Much theory labelled ‘feminist’ is just ‘unmitigated rubbish’: Janet Radcliffe Richards delivers the BHA Bentham Lecture 2010

Much of what passes for ‘feminist’ theory in certain academic circles is ‘unmitigated rubbish’. So argued philosopher Janet Radcliffe Richards at last night’s Bentham Lecture, hosted by the British Humanist Association, the Humanist Philosophers and UCL.

Janet Radcliffe Richards, author of The Sceptical Feminist, is a staunch defender of feminism, contesting systematic discrimination in favour of ‘justice for women’. However she disputes that such things as ‘feminist epistemology’ actually share any intellectual underpinnings with feminism per se, and suggests that much academic output labelled as ‘feminist theory’ is a hindrance rather than a help.

Janet Radcliffe Richards delivers the Bentham Lecture 2010Janet Radcliffe Richards began her lecture, ‘The Darwin Wars and the Battle of the Sexes’ with a discussion of JS Mill, whose feminism (a word that did not exist in his day) was concerned with the law. Why, Mill asked, should women be excluded from public life and denied equal rights in marriage? Mill argued first that there were exceptional women who objected to and plainly did not merit their subordination; secondly, that more would do so if they were not schooled to deference; and thirdly, if indeed subordination was the natural order of things, then why were oppressive laws needed to enforce it?

Mill’s arguments had not convinced his contemporaries, in part because his opponents could not yet accept his liberal premises.  In the background a metaphysical assumption was at work, as seen in Sir James Fitzjames Stephens, namely the idea that men and women were radically unlike each other but with interests that could not diverge because together they made up a whole that was part of the God-given ordered cosmos. It was this ordered cosmos that Darwin began to undermine, showing how order could emerge without a moral structure or grand designer.

Modern feminism in academic circles has, however, taken to extremes the idea of the sexes having different interests, to the extent of developing a ‘feminist’ critique of nearly every academic discipline. Radcliffe Richards gave examples of radical theorists rejecting concepts such as truth and reason as ‘phallocentric’, producing what she termed ‘unmitigated rubbish’ in the process, emanating from self-contained Women’s Studies departments. This kind of ‘feminism’ is a misnomer still leaning heavily on ideas that were in vogue in the 1970s, Janet argued. The tone and content of these ‘feminist’ critiques is irrationalist, and ‘if feminism is supposed to be a movement for justice for women’ then it cannot afford to reject truth and science as ‘masculine’ concepts in the process, a tactic which in fact keeps many women on the margins of academia just as powerfully as any patriarchal system.

I do not want women going to Women’s Studies departments and learning this stuff and thinking it’s a good way of getting women emancipated. … I regard this as a terrible perpetuation of the subordination of women. It’s just carrying on patriarchal man’s job for him.

Janet went on to criticise the assumption that equality of outcome (such as equal pay or equal representation in all professions) was the necessary consequence of removing systematic discrimination. Unequal outcomes might be the result of the environment or might be intrinsic; evolution makes it overwhelmingly likely that there would be differences between the sexes; different reproductive roles necessitated different reproductive tactics. Many feminists (and much of the left) had, however, taken strong objection to Darwinian studies of how such differences might have worked out over evolutionary time. Far from being a rational pursuit of removing discriminatory obstacles to individual development, such feminism had embraced an anti-scientific ideology. Feminism, Janet argued, should rightly be concerned with systematic inequality, but cannot rationally presuppose equality of outcome.

Notes

The Bentham Lecture is part of the BHA’s annual lecture programme, which also includes the Voltaire, Holyoake and Darwin lectures. For information about future BHA events, visit humanism.org.uk/meet-up/events.

The Bentham Lecture was streamed live online by The Pod Delusion and you can listen to the full recording.

Photos by BHA photographer Andrew West are available on Facebook.

Janet Radcliffe Richards is Professor of Practical Philosophy at the University of Oxford, Distinguished Research Fellow at the Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, and Senior Research Associate at the Department of Philosophy, UCL. Her first book, The Sceptical Feminist, was critical of much existing feminist theory, offering a new approach which sacrifices neither rationality nor radicalism.

The British Humanist Association (BHA) is the national charity representing and supporting the non-religious and campaigning for an end to religious privilege and discrimination based on religion or belief.

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