Symposium on “Two Feminisms”

An article of mine that I wrote a few years ago, “Two Feminisms,” found a new life as the subject of the fall symposium of the online journal, Symposia on Gender, Race, and Philosophy. Every season the editors pick an article for a symposium and also four scholars to critique it. Then the author has an opportunity to reply; the reply along with the critiques are posted; and the symposium is open for public commentary. My four interlocutors—Amy Allen, Nancy Bauer, Scott Pratt, and Linda Zerilli—had quite varied responses to the paper, all of which prompted me to put the piece in a broader frame. “Having read my interlocutors, it now occurs to me that …’Two Feminisms’ isn’t about two distinct groups of feminist scholars; it’s about two different conceptions of power and politics.” In the original article and the response, I argue for a model of politics and change that is deliberative in the Deweyan (not Habermasian) sense, a model where change need not come from battling the other but from working on changing the ways in which the larger sociosymbolic system situates us. The deep problem that accompanies injustice is the ways “the system,” and not just segments of society, puts us in “our place.” By moving the focus from primarily particular bad actors to the larger sociosymbolic sphere, I’ve touched some nerves. But this is a discussion worth having.

By Noelle McAfee

I am professor of philosophy at Emory University and editor of the Kettering Review. My latest book, Fear of Breakdown: Politics and Psychoanalysis, explores what is behind the upsurge of virulent nationalism and intransigent politics across the world today. My other writings include Democracy and the Political Unconscious; Habermas, Kristeva, and Citizenship; Julia Kristeva; and numerous articles and book chapters. Edited volumes include Standing with the Public: the Humanities and Democratic Practice and a special issue of the philosophy journal Hypatia on feminist engagements in democratic theory. I am also the author of the entry on feminist political philosophy in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and well into my next book project on democratic public life.


  1. /delurk

    NB This is a reaction to the first paragraph of your paper; I don’t have time today to read the rest of it, or the responses. Sorry!

    A couple months ago, I had a (friendly) conversation with a bunch of fellow grad students in which we broke neatly into two camps. There were those (including myself) who had an informal understanding of something we called `structural racism’ or `institutional racism’, and those who didn’t seem to understand how this could be racism. Probably this was because they didn’t understand what it was, simpliciter, which in turn was because we couldn’t define it for them. The best we could do was suggest ways in which the socio-economic context, rather than any particular agent, was racist.

    A few weeks later I happened across a review of Richard Ford’s The race card which, according to the review at least, argues that racism should be understood as a matter of socio-economic structures rather than bad acts by particular agents or classes of agents.

    Third and finally, I know that philosophers working on impairment and justice (Feder Kittay and Silvers are the two that come to my mind most readily) focus a lot on how the architecture and geography of public space constitutes the primary form of oppression of physically impaired humans. Again, no one agent or class of agents, but instead something `structural’, is `doing’ the oppression.

    So it seems like the idea of structural, rather than agental, oppression is the hot new approach to thinking about injustice. And I certainly think it has powerful potential. But what I find kind of funny here is that it really isn’t a new idea. You mention Kristeva, Dewey, and Peirce. Foucault’s whole approach is based on this idea. And it’s one key aspect of Marx’s `materialistic’ analysis. I think Mary Lyndon Shanley has an article where she argues that JS Mill recognised it, though not so consistently.

    And yet we who prefer this approach have to fight an uphill battle to get it to make sense to other people. Why is that? Is there something particularly American or Anglophone that makes us forget that we do not, in fact, live as isolated individuals in the state of nature?

  2. This is terrific. I remember reading your article when it came out first and I am glad that it’s getting the recognition. I posted the announcement on and I hope that it will get more readers coming your way.

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