Since the ancient Greeks, philosophers didn’t have much if anything to say about women. But when they did, they typically argued that sex was destiny. Because they believed that women were deficient in that most important ability, reasoning, women were thought to be inferior to men. And since reasoning was essential for knowing truth, goodness, and justice, any higher pursuits (and most “lower” pursuits too) were, justifiably, closed to women. It wasn’t until the latter part of the 19th century, with John Stuart Mill, that a major philosopher made the radical claim that sex was not destiny: most differences between men and women were likely due to nurture, not nature. Eighty years later, Simone de Beauvoir (The Second Sex, 1948) made this even more explicit with her famous remark: “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.”
We will analyze these philosophers’ arguments, from Plato to de Beauvoir, and discuss how they might shed light on contemporary issues about gender, sex, and sexual orientation. Course handout (PDF) will be provided.
Instructor Sara Shute taught philosophy at Marietta College for most of her professional career, where she also initiated and then coordinated a gender studies program. Since moving to Maine, she has taught at several U Maine campuses, at Colby College, and at senior college. Her interest in gender issues intersects with her interests in rationality, and in philosophical pragmatism. She received a Ph.D. in philosophy from Washington University in 1977.