“I’m Not a Feminist, But . . .”: Care-Focused Feminism

We hear people say this all of the time, and yet they often go on to express “feminist” ideas and could identify as a feminist. There are many reasons why people distance themselves from the feminist movement. I can’t possibly explain or guess them all. But I can explain the different types of feminism according to Rosemarie Tong’s book Feminist Thought: A More Comprehensive Introduction (2009). There are many types of feminism, and we know that “all feminists do not think alike” (p. 1). However, labeling different schools of thought help us to “mark the range of different approaches, perspectives, and frameworks a variety of feminists have used to shape both their explanations for women’s oppression and their proposed solutions for its elimination” (p. 1).

This series will outline and define the many feminisms. Maybe you’ll be able to identify where you agree and disagree with feminist thought.

feminist thought cover

Today’s focus is Care-Focused Feminism. Last week, I posted about Psychoanalytic Feminism.

“[C]are-focused feminists regard women’s capacities for care as a human strength rather than a human weakness” (p. 163). These feminists might focus on the ethic of justice and the ethic of care. Justice seems to be a “masculine” ethic, while care is “feminine.” Justice and care should be balanced, and the two are not mutually exclusive.

Carol Gilligan wrote a groundbreaking book on the ethics of care and saw a problem with using “male” norms for ethics as a standard rather than including “female” norms as well, such as connections and relationships. She developed her work from Kohlberg’s six stages of moral development. Gilligan’s goal was “to develop a test that could accurately measure both men’s and women’s moral development. Neither men nor women should be viewed as the morally inferior sex” (p. 165).

Nel Noddings also works with caring in her research. “[O]ur culture favors a ‘masculine’ ethics of justice over a ‘feminine’ ethics of care” (p. 167-168). Noddings feels that natural caring can morph into ethical caring and she sees morality as “affirming one’s own interests through the process of affirming others’ needs” (p. 169).

Evil is also a topic explored through this ethics of care and ethics of justice. Noddings noted that “the kind of finger-pointing that causes the rich to trace poverty to the sloth, genetic weakness, and lack of ambition of the poor, and, in turn, the poor to trace poverty to the indifference, ruthlessness, and greed of the rich” is distorted and creates us-versus-them thinking (p. 170).   “We can only reduce evil by accepting and combating our own penchant for it” (p. 172).  Evil has five forms: inflicting pain, inducing pain of separation, neglecting relation, causing helplessness, and creating systems of mystification (p. 173). Ethics is about overcoming this pain and evil.

Gilligan and Noddings have been critiqued for linking women to caring “naturally” and ignoring issues of race and class. We also learn that caring can be seen from another angle. “There are times in life when ethics demands that we not care” (p. 180). And “there is a difference between caring for others on the one hand and self-destruction on the other” (p. 180).

Maternal ethics also play a role in the ethics of care. Sara Ruddick wrote about maternal thinking and practice. This includes preserving, fostering, and training. Others have argued that “Because men participate in the inception of life, they should participate in its maintenance” (p. 191). Eva Feder Kittay uses the term “dependency worker” to explain care. She argues that “someone should take care of dependency workers” (p. 194). “[A] theory of justice that is not infused with a theory of care will never produce equality” (p. 194). We also learn that “care is not strictly a private matter” (p. 199).

Care-focused feminism is one of my favorite types of feminism. I would argue that an ethic of care does not have to be gendered. We can all be caring, male or female. I agree with the idea that an ethic of care sometimes demands that we not care, especially in cases of abuse.

It was interesting to me that the theme of peace plays a big role in this type of feminism, yet the metaphors of war are still used to describe what feminists must do to change things. An example: “Ruddick nonetheless proposed a feminist politics as a second way to join women and peace. A feminist politics supports women fighting against all forms of discrimination” (p. 187). How can we successfully engage in an ethic of care and maternal thinking to lead to peace while still trying to “fight” injustices?

Next week I’ll post about Multicultural, Global, and Postcolonial Feminism.