Evolving Feminism (Interview with Sally Haslanger)

Davide Andrea Zappulli
Science and Philosophy
8 min readOct 23, 2020


Courtesy of Sally

People tend to use the words ‘female’ and ‘woman’ as synonymous. Nonetheless, in the past decades, feminist philosophers have been insisting that there is an important distinction to be made here. On the one hand, there are males and females: these are sexual categories. Sex is determined by the physical body, by a set of characteristics one happens to be born with that are strictly connected to the reproductive role. On the other, man and woman are genders. In this case, matters are a little bit more complicated, for gender can be considered the social interpretation of sex. In other words, it is a social category and not a natural one. How gender is constructed varies wildly across cultures, times and places, and it can be particularly challenging to find what is common to all cases. Sally Haslanger, professor of philosophy and human and gender studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has been concerned with these issues throughout all her career. I had the occasion to interview her on the subject.

Sally, you have famously argued that women are oppressed by definition. What do you mean by that?

I was writing that work in a period where people were very worried that we couldn’t come up with a coherent way of understanding women as a group. As a result, we may have had to give up feminism because supposedly it’s trying to promote the interest of women. The problem was that not all women have the same kind of bodies. Trans women don’t have a uterus, and trans men don’t have penises necessarily: if we wanted to include trans women among women, the body wasn’t sufficient. If we look just at our social context and what we have in common socially, we want to say that women have existed through time and across places and cultures. And cultures vary tremendously; how it’s interpreted what it is to be a woman as well as norms that are appropriate for women vary. So, the pressure was to find a conception of woman that would enable us to accommodate all these differences. The first step was to say: well, in every society there is an interpretation of reproductive capacities. It’s not necessarily true of an individual because individuals may be assumed to have certain genitalia that they don’t have, but nonetheless, if people think that they have certain genitalia, they treat them in a certain way. But “certain way” is a very abstract notion. The question is what is the “certain way” that we’re going to capture which, again, varies from time to time and place to place. What I identified was that the certain way that women and men are treated across time and history is that men are given along some important dimensions privileges and advantages, and women are given burdens and disadvantages.

Does your view imply that speakers don’t know what the term ‘woman’ means? I guess that most of the people don’t take women to be oppressed by definition.

Well, I think that we’re ignorant about a lot of our words. Before we had chemistry, we didn’t know that gold was the metal with atomic number 79, we just thought it was a shiny metal, and there were a lot of shiny metals that were confused for gold. Clearly, the meaning was not what we thought about when we talked about gold. Our concept wasn’t accurate to distinguish the group. I’m inclined to say we’re ignorant about meanings in a lot of the cases; we don’t know exactly what our terms mean. We have to do work to unpack them. In the case of race, as it turns out, for a long time people have thought that white people had a white gene and black people had a black gene etc., but now we know that that’s false. But this doesn’t mean that these terms don’t pick out groups of people. They just pick our groups of people that now we see we have made rather than discovered. The same sort of thing could be said about man and woman. We thought women were people who had certain bodies, with certain talents, skills and abilities or whatever; but it turns out we were wrong about that. So, we need an improved way of understanding what we were talking about. And I think in the feminist community we want to include trans women as women; they are women. And if that’s the case, if this is what we’re trying to use our language to pick out, then we can’t just use ‘woman’ as a term for sex. It won’t work.

Do we have to rethink the concept of feminism as well?

Well, I certainly think that for a long time people assumed, feminists assumed, that the group we were concerned with is the group of people who were born with a certain body type. But now I think that we’ve learned that some of those people with that body type live as men and some who have a male body type live as women. Therefore, you might have a male body type and still suffer all of the oppression and injustice and whatever that people with ovaries suffer. Am I concerned about that? Yes, I am concerned about that as a feminist. Because it doesn’t matter to me if someone has a penis or not, it matters to me whether they’re suffering from gender discrimination or sex discrimination regardless of their body type. So there’s a new way to understand feminism and understanding what we should have been worried about all along. It’s not the body type people have, but what happens to them when they’re assumed to have a certain body type, or what happens to them when they live as women live, and then they get treated badly. I care about that, and I think that’s a proper target for feminist concern.

Can we say that feminism is concerned about all people who are discriminated on the base of their gender then?

Yes. But maybe that’s a little odd because the definition already says that if you are gendered, or better if you are a woman, you are discriminated. So, what I’m inclined to say is that anyone, regardless of their body type, if they’re assumed to have a female body type and suffer discrimination on that basis, they should be included in the constituency of feminism. I also believe, though, that there are people whose gender is ambiguous or unclear, or maybe people tell that they don’t have the so-called “right” body type. I think that the treatment of them is also a matter of concern for feminism. We don’t have to be restricted to just women in my definition. Also, other people who refuse to be gendered as women or men or that are unsuccessfully gendered as women or men should be in the constituency of feminism.

Courtesy of Sally

Do you think that the role females have in reproduction is relevant for feminism?

I think that females who get pregnant and reproduce bear a greater burden for the species than males do, who don’t get pregnant. This is a point that was made by Simone de Beauvoir, and I think that society should compensate us. The society should make special efforts to provide us with protection, provide us with compensation to do things that will share those burdens. And it doesn’t; it just assumes that this is something that we do for everybody else, and I think this is part of the injustice.

So you think that it’s not legitimate to say that something is just or perhaps neutral on the base of the fact that it’s natural.

I think that much of nature is unjust. That we have to overcome certain facts of biology in order to achieve justice. And it’s going to be true for disability as well. There’re certain ways in which we have to make available resources to people who are disabled because we have the capacity to overcome nature injustices. And I think also we shouldn’t glorify superlative powers that some people have and other people don’t have, giving them great credit for it and financial rewards from it and this sort of things. That’s wrong, we shouldn’t do that.

There are many countries around the world, for example in eastern Asia, where there are the problems feminism is concerned with but where there are very few feminists. Would you see exporting feminism in these countries as a king of cultural imposition?

I think that wherever there is oppression, there are people that are resistant. And the question is: are they able to organize? What are the resources made available to them for organizing? I think one of the reasons why there isn’t something called feminism in some countries is that the dissatisfaction and the injustice cannot be named without there being tremendous backlashes. It can’t be organized because people who have that dissatisfaction are not allowed to meet together and come up with a political agenda. Insofar as feminism is a movement to free women and genderqueer people from oppression, I think it will have to take different forms in different contexts, there is no doubt about that. The European or the American way of doing it isn’t going to be successful everywhere or meet the needs of women everywhere. But this doesn’t mean that it isn’t relevant everywhere. I think that everywhere there are people oppressed on the base of their imagined sex there is a space for feminism because it’s a way of resisting the bad, the injustice.

As philosophers, we write papers, do conferences etc. This is undoubtedly important, but do you think we also have more practical ways to change society?

Do a social movement. I think that be embedded in a social movement and doing theory from within the social movement trying to solve the problems of that social movement is the best way to do philosophy as well as the best way to bring about change.

Maybe there is space here for collaboration between philosophers and, for example, artists?

Yes, artists are tremendously important. But also just activists who understand social movements and social change. I think that they have a lot more creativity that a lot of philosophers do, cause we’re stuck in a kind of possibilities and abstractions and things like that; but people who are really good activists can see where there is an opening to do something. Artists can often do this as well. Also, technology is hugely important. You can develop technology that is oppressive, like surveillance technology that is used in prisons and departments stores can be very oppressive, so we have to be very careful, but it can also be very liberating. The invention of the birth control pill was tremendously liberating, and biotechnological ways of managing our bodies in the context of disability can be so. Technology can be transformative. So we have to be very sensitive to our collaborations with people doing technology development, the artists, and the people whose lives are immediately affected because they have opinions about what means to change. They have needs that they can articulate and we have to listen to them.