The discussion below this post has grown heated, with the topic of debate being less the original post itself and more feminist epistemology and what is sometimes called “standpoint theory.” SamSeaborn quotes Elizabeth Andersen, who writes:
Feminist standpoint theory claims an epistemic privilege over the character of gender relations, and of social and psychological phenomena in which gender is implicated, on behalf of the standpoint of women.
Sam wants to know how that impacts my marriage (which I labeled as “feminist”), but he also seems to be asking how this “standpoint theory” affects the role of male allies in feminist settings. Though he kindly takes me at my word when I note that I don’t go through my married life with an apology for being male always on my lips, he wonders how a male feminist cannot help but defer to what, according to Andersen, is the “epistemic privilege” of a woman’s perspective. Sam gets a vigorous, and to my mind, very effective response, from commenters Oldfeminist and Mythago, and I recommend folks check out the whole thread.
I may be the son of two philosophers, and I may have done a graduate field in medieval scholasticism many moons ago, but I am no theorist. Phrases like “epistemic privilege” make my head hurt, and I must bite back the urge to plead, “But I am a bear of very little brain.” I’ve labored through Cixous and Irigaray and Butler because they’re important and necessary, but feminist theory ain’t my bag. I defer to the many wonderful folks in the blogosphere whose intellectual capacities exceed my own, and whose talent for explicating in plain English the difficult philosophical nuances of feminist theory is infinitely greater than mine.
That said, I do have some thoughts on standpoint theory and its practical application.
Epistemology is the study of how we know things. In a relationship between two people who are of different sexes, classes, or ethnic backgrounds, it’s reasonable to assume that each person’s knowledge of the world will have been shaped in no small part by their status. Class and sex and race and faith are some of — but surely not the only — prisms through which we see and interpret the world. Patriarchy, the complex system through which male identity is privileged in an extraordinary number of ways, impacts everyone. Yes, as the famous phrase notes, it “hurts men too.” But one particular thing that patriarchy does is warp our understanding of everything around us, particularly things like power dynamics, sexuality, and how we communicate with one another. Feminists point out the deeply obvious: the class of persons most likely to be discriminated against by the system are also those most likely to be aware of the system itself. This “greater awareness” is the epistemic privilege to which Andersen refers.
Epistemic privilege means that in a heterosexual relationship, it is generally — though not universally — the case that the woman will see gender-based power imbalances more clearly than will her boyfriend or her husband. This isn’t because of “feminine intuition”, it’s because folks in an historically oppressed class are always required to be more aware of power dynamics than those who belong to the dominant group. The same epistemic privilege can occur in race and class relations, regardless of the sex of the people involved.
Obvious example: rape and parking lots. Both men and women are cognizant of the reality of rape, and most understand that it is men who generally do the raping and women who are generally the ones attacked. But because of his privilege, a man can walk into a parking lot by himself at night and forget about rape, because his maleness affords him the luxury of remaining unobservant of the possibility of sexual danger. A woman walking alone in a parking lot at night will have a different experience, rooted in her vulnerability as a member of a class targeted for sexual violence. Not only is she more vulnerable, but her very understanding of the issue is superior to that of a man walking in the parking lot. He has the privileged luxury of ignorance; she’s forced to reflect, constantly, on rape and its threat to her. That means that when the discussion of women’s vulnerability to assault comes up, women ought to enjoy “epistemic privilege” in the conversation. Continue reading