Hello everyone! During this week’s class, we went over Cornelia Tsakiridou’s article and also discussed Mary Wollstonecraft’s “Of the Pernicious Effects which Arise from the Unnatural Distinctions Established in Society.”
To begin, we went back to some of our prior readings and a handout on Lilith (click here for PDF) was shared with the class. We had briefly mentioned during the Genesis discussion that the first woman was not Eve. The first woman was Lilith and, unlike Eve, she was created as an equal to Adam. When Adam and Lilith were going to have sex together, Adam demands Lilith to lie beneath her but she refuses. She calls the name of the Lord and flies away. Three angels go to retrieve her, saying nothing will happen to her if she returns. If she refuses, 100 of her children will die daily. She does refuse, which has yet other consequences. This story isn’t one most people know, and Lilith isn’t given much credit for being the first woman. It all just goes to show what kind of role women have had, and how history often omits and rewrites the roles of woman. As we know, much of this history was indeed written by man which has had various effects on how society and philosophy has formed.
To relate back to the Greek philosophers we discussed, women have been given this lowly position as inferior to man instead of his equal. Plato himself said that “woman is an infertile man” and his pupil Aristotle believed “a female is a deformed male.” Aristotle, unlike Plato, was very in tune with the world around him in its physical form instead of its abstraction. He studied everything, including biology, botany, oceanography, etc. Yet, his conclusion on the female sex, in animals and humans, was that did not reach the full evolution that the male sex does. How was woman ever going to have a positive place in philosophy with these kinds of discourses?
We were also handed out these handouts. We were not able to go over the Archive assignment so please return this for next class. The Virginia Woolf reading questions, for A Room of One’s Own, has been provided to guide you through your reading for next class but it is not an assignment to turn in.
Week 3: This week, we began the discussion on Tsakiridou’s “Philosophy Abandons Women” by coming up with ideas of how gender in language influences our society and understanding. In other languages, other than English, gender is a lot more obvious and prevalent. In the Romance languages, there are feminine and masculine words and any fluency of the language will depend on the understanding of this gender difference. In Spanish, things like la luna (the moon) and el sol (the sun) have a defined gender which is signified by the el and la before the noun. These are necessary and mark the gender very visibly in text and audibly in speech. In the case of Tsakiridou, she discusses this gender presence in the Greek language. In class, to relate these concepts back to English, we discussed how this has been particularly worked out in swear words. Words like bitch, cunt, motherfucker, and slut are all common swear words that are marked as feminine or as negatively relating to the feminine. Being ballsy or having no balls relates to how having them or not refers to your courage. The history behind the use of these words demonstrate that their definitions and use is not at all innocent. They relate to how society considers gender. A lot of this is very historical, and can be further explored by looking into the etymology of the words.
Etymology refers to the roots and history of words. Consider the word hysteria. What it originally referred to was the womb. It was once believed that wombs wandered, and as they moved up the body of a woman it would begin to cut off her oxygen and then make her ‘hysterical.’ The following video sheds some more light on the history of hysteria.
Returning to word origins, Tsakiridou uses etymology for many of her arguments, and it also quite useful to understand the relation to gender in current use of swear words.
Here is a video on the origins of some swear words. This guy is a little obnoxious, but he provides a pretty animated representation on the history of common swear words.
Overall, Tsakiridou discusses how women have been silenced in philosophy and that their omission is a paradox. Socrates and Plato searched for abstract ideals, both supported a discourse which attempted to leave behind woman and man, masculine and feminine, for a universal neuter. However, this did not happen. Man tried to make things neuter, but what happened was that the masculine took its position. This happens because man is the one who has been able to take part in philosophy. Women has always been in philosophy, however she has not been given an active role. Philosophy talks about women, but women have not talked about themselves. Just as language has privileged man, so has philosophy. Without agency, women have been oppressed. What Tsakiridou suggests as solutions is up for debate, but she suggest that woman and feminists must not subvert the current state of philosophy but instead try to rework the current state of things and become accountable.
After Tsakiridou, we began our discussion on Mary Wollstonecraft. She is considered one of the first feminists, although she never considered herself so. She was born in 1758 in London and came from a very difficult and modest background. She decided to become an author in a time when not many vocations existed for women. With lack of opportunities for work, marriage was often the only choice women had to survive. She was able to fulfill her dream of becoming a writer; however, she dies at the age of 38 in childbirth. Her daughter would become also a famous writer, Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein.
She was essentially forgotten for decades after her death. Considered an ill example for respectable young ladies, nobody read her in fear of social consequences. It was not until modern women movements that she was revived and read again.
In “Of the Pernicious Effects which Arise from the Unnatural Distinctions Established in Society,” which comes from her second book, A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792), she argues that women are in a very disadvantageous position to do the most with their position in life. Overall, women have not been given the right opportunities to fully immerse themselves in the role of mother and to be the best mothers they can be.
When she writes, she is speaking to men, not to women, and she is specifically referring to those of wealthier classes. She attempts to convince them to give more rights to women for their own benefits.
She discusses how those that are wealthy through inheritance are actually idle people, and do not know the true valor of work and usefulness. Her argument is based upon Aristotelian concepts which state that with duty and virtue happiness can be achieved and that happiness is solely dependent on them. Duty refers to our role in life, such as being a good citizen. Virtue refers to our moral excellence. Therefore, those that are rich because money was in the family have no duty or virtue, are not happy, and are overall pretty useless.
Women have also become idle, but against their own will. Since they have no rights, are unable to find jobs, and are not allowed to do many things, she explains that women have become cunning and full of ill-intentions in order to get their way. Men, even poor men, have better luck in figuring out how to make a better life for themselves. Even rich men can avoid idleness by joining the military or participating in politics, also becoming more useful. But, for the case of women, what else are they to do with no rights or means of their own? This, of course, is a negative situation for man. Wollstonecraft suggests that with more education and rights, women will have a better chance to fulfill their duty, especially as mothers (the one role they are allowed to have). With some education, a little money, and a little more liberty, women would become better partners and true mothers–for the betterment of all society.
Although this may seem a little dated, keep in mind when this was written and for whom it was meant for. Being a mother at this time had different connotations. Especially in the wealthier classes, women did not care for their own children. This responsibility went to wet nurses, nannies, etc. Since she writes to men of this class, she attempts to say that returning these women to motherhood along with more rights would allow for a positive change in society that would benefit them.
Want to know some more about Wollstoneraft, as well understand her argument for education? Here is a humorous student video:
Next Week: We were unable to discuss John Stuart Mill’s article for this class, but please read it and be ready to review it for next week. Also, we will be starting Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own which is a novel and not in the reader. Please read up to page 78. The bookstore should have it in stock, as well as the BCC Library and the Berkeley Public Library. I also know the downtown Oakland library has various copies available. This is the link for the reading questions for the reading: https://bccfeministphilosophy.files.wordpress.com/2012/02/questions-on-a-room-of-ones-own.doc. See you next week!