The Irrational Woman: what does it mean to be an anti-rational feminist?

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Doing this project has been making me think about a lot of things, and I think it's important to take a little pause here to clarify my motivations. I touched upon these ideas a little bit in my "About the Blog" post, but I would like to spell them out more explicitly.

If you do a quick Google search for "irrational woman," you will get a whole list of links to advice: how to deal with irrational women, why women are so irrational, and (my personal favorite) are all beautiful women irrational?

There are some important concepts here that I'm worried will get confused: to begin with, the identification between men and rationality.

Men and Rationality
I am not a historian of ideas, so I don't know when and how this association came to be, but it seems that for at least the past few centuries of Western literature and philosophy, men have been identified as rational or logical, and women as emotional or intuitive. I could make a case for this idea stemming from menstruation and the lunar cycle being more in tune with non-human natural processes; the trope of the crazy PMS woman is certainly common in today's pop culture.
[Side note: wouldn't it be interesting if someone, like Margaret Mead with adolescence, did a cross-cultural study of PMS? I bet you there are places where it exists in a much different form.]

Whatever the reason, there is a stereotype of women as irrational. Women say men are pigs; men say women are crazy and incomprehensible - and many women seem to accept that, as if what we represent as a gender still needs to be dictated by men.

Rationality and Access
The problem with this identification of the rational man - aside from the fact that it is stereotypical and incorrect - is that ever since rationality was posited as a central Enlightenment value (and a value which we still foster in our educational system), it has been tautologically exclusive to men. In other words, rationality is a male characteristic because only men have it. Therefore, women don't and can't.

Irrationality and Arationality, or Anti-rationality
This is where my critique comes in. What concerns me is that a feminist critique of rationality might be seen as implicitly supporting the idea that rationality just isn't for women, that we, as less rational beings, just don't have access to the same kind of logic and must come up with an alternative. This is why I have been careful so far to avoid the use of the word "irrational."

Instead, I want to talk about arationality or anti-rationality. By this, I want to propose an alternate means of understanding the world. And when I talk about anti-rationality as a feminist, I want to talk about ways this type of understanding might undermine the structure of pure logic that has been placed in such high value by our intellectual founding fathers.

I make no claims to biology; I don't think individual women or men are inherently better at any style of thinking. On the other hand, I am beginning to think that embracing anti-rationality - in whatever form that takes - may be an inherently feminist act. Anti-rationality subverts the route to intellectualism that was for so long traditionally denied to women, and in doing so, it may open up a new pathway that has not yet been monopolized by any particular group. And more than a feminist act, anti-rationality may also be an anti-colonial, anti-racist, anti-heteronormative, anti-classist act - an act of resistance by any group who has been told they aren't capable of intellectual thought. These groups continue to show that they are capable (though unfortunately many people still don't believe it); now, I wonder if it's also important to show that we don't care, that the dominant way is not the only way to think productively. In other words: Is there a route to anti-rationality that can be used as a unifying counterhegemonic tool?

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I hope this has clarified where I'm coming from with this; next up will be a look at María Lugones and Gloria Anzaldúa, two women who have explore what it means to take anti-rationality as a broader tactic of resistance.

3 Comments

What you mean by rationality, irrationality, anti-rationality, arationality should be clarified and defined. I think there is some benefit to making a distinction between rationality and logic; they are often confused.

The other exciting thing about this post is that it does raise the issue of gender differences in "thinking" and how they come about. Other gender dichotomies beside men are pigs/women are crazy come to mind: left brain/right brain; intense castration anxiety/castration depression; avoidance of emotion/access to emotion; logical or deductive thinking/metaphorical and symbolic thinking.

I like non-rationality better than the other terms for contrast to rationality. I think rationality starts off being defined as having good reasons for thinking or doing something, whatever good means. But whatever good does mean may involve what you are referring to as non-rational. Then there is rationalizing, which is to find reasons for things that are actually irrational.

The assumption that rationality is the dominant male mode of thinking has to be questioned. Was valorizing rationality merely a way that male dominance was asserted and maintained? Larry Summers lost the Presidency of Harvard over something like this. I don't know that anyone has defined rationality clearly enough to do serious reliable and valid research on whether there is a biological gender difference. That there is a gender difference may be a cultural hoax.

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Sophie published on February 21, 2010 8:39 PM.

Call for Questions was the previous entry in this blog.

Lugones and Anzaldúa: Borders, Multiplicity, and the Spirit is the next entry in this blog.

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