Feminist Ethics: From Local to Global

Article excerpt

Barbara S. Andrew, Jean Keller, & Lisa H. Schwartzman, eds., FEMINIST INTERVENTIONS IN ETHICS AND POLITICS. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005. 245p. bibl. index. pap., $34.95, ISBN 978-0742542693.

Rebecca Whisnant & Peggy DesAutels, eds., GLOBAL FEMINIST ETHICS. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2008. 285p. bibl. index. $75.00, ISBN 978-0742559103.

Virginia Held, THE ETHICS OF CARE: PERSONAL, POLITICAL, AND GLOBAL. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2006, 2007. 211p. bibl. index. $75.00, ISBN 978-0195325904; pap., $45.00, ISBN 978-0195180992.

Feminist ethics and social theory are by now well-established philosophical subfields, characterized by an impressive variety of approaches and themes that are united in the conviction that gender matters. That is, gender (however we are to understand that vexed category) matters to our construction of moral problems, our understanding of moral agency, our assessment of moral theories and practices, our articulation of central moral concepts, and much more besides. This trio of books, the first two of which are recent installments in the Feminist Constructions series edited by Hilde Lindemann, Sara Ruddick, and Margaret Urban Walker, provide an excellent snapshot of the current state of scholarship in these fields. Anyone wishing to orient herself within current feminist ethics and social thought would do well to start with these volumes, which have much to offer both newcomers and seasoned participants in the debates around which they are structured.

Though their emphases differ, the three books share overlapping themes. Among the most prominent foci of attention are justice-related concepts such as rights and equality, care-related concepts such as compassion and responsiveness to need, and, finally, the global dimensions and potential of these concepts for feminist theory and practice. Feminist Interventions in Ethics and Politics (henceforth Feminist Interventions) is primarily theoretical in its orientation, while Global Feminist Ethics contains more applied ethics. Virginia Held's book, as its title suggests, provides a sustained treatment of the branch of feminist ethics that has come to be known as the ethics of care, tracing out its philosophical lineage as well as suggesting how it might be applied to moral and social problems at the national and international levels.

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Feminist Interventions is a good place to start, in part because it has the earliest publication date, but more significantly because it begins with a set of refreshing new essays on the concepts of gender and sex themselves. As the editors of this volume note, feminist scholars began treating gender as a significant category of analysis more than thirty years ago. In doing so they generated important lines of critique of traditional theories, as well as fresh new approaches to a range of moral, political, and social problems. Indeed, some of those problems were hard even to recognize as problems without the conceptual tools made available by gender analysis. It has become increasingly clear, however, that the category of gender cannot be taken for granted. In recent years many feminist theorists (some influenced by multicultural and global perspectives, others by varieties of post-modern and post-structural theory) have questioned the usefulness of the category, fearing that any attempt to define women will be problematically essentialist and exclusionary. At the same time, many have stressed the reality and urgency of women's oppression, wondering how feminist theory and practice can be coherent and effective without some understanding of what or who women are.

The three chapters grouped in Part I of Feminist Interventions are among the most careful and constructive treatments of these issues I have read in a long time. All seek to transcend the current impasse in the debates over gender and its relation to sex. …