Philosophical Dimensions of Feminist Social Change


Antonia Marzulli

Department of Liberal Studies



            Feminist philosophers frequently construct new theories that seek to eradicate long-standing oppression, which limits women’s freedom, autonomy, and existence.  Two problems with most feminist philosophical theories are their inability to reach the masses and their often contradictory and canceling relationship with other philosophies within feminist thought.  True women’s liberation is dependent upon the resolution of these problems. 

          This paper seeks to integrate a multiplicity of feminist philosophy to better comprehend women’s oppression and to delineate a path toward liberation.  This synthesis rejects a single, narrow, and masculine-directed philosophy and instead generates a novel, diverse, and feminine-directed one.  Synthesizing the works of Simone de Beauvoir, Luce Irigaray, Kenneth Burke, and Herbert Marcuse,[1] this paper will 1) clarify the situation of women’s oppression using a survey of feminist philosophy, 2) explore language as a tool for women’s liberation, and 3) reveal the steps necessary to establish a working model for social change.


Section One: Women’s Oppression as Defined by

Simone de Beauvoir and Luce Irigaray


          Simone de Beauvoir and Luce Irigaray, two feminist philosophers, seek to understand women within patriarchy, yet are often at odds with one another.  At times, Beauvoir’s theories have been labeled “feminist, but antifeminine”[2] and Irigaray’s as “essentialist”[3] towards the feminine.  Despite these negative descriptions and the differences between Beauvoir and Irigaray, their useful and convergent concepts can be used to better understand women’s oppression and to formulate a possible solution.

Simone de Beauvoir and Existentialism  

          In positing the question “What is a woman?” Simone de Beauvoir seeks to understand the state of women’s oppression and subordination.  Her answer blames the system of patriarchy, which defines the male as the standard for all normality, locates women’s defectiveness as naturally occurring within her biology, and traps the female in the immanence of her facticity/biology.[4]  Following Beauvoir’s existentialist perspective, woman is not regarded as an autonomous individual but rather as the Other, in opposition to man, the Subject. 

          In Heidegger’s existentialist theory, Dasein/the self, wrought with anxiety, must continually choose between non-being and being.[5]  Fearing nothingness, the self seeks to escape from existence.  “It does this by losing itself in the bourgeois familiarity of the everyday world of prefabricated identity…drift[ing] along towards alienation.”[6]  This rejection of freedom is a moral fault or is done in bad faith.  Therefore, the female sex has a double burden: as humans, they are logically compelled to inertia, but as women, they are relegated by men to being an object.   

          Through myths, created by men and understood as absolute truths, man/Subject seeks to “attain himself only through that reality which he is not, which is something other than himself.”[7]  It follows that the myth of the feminine has served man’s interests by justifying his dominance and privileges.  A woman who does not accept herself as a Subject creates no myths of her own, but rather accepts the myths presented by men.  Kenneth Burke would label woman’s inactivity and complacency as “trained incapacity [where the] very authority [i.e. patriarchal authority] of their earlier ways interferes with the adoption of new ones.”[8]  

          Nonetheless, Beauvoir holds women accountable for their failure to transform from the inessential to the essential because of their lack of solidarity with other women.  In reality, both sexes are to blame because men reject women’s quest for existential freedom and women forgo transcendence in exchange for an inauthentic life of material protection and a male-created state of being.[9]

          Beauvoir also conceives women’s oppression as functioning within the framework of binary opposition.  However, she believes this duality has existed since primitive society and was not originally correlated with the female and male sexes: pairs such as “Sun-Moon, Day-Night, and Good-Evil” involved no “feminine element.”[10]  Women’s current submissive status within this duality appears as natural or innate since no cataclysmic historical event brought it about.  Therefore, Beauvoir locates the source of woman’s oppression in her socially constructed biology, which is regarded as inherently and immutably defective.  Beauvoir rejects the idea that women are destined by their biology and rejects a hierarchal distinction between binary opposites.  Women must accept the facticity of their bodies, and continue to establish a path of transcendence alongside men.[11] 

Beauvoir as Antifeminine?

          The egalitarianism that Beauvoir seeks through existentialist ethics is sometimes labeled “antifeminine” because it promotes an “abstract universal and repression of difference.”[12]  Luce Irigaray respects Beauvoir’s “work for social justice” and supports the “maintenance of the liberating horizons which [Beauvoir] opened up for many women and men;” however, she faults Beauvoir for failing to embrace difference and failing to “give back cultural values to female sexuality.[13]  Beauvoir’s endorsement of existentialism as a means for women’s liberation has been criticized for its masculine and patriarchal origins.  Women are forced to emulate the masculine standard of transcendence, which is considered as “antifeminine.”       

          Such an analysis overlooks Beauvoir’s key statements on women, men, and existentialism.  Beauvoir anticipated such criticisms in The Second Sex.  She explains that all of women’s goals, including their attempts at transcendence, have been dismissed as “masculine protest,” or as efforts to imitate the male rather than as being solely done for women’s own sake.[14]  This is circular reasoning: Beauvoir is faulted with espousing masculine existentialism, but this accusation also operates under a male-as-normative belief system, which fails to view women as autonomous individuals. 

          Irigaray believes that “the philosophical order has to be questioned, and disturbed, in as much as it covers over sexual difference.”[15]  Beauvoir does exactly what Irigaray posits by re-working masculine philosophy and making it belong to women.  Drawing upon Sartre’s existentialist methods, Beauvoir formulated her own existential philosophical model, which, when applied to women, could blaze a path to liberation. 

          Concerning sexual difference, Beauvoir explicitly acknowledges the difference between women and men in both reproduction and sexuality:

There will always be certain differences between man and woman; her eroticism, and therefore her sexual world, have a special form of their own and therefore cannot fail to engender a sensuality, a sensitivity, of a special nature.[16]  


Therefore, it is apparent that just as Irigaray seeks to locate women’s self outside the patriarchal system through the creation of a new sexual identity, Beauvoir does the same: she reshapes women’s sexuality and reproduction outside of patriarchal myths.     

Luce Irigaray and Sexual Difference

          Using postmodernism instead of existentialism, Luce Irigaray believes there is no way to answer, “What is woman?” because the concept of woman does not exist separate from that of man.[17]  The feminine is enveloped within the masculine, and is reduced to a “position of inferiority, of exploitation, of exclusion, [especially] with respect to language.”[18]  In contrast to Beauvoir’s understanding of a hierarchically defined dualism between woman and man, Irigaray maintains that women and men are both represented by only one sex: the male.  “The feminine has never been defined, except as the inverse [or] the underside of the masculine.”[19] 

          It appears that Beauvoir and Irigaray’s understandings of women are more similar than different: both seem correct in their interpretations.  “The Reign of the One [the reign of the male standard] is built on a binarism.”[20]  Therefore, the phallogocentric system tricks women into believing that they occupy a place (albeit a subordinate one) in the binary opposition.  This is an illusion, because in reality, women’s place or identity is merely that which has been created for them by men.  To believe in a “concept of femininity…is to allow [women] to be caught up in a system of ‘masculine’ representations which serves the auto-affection of the [male] subject.”[21]  Although Beauvoir declares, “we must discard the vague notions of superiority, inferiority, [and] equality,”[22] she seeks women’s equality with men along a horizontal axis within a binary system.  Irigaray would find this goal impossible because for her, the binary system only serves the interests of a patriarchal system.  Ultimately, the elimination of patriarchy (a goal for both Beauvoir and Irigaray) would align their perspectives.      

          Irigaray correlates the female identity with Matter in its capacity for receptivity to molding by the male world.  Matter has no reality; it aspires towards “Real-Being” but essentially is a “phantasm” of existence.  Matter is without a soul, intellect, or life: it is non-existence.[23]  This recognition, applied to woman, is similar to Beauvoir’s views of woman as inessential.  For both Beauvoir and Irigaray, the phallogocentric world relegates women to passivity, receptivity, and submissiveness.  Elaine Miller takes the concept of the feminine as Matter even further.[24]  The feminine is not excluded or repressed from Hegel’s dialectic, but rather is insidiously “domesticated and incorporated as the one who provides for the impulsive progress of the Spirit.”[25]  Therefore, like Matter, woman “is eternally present without ever truly entering into the realm of the community.”[26] 

          Woman/Matter is “like a mirror, showing things as in itself when they are really elsewhere, filled in appearance but actually empty, containing nothing, pretending everything.”[27]  This is another parallel between Beauvoir and Irigaray: they describe woman as a mirror reflecting man’s identity, especially the philosopher’s identity.  Beauvoir explains this as existentialist oppression where man seeks recognition and identification in making woman an Object.  For Irigaray, the female is compelled to mimicry because she can mirror “all impressions without appropriating them to [herself] and without adding any.”[28]  Women, like Matter, take on no particular form or identity: this necessitates women to locate their nature and experiences outside of the masculine-defined realm, the realm of “Real-Being”.  Otherwise, women will remain mere “reservoirs of matter and of speculation.”[29]  Again, this applies to Beauvoir’s view that women must find their identity through transcendence, which exists outside of their patriarchal-prescribed immanence.

Difference or Equality

          For Irigaray, the liberation of women can only occur through recognition of the sexual difference, which “is probably the issue in our time [that] could be our salvation if we thought it through.”[30]  Because the self has always been defined as masculine, women must rethink their identity and create a female subject.  An ethics of alterity is desired over an ethics that combines the sexes into one universal self, which is based on masculine imaginary.[31]  An ethics based on difference relates to Beauvoir’s goals in existentialism.  As Subjects, women and men must both affirm their existence as non-being.  This can only be accomplished through freedom, which is dependent upon reciprocity, “by engaging itself in the world.”[32]  Reciprocity and alterity do not necessitate conflict, but rather they accept difference.[33]  

          The quest for equality presupposes that the male is the standard for normalcy, a standard that women must attain.  Women then strive to be like men, or to become men.  Through laws and social equality, women are more often treated as men; however, they are never treated explicitly as women.  Can women find their own standard of normalcy, which would locate the concept within their own identity? 

          “To demand equality as a woman is a mistaken expression of a real objective.  The demand to be equal presupposes a point of comparison.”[34]  Actually, Christine Littleton argues that equality is a mathematical impossibility because “only things that are the same can ever be equal.”[35]  Why do women allow themselves to be measured to any standard, which excludes a variety of individuals?  Patriarchal notions of power and control set up the guidelines of binary opposition, which force women to strive for equality or superiority to men.  Regardless of the fact that such a goal is futile within patriarchy, women’s innate differences remain devalued instead of being recognized, celebrated, and respected.  “The human species is divided into two genders which ensure its production and reproduction.  To wish to get rid of sexual difference is to call for genocide.”[36]

          Although Beauvoir strives for a politics of equality, she also proposes an ethics of ambiguity and alterity.  Debra Bergoffen and Emily Zakin understand Beauvoir to project a “muted voice” in her works that “lends itself to an association with, and reclamation of feminine sexual difference than the more ascendant voice at times explicitly refuses.”[37]  Does Beauvoir’s concept of equality mean equal rights in uniformity?  Or does her notion of “differences in equality”[38] correlate with Irigaray’s concept of multiplicity and sexual difference?  Since Beauvoir writes that the emancipation of woman must entail a release from her relations to man and an independent existence,[39] it seems appropriate to align her more closely with Irigaray.  Furthermore, “one can interpret Beauvoir, like Irigaray, as understanding sexual difference to be indispensable to a theory of inter-subjectivity.  The final sentence of The Second Sex affirms “fraternité” between women and men “by and through their natural differentiation.”[40]    

          Sexual difference also plays a major role in the transformation of language to properly recognize the feminine.  Currently, language holds no self-representation for women because man has appropriated the feminine into his language.  All language, philosophy, and thought are monopolized by men; therefore, “the creation of language – in all forms – by the maternal has been barred since the origins of our culture.”[41]  The patriarchal culture has relegated women to biological reproduction and has excluded the “maternal” from the construction of language.  If women are denied time, place, and space to exert their existence as subjects, and denied language to speak the feminine, how can they begin to transform social discourse?  Irigaray explains that “miming the mimes” is the most effective transformation of language and communication that women can accomplish within a phallogocentric system.     

Irigaray and the “Miming of the Mimes”

          In deliberately assuming the feminine function of mimicry, women can thwart the working of patriarchal culture by converting their subordination into affirmation.[42]  Irigaray explains this concept as a way for women to re-create themselves as Subjects through the alteration of their culturally (male) defined behaviors.  Women can “mime the mimes” by presenting themselves to society in ways that 1) reveal that which should remain concealed, and 2) can exaggerate the ridiculous notions of the feminine ideal as defined by the masculine. 

          A perfect example of Irigaray’s radical prescription of “miming the mimes” is the unconventional work/creations of contemporary artist Kristina Sheryl Wong.  Through a fictional mail-order bride website, Wong turns the tables on the oppressor by miming the myth of Asian female sexuality.[43]  The idea behind Wong’s site is “to catch the oppressor in the act of oppression and use [her] personal sense of humor as a political force.  [She] subverts the expectations of a nasty guy in search of petite naked Asian bodies by showing him the full ugliness of ‘sweet Asian girls.’”[44]  The women featured on this website are gross and hilarious: anything but the stereotypical diminutive Asian woman.  One photograph features an Asian woman in a kimono wearing a Miss Chinatown pageant ribbon and crown.  She is also pimple-faced, biting a cigar between her scowling lips, wearing glasses, giving the finger, and holding a bottle of Jack Daniel’s whiskey while sitting on a toilet.  As Kenneth Burke states, “humor tends to be conservative, the grotesque tends to be revolutionary.”[45]   

          “Miming the mimes” is a rebellious reaction to a patriarchal culture that oppresses women and limits their capacity for freedom.  Like hysterics who were subconsciously revolting against the restrictions of Victorian society, women today must consciously reject the culturally prescribed ideals of femininity.  “Only through using its own techniques can patriarchy be challenged and displaced.”[46]      


Section Two: Language - Never Neutral, Always Weighted

          Kenneth Burke writes, “language is an implement of action, a device which takes its shape by the cooperative patterns of the group that uses it.”[47]  The insight behind this statement reveals the importance of the “cooperation” between the individuals who use, create, experience, and manipulate language.  Language can be a helpful, communicative tool when people understand and respect each another.  Language is a social creation and it reflects social ideology.  Since “vocabularies” are greater than mere words, they are powerful tools manipulated in many ways; under oppressive conditions, they are employed by “institutional structures” to maintain control and hegemony.[48]  Given that a patriarchal system currently dominates society, men monopolize all existing language, communication, philosophy, and thought.[49]  “A rupture with the continuum of domination must also occur with a rupture with the vocabulary of domination.”[50]  Therefore, language and societal norms must be transformed for women’s liberation to materialize.  A transformed language of liberation would locate women outside of the patriarchal system through the provision of their own space and the recognition of their different identities.

  Women and Language

          Girls are at a disadvantage because they are socialized by language in a patriarchal culture that idealizes the male sex.  Verbal and non-verbal communication expose a male bias: male-associated behaviors are valued over female-associated ones.  Gender stereotyping is reinforced by the use of “he” as a generic pronoun which subsumes women under masculine speech. [51]  Man gives the universe his own gender, as he gives his own name to his wife and children.[52]  Only property or objects which men dominate, control, possess, or conquer (i.e. boats, cars, cities, nations, governments) are referred to by the feminine pronoun “she.”  “Man feminizes the ideal he sets up before him as the essential Other, because woman is the material representation of alterity; almost all allegories, in language and in pictorial representation, are women.”[53]  Women fail to have an autonomous or independent existence; they are denied sexual difference and are objectified by men through language.

          Sigmund Freud’s use of language, in his psychological theories, has perpetuated male supremacy and female dependency.  Psychiatrist Peter Breggin believes “psychoanalysis, like much psychiatry was founded on the betrayal of women and children.”[54]  Freud’s sexist beliefs were accepted as scientific facts and served to label women as deficient by noting their lack of a penis.  A new oppressive language arose out of psychoanalysis that trapped women with adjectives like “passive” and “helpless.”  These “typically female” behaviors were now seen as biologically inherent: rebellious actions were seen to result from “penis envy.”  Breggin explains that women who resist patriarchal/male controls chance being labeled insane and risk institutionalization.[55] 

          Although psychoanalysis has been detrimental to women, feminist philosophers Luce Irigaray and Julie Kristeva use Freud and Lacan’s theories to overthrow the symbolic order and to create a novel approach towards understanding sexual difference.  Irigaray challenges the existing language of psychoanalysis and represents women in terms outside of the phallogocentric model.  In turning the philosopher’s/psychoanalyst’s theories upside-down, she “re- or de-form[s] language, discursive structures, and representational systems [and] formulate[s] alternatives, discourses, and models that can re-occupy [women’s] space and accommodate women’s specificity.”[56]  An example of this is Irigaray’s feminist deconstruction of Freud’s psychoanalysis: she dismantles his oppressive theories and reconstructs women outside of his phallogocentric model.[57]         

          Language and speech provide an example of why equality can be a dangerous goal in obtaining women’s liberation.  A study performed by Luce Irigaray resulted in the observation that women and men’s speech is sexed: similar attributes were found in women’s responses that differed from men’s.[58]  An important difference is the usage of the word I (je).  Men frequently use “I” to describe themselves as subjects in various situations; however, women “erase” themselves by using the word “one” to explain themselves.[59]  Ultimately, women have difficulty in identifying themselves as subjects because of the “weight” of the normative usage of the masculine pronoun “he.”  Women “do not yet think in the feminine.”[60]

          Women’s speech is also understood to be polite and unassuming, rather than straightforward and logical.  Social Psychologist Carol Tavris explains that women’s language is the language of the subordinate:


If you play a subordinate role in society, you would learn to persuade and influence, rather than assert and demand.  You would anticipate others needs…and give attention to others feelings.  In short you would develop a ‘woman’s language.’  But these characteristics develop from a power imbalance, not from an inherent deficiency.[61] 


Linguist Robin Lakoff indicates that women use “empty adjectives” (i.e. lovely), qualifiers (i.e. kind of ), a questioning inflection when speaking a statement, the word “so” with a descriptive adjective (i.e. so much love), and hypercorrect grammar when speaking.[62]  These characteristics of women’s speech are seen as subordinate to the commanding nature of men’s speech.  This comparison between women and men implies that men’s speech is the desired standard to which women’s speech must be measured.  Therefore, women who seek equality by imitating men’s speech support the phallogocentric notion that men’s speech is normative, superior, and the standard to uphold.  This diminishes the potential for women to embrace their own diversity and individuality.  

          Irigaray would argue that women’s speech is not their own: it ultimately arises from a phallogocentric economy.  Therefore, women cannot articulate their own words or find their true identity until they can situate themselves outside of the masculine imaginary.  However, one must question the possibility of women’s independent articulation of anything outside of the phallogocentric system when everything is a product of it.  Even “the ethical bent from which one approaches the universe is itself a part of the universe.”[63]  However, Irigaray does recognize that one must be aware of existing language and traditions in order to transform them.  This is necessary to prevent individuals from making the same mistakes: “to progress and not regress on the path of human civilization.”[64]  The identification of our values, culture, and society as “monosexist, monogendered, falsely universal, and partially imperialistic”[65] is the launching pad for women to create a unique subjectivity, respecting that we are all different from each other.     

          If both women and language function as social mirrors, then what is the connection between women and language?  Do oppressors, in their quest for transcendence and power, use both women and language as objects and tools?  If so, do women have the power within themselves to use language to attain their own liberation and transcendence?  If women’s oppression is due to socially created customs and practices, then the answer lies in eradicating these customs and practices.  Language mirrors and reinforces social values; however, a transformation of language designed to promote desired social values might be a catalyst for social change.

          The ambiguity described by Beauvoir is based upon the ubiquitous dependence and reciprocity between human beings: every Subject depends on the Other for a sense of self.  Judith Butler underscores this human concatenation through her explanation of the act of naming, by which individuals address others and are themselves addressed.[66]  She explains, “one is dependent upon another for one’s name;” therefore, as interpellated beings, we are subjected to a “linguistic vulnerability” essential to the creation of one’s identity. [67] 

          Oftentimes, individuals are labeled with names that do not accurately reflect their own self-vision.  Unfortunately, names define the space in which one exists and they “construct a social positionality.”[68]  In addition, the “authority of the ‘voice’ of interpellation,”[69] makes it a difficult task for individuals to ignore names that are forced upon them.  By understanding oneself outside of a socially prescribed identity, one no longer is bound to it.  The rejection of oppressive names or labels is a response to the very act of being named in the first place.  This rejection would result in a new or different consciousness as well as innovative discourse, resulting in an original self-created space and pattern of communication between individuals.[70] 

          Irigaray might reconfigure Butler’s understanding of linguistic vulnerability by proposing its elimination through women and men’s recognition of each other as subjects.[71]  Vulnerability results when one names the other, and is named by the other as object; however, Irigaray dispels by refusing to reduce the other to an object.  An example is the title of her book I Love to You, which means


I don’t take you as an object of my love or desire.  I love you as irreducibly other.  I keep a “to” as an inalienable space between us, as a guarantor of your freedom and mine.[72]


This would imply two autonomous subjects who co-exist together without the need to make each other objects or abandon their own identities.  In concurring with Irigaray, Beauvoir posits a similar mutual recognition of one another as Subject; ensuring that “the human couple [would] find its true form.”[73] 

          This is an example of a new form of communication between women and men that would provide an acceptance of sexual difference and freedom.  Another condition in the recognition of one another as subjects is shared silence.  Silence recognizes the sexual difference by providing space in which women and men can exist “each on one’s own and together.”[74]  This correlates with the passion of wonder that is capable of establishing an ethics of sexual difference that would respect an individual’s autonomy while mutually recognizing one another as subject.  Wonder “never takes hold of the other as its object.  It does not try to seize, possess, or reduce this object, but leaves it subjective, still free.”[75]

          All forms of communication have the potential to influence society either by strengthening the status quo or by initiating liberation and social change.  Oppressive language confines an individual to a subordinate or pejorative identity through the denial of an autonomous existence.  However, it is precisely language’s subjugation that spawns the defiance and revolt of the oppressed individual.  The transformation of discourse must begin with the individual person and can only arise from an awareness of the existing language.  “When one attempts to criticize the structure, one must leave some parts of it intact in order to have a point of reference for criticism.”[76]  Irigaray restructures the linguistic economy of exchange between women and men by altering language patterns to give women a subjective identity.  She does not propose a total elimination of our current language, but rather a shift in its representation of women that provides for a mutual exchange between the sexes and welcomes difference.  The crucial factor in the transformation of language is “not waiting passively for language to progress,”[77] but rather to actively make changes in all forms of communication.


Section Three: Actions for Social Change

          Oppression of any individual or group cannot be recognized as a social problem until society collectively defines it as such.  Sociologist Herbert Blumer postulates that regardless of its objective makeup, a malignant condition in society remains ignored until it is defined by and conceived in society as problematic.[78]  Although it seems rational that a tangible injustice would warrant immediate action, this “rationality” does not apply.  For example, domestic violence occurred for centuries; yet, it was not seen as a social problem worth addressing until the early 1970’s.  The question then becomes, how do we make society aware of oppression and other crises? 

          Piety, more pervasive than typically assumed, is an obstacle that thwarts most social change.[79]  “Piety is a schema of orientation”[80] that exists throughout one’s lifetime.  It promotes stability by reflecting our concrete experiences.  Individuals are “victims of a trained incapacity” [81] when piety prevents them from breaking free from detrimental behaviors.  Deep-rooted past experiences prevent the acceptance of new values, understandings, and/or paths of action.  The notion of change, including the adoption of different beliefs, elicits fear in most people.  Oftentimes, an “obedience to reigning symbols of authority [is] natural…[and] the rejection of them [is] painful.”[82]  Marcuse writes, “impoverishment [or oppression] does not necessarily provide the soil for revolution, [rather] a highly developed consciousness, and imagination generate[s] the need for radical change.”[83]  Therefore, the trappings of piety prevail even under exploitive conditions.  Because people are an integral part of a social system, the rejection of the system is, to some extent, a rejection of themselves.           

          Liberation and social change stand in direct opposition to the prevailing interests of both oppressors and the obliviously oppressed.[84]  “Oppression is explained by the tendency of the existent [Subject/man] to flee from himself by means of identification with the other [Object/woman], who he oppresses to that end.”[85]  To liberate women would be terrifying because men would lose dominance and absolute authority.  In making women objects, men seek recognition, identity, and avoidance of his freedom.  Women’s state of inferiority is neither innate nor mutually dependent upon man’s superiority: sovereignty can be shared by both sexes.  The question remains, ‘Can we replace our piety with impiety and establish a path of transcendence for women alongside men’s?’[86]  

          Burke assigns the poet the task of consciousness raising in challenging piety with impiety.  This would necessitate a “rejection of repressive instinctual needs and values.”[87]  This would lead society to understand and define oppression as a problem worth addressing.  To choose the “path of greater resistance”[88] embraces impiety by acting out one’s role in the transformation of language, cultural norms, and society.  Feminist philosopher Catherine MacKinnon promotes consciousness raising as the feminist method necessary to create a collective understanding that women’s experience is universal.[89]  In addition to Burke’s poets, however, there must be other avenues to liberation and social change. 

          One possible step towards the elimination of women’ oppression is the dissemination of feminist philosophy to the general public.  Philosophy is rewarding and insightful; however, it is practiced infrequently because it fails to reach most individuals.  Without an audience, any written work remains stagnant and immaterial.  Although intellectuals provide an audience for philosophy, they do not comprise a large enough number of people to bring forth social awareness en masse.

          Philosophy today is like a rain cloud: somewhat ethereal and difficult to reach, yet essential for growth, development, and change.  The earth depends on rain for growth and regeneration of life; however, it must wait for particular pressure systems to collide and create a rain cloud.  Fortunately, individuals have more control over the distribution of philosophy than they do over the weather.  Society needs feminist philosophy to rain down and permeate our lives.  Otherwise, philosophy lacks practical application and fails to live up to its potential.  Simone de Beauvoir created a powerful feminist manifesto in The Second Sex, but not many individuals have read it outside the classroom.  How many leaders incorporate Catherine MacKinnon’s perspective in the creation of public policy?  How many people actively re-oriented their lives because of feminist philosophy?

          The Age of Enlightenment was a promising example of philosophy’s permeation into people’s lives, which stimulated great social change.  In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the philosophy of John Locke, Jean Jacques Rousseau, and Thomas Hobbes promoted education, freedom, and self-realization.  It directly influenced the general public and shaped many aspects of the American Revolution.  This influence was mostly due to an increase in overall literacy, especially among women.  The rise in literacy led to self-growth and the declaration of rising expectations.  Many “commoners” read philosophy because the printed word was fashionable and easily accessible.  Philosophical works reached a vast group of readers and helped to create a previously unidentified consciousness.  Both reading and writing facilitated women’s independent pursuit of knowledge.  Their new autonomy led to the early development of feminist literature.  Tantamount to the growth of women’s writing was the growth of women’s consciousness.  Solidarity replaced isolation among women who previously lacked the ‘means’ to communicate with one another.[90] 

          Inspired by Enlightenment philosophy, thinkers like Mary Wollstonecraft and Judith Sargent Murray sought to create a place for women in post-American Revolution society.[91]  Ultimately, proto-feminist philosophy, coupled with the newly found acts of writing and reading, fostered empowerment and awareness in women heretofore unseen.  Although the Age of Enlightenment provided neither a cure-all nor a completely inclusive philosophy, it did challenge and revolutionize assumptions about women.  Our current society needs a new Age of Enlightenment that would engage everyone in intellectual theories so as to bring about women’s liberation through social awareness and change.

          Even the exclusive and misogynistic philosophy of the Enlightenment resulted in subversive, rebellious, and radical action, which spawned the emergence of women’s written word and proto-feminist thought.  Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels ultimately believed that capitalist society would be the catalyst to its own eradication; capitalism would forge the weapons that would bring death to itself.[92]  They propose that although communism is the absolute goal, it would be impossible to attain without the experience of capitalism.  It appears that the Enlightenment and its effects on women share a similar pattern.  Although the Enlightenment produced both negative and positive outcomes, it was vital to the creation of women’s liberation philosophy. 

          Similarly, patriarchal society might also be the catalyst for its own destruction.  Social systems are fluid: they undergo a “dynamic process of creation and re-creation from one moment to the next.”[93]  Therefore, patriarchy will inevitably change.  Furthermore, patriarchy becomes increasingly vulnerable because of the vast oppression it fosters.  A system that produces instability and denies human rights will eventually lead to its own demise.  Patriarchy will soon crumble.  However, every individual has the potential to play a role in shortening the amount of time that patriarchy exists.[94] 

Concrete Steps for Social Change

          Awareness and solidarity is crucial in this quest.  Currently, liberation is stymied by the integration of women into the system of patriarchy.[95]  This tactic cleverly convinces women that patriarchy serves their needs.  Permitting a small number of women to occupy positions of authority (i.e. politicians, CEO’s, or Supreme Court justices) seems to demonstrate intolerance for discrimination; however, this is an illusion.  Women are kept pacified and ignorant of the real need for social change because they are focused on small issues of equality; they close their eyes to the cultural misogyny that lurks within patriarchy. [96]  The struggle for equal rights has merit in resolving short-term issues, but fails to address the over-riding oppressive system.[97]  

          Irigaray’s impious appeal to surpass the goal of equality through embracing the sexual difference “attacks the kinds of linkages already established”[98] by most branches of feminism.  When looking through a patriarchal perspective, women fearfully refrain from measuring themselves to men and their accomplishments.  When focusing on the sexual difference, it is imperative to avoid labeling these differences as deficiencies.[99]  Women might feel marginalized in their rejection of the phallogocentric system because it encompasses most of their realities.  Therefore, a new space and consciousness needs to be created for women, which acknowledges their capacity as unique, autonomous beings.  “It is not adequate to simply affirm women’s value and worth in a culture that leaves no space for value and worth other than the masculine.”[100] 

          A strategy for equality will never be sufficient because it ignores the differences between individuals. [101]  The qualities and values offered by both sexes need to be respected.  Consequently, laws need to take into account the sexual difference in order to assure equivalent social status for women and men.[102] 

          Laws created in light of sexual difference would give back what patriarchy has appropriated as men’s possessions; including “women’s bodies, natural space, the economy of signs and images, and social and religious representation.”[103]  Women’s bodies would no longer be used as objects for commercial purposes, especially in advertising, which infantilizes and sexualizes women so as to sell products.  Rather, there would be realistic representations of women throughout society.  Such representations would promote sexual difference preventing a woman from losing herself in the phallogocentric society and forgetting her own sex.[104]  A practical application of this is the right to identity, which would eradicate women and girls as “objects of exchange between men in our culture.”[105]  Neither virginity, nor motherhood would be reducible to financial exchange.  Motherhood must be recognized as a choice rather than a necessity of female identity; “enforced maternity brings into the world wretched infants.”[106]  Women must also be provided legal access to contraception and abortion.  The mystification of maternity would be exposed as a male-created attempt to imprison women by relegating their entire identity to reproductive functions within the category of Nature.[107] 

          Women would be granted space to have their voices heard and to create an autonomous self.  This requires the female to renounce her identity with Matter, which occupies no space.  She will become a subject: one who would be responsible for promoting change in the perception of the relation between matter and form.  The facilitation of “women-among-themselves, [in order] to learn to formulate their desires, in the absence of immediate pressures and oppressions,” [108] might be accomplished through the promotion of single-sexed education.  Another possibility would be MacKinnon’s prescription for consciousness raising; both possibilities seek separation from male-oriented identification.  Consciousness-raising groups, without the presence of men, allow women to occupy social space often dominated by men.  In addition, women would be free to abandon their usual competition for men’s attention and approval, and would become free to reject “men’s version of reality.”[109]  By recapturing this space and by consciousness raising, women would begin to “become a sex for themselves.”[110]






Indeed the time has come to emphasize the multiplicity of female expressions and preoccupations so that from the intersection of these differences there might arise a more precisely, less commercially and more truthfully, the real fundamental difference between the two sexes.[111]


            The material used in articulating the views expressed in this paper comes from a variety of feminist theorists, philosophers, sociologists, and psychologists.  It illustrates the possibility of uniting a variety of feminist scholarship so as to better address the problem of women’s oppression.  Each unique perspective seeks to improve the relations between all humans and to provide people with liberation and social justice.  Rejecting or ignoring the needs and opinions of any one individual or group serves to further distance individuals from one another.  Therefore, pitting feminists against one another serves to maintain the patriarchal stronghold by diverting attention from women’s real oppression and focusing it instead on how feminists argue with one another.  Although an effective ploy used to degrade the women’s movement, it must be recognized and stopped.  We must welcome our differences, embrace a multiplicity of perspectives, and work towards guaranteeing individual rights for all individuals.  Irigaray accurately states, “there are multiple groups and tendencies in women’s struggles today, and to reduce them to a single movement involves a risk of introducing phenomena of hierarchization [and] claims of orthodoxy.”[112]  

          Linguistic exchange needs to be modified to provide parity between women and men.[113]  Although not an all-encompassing tool, language must be revised to accurately reflect both sexes.  This would trump patriarchy’s silencing of women and would promote women as speaking subjects.  In addition to providing mutual recognition, a facet of language must be kept “between women” or “parler-femme,” which would rupture “masculine sameness in order to express the plurality and mutuality of feminine difference.” [114]  Speaking must be understood as having the potential to reconstruct the conditions that we live in with one another.[115]  In this sense, all forms of communication can direct social change.  Repetition is the key to gradually increasing one’s comfort level and awareness.

          Ultimately, we must affirm women's lack of being and choose existence: existence as non-beings.  We are all subjects, not objects, and subjectivity grants freedom.  Freedom entails reciprocity; one’s freedom is dependent upon another’s.  We must accept this ambiguity and understand ourselves as individuals and parts of a collective.  Oppression results from the denial of ambiguity, which also becomes a denial of freedom.[116] Freedom is chosen and must be achieved and maintained with every decision.

          A wonderful directive to choose freedom comes from Irigaray: 


Women, stop trying.  You have been taught that you were property, private or public, belonging to one man or all.  That therein lay your pleasure.  And that, unless you gave in to man’s, or men’s desires, you would not know sexual pleasure.  If you disobeyed, you were the cause of your own unhappiness.  So ask yourselves just what ‘nature’ is speaking along their theoretical or practical lines.  And if you find yourselves attracted by something other than what their laws, rules, and rituals prescribe, realize that – perhaps- you have come across your ‘nature.’  Don’t even go looking for that alibi.  Do what comes to mind, do what you like: without ‘reasons,’ without ‘valid motives,’ without ‘justification.’  You have so many continents to explore that if you set up borders for yourselves you won’t be able to ‘enjoy’ all of your own ‘nature.’[117] 


By following this advice, women will create their own true identities.  They will no longer be the mere fabrications of men. 













[1] Other sources from various disciplines will also be used in this paper; however, the works of these four individuals will comprise the bulk of my argument.


[2] Emily Zakin, “Differences in Equality: Beauvoir’s Unsettling of the Universal,” The Journal of Speculative Philosophy 14.2 (2000): 104. 


[3] Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter: On the Discourse of the Limits of Sex (New York, New York: Routledge, 1993), 47.


[4] Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex (New York, New York: Vintage Books, 1989), xxi.  Simone de Beauvoir, The Ethics of Ambiguity (New York, New York: Citadel Press, 1948), 102.


[5] Martin Heidegger, Being and Time (New York, New York: Harper, 1962), 164-235, in Josephine Donovan, Feminist Theory (New York, New York: Continuum, 1996), 118-119.


[6] Donovan, Feminist Theory, 119.


[7] Beauvoir, The Second Sex, 139.


[8] Kenneth Burke, Permanence and Change (Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1954), 23.


[9] Beauvoir, The Second Sex, xxiii-xxvii.


[10] Ibid., xxiii.  Although Beauvoir states that there was no initial hierarchy between these polar opposites, I believe that there has been an established hierarchy, at least since Pythagoras and Aristotle.  Women have been associated with the lesser/inferior/negative side of the pair.  For example, women have been associated with night/moon/evil and man with day/sun/good.  Although in Asian religions, the yin-yang functions as two equal partners in a complementary pair, this ideology has not been adopted by Western cultures.  Instead, “women were placed on a vertical hierarchy below men, rather than along a horizontal axis with masculinity and femininity as its two polarities.”  Quoted from Anthony Fletcher, Gender, Sex and Subordination in England 1500-1800 (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1995), 33-34.


[11] Beauvoir, The Second Sex, 717.


[12] Zakin, 104.


[13] Luce Irigaray, je, tu, nous  Toward a Culture of Difference (New York, New York: Routledge, 1993), 13.


[14] Beauvoir, The Second Sex, 51.


[15] Luce Irigaray, This Sex Which is Not One (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1985), 159.


[16] Beauvoir, The Second Sex, 731.


[17] Irigaray, This Sex Which is Not One, 122. 


[18] Ibid., 161.


[19] Ibid., 159.


[20] Luce Irigaray, to speak is never neutral (New York, New York: Routledge, 2002), 230.


[21] Ibid., 122-123.


[22] Beauvoir, The Second Sex, xxxiii.


[23] Luce Irigaray, Speculum of the Other Woman (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1985), 168.


[24] Elaine Miller is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Miami University


[25] Elaine P. Miller, “The ‘Paradoxical Displacement:’ Beauvoir and Irigaray on Hegel’s Antigone,” The Journal of Speculative Philosophy 14.2 (2000): 125.  Miller then states that “the masculine utilization of the feminine is not merely oppressive or repressive; it is productive.  (my emphasis)


[26] Irigaray, Speculum of the Other Woman, 125.


[27] Ibid., 169.


[28] Irigaray, This Sex Which is Not One, 151.


[29] Ibid., 155.


[30] Luce Irigaray, An Ethics of Sexual Difference (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1993), 5.


[31] Ibid., 121.


[32] Beauvoir, The Ethics of Ambiguity, 78.


[33] Neither Beauvoir nor Irigaray support Sartre’s belief that alterity results in conflict.  In contrast to the “Sartrean concept of the sexual encounter as a sadomasochistic overcoming of one subject by the other, in Levinas’ view [as well as Irigaray and Beauvoir] the sexual encounter implies a recognition and acceptance of the other’s alterity.”  In Elizabeth Grosz, Sexual Subversions: Three French Feminists (St. Leonards, Australia: Allen and Unwin, 1989), 144.


[34] Irigaray, je, tu, nous, 12.


[35] Christine Littleton, “Reconstructing Sexual Equality,” California Law Review 75 (1987): 1282.  Christine Littleton is a Professor of Law at UCLA.


[36] Irigaray, je, tu, nous, 12.


[37] Zakin., 105.  Emily Zakin is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Miami University.  Debra Bergoffen is a Professor of Philosophy and Director of Women’s Research and Resource Center at George Mason University.


[38] Beauvoir, The Second Sex, 731.


[39] Ibid., 731.


[40] Miller, 135.  Miller reads Beauvoir in that the “feminine can not simply be understood as assimilation into a preexisting, atomistic, purportedly neutral and yet implicitly masculine conception of subjectivity (122).”  I agree with her position.  


[41] Irigaray, to speak is never neutral, 257 and This Sex Which is Not One, 165.


[42] Irigaray, This Sex Which is Not One, 76.


[43] The following information is from Karen Eng, “The Princess and the Prankster: Two Women who Take on Art, Ethnicity, and Sexuality,” Bitch magazine 18 (Fall 2002): 29-35.


[44] Kristina Sheryl Wong’s website


[45] Burke, Permanence and Change, 112.  Through the reclamation of her own female sexuality, Wong reveals her anger towards men who fetishize about the culturally prescribed Asian ideal.  She recognizes that men commodify Asian women, pornography, or objects, but on her website, “men cannot buy these women.  They are not for sale!” 


[46] Grosz, 133.


[47] Burke, Permanence and Change, 173.


[48] Ibid., 182.


[49] Both Luce Irigaray and Herbert Marcuse express this view.  The references are: Irigaray, This Sex Which is Not One, 165 and Herbert Marcuse, An Essay on Liberation (Boston, Massachusetts: Beacon Press, 1969), 33.


[50] Marcuse, An Essay on Liberation, 33.


[51] Although dated, Psychologist Donald G. MacKay identifies the use of the masculine pronoun “he” as a “highly effective propaganda technique:  frequent repetition, early age of acquisition (before age 6), covertness (“he” is not thought of as propaganda), use of high-prestige sources (including university texts and professors), and indirectness (presented as though it were a matter of common knowledge).”  Donald G. MacKay, “Prescriptive grammar and the pronoun problem,” Language, gender, and society, eds. B. Thorne, C. Kramarae, and N. Henley (Rowley, Massachusetts: Newbury House, 1983), 38-53.  Found in Laurel Richardson, “Gender Stereotyping in the English Language,” Feminist Frontiers II, eds. Laurel Richardson and Verta Taylor (New York, New York: McGraw-Hill, 1989), 6.


[52] Irigaray, Je, tu, nous, 31.


[53] Beauvoir, The Second Sex, 179.


[54] Peter Breggin explains that Freud originally believed his female patients’ stories about the physical and sexual abuse in their childhood, and concluded that many adult women were suffering with mental problems due to the aftermath of sexual abuse as children.  However, when he presented these findings to the medical community, he was met with overwhelming disapproval.  His fellow colleagues did not want to accept or address these “erroneous” findings.  Under social pressure, Freud quickly changed his theories and betrayed his patients with newfound disbelief.  He labeled their claims of abuse as delusions.  “Little girls weren’t being lusted after and abused by their fathers and older men.  Little girls generated their own sexual fantasies toward these men and then made up stories about their sexual contacts.”  Jeffrey Masson, the former director of the Sigmund Freud Archives, found Freud’s secret letters, which explained this.  Peter Breggin, Toxic Psychiatry (New York, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991), 336-338. 


[55] Ibid., 341.


[56] Grosz, Sexual Subversions, 110.


[57] Ibid., 109.


[58] Luce Irigaray, Je, tu, nous, 29.  She explains that in the French language 1) “the masculine is always dominant in syntax.  Ils sont marriés (they are married) or ils sont beaux (they are beautiful).”  Both of these sentences would be used to describe women even though  masculine pronouns and adjectives are used in both cases.  To include women, these sentences should be written elles sont marriées or elles sont belles but they are not.  The traditional usage “erases the feminine [and] impacts the way subjectivity is experienced and expressed in and by discourse.”  2) The neutral or impersonal is also expressed by the masculine.  The phrases “it’s snowing” (il neige) or “it is necessary” (il faut) is written using the masculine form of it: il.  It is never written elle neige or elle faut.  These statements appear to represent something neutral; however, they are expressed by the masculine (30-31).       


[59] Luce Irigaray, Why Different (New York, New York: Semiotext(e), 2000), 48.  Irigaray further explains this by indicating them when asked to use “dress, oneself, and see” in a sentence men made themselves the subject of the sentence more often than women did.  For example, men constructed sentences like “I don’t see myself in a dress” where women constructed sentences like “She is seen from afar in her dress.” 


[60] Ibid., 50.


[61] Carol Tavris, The Mismeasure of Women (New York, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992), 298.


[62] Mary Brown Parlee, “Conversational Politics, “Feminist Frontiers, eds. Laurel Richardson and Verta Taylor (Reading, Massachusetts: Addison Wesley Publishing Company, 1983), 9.


[63] Burke, Permanence and Change, 256.


[64] Irigaray, Why Different, 74.


[65] Ibid., 75.


[66] Judith Butler, “Introduction: On Linguistic Vulnerability,” in Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative (New York, New York: Routledge, 1997), 28-38.


[67] Ibid., 26, 29-30


[68] Ibid., 33.


[69] Ibid., 31.


[70] This correlates with Marcuse who writes, “The new sensibility and the new consciousness…demand a new language to define and communicate new “values” (language…which includes words, images, gestures, tones).”  An Essay on Liberation, 32-33.


[71] Butler challenges Irigaray’s position on the possibility of two subjects.  She writes, “It would make no sense to refer to women as subjects, for it is precisely the construct of the subject that necessitates relations of hierarchy, exclusion, and domination.  There can be no subject without an Other.”  Judith Butler, “Chapter 13: Gender Trouble, Feminist Theory, and Psychoanalytic Discourse” in Gender Trouble (New York, New York: Routledge, 1990), 326. 


[72] Irigaray, Why Different, 81.


[73] Beauvoir, The Second Sex, 731.


[74] Ibid., 107.


[75] Irigaray, An Ethics of Sexual Difference, 13. 

[76] Burke, Permanence and Change, 169.


[77] Irigaray, Je, tu, nous, 32.


[78] Herbert Blumer, “Social Problems as Collective Behavior,” Social Problems, 18 (1971), 300.


[79] Burke, Permanence and Change, 69.


[80] Ibid., 76.


[81] Ibid., 23.  “If people persist longer than chickens in faulty orientation despite punishment, it is because the greater complexity of their problems, the vast network of mutually sustained values and judgments makes it more difficult for them to perceive the nature of the re-orientation required, and to select their means accordingly.”


[82] Kenneth Burke, Attitudes Towards History (Los Angeles, California: University of California Press, 1984), 226.


[83] Ibid., 15.


[84] Ibid., 17.


[85] Beauvoir, The Second Sex, 719.


[86] Ibid., 717.


[87] Marcuse, 17.


[88] Allan G. Johnson, The Gender Knot: Unraveling Our Patriarchal Legacy (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Temple University Press, 1997), 233.


[89] Catherine A. MacKinnon, Towards a Feminist Theory of the State (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1989), 83-84.


[90] The word ‘means’ in this case represents finances, time, ability, and desire.


[91] Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Women, ed. Carol H. Poston (New York, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1988) and Judith Sargent Murray, A Brief Biography with Documents, ed. Shelia Skemp (Boston, Massachusetts: Bedford Books, 1998).


[92] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, “Manifesto of the Communist Party” in The Marx-Engels Reader, ed. Robert C. Tucker (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1978), 478.


[93] Johnson, 233.


[94] Ibid., 235.


[95] Marcuse, 14.  This statement from Marcuse has been reworded by replacing the words “capitalism and workers” with “patriarchy and women” respectively.


[96] Johnson, 13. 


[97] Irigaray recognizes the need for equality-based pursuits but acknowledges that ultimately it is not enough.  “Women’s liberation [must] go beyond a quest for equality between the sexes…[but] that doesn’t stop me from joining and promoting public demonstrations for women to gain this or that right: the right to contraception, abortion, legal aid in cases of public or domestic violence, the right to freedom of expression – etc., demonstrations generally supported by feminists, even if they signify a right to difference.” Je, tu, nous, 11.  


[98] Burke, Permanence and Change, 87.


[99] Tavris, 287.


[100] Grosz, 179.


[101] A good metaphor for the promotion of difference over equality relates to raising children.  “Most parents realize that loving their children equally doesn’t necessarily require treating them identically.  One child may need more help with homework.  One may have a gift for athletics or music that warrants special favors.  One may have a disability that requires attention.  Most parents intuitively operate on a notion of equality that encompasses the real differences between their children (Tavris, 123)."


[102] The following rights and laws are based on Irigaray’s proposal for laws created in light of sexual difference found in Je, tu, nous, 81-92.


[103] Ibid., 86.


[104] Irigaray, This Sex Which is Not One, 152


[105] Irigaray, Je, tu, nous, 87.


[106] Beauvoir, The Second Sex, 485.


[107] Ibid., “Chapter XVII The Mother,” 484-527.


[108] Ibid., 127.


[109] MacKinnon, 86.


[110] Ibid., 105.


[111] Julia Kristeva, “Women’s Time,” Women, Knowledge, and Reality, eds. Ann Garry and Marilyn Pearsall (New York, New York: Routledge, 1996), 65.


[112] Irigaray, This Sex Which is Not One, 164.

[113] Irigaray, Je, tu, nous, 89.


[114] Irigaray, This Sex Which is Not One, 222.  To parler-femme or speak as women, is an experimental process that reveals the connections between female sexuality and writing.  


[115] Andrea Nye, “The Voice of the Serpent: French Feminism and Philosophy of Language,” Women, Knowledge, and Reality, eds. Ann Garry and Marilyn Pearsall (New York, New York: Routledge, 1996), 334.  


[116] Beauvoir, The Ethics of Ambiguity, 96-102.


[117] Irigaray, This Sex Which is Not One, 203-204.