Joint Conference Abstracts

Contributed Papers

 1. Feminism and Competition

Amanda Cawston
Philosophy, University of Cambridge, UK

My aims in this essay are twofold.  First, I aim to draw attention to the critique of competition offered by Virginia Woolf in her essay “Three Guineas”.  Written at the dawn of women’s entry into the public sphere (the world of paid employment and admission to the schools of ‘paid-for’ education), Woolf advises an attitude of caution and restraint towards the pursuit of titles, degrees, awards, etc. that mark success in ‘the professions’, as well as minimal participation in the competitions associated with granting them.  This caution is based on two worries about competition that have been overlooked in the debate on feminism and competition, and in my view pose serious challenges to the compatibilist position.  Woolf’s first worry pertains to the psychological effects of ‘winning’ (or gaining titles, degrees, or awards) that she fears leads to possessiveness and jealousy, emotions that characterize tyranny.  The second, and more complex, worry is based in Woolf’s theory that the revolutionary power of an action is connected to its ‘purity’, meaning the integrity of its motive and its form. Competition, for Woolf, acts as an adulterating agent that dilutes or dissolves the act’s political meaning.  Together, these points support Woolf’s claim that genuine (feminist) revolutionary action requires a competition-free context.  

My second aim in this essay is to suggest that our modern situation is one that leaves little to no room for this essential competition-free context, which, if one accepts Woolf’s analysis, should give us cause for serious concern.  I draw on Nina Power’s observation that the modern economic context has extended the reach of competition to the extreme; her description of the modern employee as a ‘walking CV’ illustrates the completeness with which a person’s life can be appropriated by competition, and thereby losing its power for political change.

 2. Political Leaders and Their Evaluation in Moderata Fonte’s Il merito delle donne

Annika Willer
'Seminar für Geistesgeschichte und Philosophie der Renaissance', LMU Munich, Germany

When it comes to politics,  there’s a peculiar disparity between eulogy and complaint in Moderata Fonte’s Il merito delle donne (1600). While Fonte starts her dialogue with a praise of Venice (“[!] a miraculous example of God’s handiwork [!]”, Moderata Fonte, The Worth of Women. Transl. by Virginia Cox. Chicago 1997, p. 43), it’s political leaders (“[!] incredible peace and justice reign there [!]”, p. 44) and the happiness of it’s citizens (“[!] everyone loves living there [!]”, p. 44), she throughout her dialogue demonstrates in great detail how badly the Venetian women are mistreated by men and hence: how unhappy they are indeed. Discussing the qualities of the Doge and the political leaders in general, Fonte’s seven characters agree on the extraordinary merits and greatness of the lot (pp. 200-204) – just to make Leonora  – the most critical speaker  – say something very fundamental a few lines later: “Are not all these official functions exercised by men, against our interests? [!] Do they not act in their own interests and against ours?” (p. 204) This remark not only contrasts the earlier praises, but also implies the possibility of a government in which women’s interests would be represented, maybe even by women themselves.

During these passages the text constantly varies between reaffirming the political order and subversively undermining it, so that one could ask: how serious is Fonte in her display of praise and criticism? 

In my paper, I would like to shed light on the described disparity and present possible interpretations of these passages. This will help not only to further explore the political dimension of Fonte’s work, but also to inquire the role of women in Renaissance debates about the political order.

 3. Art and the space of community

Elena Tzelepis
Centre for Advanced Study, Sofia, Bulgaria

Mona Hatoum’s art occurs in transit. It “takes place” in creating new ways of relating to places, passing through, and moving on. Born in exile in Beirut in 1952, of Palestinian parents who were forced to leave their homeland Haifa in 1948 due to the Arab-Israeli war, Hatoum was exiled for a second time, in London, in her twenties, when the Lebanese civil war erupted. Since then her work has traveled from art institutions of the West, to Middle East and Arabic countries. Noticeably, it is not only that her art travels and crosses borders but she also travels to create her site-specific installations.

 Hatoum remains a stranger within her own art, as she retraces, ultimately displaces and re-possesses, its own limits. Through this estrangement, she rediscovers the world, a world that is not in place and thus, is always already to be re-created. Her biographical and artistic itinerary incorporates a nomadic topos of art making, a utopian art that persistently stretches and crosses the borders of what is possibly artistic and what is artistically possible. Her art provides a situated perspective of subjectivity, whereby a politics of location with no fixed points is intertwined with a politics of relationality with no fixed identities; a translocal relationality that relies on crossing thresholds and creating connections. This is about a corporeal sensibility and subjectivity attuned to a living cartography of passages. Thickly positioned in multiple places and passages, the bodily singularity is not reduced to generalizable essences; instead, it is fundamentally social in its sensual openness, vulnerability and interrelation to the other.

In this paper, I seek to explore Mona Hatoum’s work with intersecting cartographies and corporealities, by focusing on her artistic gestures of displacing established notions of “home” and the “world”, in all their gendered implications. I will draw on the philosophical work of Rosi Braidotti on nomadic subjects, of Judith Butler on gender performativity and of Adriana Cavarero on narratable self. My aim is to unravel the ways in which Mona Hatoum keeps us on the alert for the hierarchies of false and abstract universalism, while, at the same time, keeps open the promise (and the question) for the potential subversiveness of “foreignness” and “belonging”.  

4. Reflections on the Conceptualisation of Abortion in the Irish Context

Heike Felzmann
NUI Galway, Ireland

This paper discusses the core ethical concepts and concerns addressed in court decisions on abortion in the Irish context since the 1983 constitutional referendum on article 40.3.3. The paper will focus especially on the way in which what matters in relation to the question of access to abortion has been framed in prominent cases like the X, C and Irish D case, the ECHR D and ABC cases and the upcoming expert group report on abortion. In addition to a number of procedural issues, the conceptualisation of the issue in the courts focused on the risk to the life of the mother (as opposed to her health), the freedom to travel and free access to services. This will be related to and contrasted with standard philosophical accounts of what is at issue in the abortion debate. This paper will highlight the lack of conceptual scope within the current legal discourse to acknowledge the significance of pregnancy following rape or incest, fatal fetal abnormalities or serious physical health risks, which characterised the X, C and D cases and C of the ABC case, as well as much of the more recent Irish media discourse on the issue of abortion. However, these concerns did not themselves feature in the arguments provided by the courts on these cases. Ironically, the way the issue was ultimately framed in some of those decisions would allow for a much wider scope for legal abortion than presumably intended, arguably a (forseeable but) unintended effect of trying to address those concerns by legally available, but not entirely appropriate concepts. Whether future explicit Irish policy development regarding the scope of legal abortion will remain within this conceptual framework remains to be seen.

 5. Conservative Feminists?

Bernard Cosgrave
Senior Tutor, School of Philosophy, University College Dublin, Ireland

Most feminists aim at more than simply increasing the number of women elected to parliaments. Feminists with diverse philosophical viewpoints have identified the patriarchal traditions and norms which underlie our current socio-political structures and institutions as the source of women's oppression. Patriarchal traditions have developed a normative conception of “woman” with the attributes of emotion, empathy and fragility, which are less valued than the attributes of virility, rationality and strength attributed to “man”. Thus feminists advocate a re-evaluation of the traditional conceptions of “woman” and “man” and a corresponding restructuring of socio-political structures and institutions

Therefore, the politics of feminism is most often a progressive left-wing one or, especially in its continental forms, a radically left-wing one. A problem feminist philosophers face is how to understand women who reflectively adhere to patriarchal norms. There are a number of alternatives including attributing false consciousness or, using a value saturated conception of autonomy, claim that such women are not acting autonomously. I argue that both of these options mirror the dynamics of the pernicious patriarchal conception “woman” in developing a normative conception of womanhood that many women cannot identify with.

Through discussing the work of Diana Meyers on female genital cutting and Rosi Braidotti on politically active women members of the Muslim Brotherhood, I will argue that many conservative women should be embraced as feminists. I will also discuss how this widening of what counts as feminism can impact and impede the progress of the restructuring of socio-political structures and institutions. 


6. Power in the Context of Freedom: Arendt, Butler and the concept of potential

Danielle Petherbridge
IRC Postdoctoral Fellow, School of Philosophy, University College Dublin, Ireland

In the history of social and political philosophy the prevailing conception of power has been one understood as domination. In this tradition, most typically associated with thinkers such as Hobbes and Weber, power is understood as subjugation or as power over others. It is viewed as a property of individuals or groups, is often associated with force or violence, and interpreted through the prism of ideology or legitimacy. However, an alternative concept of power, one understood as a capacity or potential, can be traced from Aristotle via Spinoza to Nietzsche, Arendt, Foucault and Butler. This form of power is understood as a form of action which exists in the context of freedom; it is foundational or constitutive, referring to the very capacities or dynamics that constitute persons or things. In this paper, I explore the contribution of both Hannah Arendt and Judith Butler to this alternative conception of power. Both philosophers understand power as a potential, as foundational or constitutive, and as central to politics, but each conceptualises this capacity in very different ways. For Arendt power is a form of action, it is the founding act of a polity and what keeps the public sphere in existence; for Butler, on the other hand, power is constitutive of identity but it is paradoxical, being both subjugating and enabling. The aim of this paper is to highlight not only the significance of the work of both Arendt and Butler to a re-conceptualisation of power but also the consequences of their work for the ways in which women, politics and power might be re-conceived in philosophy more generally. 


7. Women in Society: Stein’s understanding of the role of the human person in relation to society

Mette Lebech 
Department of Philosophy, NUI Maynooth, Ireland

Stein distinguishes, like Tönnies, between community and society, and considers these forms of commonality to operate according to different types of collaboration between human beings, relying specifically on different types of human activity (valuing and willing) which addresses the other primarily as a subject or primarily as an object. Women have in many societies (had) a societal role primarily in the private sphere, wherein communal collaboration arguably has priority, although this may disguise the fact that marriage is an institution, and has a very important function as such in society at large. Men, in contrast, have in many societies (had) important public societal roles outside the family or on behalf of the family, and consequently collaborate primarily in this sphere according to the associational form of commonality, including in Stein’s view a certain level of objectivation. Discussing Stein’s understanding of the vocation of woman and comparing it to that of the human person allows us to reassess this distribution of roles as regards society and the family, and also to reflect on the fundamental relationship between community and society in the modern state. The notion of ‘vocation’ relates in Stein’s estimation to the person as a whole in his or her various dimensions, and reach out into the community as structured by society. It is as a structured support system for the community based on culture that the state is justified, and thus the notion of vocation, as the unfolding of the person in his or her community, becomes key as a regulating factor for the acceptable development of the state.


 8. “Oppression through Function” – Simone Weil's Reflections on Factory Work

Susan Gottlöber
Department of Philosophy, NUI Maynooth, Ireland

Simone Weil (1909-1943), teacher, philosopher and social activist, is without doubt one of the most unusual women in early 20th century philosophy. Driven by a passionate sense of justice she engaged not only in philosophical reflections on the human condition but also political activities. Being an active socialist syndicalist, she fought for education and rights for the working class and fought in the Spanish Civil War.

One of her most outstanding achievements lies in her reflections on factory work, which she identified as a major means of oppression. Weil not only believed that philosophical reflections alone can neither contribute to solutions regarding the crisis of the industrial age nor better the living conditions of the workers; she was furthermore convinced that the lack of practical experience was to blame for the failure of the traditional doctrines such as the socialist concepts (including Marxism) to address the reasons for both the failure of the labour movements and the looming human catastrophe in Russia. Weil decided that only first hand experience could be the basis of a more adequate theory and critique of society. The results of her experiences are recorded in her work La condition ouvrière, where she develops an in-depth analysis of the factory working conditions. Weil not only identifies the factory work as of modern slavery but also points out where Marx and his followers went wrong: Not the state of a life without property but a work without meaning, so Weil, is responsible for the highest grade of human humiliation. 

This paper'saim is twofold: Firstly, to provide a critical analysis of Weil's theory on factory work and its consequences for the human condition, secondly, to relate her findings to the working conditions of contemporary industrial societies.

 9. Birthing or 'The Body that can birth'

Alison Assiter
Department of Arts, University of West of England, Bristol, UK

This paper will consider how one might use Irigaray’s perspective on Kant, specifically as informed by a reading of Irigaray’s work given by Rachel Jones (Irigaray, Polity Press, 2011), to re-think a difficulty that arises for Kant in relation to his view of freedom. I would like, also, so suggest that Kierkegaard can overcome this difficulty in Kant’s thought – the problem of how it is possible freely to do wrong.  

Central to Jones’ reading of Irigaray is the claim that Irigaray is essentially an ontological and metaphysical thinker rather than a biological or ‘strategic essentialist’ or one who offers a new language of the feminine – a ‘parler femme’. She might be those things, but she is, fundamentally, a metaphysician. Irigaray, for Jones, is an ontological philosopher in the Heideggerian sense: she is primarily concerned with the study of Being (from the Greek ontos). Whilst Heidegger, in Jones' reading, points to the elusive nature of Being itself and our relation to it (p. 189) as opposed to the more common concerns of philosophy in the western tradition with identifying human beings as subjects of thought set against an inert world of objects, Heidegger performs a 'forgetting' of a ‘fundamental kind’ - a forgetting that Being is two. I’m less interested in this claim than in the claim that what is forgotten is the role of the body that can birth as a crucial element of ontology. 

I will discuss, using this framework, some of the contortions into which Kant is led. In his third Critique,  ‘man’ becomes the ultimate purpose on earth. He is a natural purpose although he is not really this – we judge reflectively that this is what he is; we judge him as though he is purposive. In other words, by means of double reflections, not only is nature not itself purposive but rather the ultimate purposiveness is ‘man’.  But again, in a further reversal, it is only that we have to suppose, for the understanding of morality, ‘man’ to be the ultimate purpose. ‘Man’ is the purpose against which we judge the purposiveness of everything else. I will bring into central focus a passage in the Third Critique that is usually disregarded in the commentaries although it is also recognised that this section of the Critique does, in a significant sense, prefigure Darwin.  Kant talks, here, about genera of animals sharing a common schema; about their having been produced according to a common archetype. He suggests that the species of animals is ‘produced by a common original mother’ (p. 304). He writes ‘he can make mother earth (like a large animal as it were) emerge from her state of chaos, and make her lap promptly give birth initially to creatures of a less purposive form, with these then giving birth to others that became better adapted to  their place of origin and to their relations to one another, until in the end this womb itself rigidified, ossified, and confined itself to bearing definite species that would no longer degenerate, so that the diversity remained as it had turned out when that fertile formative force ceased to operate’ (p. 304). 

Irigaray, in Jones’ reading, claims that the denigration of matter, the description of it as inert substance, goes hand in hand with a forgetting of the female subject position, but more specifically of the role for birth in the generation of that kind of Being - the human being - that uniquely has the capacity to reflect on its place in nature. There is a concomitant forgetting of the role of procreation more generally in ontology.

The distortions, into which Kant is led, I will argue, contribute centrally to the difficulty he has in accounting for the ability freely to do wrong. I will suggest, finally, that Kierkegaard, or Haufniensis, in Concept of Anxiety offers a reading of the origin of freedom through the story of Eve, in Genesis, that can overcome Kant’s difficulty.

10. Mary Wollstonecraft’s Critique of Rousseau

Martina Reuter 
Department of Philosophy, University of Helsinki, Finland

 It is well known that Mary Wollstonecraft wrote a fierce critique of J-J Rousseau’s views on the nature and education of women, but the philosophical foundation of this critique has not yet been sufficiently explored. Wendy Gunther-Canada, for example, assumes that Wollstonecraft is attacking Rousseau’s biological determinism and looking to “social explanations for so-called biological differences” (Gunther-Canada 2001: 100).

I will argue that Gunther-Canada’s assumption is based on an anachronistic understanding of Wollstonecraft’s critical project and fails to capture its philosophical significance. Gunther-Canada’s distinction between social and biological differences belongs to a much later feminist terminology and does not capture either Rousseau’s or Wollstonecraft’s use of the term “natural”, which has strong metaphysical rather than biological connotations.

Rousseau’s views on women are the most explicit target of Wollstonecraft’s critique, but this critique is best understood when it is seen in relation to her critique of his pessimistic view on the possibility of civilization. Wollstonecraft largely agrees with Rousseau’s critical diagnosis of present civilization, but she disagrees with his pessimism. Her own optimism is rooted in a belief in the human capacity of reason and in Providence based on reason. Wollstonecraft shared her belief in reason with the mathematician, theologian and philosopher Richard Price, but she was a much less pure rationalist than he was, valuing the passions and the imagination alongside reason. Her view on the possibilities of imagination working in accordance with reason questions Rousseau’s pessimistic account of the perils of the imagination. 

I will argue that it is against this theologico-philosophical background that we must understand the different epistemological, moral and political aspects of Wollstonecraft’s critique of Rousseau’s conception of men’s and women’s complementary virtues.

11. Freedom as Independence: Wollstonecraft and the Grand Blessing of Life

Alan Coffee 
Research Fellow, Birkbeck College, London, UK

Independence is a central and recurring theme in Wollstonecraft’s work. Independence should not be understood as an individualistic ideal that is in tension with the value of community but as an essential ingredient in successful and flourishing social relationships. I examine three aspects of this rich and complex concept that Wollstonecraft draws on as she develops her own notion of independence as a powerful feminist tool. First, independence is an egalitarian ideal that requires that all individuals, regardless of sex, are protected to a comparable extent in all areas of social, political and economic life, no matter whether this is in the public or private sphere. Secondly, so long as this egalitarian condition is not compromised, independence allows for individuals to perform differentiated social roles, including along gendered lines. Finally, the on-going and collective input of both women and men is required to ensure that the conditions necessary for social independence are maintained. In Wollstonecraft’s hands, then, independence is a powerful ideal that allows her to argue that women must be able to act on their own terms as social and political equals, doing so as women whose perspectives and interests may differ from men’s.

12. African Women in the Politics of the Two-Thirds World

Helen Lauer 
Department of Philosophy and Classics, University of Ghana, Legon, Ghana

To an informed imagination contemplating the planet’s future in the long term, there seems diminishing prospects for the familiar ways of habitation in those regions dominated by capital-intensive economies.  Due to centuries of accumulated disdain for distributive justice in the movement and use of capital, the social arrangements that characterize human collectivity regarded now as the hallmark of ‘advanced’ societies may be actually subsiding.  In the short term, Africans are facing the recalcitrant effects and consequences of past and current colonization.  

It will be argued that the fulfillment of an ideal democratic welfare state in Africa cannot be pursued successfully by parodying the policies that dictate the way women and children are treated as welfare subjects in Great Britain and the United States.  Better policies than those existing in failing capitalist societies, for fulfilling the modern ideal of a welfare democracy, are likely to be found in the indigenous or so-called ‘traditional’ legacies functioning already in Africa, albeit invisibly, throughout and despite the colonial and neo-colonial intrusions of the last five centuries.  The focus of so-called ‘women’s issues’ in Africa always features the entitlements and concerns for basic human survival: access to potable water, sanitary shelter, primary health care and education, nutritional rights, reproductive choice, freedoms from premature death and communicable disease.  Geo-political dynamics recommend African women currently in diplomacy roles for a global politics of transition.  By formalizing their roles as key partners administrating the domestic as well as in the public sphere, the empowerment of African women can fast track the creation of institutionalized ethics of care and the building of genuine democratic structures in Africa—or indeed anywhere.

13. Plurality as a Feminist Political Strategy? Reconsidering Coalitional Politics in the Age of the ‘War on Terror’
Birgit Schippers
St Mary’s University College Belfast

Disputes over the notion of the subject and representation have dominated the scholarship in feminist theory and philosophy in the late 1980s and 1990s. While these so-called 'theory wars' have lost their vehemence in recent years, some of the substantive issues raised in these debates remain significant to current feminist theory and politics. One such issue is how to build progressive alliances with other political movements. Much consideration has been given to the development of coalitions for progressive sexual politics, but the question of accommodating minority cultural rights, and of multiculturalism more broadly, epitomised by the so-called 'headscarves affair', remain hotly contested. This debate has obtained particular significance in the wake of the so-called 'war on terror' and the military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, leading to the creation of new points of tension within feminist political philosophy.

Building upon these debates, my paper aims to reconsider the question of coalitional politics and its significance for feminism. Drawing on recent deployments of the concept of plurality in the writings of Judith Butler, Julia Kristeva and Linda Zerilli, I will proceed in two steps: first, I offer a brief sketch of some of the key issues and controversies around the topic of coalitional politics. Developing feminist perspectives associated with the critique of the subject, I challenge those positions that consider feminist goals to be incompatible with the principles of coalitional politics, and I will argue instead for the openness and fluidity of feminist politics. Second, I argue for a shift from pluralism, understood as group-based politics, towards plurality, embodied in shifting alliances and coalitions, and the creation of a non-sovereign understanding of feminism and feminist politics. Such an emphasis, I want to suggest, aids feminism when confronting the challenges it faces in the age of the 'war on terror'.

14. Women and Political Activism: Notes on Authenticity
Clara Fischer
Co-ordinator, Irish Feminist Network

Women's representation in Ireland's formal political institutions has remained stubbornly low over the decades since suffrage has been achieved. This circumstance has prompted some commentators to assume that women simply aren't interested in the political. On the other hand, women are over-populated in community and voluntary organisations, indicating that women's political engagement takes place outside of the confines of formal structures and processes. In this paper, I wish to analyse this political activism in the informal political sphere by exploring questions related to legitimacy, authenticity and empathy. I shall do so by drawing upon the theory and life of Jane Addams – a renowned feminist activist, sociologist and thinker – as well as on the pragmatist work of her contemporary, William James. Useful in this context will also be the political thought of Simone Weil, as I seek to assess the linkages between advocacy, representation and agency, and the necessity of shared life experiences. Weil is perhaps the most striking example of an activist presupposing absolutely that political action must be premised upon the actual experiences of the disadvantaged, and that such experience must be had first hand. This paper will examine Weil's stance in greater detail, and will ultimately shed light on women activists' understanding of themselves, their role as political agents, and their connection to the formal political process. 



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