revealed this week that a pre-school in Sweden has decided that the use of gender-specific pronouns such as ‘him’ (‘han’) and ‘her’ (‘hon’) is to be prohibited, in favour of gender-neutral terms, in an attempt to reduce the effects of linguistically determined gender-stereotyping.

The school, aptly name Egalia, is tackling an issue which has been firmly on the feminist agenda since Dale Spender’s influential book Man Made Language appeared in 1980. There Spender argued that, far from passively capturing the way that the world appears to us, language actively constructs the way that the world is. More specifically, the state of language, according to Spender, structures the world in a way that promotes males and inhibits females, whether by exclusion, alienation, control, or construction. The claim was supported by the famous studies in linguistics carried out by the American anthropologists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf, whose extensive research on Native American languages led to the hypothesis that the structure of language restricts and determines our cognitive categories. It is hard to report an event in English without using the tense-marked words that the grammar requires, and it is hard to encode a fact in Hopi without marking its testimonial status, that is, whether it is first-hand knowledge, second-hand, third-hand, and so on, as required by the structure of the language. Importantly, it makes it hard to think outside of these limits, and, consequently, hard to behave outside of them. The way that we mark gender according to our grammatical structure is no different, an assumption which the new Egalia policy operates on. Continue reading “Undoing Gender: New Experiments in Social Deconstruction”

The Global Reach of Human Rights, Amartya Sen

Society for Applied Philosophy 2011 Annual Lecture

The Global Reach of Human Rights

Professor Amartya Sen

Tuesday 14 June 2011
5pm at the Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford
(Doors open from 4.30pm)

The lecture will be followed by a reception for Society for Applied Philosophy members. Further Information.

The Society for Applied Philosophy sponsors an Annual Lecture to be delivered by a philosopher who has made an important contribution to the field of applied philosophy broadly construed.

Listen to past lectures:

2010: Militant Modern Atheism, Professor Philip Kitcher

2009: Measuring Development, Poverty and Gender Equity, Professor Thomas Pogge

2008: Naturalism, Normativity, and Applied Ethics, Baroness Onora O’Neill (Inagural SAP Annual Lecture)

A Lesson in Abstinence

Allegory of Chastity, by Hans Memling (1475, oil on wood)

Early Wednesday afternoon, when Nadine Dorries, Conservative MP for Mid Bedfordshire, moved to introduce a Bill to ‘require schools to provide certain additional sex education to girls aged between 13 and 16; to provide that such education must include information and advice on the benefits of abstinence from sexual activity; and for connected purposes’, she set alight to the feminist blogosphere (See here, here, here, and here, for examples).

Central to the feminist criticism is the clear gender asymmetry contained in the proposal, as immediately pointed out by her detractor Chris Bryant, Labour MP for Rhondda (a transcription of the debate is to be found here). ‘For a start, the Bill is just about girls,’ complained Bryant, ‘I am not an expert, but it seems axiomatic to me that if we want to tackle teenage pregnancy, we have to talk to the boys and the girls.’ Continue reading “A Lesson in Abstinence”

Foe of Feminists Revived

Image: Bilz 1894

Last year biological determinism in the study of sex and gender experienced a resurgence, with the professor of Development Psychopathology at the University of Cambridge, Simon Baron-Cohen, as its new figurehead.

In the spring months of 2010, the issue of female representation in public and intellectual spheres was passed along from public intellectual to public intellectual in a series of finger-pointing articles featured on the Guardian website.

Critic and novelist Bidisha initiatiated the debate with a scathing attack on the sorry state of the literary festivals and competitions that she had been involved with, complaining that she was ‘tired of being the token woman’. In the process Bidisha implicated Hay’s How The Light Gets In philosophy festival for its disproportionate number of male speakers. She revealed that she was happy to have had to drop out of the event on account of other engagements, highlighting that the only approvable gender balance in the whole festival was unfortunately within the entertainment tents.

Julian Baggini, the increasingly public face of philosophy as well as adviser to the How The Light Gets In festival, responded with an appeal to the practical issues involved in booking female guests, who he maintains are culpable to some extent Continue reading “Foe of Feminists Revived”

Feminist philosophy of art: correcting the imbalance

Orlan between her fifth and sixth successful operations, feb. 1991.Germaine Greer has recently commented on what she perceives to be the failure of an exhibition of female artists named elles@centrepompidou to achieve its intention “to restore women to their rightful place in art history.” The show, which is currently on display in the Centre Pompidou, showcases sculpture, photography, video works, architecture and design from 200 female artists (including works by Orlan, pictured left). The collection is the result of five years of deliberately spending 40% of the acquisitions budget of the Musée National d’Art Moderne on artworks by female artists. Greer criticises the show’s limited sampling of works for not doing justice to each the female artists. Not only that, the collection gives the false impression that women are well represented in the art world. Greer also highlights the possibility of the audience perceiving (again falsely) a stagnation in women’s art with body art works on show from multiple generations of female artists.

The philosopher A.W. Eaton describes the feminist philosophy of art as a category in which all participants share the goal of “ending women’s subordination in the arts and discourses about the arts.” Questions investigated by philosophers in this area include: How does sex or gender influence art production and art reception? Should sex or gender influence art production or reception? Do the current theories of art only offer a male perspective on art? And if so, what should be done to correct the imbalance? Clearly given Greer’s comments on the premature celebration of the place of women in art history, which is still very much male dominated, the project of feminist philosophy of art is still an important area of investigation.

Germaine Greer’s comments can be found here.

The elles@centrepompidou exhibition website is here.

Related articles:
Feminist Philosophy of Art
A.W. Eaton , University of Illinois at Chicago
(Vol. 3, July 2008)
Philosophy Compass

Am I Woman? But I Roar!

431px-Symbol_venus In The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir offers her own response to the question ‘what is a woman?’ Most generally, the French philosopher suggests that women are neither constituted nor recognized by their own autonomy but, rather, by their ‘relation to-’. De Beauvoir calls attention to the historical subjugation that has resulted from this referential identity, specifically when women have been defined in terms of their ‘relation to-men.’

Gold medalist Caster Semenya, a runner from South Africa, has recently seen the ugliness of this subjugation. Doctors across the globe are trying to determine Semenya’s ‘relation to-women,’ trying to determine if Semenya has enough ‘female characteristics’ to continue competing as a ‘woman athlete.’ Unfortunately, many of her fellow runners have already decided the issue for themselves. Elisa Cusma, for example, an Italian woman (I mean … runner), responded simply: “These kind of people should not run with us” [sic]. Continue reading “Am I Woman? But I Roar!”

Sex Verification Test

Gender_neutralIn the weeks to follow, the International Association of Athletic Federations, IAAF, will decide whether South African runner Caster Semenya will be stripped of the gold medal, after winning the women 800-meter race last Wednesday in Berlin at the World Championships in Athletics. Semenya is not guilty of the usual: doping. What is at issue, instead, is whether Semenya was eligible to race as a woman. Continue reading “Sex Verification Test”