Feminism Challenged

Mary McGreevy

Feminism Under Fire, by Ellen R. Klein (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1995) 258 pp., cloth $32.95.

All who are involved with feminism, either in the academy and Women’s Studies departments as teachers or administrators or in the community at large as politicians and scientists, will find Feminism Under Fire of interest, if only as a testament to the scope of current feminist concerns. “Current” means to Ellen Klein “second generation” feminists who, like herself, have spent about fifteen years in the field. Clearly written, well-organized, and extensively researched, her book is designed to comment on current feminist science and epistemology, submitting the latter to rigorous analysis. Klein exhibits much courage for so doing.

For Klein, the meaning of philosophy is restricted to “a method of critical analysis that attempts to make normative, unbiased judgments based on reason and objective evidence.”1 Theories are made to be advanced or rejected. Only truth advances philosophy; good objective reasons are needed for us to make competent, scientific judgments. Many feminists, however, claim that there is no objective truth per se, because what we are involved with in classical philosophy and science is the male epistemological stance, male-created truth, a male-defined objectivity. Klein herself, though, does not see any problems with even the neutrals of traditional science. She challenges the feminists to prove male bias. The data or facts are not really what is in question, as she suggests; rather, it is the viewpoint. As Harvard professor Seyla Benhabib recounts:

… Western reason posits itself as the discourse of one self-identical subject, thereby binding us to and in fact de-legitimizing the presence of otherness and difference which do not fit into its categories. From Plato over Descartes to Kant and Hegel, Western philosophy thematizes the story of the male subject of reason.2

In light of considerations like the above and also with objections about the way the male-female, reason-emotion dichotomy is handled traditionally, women in philosophy have begun to concur in a way that shows their desire for “a theory of knowledge which is opposed to men’s, one that privileges emotion and is committed to subjectivity.”3 In this endeavor, they won’t accept rational criticism and thus their epistemology is, according to Klein, unreasonable and “unworthy.” Her criteria is logical truth, the very abstract kind of truth and reasoning to which the revolutionary feminists are objecting—whether they be also Marxists, Liberals, Radicals, Socialists, Existentialists, etc.4

Some of the feminists ally their thought with that of traditional philosophers; for example, Kant, Hume, or Quine, as does Louise M. Antony.5 It seems that Quine’s naturalized epistemology would hold hope for feminists in sup-plying a methodology and content with which to begin their work; ex nihilo is not an easy alternative. In a chapter that doesn’t seem called for by the purposes of this book, Klein explains what is wrong with Quine. He, too, is opposed to traditional logic and suffers under Klein’s swift sword.

In regard to the political purpose of feminism, that of empowering women, this lies outside of philosophy proper, but without it, the women’s philosophy lacks teeth. As Klein writes:

“Feminist epistemologists” are caught between the horns of a dilemma. Insofar as their position is provocative and politically potent in its criticism of reason and analysis, it is dogmatic and therefore not properly epistemic. Insofar as their position retreats from its sex-gender stance it ceases to play its essential political role. It seems that there really is no such thing as a feminist epistemology.6

In their stand against classical epistemology, the feminists are not alone in calling for “situated” knowledge. The influential and authoritative Thomas Kuhn has written of “the ‘community structure of science”: for example, how the validators of scientific knowledge are grouped, in professional associations, that share certain paradigms.7 Sandra Harding, working with Kuhn’s insights, believes that standpoint epistemologies require and generate stronger standards of objectivity than those that turn away from locating knowledge in history.8 Klein feels that Harding has not fully developed her unusual definition of objectivity as not “value-free.”9 A “located” viewpoint, according to Hardy, can even generate itself from “women’s lives.” This would be more representative of the truth to Hardy and would be better than male-biased science.

What standpoint or feminist epistemology is leading to, Klein fears, is relativism, a concept that cancels classical epistemology. The reason Klein is so troubled about relativism is that she feels it makes possible logical contradiction—two opposing viewpoints. Possible yes, but not necessarily a part of relativism per se.

It is possible to have several non-contradictory viewpoints or emphases about a certain sequence of empirical facts, which no one denies. An example is cited in the text of the movie Rashomon. Within the context of the script, the different witnesses to a rape emphasize different aspects of the crime. Beyond the text, two university professors also throw different lights upon the story. The male professor tells his students the theme of the movie is the differences possible with the subjective point of view; the female, au contraire, emphasizes the horror of rape itself. Klein, however, sees that embracing relativism would make it impossible for women to escape from or argue against their oppression by men. Can a viewpoint justify this crime? If so, time for feminist ethics.10

One of the reasons feminists have forsaken the heart of logic and its commitment to reason is the pressing importance of their very humanistic cause and their need to explore their own life conditions of oppression, poverty, and disenfranchisement, desperately looking for solutions and remediations. The universities have been most helpful in this endeavor, expanding curricula to include feminist philosophy, hiring women professors, and adding Women’s Studies departments that often sponsor community-related programs and research. In view of what really happens in the environment in which the university exists, it is a pity that so fine a scholar as Klein is still in her “ivory tower.”


  1. Ellen R. Klein, Feminism Under Fire (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1995), p. 18.
  2. Seyla Benhabib, “Feminism and Post-modernism,” in Feminist Contentions, intr. Linda Nicholson (New York and London: Routledge, 1995), p. 19.
  3. Klein, op. cit., p. 63.
  4. See Rosemarie Tong, Feminist Thought. (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1989) for an introduction to feminist thought in regard to these ideologies.
  5. Klein, op. cit., pp. 95-123. See also: Louise M. Antony, “Quine as Feminist: The Radical Impact of Naturalized Epistemology” in A Mind of One’s Own, ed. Louise M. Antony and Charlotte Wit (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1993).
  6. Klein, op. cit., p. 67.
  7. See Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 2nd ed. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1970).
  8.  Sandra Harding, “Rethinking Standpoint Epistemology,” in Feminist Epistemologies, ed. Linda Alcoff and Elizabeth Potter (New York and London: Routledge, 1993), p. 50. See also: Sandra Harding, The Science Question in Feminism, (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1986).
  9. Klein, op. cit., pp. 83-92.
  10. Klein, op. cit., p. 76-77. Klein cites Tong for bringing a discussion about the need for feminist ethics as revealed by the movie Rashomon. Klein takes the viewpoint, however, that the movie calls for relativistic ethics, which would not be possible by her criteria.

Mary McGreevy

Mary McGreevy, Ph.D., writes from Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

Feminism Under Fire, by Ellen R. Klein (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1995) 258 pp., cloth $32.95. All who are involved with feminism, either in the academy and Women’s Studies departments as teachers or administrators or in the community at large as politicians and scientists, will find Feminism Under Fire of interest, if only as a …

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