Feminism Without Metaphysics or a Deflationary Account of Gender


I argue for a deflationary answer to the question, “What is it to be a woman?” Prior attempts by feminist theorists to provide a metaphysical account of what all and only women have in common have all failed for the same reason: there is nothing women have in common beyond being women. Although the social kinds man and woman are primitive, their existence can be explained. I say that human sex difference is the material ground of systems of gender; gender systems serve to enable male control of female reproductive capacities. This explains the fact that most women are female, but it does not entail that all women are female or that all females are women. To clarify my position, I draw an analogy between the kind woman and the kind parent. While it is difficult to come up with necessary and sufficient conditions for being a parent, it is clear that the social institution or practice of parenting has its material ground in the biological facts about human reproduction together with facts about infantile dependency. Saying this does not entail that all and only biological progenitors are parents.

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  1. 1.

    Early on in the so-called “second wave” of feminist theorizing, Simone de Beauvoir published her groundbreaking and highly influential work, The Second Sex (de Beauvoir 1949/1953), presenting a critique of biological determinism from an existentialist point of view. Firestone (1970) argued that women’s natures were not only not determined by their biology, but that technological development could and should free women completely from pregnancy and childbirth through technological development. Influential feminist critiques from the 1980’s include those by Wittig (1981), Frye (1983), MacKinnon (1987), and Genevieve Lloyd. For a detailed history of feminist philosophical discussion of biological determinism, see Warnke (2010). See also Antony (1997).

  2. 2.

    Gould (1981), Hrdy (1981), Hubbard (1983), Lewontin et al. (1984), Bleier (1984) and Fausto-Sterling (1985). See essays in Bleier (1986). For an excellent review of this literature, see Wylie et al. (1989).

  3. 3.

    See especially Fausto-Sterling (1985).

  4. 4.

    Butler (1990) and Haraway (1989).

  5. 5.

    See essays in Nicholson (1990).

  6. 6.

    Jaggar (1983), Alcoff and Potter (1993) and Young (1990).

  7. 7.

    Such as Friedan (1963).

  8. 8.

    Hooks (1984), Mohanty (1984), Lugones (1987), Hoagland (1988), Collins (1990), and essays in Sargent (1981).

  9. 9.

    Spelman (1988) and Fuss (1989).

  10. 10.

    Witt (2011), Haslanger (2000), Ásta (2018) and Barnes (forthcoming).

  11. 11.

    Bettcher (2012).

  12. 12.

    Mikkola (2016) and Robin Dembroff (Dembroff, ms) defend similar lines of thought.

  13. 13.

    I’ll follow the typographical convention illustrated here: I’ll put an expression in quotation marks when I’m mentioning, rather than using it, and I’ll put it in all caps when I want to refer to the concept to which the expression corresponds. I will use the expressions “Xhood” or “being an X” to refer to the property expressed by the expression.

  14. 14.

    My position, which I’ve argued for in a number of papers concerned with the causal efficacy of the mental, is that there is no such thing, strictly speaking, as “disjunctive properties;” there are only disjunctive characterizations of properties. (See, for example, my “Who’s Afraid of Disjunctive Properties?”, Antony 2003). But here as elsewhere, I’ll speak with the vulgar.

  15. 15.

    I have argued for this claim in many of my earlier papers. For example, see Antony (1995).

  16. 16.

    For a defense of this claim about Austinian speech-acts, see Antony (2012, 2014).

  17. 17.

    Thanks to Richard Kimberly Heck for pressing me on this point.

  18. 18.

    I am, of course, insinuating that men came to dominate women in order to exploit their reproductive capacities. Richard Kimberly Heck pressed me to say whether I had any actual evidence for this particular speculation. I don’t, other than it’s being explanatory if true. I’m not sure that there could be evidence for this, since the pertinent developments are lost in human prehistory. That doesn’t excuse my asserting something without evidence. But my fallback position is, as I note, simply that somehow or other, at some point in prehistory, the domination of females by males became a generic trait of the species homo sapiens.

  19. 19.

    Boyd (1999).

  20. 20.

    See Marilyn Frye, “Sexism” in Frye (1983).

  21. 21.

    Andreasen (2005), Spencer (2014) and Hardimon (2017).

  22. 22.

    Diamond (1997). I rely here on Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel. This work has come under criticism from anthropologists and historians, but none of the criticism that I have seen calls into question the correctness of his central claim, which is that differences in rates of technological development among peoples inhabiting different parts of the world can be explained by differences in the material conditions present in their geographical locations, rather than by “innate” differences in temperament or intelligence.

  23. 23.

    The subsequent discussion about parenthood was inspired by considerations raised by Alex Byrne in personal conversation, and discussed by him in (Byrne forthcoming).

  24. 24.

    The term “progenitor” is usually reserved for a male, but as there seems to be no parallel term for females (big surprise), I’m going to use the term to refer to either the male and the female involved in an act of reproduction.

  25. 25.

    “Surrogate pregnancy” is an unhappy phrase that suggests that the actual pregnancy of the woman gestating the child is merely a proxy for some other, genuine pregnancy. That is not, of course, the case.

  26. 26.

    See Jadva et al. (2015).

  27. 27.

    See Moody-Adams (1991), Parks (2010) and Mitra (2018).

  28. 28.

    Shrage (2013).

  29. 29.

    In one case, a transman in the UK who had obtained a gender recognition certificate, applied for legal acknowledgement that he was the father of the child he bore. It was denied: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2019/jul/16/transgender-man-who-gave-birth-loses-high-court-privacy-case-fred-mcconnell

  30. 30.

    As reported, for example, on the US television show 20/20: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WwuRSS2whTg

  31. 31.

    Compare the notion of a “virgin birth.” I grew up a Catholic, so this idea was a familiar one to me. Nonetheless, I was told several times by Protestant friends that such a thing was impossible, a “contradiction in terms.” Of course, contemporary reproductive technology has shown that such a thing as a virgin birth can exist even without divine intervention.

  32. 32.

    Unfortunately, large numbers of the children being separated from their parents due to the evil and politically motivated immigration policies of the Trump administration are not being placed in the care of foster parents. See “Migrant Children are Spending Months in ‘Crammed’ Facility in a Temporary Florida Shelter,” Miriam Jordan, The New York Times June 26, 2019.

  33. 33.

    This account, because it appeals to functional relations, rather than biological difference, does not exclude the possibility that some male individuals may qualify as “women” or that some female individuals may qualify as “men.” MacKinnon recognizes this implication, and explicitly endorses it.

  34. 34.

    It is particularly important for Western feminists to recognize the agency of women under even very harshly oppressive conditions, and not to parochially conceive of them either as naive “dupes” or as helpless “victims” of patriarchy. See Narayan (2002).

  35. 35.

    See for example, Young (1985).

  36. 36.

    This is a (partial) response to a question raised by Jennifer Saul, and to a query from an anonymous reviewer. A complete answer to these questions would involve a theory of reference-fixing for terms picking out social kinds, and I don’t have one. I take refuge, however, in the fact that “parent” and PARENT face exactly the same question, as do many, if not all terms and concepts of social kinds. My thinking on this was helped by a talk by Esa Díaz Léon, at G.A.P. 10. Thanks to Díaz Léon for providing me a copy of the paper on which her talk was based (Díaz Léon forthcoming)

  37. 37.

    Haslanger (2000) and Ásta (2018).

  38. 38.

    Haslanger (2000) wants to allow for the possibility of successor systems of this sort. But it’s unclear to me what would make such systems, systems of gender.

  39. 39.

    Antony (1998).

  40. 40.

    Mallon (2006).

  41. 41.

    Alcoff (2006, p. 232).

  42. 42.

    Quine (1975).

  43. 43.

    Ereshefsky, Mark "Species", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2017/entries/species/>.

  44. 44.

    The California Department of Wildlife regards them both as subtypes of canis lupus: https://www.wildlife.ca.gov/Search-Results?q=dogs%20and%20wolves. Scholastic.com, a resource for elementary and secondary school teachers, classifies dogs (canis familiaris) as distinct species as different from wolves, as either animal is from coyotes (canis latrans): https://www.scholastic.com/teachers/articles/teaching-content/wolves-coyotes-and-dogs/

  45. 45.

    Or, to be precise, I should say “a simple concept that has women as its content.” I don’t mean to presume that there is an interpersonal criterion of lexical identity for systems of mental representation. That is, one person might “spell” a concept CORIANDER while another spells it CILANTRO. This raises the possibility—which I think is real—of interpersonal Frege cases. However, I’ll ignore this qualification in what follows.

  46. 46.

    For a delightful and convincing piece of evidence that this is so, consider the following anecdote related here: https://www.netfunny.com/rhf/jokes/90q3/baret.html about what happened when the son of two Cornell psychologists (Sandra and Darryl Bem) wore barrettes to school.

  47. 47.

    I do not want to be committed to there being interpersonal criteria of type-identity for systems of mental representation. As I said above, you might “spell” your concept of a certain plant CORIANDER while I “spell” it CILANTRO, and such differences need make no difference to the contents of each concept. For ease of exposition, though, I’ll continue to speak of “the concept WOMAN.”

  48. 48.

    This is the sort of problem that doomed compositional semantics in the 70’s—try saying what you add to RUMINANT to distinguish cows from horses. BOVINE and EQUINE will work nicely, but then why do you need RUMINANT? See Fodor (1977).


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This paper is based closely on a keynote address given at GAP.10 in Cologne, Germany, Sept. 17, 2018. An earlier version of his paper was presented to Richard Boyd’s seminar on social kinds at Cornell University in October 2016, and a later version of this paper was presented to my colleagues at the University of Massachusetts in December 2018. I’d like to thank all my audiences for their attention and their feedback. I owe particular thanks, for criticism and discussion, to Rachel Antony-Levine, Karen Bennett, Richard Boyd, Alex Byrne, Esa Díaz Léon, Elizabeth Harman, Sally Haslanger, Richard Kimberly Heck, Hilary Kornblith, Joseph Levine, Ned Markosian, Sally McConnell-Ginet, Mari Mikkola, and Jennifer Saul. (I have answered all objections except for the ones I haven’t.) Thanks also to two anonymous referees, and special thanks to editors Thomas Grundmann and Joachim Horvath for their advice, both philosophical and editorial, and for their patience!

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Antony, L. Feminism Without Metaphysics or a Deflationary Account of Gender. Erkenn 85, 529–549 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10670-020-00243-2

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