On Nov. 19, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) will celebrate World Philosophy Day by inviting communities to unmask social dogmas and prejudices, and discover the universality of the human condition. An invitation to read and know philosophy can be the first step in understanding how political and social structures can help to achieve equality and how different voices can be heard and weighed by equal standards.
One of these urgent global philosophical topics for reflection on World Philosophy Day, as philosopher and professor Lisa Shapiro from Simon Fraser University (SFU) would argue, is how gender impositions still affect the way people relate socially.
Simone De Beauvoir famously wrote that “one is not born but one becomes a woman.” With this premise, the French philosopher argued that one may be born female or male, but even if people accept the biological sex that is assigned, those biological sex categories do not determine gender. To contemporary feminist philosophy, gender is a liquid, flexible, unstable, and socially understood category of separation, an identitary call that needs constant rethinking because gender also concerns co-creation.
“De Beauvoir’s point is that we are born whatever we are biologically, but no matter what we are born as, we have some control over what we become. We can work to change the social categories that are open to us, and we can create new possibilities through personal choices,”
Arguing for equality: feminist philosophy as a place to hear multiple voices
Because the achievement of equality is the ultimate end, Shapiro suggests that feminist philosophy extends to understand, validate, and address the experiences of all those who are facing or who have faced conditions of inequality. She argues that the struggle for equality surpasses intersectional identities such as race, class, and gender.
“The issue is not simply equality between men and women but rather the more general question of how to understand equality of individuals while acknowledging and respecting differences. Feminist Philosophy is not one thing. It is a movement that starts with an aim to understand, validate, and address the experiences of women, which is important as a means to achieve and sustain conditions of equality,” she says.
“I was first interested in standpoint epistemology, a field of research that argues that to further our interest in reaching the truth we require a range of perspectives, and that acknowledging that there are a range of perspectives requires respecting different standpoints. It invites us to acknowledge and value difference,” she says. “It is a feminist way of thinking because it can remind us of the ways in which women are disempowered by the discounting of their perspectives.”
To Shapiro, it is also important that, understanding the experiences of women, we remain vigilant in recognizing how these dimensions of experience intersect. As different fields focus on different dimensions of the human experience, they contribute to gaining better understanding of the full range of what it means to be human.
From a local perspective, it is also essential to understand the particularities of the conditions of existence of women in local communities, mainly because there is not one single category that could encompass all women in a single category. Regional discussions may start from a global perspective, but ought to pay attention to the real needs of particular groups.
“Gender is a social property, one that is particular to a social environment – gender norms in Finland are different from those in New Zealand, which are different from those in Canada. If it is challenging to change gender norms that is because it is challenging to change social structures,” says Shapiro.
Understanding multiple bodies and realities from an interconnected perspective is a phenomenon called intersectionality, a term coined by feminist theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw.
“Intersectionality was addressed by Crenshaw to describe how race, class, gender, and other individual characteristics overlap. The idea behind intersectionality is a pretty straightforward one: we each have multiple dimensions of who we are. I am not simply a woman, but also a dual citizen, Caucasian, Jewish, a philosopher, financially self-supporting, and so on. My experiences are shaped by all these dimensions, and not simply by me being a woman,” says Shapiro.
Women, feminists, and philosophers: who are they?
Shapiro thinks it is important to acknowledge that the history of feminist philosophy does not start with women’s suffrage movements and abolitionist movements in the 19th century, but much earlier.
“Feminist philosophy in the European tradition starts at least in the 1400s – with writings by women like Christine de Pisan, Catherine of Siena, and others, continues through the Renaissance, with authors like Arcangela Tarabotti, Moderata Fonte, and Lucrezia Marinella, and gains lots of momentum in the 17th and 18th centuries, with authors such as Marie Le Jars de Gournay, Gabrielle Suchon, Mary Astell, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, and of course Mary Wollstonecraft,” she says.
“It wasn’t until I was in graduate school that I read Simone De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. It made a tremendous impact on me then, and every time I return to it, I am amazed at how contemporary it still seems. If someone wanted to start reading about feminist philosophy from a more contemporary lens, I think there is probably no better place to start. I would also recommend Catherine MacKinnon Only Words, Patricia Hill Collins Black Feminist Philosophy, and Kate Manne Down Girl, all of which aim to challenge us,”
Held annually on the third Thursday of November, World Philosophy Day is an invitation to acknowledge the importance of philosophy in different regional contexts in order to obtain regional contributions to global debates on contemporary challenges that support social transformations.
For more information, please visit: www.un.org/en/events/philosophyday