Evaluating Feminist Theories of Gender

by Daniel Xu
2133 words



Normativity vs Representation

Description vs Prescription


Description versus Prescription

           What becomes immediately apparent from my above (albeit selective) exposition of feminist theories of gender is that theories of gender are progressive at their core. Each thinker is ultimately motivated by what they consider would advance the socio-political cause of feminism. Butler, in avoiding the normative notions of universality, authenticity, and authority wants to include a wider range of voices and more participation in feminist discourse. Young aims to make the category of woman more intelligible as a rallying focus for feminist politics. Haslanger explicitly admits that she wants to advance a suitable theory of gender for theoretical and political purposes. Even Riley and Mikkola, who seek to avoid entering the debate on defining gender, do so because they believe such a debate is unfruitful to feminist praxis.

            It is evident therefore that theories of gender are in the first instance prescriptive, but not necessarily descriptive. In other words, a theory of gender could advance some normative way of understanding gender, without necessarily making any metaphysical claims on defining the category of gender. Indeed, many of the above theories of gender possess dubious metaphysical foundations, or overcome their metaphysical complications by performing linguistic somersaults à la Wittgenstein (in my opinion!). Moreover, there seems to be a bizarre asymmetrical relationship between the descriptive and prescriptive components of gender theories, wherein the prescriptive desirability directs the (re-)formulation of the descriptive metaphysics. Put differently, it seems completely coherent to reformulate a metaphysics of gender on the grounds that the voices of women of colour are not adequately included; yet no one would advocate abandoning the voices of women of colour in the interests of a better metaphysical formulation. This appears to contradict the tradition of ancient and modern western philosophy, which seek not to redefine metaphysics based on normative judgements, but rather make normative judgements based on metaphysics (but maybe this is the point!). In the final instance then, theories of gender are (and I argue should) be evaluated on the basis of their prescriptive component, i.e. what are the implications of a given theory for society and politics.

            By way of conclusion, two questions come to mind. The first is whether we can consider gender to still belong within the realm of metaphysics and ontology if theories of gender are not evaluated in terms of their metaphysical acceptability; has gender not become the sole domain of ethics? In other words, do we still consider gender in terms of what is true, or in terms of what is right? The second is why should we not evaluate theories of gender by taking into account both description and prescription; why not assess both the metaphysics and societal-political implications?

            To answer the first question, I ironically have to turn to essentialism – the manner in which a thing is assessed is entailed by its essence, but a thing’s essence is not entailed by its mode of assessment. Butler, Young, Haslanger, Riley, and Mikkola examine the existence and nature of things; by virtue of the very subject of inquiry, theories of gender remain in the realm of metaphysics, despite the fact that they are not evaluated as metaphysical theories but on their socio-political implications. To address the second question, I argue that theories of gender ought to be evaluated on the purpose for which they were written, which in all cases discussed above, is formulating a theory of gender amenable to feminist praxis. So long as the metaphysical component is logically valid (which is different from an exercise of normative evaluation), then we should consider only the societal-political implications of such a theory for the feminist movement.