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What is Philosophy?


This is the monologue for the 100th episode of Why? Radio: “Feminism as Philosophy, Politics, and Friendship” with guests Gloria Steinem and Suzanne Braun Levine. Click here to listen to the episode.


I can think of few guests more suitable for the hundredth episode of Why? Radio than Gloria Steinem and Suzanne Braun Levine. They and their feminists cohorts emphasized that everyday sexism was built on ideology as much as habit, creating a space for philosophy in the public consciousness. Gloria and Suzanne’s creation, Ms. Magazine, prepared the ground for the blogs, college courses, and television shows we have today. It was critical thinking; it was public philosophy.

Ms. offered a counterpoint to the notion that women were only interested in, well, notions. Its title alone was transgressive. It recognized that the most personal designation—that term by which we are acknowledged by others—announced our limitations. Women called Miss were deemed perpetually immature and those referred to as Mrs. were relegated to the background of a couple. Those called Ms, however, were protected by ambiguity. Freed from the conviction that without a husband, they were nothing, they could pursue the life of their choice—in theory, anyway.

Ms. marked a profound challenge to our philosophical tradition. The Ancient Greek philosophers took for granted that social life consisted of two spheres: the polis, the political life of the city governed by men, and the oikos, the household domain of women. Plato tried to change this, arguing that men and women were equal, but he had to eradicate the family to do it. There was only politics, no households, in his Republic. Aristophanes also pushed back. His play Lysistrata tells the story of women who go on a sex strike to stop men from fighting wars. It had many examples of intellectually and physically powerful women, but it was still a farce. It had its audience laugh at women, not with them. And, it was performed entirely by men; women were forbidden from acting in the Greek theater.

Twenty-five hundred years and only a handful of feminist philosophers later, the presumption that politics was for men still dominated. John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice, the most important political theory of the late twentieth century, came out the same year as Ms. Magazine. It argued that the rules of a just society were separate from family relations, assuming in the process that families were built on love and good will. They were not political units. Rawls never acknowledged the domestic abuse, favoritism, and hatred that so often permeate familial life. He also ignored the feminist insight that politics defined what we would call a family in the first place. The term Ms. challenged all this. It told us that the personal was political and demanded that women be welcomed as equal in all aspects of life, however we choose to organize it.

I will admit that I am too young to fully recognize the transgressive nature of the title “Ms.” itself. I grew up taking its legitimacy for granted. I can also easily forget how challenging feminism itself can still be. But as the most recent election highlighted, there are plenty of people who still don’t believe that women have a right to lead. Whoever you voted for, you must acknowledge that Hillary’s opponents never called her Ms. Clinton. They always called her Mrs.

The term Ms. does something else, though. It leaves room for more than just marital relationships. It acknowledges that women have other people in their lives: private and public associates of comparable stature who are all individuals themselves. It acts as a bulwark against those who demand to know whom a woman associates with. Colleague, lover, acquaintance, even enemy—the term Ms. lets a woman decide for herself how much she wants to explain. It acknowledges that women, in fact, have friends of their own choosing, and that who they choose to spend their time with is their own business.

Our guests Gloria Steinem and Suzanne Braun Levine are the model of a feminist friendship. Gloria co-founded Ms. Magazine and Suzanne was its first editor, and they continued to write, fight, and demand equality together since its inception. Aristotle, another Greek philosopher and no champion of women, argued that friendship, not citizenship, ought to be thought of as the primary social relationship. Many feminists agree.

Why? Radio could not have existed without Suzanne and Gloria’s work. I work very hard to treat my listeners and guests as equals, as co-investigators into all things philosophical. Feminism introduced the idea that a host could be on equal par with the audience and still respect them.

No, I wrote that wrong. Feminism insisted on the idea that unless a host was on equal par, the audience wasn’t being respected at all. I accept this notion without qualification, and our one-hundredth episode is all the more celebratory because two of the women who it to me are here to teach me more.

Follow the author Jack Russell Weinstein on Twitter: @jackrweinstein
Follow Why? Radio on Twitter: @whyradioshow

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