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Isn't this where we came in?

The attempt to 'feminise knowledge' does no favours for men or women, argues Professor Gordon Graham

The modern feminist movement has its origins in the nineteenth century when, for the first time, writers such as Mary Wollstonecraft and John Stuart Mill raised important questions about the social status of women. According to Mill, all the customary and legal obstacles to the entry of women into political, professional and commercial life which then existed, were groundless, irrational indeed. His argument was that if, as was commonly alleged, women were truly incapable of performing to the highest level, freedom to try would reveal this; none of them would make it and the anti-women lobby had nothing to fear. If, on the other hand, contrary to common supposition, such freedom brought large numbers of talented women into the workforce, society as a whole would be better off; in this case, men no less than women were paying a price for their exclusion. Either way, it plainly followed, there could be no rational basis for the arbitrary exclusion of women.

Now, 100 years or so later, when (at least in the Western world) all legal and most social obstacles have been largely cleared away and sustained 'affirmative action' policies have been in place for several decades, it seems nonetheless to be a matter of solid empirical fact that, across a range of occupations, the number of women is very much lower than the number of men. Notably, women are in short supply in the upper echelons of what we might call the 'learning' professions - university professors, neurosurgeons, computer experts, and the like. Should we be worried about this? Not according to Mill, because, provided only that there is freedom of choice and nobody is arbitrarily excluded on grounds of gender, the resulting distribution of jobs between men and women will simply be whatever it will be.

Yet, faced with this continuing 'inegalitarian' distribution, many people continue to express concern, to demand further thought and action about 'the problem'. In some places this has generated a new, more theoretical feminism, one that seeks to uncover 'hidden' obstacles, obstacles more powerful than those created by law and popular opinion. From this point of view, the weakness in Mill's argument is that it is focused on the essentially superficial, when what needs to be tackled are the deep formative factors.

In one of its most adventurous (not to say extreme) forms, this new doctrine calls for the 'feminisation of knowledge'. It holds, in other words, that the real distortion which explains the absence of women in the higher reaches of the learning professions is that knowledge itself is skewed in favour of a male mentality.

Accordingly, the way forward lies not with further equal opportunities legislation or programmes of positive discrimination, but in a radical revision of the very methods and structures of intellectual inquiry itself. Thus, in our educational practices and research techniques, some are saying, respect must be given to 'intuition' (more typical of the female mind) no less than to 'logic' (more usually the mark of the male).

It does not take any great depth of insight to see that real dangers lurk if this way of thinking were widely adopted. Science, and the technology it has brought us, is one of the huge success stories of human history. It is thanks to the scientific exploration of the natural world that we have effective medicine, abundant food, modern communications and computing technology, not to mention our understanding of the origins of the cosmos and the evolutionary basis of human life. To try to alter the ways of thinking that underlie all these is to run the risk of forgoing future benefits and advances of a similar kind, and returning to a pre-scientific mindset with all that that implies.

Furthermore, this talk of 'feminising knowledge' has a slightly unpleasant, even anti-feminist, ring to it. Could it be saying that, when it comes down to it, men are the more rational, whereas women tend to be more emotional? Is this not where we came in, so to speak, precisely the sort of claim that Mill was anxious to move away from? And is it not subject to the objection that it over-generalises and makes a priori assumptions about men and women in just the way that the Colonel Blimps of the past did?

Still, it might be said, if after all this time there continues to be a significant imbalance between men and women, something must be going wrong. Why? Why must something be going wrong? It is only if we suppose that the distribution of top jobs in the learning professions would be more or less equal if it were not for distorting influences, that we have any reason to think that things are going wrong. And what reason could we have to think this, now? None, in fact, because all the evidence points the other way.

Mill was right, it seems to me. Artificial obstacles to sexual equality should be cleared away. His is a good argument with this as its conclusion. After that, we have to accept what comes. To refuse to do so, to go on digging deeper and deeper for the 'real' causes, is to make assumptions for which we have no more warrant, and to run the risk of damaging both individuals and outcomes in the future.

Gordon Graham is regius professor of moral philosophy at the University of Aberdeen

Reproduced from LM issue 123, September 1999



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