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Thinking Woman: A philosophical approach to the quandary of gender, by Jennifer Hockenbery Dragseth

20 July 2018

Marika Rose reflects on women philosophers’ ideas of womanhood

THINKING WOMAN takes as its focus the question what it means to be a woman. Based on an undergraduate course about women philosophers which Jennifer Hockenbery Dragseth has been teaching for the past 16 years, the book offers an accessible and engaging introduction to some of the key ideas and figures in the history of philosophy by and about women.

Dragseth divides her women thinkers into four groups according to their understanding of what it means to be a woman. Gender-essentialist thinkers (such as Hildegard of Bingen and Edith Stein) claim that there is an essential essence of womanhood, and that acknowledging this distinctive nature is the best way to ground feminist demands for valuing women’s contribution to humankind. Gender-neutral thinkers such as Christine de Pizan, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Sojourner Truth, in contrast, think that there is no such thing as a unique essence of womanhood, and that it is our shared humanity rather than our gender which fundamentally defines our abilities and should determine our treatment by society.

Gender existentialists such as Simone de Beauvoir, Betty Friedan, and Angela Davis hold that gender is a social construction (that we are all born into a world that imposes gendered roles and expectations upon us), so that, if we want to enable women’s flourishing, we must consider how social and cultural norms form women’s sense of self and behaviour in the world.

Philosophers of gender fluidity, such as Judith Butler and Donna Haraway, focus on the biological and cultural instability and mutability of womanhood, arguing for greater acceptance of the changeability of gender and the existence of people who do not fit the gender binary.

The author’s clear delineation of key positions is helpful, although her system of categorisation can make for some odd bedfellows. Friedan and Davis may share some ideas about gender and social construction, for example, but disagree fundamentally on the ways in which the social construction of gender intersects with the constructions of race and class. And her refusal to pick sides is ultimately frustrating.

It is possible to value the contributions made by Hildegard and Stein, say, while finding gender essentialism not only philosophically untenable but also politically harmful in a context in which both the harrying of trans people and the refusal to recognise the priesthood of women rely on appeals to an essence that simply does not exist.

Dr Marika Rose is a Postdoctoral Fellow in Philosophical Theology at the University of Winchester.

Thinking Woman: A philosophical approach to the quandary of gender
Jennifer Hockenbery Dragseth
Lutterworth Press £17.50

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