Biography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1555

Article abstract: One of the founders of feminist philosophy, Jaggar is noted for bringing rigorous analysis to bear on the claims of various theories about women’s subordination.

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Early Life

Alison Mary Jaggar was born Alison Mary Hayes in Sheffield, England. Her early academic work was in British institutions; she received a B.A. from Bedford College of the University of London in 1964 and an M.Litt. from the University of Edinburgh in 1967. In 1970, she earned a Ph.D. from the State University of New York at Buffalo.

The title of her dissertation was “On Communication in Philosophy: A Study of the Problems Involved in the Re-Expression of Theoretical Philosophical Statements.” Her initial question when embarking on the project was whether different “schools” or traditions could be compared and evaluated against each other. However, the project’s eventual focus became the possibility of translation between different philosophical traditions and especially translation into “ordinary language.” She concluded that “ordinary language” may carry implicit beliefs about the world that contradict the claims of some philosophical theories, and hence an accurate translation or paraphrase may be impossible. However, Jaggar also determined that because of its flexibility, ordinary language can be the best medium for explaining theories outside their original terms of discourse and suggested some methods that could be used to make these concepts clearer.

This dissertation contains many themes that surface in Jaggar’s later work, including an interest in links between different philosophic theories. The feminist writers whose work she later analyzed and evaluated offer many examples of the overlap (and occasionally the lack of connection) between philosophic and ordinary terms.

Life’s Work

Although she pursued a nontraditional specialty, Jaggar followed a conventional academic career path. Upon receiving her doctorate, she served as an assistant professor of philosophy at Miami University from 1970 through 1972 and as associate professor at the University of Cincinnati from 1972 through the rest of the decade. In 1975, she also taught at the University of Illinois, Chicago Circle, as a visiting professor. During this period, Jaggar published several articles. The first, in 1973, was a continuation of her dissertation topic. Others, on ethics and on sexual equality, followed. These were forays into questions that would become central in her work.

In the 1970’s, equal opportunity for women in employment became national policy backed by law in the United States. Before these changes, many inequitable practices were commonplace. For example, in many workplaces, a woman employee was routinely asked to resign when her pregnancy became obvious, regardless of her ability to perform her job. The passage of equal employment measures and the implementation of affirmative action ended many accepted business practices. In the mid-1970’s, Jaggar, bringing her philosophical background and beliefs to a real-life situation, dealt with some of the dilemmas in “Affirmative Action with Respect to Women in Academia: The Law and Its Implementation” and “Relaxing the Limits on Preferential Treatment.” These were articles directed at an audience outside, as well as within, the field of philosophy.

In 1977, she designed and taught the first course to be offered at any academic institute in the United States in feminist philosophy. During the late 1970’s and the early 1980’s, academics were beginning to regard the feminist critique of society less as radical “street” rhetoric and more as a subject for academic scholarship. Feminism gained recognition both as a new approach within existing disciplines and in new curricula known as women’s studies. Jaggar’s work, in the classroom and in her writing, gave impetus to this trend. It was also a happy concurrence of a scholar’s interests and a movement on the verge of gaining academic respectability as a subject.

In 1978, Jaggar and Paula Rothenberg coedited Feminist Frameworks: Alternative Theoretical Accounts of the Relations Between Women and Men, a collection of documents from varied perspectives, including those on the antifeminist side of the debate. Jaggar’s 1983 book, Feminist Politics and Human Nature, set basic parameters for the field of feminist philosophy. It describes and analyzes four “schools” of feminist thought according to their theory, political strategies, and ideals of the good society. Its categories are still used as a starting point for most new work in the field, although as Jaggar herself predicted, time has created some shifts and reevaluations among the categories.

In 1982, Jaggar was promoted to a full professorship at the University of Cincinnati and, in 1984, was named Obed J. Wilson Professor of Ethics. During the 1980’s, Jaggar published about a dozen articles in addition to her trailblazing book and received several fellowships and research grants. She also taught as a visiting professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, and at Rutgers University. In 1989, she coedited Gender/Body/Knowledge: Feminist Reconstructions of Being and Knowing, a collection on feminist epistemology, with Susan R. Bordo.

In 1991, she was appointed professor of philosophy and women’s studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. During the 1990’s, she continued to publish a variety of works, including many articles on feminist ethics. In Living with Contradictions: Controversies in Feminist Social Ethics, she brings together examples of practical rather than theoretical dilemmas as described by those people (not always women) experiencing them. A Companion to Feminist Philosophy (1998), a massive survey volume Jaggar coedited with Iris M. Young, contains articles defining the topic from regional and historical perspectives as well as those taking topical approaches.

Another arena in which Jaggar has been a pathfinder is that of making “womanspace” within the profession of philosophy itself. She was a founding member of the Society for Women in Philosophy and has been chair of the American Philosophical Association’s Committee on the Status of Women. She often states that she considers feminist scholarship to be inseparable from feminist activism.

Over the course of her career, Jaggar maintained her vision and goal of attaining a more equitable society. In her major work, Feminist Politics and Human Nature, she claims that socialist feminism is the best approach for achieving this goal. Although her basic position remains the same, she altered and expanded on her views on a number of aspects discussed in this 1983 book. For instance, whereas previously she tended to dismiss liberal feminists’ emphasis on individual rights, she came to consider such rights as necessary in any foreseeable society, stating that black and non-Western women might bring different perspectives and needs to the debate and that socialist feminism would need to expand to include them. In her 1990’s work on social ethics, she suggests that other arenas, such as militarism and the environment, may also fall within the scope of feminist concern.

Jaggar’s interest in ethics has emphasized the crucial insights a feminist perspective can bring to the field. Both the perennial questions of ethics and the new dilemmas raised by bioengineering and other technology may look somewhat different from the “woman’s standpoint” (a term adapted by feminist philosophy).

Influence

As a founder of feminist philosophy as an academic field, Jaggar played a major role in shaping its parameters and terms of discourse. Other feminist philosophers have used the categories she established, refining them, adding to them, and arguing with them, but in each case building upon the links and distinctions Jaggar set forth. Equally important, perhaps, has been Jaggar’s legitimization of the radical writings from the early women’s liberation movement. By treating these statements as valid examples of feminist positions, she brought them into an arena where opposition had to be based on reasoned argument (or at least its semblance) rather than emotional reactions.

Her Living with Contradictions has been successful in bringing ethical dilemmas “down to earth” from the rarefied heights of ethical theory. Few other such texts exist, except in the specialized field of bioethics, and this work’s influence on the teaching of ethics may be substantial.

Jaggar has been less successful in her effort to have feminist theory recognized as a part of political philosophy. Whether from “jurisdictional” barriers or for other reasons, mainstream political philosophy has continued to focus on the public realm. Partly because of Jaggar’s work, however, the feminist approach is now an accepted part of social theory, ethics, and epistemology as well as a part of the fields of feminist philosophy and women’s studies.

Additional Reading

Bryson, Valerie. Feminist Political Theory: An Introduction. London: Macmillan Press, 1992. An alternate overview of feminist political thought, Bryson’s book pays much attention to the historical background of modern feminism. She discusses Jaggar chiefly in terms of the latter’s attempt to connect Marxist theory and reproductive labor.

Kensinger, Loretta. “(In) Quest of Liberal Feminism.” Hypatia 12, no. 4 (Fall, 1997): 178-197. This article questions Jaggar’s accepted divisions and other theorists’ categories of feminist thought. For example, Kensinger examines Jaggar’s description of liberal feminism, calling its boundaries unclear if not invisible, and concludes that “telling any story of feminism obscures its motion.” She notes that Jaggar had partially anticipated this problem in her remark that theory changes constantly to reflect changing social realities.

Maynard, Mary. “The Reshaping of Sociology? Trends in the Study of Gender.” Sociology 24, no. 2 (May, 1990): 269-290. In this overview article, Maynard questions the sorting of feminists into various schools of thought. She speculates that categories such as Jaggar’s reflect the factionalized nature of the women’s movement during the late 1970’s and the early 1980’s.

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