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The approach to social life, philosophy, and ethics that commits itself to correcting biases leading to the subordination of women or the disparagement of women's particular experience and of the voices women bring to discussion. Contemporary feminist ethics is sensitive to the gender bias that may be implicit in philosophical theories (for instance, philosophers' lists of virtues may be typically ‘manly’ or culturally masculine), and in social structures, legal and political procedures, and the general culture. One controversial claim (influentially made in Carol Gilligan, In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women's Development, 1982) is that women approach practical reasoning from a different perspective from that of men. The difference includes emphasis on community, caring, and bonding with particular individuals, in place of abstract impartiality. It is controversial whether or not this is a real difference, and if so whether it arises from innate differences in male and female psychology, or whether the different values reflect the way men and women have been taught to form different aspirations and ideals.

Feminist epistemology has asked whether different ways of knowing, for instance with different criteria of justification, and different emphases on logic and imagination, characterize male and female attempts to understand the world. Such concerns include awareness of the ‘masculine’ self-image, itself a socially variable and potentially distorting picture of what thought and action should be. A particular target of much feminist epistemology is a Kantian or Enlightenment conception of rationality, which is seen as a device for claiming mastery and control, and for refusing to acknowledge differing perspectives and different relations to life and nature. Although extreme claims have been made, such as that logic is a phallic and patriarchal device for coercing other people, it is still unclear how differences between individual capacities, training, and culturally reinforced aspirations, work together in explaining how people acquire knowledge. Again there is a spectrum of concern, from the highly theoretical to the relatively practical. In this latter area particular attention is given to the institutional biases that stand in the way of equal opportunities in science and other academic pursuits, or the ideologies that stand in the way of women seeing themselves as leading contributors to various disciplines. However, to more radical feminists such concerns merely exhibit women wanting for themselves the same power and rights over others that men have claimed, and failing to confront the real problem, which is how to live without such asymmetrical powers and rights. See also essentialism.

Subjects: Arts and Humanities.

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