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California State University, Dominguez Hills
University of Wisconsin, Parkside
Created: May 16, 2004
Latest Update: May 16, 2004

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The recent torture scenes from Iraq have forced a lot of us to rethink our sense of women as more caring, and more understanding of relationships than men. Carol Gilligan's research, in which women appear to be more moral, less achievement-focused and put more emphasis on the humane aspect of their choices, well, that research is going to need to be reconsidered. Three of the seven soldiers charged in the Iraq torture scene were women, women acting just like men.

Feminism's Assumptions Upended By Barbara Ehrenreich, Los Angeles Times, Editorial Section, May 16, 2004. Ehrenreich makes a couple of points I'd like you to notice.

  • The armed services represent a means to education and career chances. So, women need equal opportunity to serve.
  • Because the armed services offer alternatives to those unable to afford them otherwise, they represent equalizing opportunity for the working class, immigrants, those trapped by poverty.
  • Our feminist theory has some unstated assumptions that women are more "moral" and "caring about relationships" than men. (Gilligan and Kohlberg on theories of moral development in Harvard research.)
  • We might have been closer to right when we claimed full equality under gender. Women seem to be capable of the same sadistic sexual atrocities as men, given an infrastructure in which such atrocities are permitted to occur.

"The struggles for peace and social justice and against imperialist and racist arrogance, cannot, I am truly sorry to say, be folded into the struggle for gender equality.

"What we need is a tough new kind of feminism with no illusions. Women do not change institutions simply by assimilating into them, only by consciously deciding to fight for change. We need a feminism that teaches a woman to say no not just to the date rapist or overly insistent boyfriend but, when necessary, to the military or corporate hierarchy within which she finds herself.

"In short, we need a kind of feminism that aims not just to assimilate into the institutions that men have created over the centuries, but to infiltrate and subvert them.

"To cite an old, and far from naive, feminist saying: "If you think equality is the goal, your standards are too low." It is not enough to be equal to men, when the men are acting like beasts. It is not enough to assimilate. We need to create a world worth assimilating into. From Feminism's Assumptions Upended By Barbara Ehrenreich.

See for six letters to the editor on this piece.

Discussion Questions

  1. Who are Gilligan and Kohlberg, and how do they relate to this issue?

    Kohlberg, who specializes in the study of child development, published his famous stages of moral development, whilde Carol Gilligan was a student of his. On Kohlberg's scale, males scored higher than females because Kohlberg ranked relative morality, or the ability to judge in a conflict situatiion which moral choice would cause the least harm, whereas women were less likely to consider the overall picture and recognize a need for moral relativity. Carol Gilligan went on to establish through similar research patterns (paper and pencil choices in fact situations) that women scored "differently" because they paid more attention to relationship needs. Thus women were reluctant to accept the need to steal medicine a husband could not afford to save his wife, while men chose the relative good of saving a life over the need not to steal.

    This led to more research on Women's Ways of Knowing, in which researchers worked with young adult women to discover that they needed considerable emotional and psychological support to answer because they had been so devastatingly silenced. Having developed special courses to support freshman, the researchers discovered that their college curriculum committeees rejected them. And the discussion goes on today, about whether men and women think and relate differently. The events at Abu Ghraib are going to cause us to rethink some of this long-accepted material. Maybe the course for freshman needs to be for all humans, not just college kids.

  2. What about Ehrenreich's reasons for supporting women in the services? Is that a reasonable alternative?

    Consider that this is an alternative route for poor people. Many women are poor. If you close off routes upward for one gender, how will you balance the alternatives for that gender?

  3. What about equalizing opportunities for the working class, immigrants, those trapped by poverty? Do the services do that?

    Consider this with the question of gender. In the groups we are addressing, working class, immigrants, the poor, there tends to be considerable cultural baggage left over from the dominant culture about the role of women. Abu Ghraib has heightened that issue. Many of us are now forced to admit that we thought women were different, not corruptible in such sado-sexual ways. Maybe, if we addressed that issue, opportunities in the services could be even more effective in struggling for gender equality.

  4. What does this whole issue tell us about women and agency?

    Consider agency and structure. We seem to believe that freedom means the power to control. And we seem to think that we as individuals can gain that control. The photos from Abu Ghraib show women exercising such control. And we're stuck with explaining the horrible behavior. Recall the role of the structure. Agency (individual ability to act) interacts with the structure. Both the individual and the structure change in the process of interacting, but no individual controls completely, nor does any structure. Abu Ghraib reminds us of that. So also do the earlier studies of Adorno and Zimbardo.

  5. Who are Adorno and Zimbardo and how do they relate to this issue?

    Theodor Adorno wrote the Authoritarian Personality after the Second World War, trying to understand how ordinary people could have acted so horribly in the Holocaust. He concluded that there is such a thing as an "authoritarian personality," measured by what he called a Dogma scale. That gives us a psychological explanation that some people are more capable of such behavior than others. Zimbardo, at Stanford, carried out what were called the prison studies, in which students play-acted roles of guards and prisoners. The experiment had to be stopped after five days because the guard-students were becoming abusive with the prisoner-students. Surpise. Humans are capable of inhuman behavior. Our training of prison guards, in homeland prisons and in war camps, needs to take such behavior into consideration.

Site Copyright: Jeanne Curran and Susan R. Takata and Individual Authors, May 2004.
"Fair use" encouraged.