On reason I didn’t want to have us read that (apart from it being an older text–1896–than I wanted and being written by a man) is that I listened to this “Philosophy Bites” podcast episode featuring British philosopher Janet Radcliffe Richards, who wrote The Skeptical Feminist: A Philosophical Enquiry.Richards does a great job on the episode in succinctly giving Mill’s point, which is surprisingly prescient of the issue re. human nature we ran into in our discussion: given the historical subjection of women and what that’s done to our culture, we can’t know know the degree to which measured differences in outlook and behavior (such as those cited by Gilligan) are biological or are a matter of social conditioning. His solution is to remove the legal restrictions (“protections” in the eyes of the men of the time) on women and just let them compete. In other words, be gender-blind. This, too, well captures what’s perhaps a majority male response in the West today.
It’s not Gilligan’s response, though: for her, we don’t need gender blindness (or to adapt the metaphor to her language, deafness), but exactly the opposite. What does this mean? We Americans (or is it just men?), I think, are very quick to ask for the pragmatic bottom line and want to ignore/simplify whatever remains of the issue beyond that implication for our practice. This isn’t a matter of simply figuring out appropriate legislation (should there be gender-specific protections/affirmative action in hiring, sexual harassment laws, etc.?) or deciding who’s to blame or who to be annoyed at, but a matter of achieving a better understanding of the human condition, i.e. what philosophy is supposed to do. “The thought of women, absent men” as Azzurra described it at the outset of our discussion seems an interesting thought experiment in that regard, even if I think that the speculative conclusions Gilman arrived at are pretty bullshitty.
There are, of course, practical applications to such understanding, as there is to all psychological insight. One that I’ve been hearing a lot about recently (my wife just started a public policy master’s program specializing in domestic violence) is trying to figure out why women of all economic classes are abused with such frequency. This is not, goes the claim, just a matter of individual men being aggressive assholes (though it is that), but a matter of a cultural history where women have been subjugated: not treated as full members of the moral community, as property, as “the Other” to the male protagonists from whose point of view history is written. Again, there’s some self-reflection involved for us men here (How do sexual differences in libido affect dynamics in our relationships? Does the woman in the relationship inevitably end up doing more work around the house even if both parties work full time?), but this is mostly a matter, I think, of sociological study, and the implications of a sociological theory aren’t necessarily going to be obvious or direct. If you react to the whole enterprise as a crass political attack on you as a male, you’re missing the point.