• Elijah J. Graham

The Femme in the Dust

Updated: Sep 24, 2020

To amass moral strength and formulate a moral identity in which to define oneself, oppressed people form cooperative groups to earn semantic authority over their members. Once this group forms itself to confront the enemy opposition that controls the means of their oppressed existences, the exploited group may finally pronounce itself as a higher, if not equal authority. In Richard Rorty’s 1991 essay “Feminism and Pragmatism,” Rorty makes eccentric suppositions in aid of the feminist cause by applying realist, universalist, and most importantly, pragmatist philosophies. I, along with a variety of other voices such as Angela Davis, Susan Dieleman, Nancy Fraser, and Becky Thompson, believe that Rorty and others like him have left out incredibly important distinctions within feminism and its subordinate groups of oppression. To evaluate the nature of the arguments made, I will begin with an exposition of Richard Rorty’s essay and all of its most significant ideas. Next, I will present the critics of his work and their arguments based upon his historically familiar conception of American feminism. Finally, I will present my own opinions and attempt to resolve the issue in a manner that may be most suitable.

Until the oppressed may formulate their own language to describe themselves and come about their own self-described moral identity, Rorty claims that the customs of the oppressor is the only language, tradition, and culture available to the oppressed. Providing a new language will not only further new reactions and change intrinsic and instinctive emotional reactions but by expanding logical space through definitions and vocabulary, oppressive situations and predicaments may be chronicled in a way that allows the speaker their sanity. For example, when a slave speaks of freedom to a master, the conversation may become laughable. How could it be that a slave could think as logically and proficiently as a master? The slave must surely be delusional.

Rorty presents Catharine MacKinnon and evaluates her central position on the matter as claiming that a ‘woman’ is not yet a moral identity but resembles a disability more closely. This is possible by man’s reserving of ability— constantly reminding themselves that they are man and thanking God that this is true. By doing so, they have successfully formulated a positive moral identity. “For a woman to say that she finds her moral identity in being a woman would have sounded, until relatively recently, as weird as for a slave to say that he or she finds his or her moral identity in being a slave,” (Rorty 344). It would be seen as crazy if a woman were to confidently express her womanness in a way that may seem superior to man. If this is true, why is it so common to hear of such joy in manliness from men?

Once argument and pointless deliberation fails, Rorty claims that prophecy will be the next step towards equality by (currently) non-violent political advocacy groups. Rorty hopes women will abolish their slippery, universalist notions of justice to reinforce their claims as true— claiming that the oppression they experience is ‘intrinsically abominable.’ Additionally, Rorty has stated that “the only intrinsic features of human beings are those they share with the brutes— for example, the ability to suffer and inflict pain,” (Rorty 332). If the oppression women feel is in any way similar to the suffering that they describe, this would mean that, by Rorty’s standards, their subordination will be intrinsically permissible and likely motivated.

Rorty paraphrases Dewey’s pragmatism by instructing feminism to avoid the claim that something almighty and power potent as it is abstract such as God, Nature, History, Reason, Morality, Truth, or Justice is sided with the oppressed groups. He claims that feminism should completely forgo these weak claims, and in their place, compare their present oppression to their imaginative and ideal future. He articulates that women struggle in creating a moral identity outside of their relationships to men; the ‘language games’ thrust upon women by men have ingrained a vocabulary in them that forces them to treat men as the central force in their lives that acts upon everything else and forces all other aspects of female life into secondary, dependent importance. The language they are cursed with does not allow them to be full-time in anything other than being a femme.

Richard Rorty then contrasts women with the opposite sex, suggesting that the most significant ability that allows man to be full-time in more than one field is their ability to define themselves as such… without sounding crazy. This can be done by creating a group or sort of club where the members may establish themselves as they please. “But as Rich points out, Emily Dickinson was not allowed into that club. So, to make things really easy for the[SX1] future Dickinsons and Riches, there would have to be a good, well-established club which they could join,” (Rorty 346). But it is not promised that everyone may be allowed membership into these groups, as they may have been made exclusive by its short-sighted members.

Every attempt made by Rorty thus far for specifying content from the view of women as women has held higher regards for the voice and sensibilities of one group of women, though many different groups have contributed immensely— this failure to distinguish between groups has provided him with ample criticism that we will now explore. In some cases, the minority groups have been active well before the dominant groups of oppression that hold superior cultural domain. “Although there were Black women involved with NOW (National Organization of women, founded in 1966) from the outset and Black and Latina women who participated in CR groups, the feminist work of women of color also extended beyond women-only spaces. In fact, during the 1970s, women of color were involved on three fronts-working with white- dominated feminist groups; forming women's caucuses in existing mixed-gender organizations; and developing autonomous Black, Latina, Native American, and Asian feminist organizations. This three-pronged approach contrasts sharply with the common notion that women of color feminists emerged in reaction to (and therefore later than) white feminism,” (Thompson 338). It is often the educated, white, heterosexual, middle class women with the privilege and cultural clout to modify descriptions within society. This irregular representation has failed to establish a functional identity wearable by all women. With the voices of a single demographic of women speaking louder than the rest, many women have withdrawn or given up on feminism in search of surrogate modes of liberation. “The upshot of this is that many feminists now reject the very idea that there can be such a thing as a ‘viewpoint of women as women’ and are looking for alternative conceptions and models of political affiliation and solidarity. Thus, while the idea of constructing an identity for women ‘as women’ was a plausible initial response to the discovery that the supposedly human identities constructed by men were actually androcentric, it has not proved a workable political tool. The reason is that feminism is at base not an exclusive club of prophets, but a mass democratic social movement,” (Fraser 265). It is critical that feminism remains a social movement with democratic voice and lawful, political intentions.

Richard Rorty is certainly breaking new ground as an American, male philosopher to address feminism. While Nancy Fraser does amend him for his efforts, she sees his essay as a proposal to marry feminism with pragmatism, forgoing alignment with universalism and realism. This binding however, would have potentially dire consequences, as feminist philosophers would then be framed as prophets— putting women on yet another unequal ‘pedestal’ for which they did not ask. Failure from Rorty’s statements arise with his claims of prophecy, calling for separatists to band together to compose a song of comforting words that allows them their sanity. It is inappropriate to describe the feminist movement in such an exclusive manner, as feminism spans the entirety of the country, outside of merely a single group of separatists. There are many songs to compose— some in different pitch and some even in different languages.

Fraser sides with the historicist idea of feminism to create new moral identities over moral realism, Rorty’s pragmatism, and universalism’s entitlement; she wants to create a better pragmatism in a more sociological, institutional manner, completing Rorty’s trip from irony to prophecy to feminist politics. The disability Rorty attributes to the term woman is false as women have already culturally constructed their identities through feminist scholarship. “Women had a more refined sensibility than men but it gloried domesticity, restricting women’s activity. The disabling notion of women’s moral superiority was utilized as foundations for abolitionism and women’s suffrage. They used their moral identity to develop their ability to act— turning disability into enabling identity. This proves Rorty’s claim that ‘women have never spoken or acted as women’ false.” (Fraser 264). It is a hope that feminism could turn the term woman from an individual moral identity and align it with women into a collective political identity.

Fraser agrees with Rorty that it is more critical to create women than to describe them more accurately, and she also agrees that by presenting feminism in such a manner will avoid an essentialist view of woman. However, she also claims that Rorty may be unleashing more chaos than he knows. “However, what he does not see is that this also opens the lid of a big can of political worms. Out of all the available candidates, which new descriptions will count as ‘taking the viewpoint of women as women?’ Which women will be empowered to impose their ‘semantic authority on the rest of us? (Fraser 265). This is a significant political concern, as the voices that have historically spoken for women as women have had a tendency to consider the sensibilities of the prototype woman in America: educated, heterosexual, white, and middle-class. Rorty’s attempt to couple pragmatism with feminism inappropriately individualizes and depoliticizes the movement, as the ‘club of female poets’ designed to sustain new descriptions and identities can only be so large and inviting.

American awareness groups succeeded in renaming undefined phenomenon by spreading new words such as sexism, marital rape, date rape, and sexual harassment in the 1960 and 1970s. Doing so created new social movements and evaluations of the terms they defined. “Before the language and theory of sexual harassment was invented… women usually suffered in silence, without a language or forum in which to make a reasonable complaint. As a result, women telling stories to each other and to wider publics about their treatment by men on the job and the consequences of this treatment, however, a problem that had no name was gradually identified and named,” (Young 72-23). A new term can give legs to previously marginalized experiences and allow them to walk. Additionally, Susan Dieleman agrees with Rorty that social progress may be attained through innovative, linguistic redescription. “Both redescription and justification work together to create and sustain social change,” (Dieleman 906). Dieleman hopes to explore Rorty’s accounts of social progress further to expand on the relationship between feminism and pragmatism, hoping to find a solution to consistent problems. Semantic authority is best to be constructed as a critical, collective group rather than through prophets or exclusive clubs of a single demographic.

Now, I will speak for myself. There are distinct, varying levels to oppression in America. Frazer begins to elaborate on this in her criticization by claiming the white, middle-class women dominate feminist voices because Rorty speaks only on the women of which he is familiar, not accounting for disparate levels of socioeconomic detriment. Rorty (nor his critics) never properly account for the relationships between people and money, or the economic motivation for a woman to seek feminism and all of the financial incentives that the standard white women hoard. There are many definitions of woman and certainly not every woman is the same or even similar, for that matter. Speaking from a universalist perspective, the only injustice committed by Rorty and his critics is that they do not seem to notice every woman.

Surely, this is no attack on the prototypical, American white women I’ve described and to create moral identities that represent everyone is profoundly difficult, but it is absolutely necessary to define oneself beyond the oppressor’s words, and when one piece of the group speaks for the whole of the group without respectfully heedful absorption, then the privileged (white, heterosexual, educated, middle-class or above) oppressed collective becomes the oppressor of the marginalized (colored, LGBTQ, uneducated, impoverished) group. The groups within groups are not being heard or considered.

It would be most beneficial for feminists and likely all groups under a guise of domination, injustice, or maltreatment to form their own moral identity but this is nearly impossible without the proper education, privilege, and/or affluence required to compose and conduct such a conversation. How difficult is it to create a new language and culture when you’re wondering from where the next meal will come? Or worrying if you’ll be able to make it to school or work without being antagonized, beaten, shot, or kidnapped? How difficult is it to impose your sensibilities on the law when society fears you at the law’s most basic level of enforcement or lusts for your failure and/or incarceration? Some realities are not as graspable or within range as others. The same concepts Rorty glazes over are indeed explored by the likes of Nancy Fraser and Iris Marion Young, but their evaluation of the situation does not include all of America’s oppressed, and therefore, it is no better than the oppression of men over women. Every new group born to identify and eradicate oppression only adds more weight to the subterranean individuals that are unable to align themselves with a group or create their own. It is insufficient and wholly un-American to abandon or ostracize any individual from public deliberation, leaving them unable to contribute to the reality they live within. While the privileged women surge ahead in political, societal, and economic rights by defining moral identities that suit their own particular needs, minorities are stuck fending for themselves as the femme in the dust.


  • Dieleman, Susan. "Revisiting Rorty: Contributions to a pragmatist feminism." Hypatia 25.4 (2010): 891-908.

  • Fraser, Nancy. From irony to prophecy to politics: A response to Richard Rorty. Ann Arbor,: University of Michigan., 1991.

  • Thompson, Becky. "Multiracial feminism: Recasting the chronology of second wave feminism." Feminist Studies 28.2 (2002): 337-360.

  • Voparil, Christopher J., and Richard J. Bernstein, eds. The Rorty Reader. John Wiley & Sons, 2010.

  • Young, Iris Marion. Inclusion and democracy. Oxford University press on demand, 2002.