Equal Rights for the Classic Perspectives on Gender

In a research project funded by the Austrian Science Fund FWF, Silvia Stoller has risked a daringly fresh interpretation of the classic approaches to feminist gender research. The results have now been published in her book "Existenz – Differenz – Konstruktion.Phänomenologie der Geschlechtlichkeit bei Beauvoir, Irigaray und Butler", which will be presented on 11 January 2011. In her work, the author shows, for the first time, how views relating to feminist gender studies, which are seemingly mutually exclusive, can actually be drawn upon to form constructive criticism that is relevant to our contemporary society.

A balanced perspective on classical theories of philosophical gender research. © Use of this photo for editorial purposes is free of charge, subject to attribution: Credit © European Union, 2010

Women are equal. Or different? Or do they exist at all? These questions – put simply – paraphrase the three distinctive positions in gender research of the 20th century.
Simone de Beauvoir advocates gender equality and demands that women be given the same rights as men. Seemingly diametrically opposed is Luce Irigaray’s difference theory. According to this approach, there should be no attempt to find common ground between the sexes; instead we should – in a positive sense – reinforce and develop more differences between men and women. The third position is based on the principle of construction according to Judith Butler, which stipulates that genders as such are unnatural. Gender-specific interpretations are total cultural constructs.

These three theoretical approaches seem, at first glance, contradictory. However, in her book, which will be presented on Tuesday 11 January 2011 at 7 pm in the Depot, Breite Gasse 3, 1070 Vienna, author Dr. Silvia Stoller demonstrates that they are not. According to the motto "It is time to give the classic gender theories of the 20th century a new reading!" Dr. Stoller challenged herself to find a brand new connection between these ideas. Her study clearly shows that there is significant overlap between the three theoretical approaches, and that they even complement each other.

Classic, New Sexuality
"If you look closer at, for instance, the work of Beauvoir, you realize that, although she called for equality, she saw the need for recognizing differences. The demand for equal rights and the principle of equal treatment of the genders did not imply, in her opinion, that the genders should become more alike", explains Dr. Stoller. Moreover, in her difference theory, Irigaray does not exclude the possibility that sexual difference can be accompanied by political demands for equality. For example, she herself advocated that women should fight for their own rights, rather than exercise the rights of others without criticism. If you then look at it from Judith Butler’s perspective of construction, sexual difference can be viewed as a pure construct of society. However, contrary to the generally established opinion, Dr. Stoller believes that this does not automatically mean a negation of the whole concept of gender.

The fact that these three brands of classic feminist theory still have much to teach us today, can be seen in the following current examples: Beavoir’s call for equality is by no means antiquated; in many areas, for instance, men and women are still paid different wages for the same job. In our multicultural society, it also seems more urgent than ever to strive to recognize our differences, as called for by Luce Irigaray. Finally, we need to keep an eye on the gender constructs of our society, as they indicate normative sexuality and offer prospects for change. The insights from these three approaches therefore represent a permanent challenge.

(Not) an Everyday Phenomenon
The scientist’s method of choice for her published analyses was phenomenology, which considers sexuality as a basic trait of human existence. At the same time, the method allows a discourse on existence, difference and construction, without committing completely to either of the theoretical approaches, as described by Dr. Stoller: "I wanted to embark on a kind of journey across tradition. By using phenomenology, sexuality can be made the subject, without giving preference to one or the other of the positions. That way I was able to outline the overlap between the theories appropriately."

In order to facilitate the reader’s access to her work, the author divided her book into two parts: In the first part, she explains basic definitions and relevant theories. Building on these initial clarifications, she carries out her analyses in the second part. She does this by examining all three major feminist theories. In her opinion, that is the only way to cover the complex phenomena of sexuality properly. In conducting her research as part of the project funded by the  Austrian Science Fund FWF, Dr. Stoller hopes that it will provoke new ideas for future phenomenological and feminist studies.

Original publication:
Silvia Stoller: Existenz – Differenz – Konstruktion. Phänomenologie der Geschlechtlichkeit bei Beauvoir, Irigaray und Butler. Wilhelm Fink Verlag 2010. ISBN: 978-3-7705-4907-8

Scientific contact
Univ.-Doz. Dr. Silvia Stoller PhD
University of Vienna
Institut für Philosophie
Universitätsstraße 7
1010 Vienn
M +43 / 699 121 77 444

Austrian Science Fund (FWF)
Mag. Stefan Bernhardt

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Vienna, 11th January 2011