I haven’t had much time to write this week, but I did discover something cool that I would like to share—something unexpected that touches on both feminism and on Judaism (well, really religion as a whole.) This New York Times article lead me to this website, AskPhilosophers.org. The site features questions from the public about philosophical issues and responses from modern-day philosophers, usually professors. Some of the questions resemble the kind of questions people would ask an advice columnist, others are the kind you’d think of when you think of philosophy, such as how to quantify suffering, and others are just kind of funny (think about why you can’t stop eating potato chips.)
There are a lot of categories on the site that I feel would fit in here: children, feminism, gender, identity, religion—and those are just the obvious ones. But I thought I would share one entry that I read in the “feminism” category that I found to be particularly interesting. Someone asked the question, “Is feminism falsifiable?” and received the following answer by Rachana Kamtekar:
‘Feminism’ can mean at least a couple of different things.
(1) As the view that women and men should have equal rights, or are owed equal respect, it’s as falsifiable or unfalsifiable as any other moral/political position, e.g. that people should have equal rights or be given equal respect, irrespective of their race. Your question about feminism as a moral or political view raises more fundamental questions: are moral statements statements of fact? or are they expressions of approval or disapproval? or just claims as to how people should behave? If they are claims about how people should behave, are they grounded in the view that so behaving would make everyone better off, or that such behaviour alone gives due recognition to the relevant parties moral status, or that good, well-adjusted people would behave in such a way?
(2) As the view that women and men have equal capacities, feminism should be falsifiable: either women and men do, or don’t have equal capacities, and we should be able to examine them to determine the answer. But there are real difficulties with doing this. First, there are lots of different capacities (depending on how you divide things up: e.g. there’s the capacity to do mathematics, but also the capacity to do trigonometry and to calculate compound interest–two capacities, or one?) It doesn’t seem that all of these capacities are equally important, or equally important in every context (compare the capacity to jump very high, the capacity to resolve social conflict, and the capacity to solve chemical structures). So how are we to measure whether women’s and men’s capacities are equal? If we could list capacities in some value-neutral way, and if we compared women and men on each of these, would our result be meaningful? Second, what we can measure is performance, and there may be lots of reasons that performance doesn’t accurately reflect capacities: the tests may be biased, or people with certain backgrounds may underperform because e.g. they think they’re bad at tests, or aren’t used to taking tests.
In addition to that comprehensive answer, she then goes on to recommend some additional reading.
What I liked about her answer was that in answering the reader’s question, she raised a question that I have often pondered myself about feminism. What is feminism exactly—an idea about the way people should be treated, or an idea about the inherent nature of people? And what happens if it is both, and those come into conflict? For example, I’ve read many articles talking about the inherent differences between men and women in science, but I struggle with the idea. Firstly, because I think societal factors also affect how many women go into science and how likely they are to push themselves in a science class versus an English class, and test scores cannot quantify that. But from a less rational point of view, I also have this inherent belief that women can do everything men can do, even when faced with evidence that may say contrary, because I believe that it should be that way—and that is where feminism becomes a moral and political idea (which is not to say that I don’t think it is rational to believe that men and women are equal, but I digress.) I have this gut feeling that men and women are equal, not because of facts or figures, but because somewhere inside of me it just feels right—and a feeling like that, what drives a lot of my feminism, is sometimes hard to rationalize or quantify.
Feminism is clearly hard to define, and luckily, Rachana Kamtekar does not try to stick a hard and fast definition to it. But I did walk away from reading her entry with somewhat of a clearer way of trying to define feminism, and a new way of thinking about my own, sometimes even contradictory, way of being a feminist. The site has a lot of other interesting things to read and think about, so I’d definitely recommend checking it out.