Characteristics of a Feminist Approach

Excerpt from Barbara F. McManus, Classics and Feminism: Gendering the Classics (New York: Twayne, 1997), 58-60:

I have never found a thoroughly satisfying "definition" of feminism in print, and in any case I believe that feminism is plural and dialogic rather than monolithic. I do think, however, that one can identify a sine qua non for feminism, and the following characteristics represent my criteria for distinguishing a feminist scholarly approach:

  1. Feminist scholars differentiate sex from gender and view the latter as a socially/culturally constructed category. Gender is learned and performed; it involves the myriad and often normative meanings given to sexual difference by various cultures. Feminists may differ in the importance they assign to sex, which is a biologically based category, but the idea that gender norms can be changed is central to feminist theory.
  2. Although sex/gender systems differ cross-culturally, most known societies have used and still use sex/gender as a key structural principle organizing their actual and conceptual worlds, usually to the disadvantage of women. Hence feminist scholars argue that gender is a crucial category of analysis and that modes of knowledge which do not take gender into account are partial and incomplete.
  3. Feminist scholars also seek to question and transform androcentric systems of thought which posit the male as the norm. In practice this means not only revealing and critiquing androcentric biases, but also attempting to examine beliefs and practices from the viewpoint of the “other,” treating women and other marginalized groups as subjects, not merely objects.
  4. Feminists believe that existing inequalities between dominant and marginalized groups can and should be removed. Therefore feminist scholarship has an acknowledged and accepted political dimension, as opposed to the hidden political dimension of scholarship that claims to be “neutral” and “objective.” Although the commitment to feminist politics and organized feminist movements will not be equally stressed in all pieces of scholarship, it will never be denied or criticized (if it is, I would say that the approach is not feminist no matter what the author may claim). With regard to scholarship, the political goal of feminist work is broader than simply a stronger emphasis on women, though that is an important part of it; the goal is to revise our way of considering history, society, literature, etc. so that neither male nor female is taken as normative, but both are seen as equally conditioned by the gender constructions of their culture (as indeed we, the observers, are).

A scholarly focus on ancient women does not in itself make an approach feminist, since scholars can and do study women without accepting these premises. When I classify an approach as "nonfeminist," I do not mean to imply that the scholarship is not valid or valuable; however, as a feminist who does accept the premises listed above, I will by definition see such scholarship as preliminary and incomplete.

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Barbara F. McManus
Readings and Assignments
October 1998