Women, Reason and Nature

Carol McMillan, a political scientist at King’s College in London, has produced in Women, Reason and Nature a defense of alternative modes of human thought. McMillan begins her study with a sincere attempt to get at the roots of some misconceptions about human nature and to discover some useful truths about these misconceptions. Ultimately, however, her arguments appear merely to defend already strongly held beliefs.

The basic thesis of the work is that women, by reason of their biological makeup, are fundamentally different from men. Because of this difference, McMillan claims that it is unreasonable to expect equal treatment of the sexes or to expect that women naturally “belong” in a man’s world of reason and scientific achievement. In her view, women should appreciate their own mode of being in the world and not try to become manlike. This conclusion is based on several claims that McMillan makes about feminist theories: First, that feminists are wrong to state that women are oppressed because they are forced to remain in a domestic sphere (by this argument, McMillan suggests, feminists are tacitly admitting that domestic life is inferior to public life); second, that feminism focuses too much on the unpleasant side of sexism; and third, that the tyranny of nature as the real oppressor of women is a myth, and that it is futile and unreasonable to combat one’s biochemical nature. Furthermore, McMillan’s conclusion is based on her claim that the pain of childbirth is the central “fact” of any woman’s life and that women must face this fact.

Women, Reason and Nature opens with the claim that feminists and sexists share certain views about the nature of rationality and about the relation between reason and the definition of personhood. McMillan’s first three chapters are devoted to the development of the idea that reason is the single trait that distinguishes men from animals. McMillan quotes philosophers from Aristotle to Ludwig Wittgenstein in an attempt to show that people perceive “female” activities, such as food preparation and child rearing, as less human (more animalistic) than reasoned “male” activities, such as producing skyscrapers and systems of logic, activities that are not natural to women. It is only because of such faulty preconceptions that feminists believe women are oppressed.

According to McMillan, the feminist movement criticizes social institutions that bestow power and wealth on those who demonstrate intellectual and scientific achievement, rather than nurturance, homemaking, and the rearing of children. McMillan says that people tend to think that mankind shows itself to be more than an animal in the world of public achievement, rather than in the domestic realm. She then claims, rightly so, that...

(The entire section is 1147 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 12)

Choice. XX, January, 1983, p. 714.

Library Journal. CVIII, February 1, 1983, p. 210.

Nation. CCXXXVI, February 12, 1983, p. 180.

The New Republic. CLXXXIX, July 11, 1983, p. 26.

Observer. December 4, 1983, p. 25.