“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.

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

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  1. Emily, this has been a great series of posts. The Roosevelts series on PBS is a good compliment to this post and leverages it further for a greater good. Teddy Roosevelt detested injustice a trait he learned from his father. He used the term “square deal” to mean every American deserves a square deal, meaning a fair chance or opportunity. This is why he went after the Robber Barons, who exploited people and resources.
    Eleanor and Franklin added a level of compassion to help people who had fallen beneath the cracks expanding the square deal to the “New Deal.” FDR had success, with Eleanor’s pushing, to provide job opportunity even before he was President.

    What is interesting is due in part to the tragedies in her early life, Eleanor was not very maternal and left a large share of the upbringing of her children to FDR’s mother. So, one of the most forward thinking people and women, who cared so much for the disenfranchised, was less a care-giver to her children. Her “greater good” modus operandi was not shaped by her mother or father, who both died early. They seemed to have been influenced by a school in London where she lived for four years – so that may be why her compassion is more global than maternal.

    Teddy was more about giving people a fair chance, but it was up to them to make it. Was this because he was a man or because he knew how to survive in the environment? Maybe both, as he pursued this goal with zeal and aggressiveness. FDR and Eleanor agreed with this premise, but added a caring aspect, that when bad things happen, the marginalized are impacted greatly. So, using your vernacular, they were more caring as well as justice minded. Is that due to Eleanor and FDR’s mother for shaping and challenging FDR’s mindset? I think the answer is yes. FDR had a great political partner in his wife. It should be noted both admired Teddy greatly.

    I think we all carry the genes for caring and justice. I think gender roles and expectations of the period can shape habits that could lead you to favor one side or the other (or neither, depending on the role models) To me, they both are important. Thanks again, BTG

    1. You are exactly right. They are both important. I do lean toward caring, myself! I love the connections you made to The Roosevelts. I have missed the last few episodes, but I too was struck by Teddy’s interest in going after the robber barons and in using government as a way of checking and balancing capitalism. I think the situation in his time with the mines and mistreatment of child workers has a lot of similarity to what we still see today on Wall Street. I guess we will always strive to exploit for gain. We don’t seem to learn from our mistakes… I look forward to getting to watch more of this series. Thanks for the preview on Eleanor. I did see the part about her mother being beautiful and treating her badly because she wasn’t very pretty. That is so sad.

  2. Very interesting. I like that you picked out the war metaphor in the ‘fight for peace.’ I wonder if it’s just Americans who can’t seem to speak without invoking violence even in our language or if other cultures have this pervasive war metaphor as well.

    I like the ideas in Care Focused Feminism, specifically that perceived feminine nurture is a strength, not a weakness, and should be upheld as just as important as perceived masculine ideals of justice. But again, as with all the other categories, Care Focused Feminism isn’t complete by itself. Splitting the categories apart makes different aspects easier to understand but I think general Feminism contains elements of all of these ideas.

    1. It does seem that we can’t get away from war metaphors! I love what you are saying about all of the feminisms working together. I think that my version of feminism certainly combines ideas from all of them. It is fun to examine the nuances by categorizing them, but perhaps feminism is a big, wonderful, messy thing that can’t really be neatly packaged.

  3. Although I think that kindness and caring are the most important qualities a person can have (it’s what I look for in significant others!), I take issue with the idea that being caring is inherently feminine. Trying to “re-brand” kindness as a genderless trait suggests that it needed to be re-branded in the first place… and it didn’t! I remember that when I was in 6th grade, our whole class went on a camping field trip. They gave out superlatives at the end, and I won “Best Cabin Mommy” and was extremely insulted. I was glad to know that I was considered caring, but was it really necessary to express that fact via such an obnoxiously gendered word like “mommy”? It’s really inappropriate to be labeling a 12-year-old that, and there was no complementary “Best Cabin Daddy” award! Being a parent is a serious business, and it shouldn’t be taken lightly. Sigh. I guess I’ve always been a feminist!

    1. This is certainly a debate among these types of feminists. I think caring as a “feminine” trait is more cultural than biological. I like the idea of applying it equally to men and women and valuing it for everybody.

  4. Perhaps a reason why no one really feels comfortable saying that they are a feminist outloud is because of the views on feminism that most of society have. There are only.three kinds of people: feminists, people who don’t understand feminism and bigots. Brilliant series xx

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