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How we celebrate Women's History Month

Here's what a philosophy professor tells us about Women's History Month.

We go to our philosophers for inspiration: what does women's history month look like at Mount Mary University? How has this changed over the years? Dr. Jennifer Hockenberry is professor of philosophy at Mount Mary University and the author of Thinking Woman: A philosophical approach to the quandary of gender. We visualized part of her message in a video, and below the video are her thoughts on Women's History Month.

“For the most part, feminist theory has assumed that there is some existing identity, understood through the category of women, who not only initiates feminist interests and goals within discourse, but constitutes the subject for whom political representation is pursued. . . . But the concept of woman can no longer be understood in stable and abiding terms.”

(Judith Butler. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. (New York: Routledge, 1999)  pp. 3-4)

"Today in my philosophy of science class, my students explored Judith Butler’s view that not only gender but biological sex itself is a construct of culture.  They explored her radical ideas that language and culture created the terms male and female, terms that unfairly and arbitrarily constrain many individuals whose psyches, desires, and very bodies do not conform to sociological and medical norms.  They read historical and contemporary accounts of hermaphrodites or intersex individuals driven to suicide.  They discussed the irony of barring women who are too strong and too fast from the Olympic women’s events.  This was the case in the IOC’s decision to ban Dutee Chande in 2012 for having a body that naturally produces hormones with “performance-enhancing effects, particularly on strength, power and speed, which may provide a competitive advantage in sport.” [1]The students acknowledged that the current taxonomy of sex and gender was problematic.  They were not sure what to do with the problem.

"As a women’s university we are committed to women’s flourishing and this includes a commitment to thinking deeply about the nature and vocation of women." 

The class was in hot debate for 75 minutes because every student there was fully cognizant that this is an issue that mattered.  It is March, and it is women’s history month.  Moreover, as women who have chosen to study with women at a University that raises up women to transform the world, these students recognized what is at stake.  If Butler is correct and there is no stable and abiding definition of woman, whose history do we study in March? If Butler is correct and there is no stable and abiding definition of woman, whom does Mount Mary University serve?  If Butler is correct and there is no stable and abiding definition of woman, what does it mean to seek justice for women, to transform women, to advocate for women’s flourishing?   The class was in agreement that women matter, that women need education, that women need justice, and that women’s transformation and flourishing will lead to global transformation and flourishing.  But the class was not sure what a woman was.  Suddenly philosophy of gender seemed important.  They wanted to think better and deeper about the issue.  This is good.

Judith Butler said in 1990 that some feminists were concerned that debating the meaning of gender might lead to a “failure of feminism.”  Yet Butler believed that philosophical thinking, divergent thinking, creative thinking would not lead to a failure at all but to new avenues towards “more liveable” lives for all people, including especially those who perform or are identified as women. As a philosopher at Mount Mary University I agree with this view.  As a women’s university we are committed to women’s flourishing and this includes a commitment to thinking deeply about the nature and vocation of women. We must discuss and take a stand for the role of motherhood, the place of empathy, and the vocation of care that has long been part of our understanding of womanhood.  We must foster the leadership skills, strength, and respect that has long been part of our understanding of feminism. To do both, we must construct creative and empowering paradigms that respect human dignity and the thriving of our global community, even as we deconstruct harmful gender constructs.  Here is where philosophy meets life. This is how we celebrate women’s history month at a women’s university in 2016.  I feel blessed to be part of this discussion in this place with these women."

Jennifer Hockenbery Dragseth is professor of philosophy at Mount Mary University. She is the author of Thinking Woman: A philosophical approach to the quandary of gender (Cascade Books, 2015).


[1] (International Olympic Committee. “Regulations on Female Hyperandrogenism” www.olympics.org/Documents/Commissions _PDFfiles /Medical_commission/2012-06-22-IOC-Regulations-on-Female-Hyperandrogenism-eng.pdf).