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Pragmatist Feminism

1. Early Feminist Contributions to American Pragmatism
Women were significant partners in the development and articulation of
classical American pragmatism. Historical analyses bring into view
the lives of philosophers and activists such as Jane Addams, Mary
Parker Follett, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Emily Greene Balch, Lucy
Sprague Mitchell, Anna Julia Cooper, Mary Whiton Calkins, and Ella
Flagg Young. These women bring added dimensions to pragmatism; they
remind us of the issues that were subsequently left behind as American
philosophy became more exclusively technical and academic. For most of
these women, pragmatism was a philosophic practice used to accommodate
their new academic and political engagement with the world, as well as
a method of reforming politics and culture. The pragmatist approach to
philosophy that brought theory and practice together helped these
women trust in and learn from experience and intellectually engage in
a host of social reform movements.
The historical recovery of female voices in the history of philosophy
in the last few decades is an ongoing project; it both helps us become
aware of women’s influence on the history of philosophy and
shines a light on the processes that lead to the marginalization of women’s
voices (see the entry
feminist history of philosophy).
Recovering these women thinkers also allows us to hear new or
excluded voices in the philosophic conversation, in some cases
resulting in opening up the definition of philosophy itself.
Recognizing “philosophical techniques are means, not
ends”, these women rejected “philosophizing as an
intellectual game that takes purely logical analysis as its special
task…” (Seigfried 1996: 37). Because of the gender-based
discrimination against women as rational thinkers and their exclusion
from the academy, history has rarely carried the names and texts of
these women into our philosophy textbooks (see for example Eileen
O’Neill’s 1998 essay “Disappearing Ink”).
Thus, it should not be surprising that many of the women whose work
has been brought into the feminist-pragmatist discussion were
college-educated activists rather than professional academic
philosophers; nevertheless, scholarship has shown that their
work had an enormous impact on the development of pragmatist thought.
A historical look at how these women affected what became known as
pragmatism demonstrates the interactive and relational nature of
The history of pragmatism is recent enough that we can more easily
recover and recognize the women who participated in forming this
uniquely American school of thought, formerly considered only through
the work of such male thinkers as William James, Charles Sanders
Peirce, George Herbert Mead, George Santayana, and John Dewey. The
work of women who were in philosophic and activist dialogue with these
philosophers, and who were original philosophers in their own right,
had mostly disappeared until the latter part of the twentieth
century. Charlene Haddock Seigfried’s work, particularly her
1996 book Pragmatism and Feminism, was central in the effort
to bring these invisible women back into the philosophical discussion,
as well as to bring feminist perspectives to the field of
In the Progressive Era, many of the college-educated social reformers
in the Chicago area lived at Hull House or were associated with the
University of Chicago. Some of the Hull-House reformers, such as
Sophonisba Breckinridge and Edith and Grace Abbott, held academic
positions but did most of their academic and activist work in the
realm of social reform. Some, such as Julia Lathrop and Florence
Kelly, went on to hold influential governmental positions. Other
feminist pragmatists working on social and philosophic issues worked
with James and Royce at Harvard or were engaged with feminist reforms
in other fields such as suffrage activism or peace work. Early
feminist pragmatists included the following women:
Jane Addams (1860–1935) was a central figure in
the development of pragmatist thought. In her lifetime Addams was
revered as one of America’s most famous social reformers, the
founder of Hull House, and the recipient of the 1931 Nobel Peace Prize.
Her pragmatist philosophies emerged from her experiences working in
the poverty-stricken immigrant neighborhoods of Chicago, from her
collaborations with the talented women who lived at Hull House, as
well from reflection on texts and direct dialogue with philosophers of
her time (including John Dewey, William James, George Herbert Mead, and W.E.B.
DuBois). Addams published eleven books and hundreds of essays, writing
on ethics, social philosophy, and pacifism, in addition to analyzing
social issues concerning women, industrialization, immigration, urban
youth, and international mediation.
Emily Greene Balch (1867–1961) was a member of
the first graduating class at Bryn Mawr, engaging in graduate studies
at the University of Chicago and the Harvard Annex, and ultimately
teaching at Wellesley College for over 20 years. Along with Addams,
she was a founding member of Women’s International League for
Peace and Freedom. While trained as a sociologist and an economist,
evidence of pragmatist philosophy is abundant in her work. This is
particularly true in her support of social democracy and in her
fundamental faith that the social environment was capable of
transformation through philosophical reflection and action. Her
commitment to pluralism and economic justice led her to work on
suffrage activism and global racial justice. She received the Nobel
Peace Prize in 1946.
Ella Lyman Cabot (1866–1934) struggled to be a
philosopher in the male-dominated philosophies of early
20th century. She took classes at Harvard and Radcliffe
with James and Royce. She continued to be part of the Harvard
philosophical community and as such was also a formative influence on
others’ writings. She was also a longtime advocate of
women’s rights. She wrote seven books on ethics and
education. Her work was recovered in John Kaag’s 2013
book Pragmatism, Feminism, and Idealism in the Philosophy of Ella
Lyman Cabot.
Mary Whiton Calkins (1863–1930) studied under
pragmatists William James and Josiah Royce at Harvard, primarily
working in psychology, which was then a sub-field of philosophy. In
1905, Calkins became the first woman president of the American
Psychological Association and in 1918 became the first woman president
of the American Philosophical Association. She was an advocate for
women’s suffrage, claiming in 1905 that “a distinction
based on difference of sex is artificial and illogical” (Harper
(ed.) 1922: 171). While not generally categorized as a pragmatist
philosopher, her influence as a female philosopher created a pathway
for other women philosophers.
Elsie Ripley Clapp (1882–1965) was a student of
classical pragmatists, taking over fourteen courses from Dewey at
Columbia, working as his graduate assistant, and collaborating on
research projects with him for years (see Seigfried 2001:
89–90). Clapp commented on drafts of Dewey’s work, and
contributed original ideas (Seigfried 1996: 92). Dewey publicly
acknowledged Clapp for her contributions to Democracy and
Education, but only in the introduction, not attributing to her
any particular ideas in the body of the text. At his retirement in
1927, Dewey suggested that Clapp should be appointed to teach his
courses at the Teachers College, but she was not offered the position
by the college. She went on to collaborate with Eleanor Roosevelt on
significant rural education projects of her time.
Anna Julia Cooper (1858–1954) was an
educational reformer, particularly focused on the education of
African-American women. She received her BA and MA at Oberlin College
and earned her Ph.D. at the Sorbonne at the age of 66. Her writings
about the dual oppressions of race and gender are considered one of
the foundations of contemporary feminist theories of
intersectionality. She is best known for her 1892 book, A Voice
from the South by a Black Woman of the South.
Alice Chipman Dewey (1858–1927) is generally
credited with bringing Dewey’s philosophic Hegelian thinking
into contact with real social issues. She was raised in Michigan by
her pioneering grandfather and attended a Baptist seminary after high
school. Her lifelong interest in education led her to be a school
teacher. This work along with her commitment to the women’s
rights movement led her to study at the University of Michigan where
she met John Dewey. Their daughter Jane described Alice’s
influence on John by saying that “things which previously had
been matters of theory acquired through his contact with her a vital
and direct human significance” (Rockefeller 1991: 150). Alice
Dewey continued her interest in education as principal of University
of Chicago Lab School where she worked with Dewey on experimental and
experiential education reform.
Mary Parker Follett (1868–1933) studied with
Royce, James, and Hart at Radcliffe/Harvard. Her academic training was
primarily in political theory and philosophy. Like Addams and many of
the feminist pragmatists of her era, her philosophy was developed out
of her deep engagement with issues in her Boston community, and from
observing how people interact in public life. Follett thought that
the simple act of voting would never change society and thus never
directly advocated for women’s suffrage. Like most pragmatists,
Follett critiqued the dualism of individualism claiming “(t)he
group and the individual come into existence simultaneously”
(1918: 127). Follett’s advocacy of “power-with”
rather than “power-over” in political as well as
organizational work is considered a precursor to contemporary feminist
analyses of power (see Pratt 2011; Kaag 2011; Whipps 2014b). Follett
published three books and many essays and speeches. Her work has
gained new significance in contemporary management theory and in
modern leadership studies.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860–1935) was a
lifelong friend of both John Dewey and Jane Addams. Gilman stayed at Hull House
for about a month in 1895 where she lectured and explored the
settlement culture. Gilman, not formally trained in philosophy, was
interested in the philosophy of “find(ing) out what ailed
society and how most easily to improve it” (Upin 1993: 42).
Gilman was particularly concerned with the industrial and economic
conditions of women, both in the home and in the workplace. She sought
to use philosophy in order to address the social and political
problems of her time and place, particularly related to women’s
issues. She is the author of nine novels, including the feminist
utopian novel Herland, and ten works of nonfiction, including
Women and Economics: A Study of the Economic Relation Between Men
and Women as a Factor in Social Evolution. Gilman’s short
story “The Yellow Wallpaper” is a classic in feminist
Lucy Sprague Mitchell (1878–1967) was born in
the generation after Jane Addams and was a student of the classical
pragmatists. As a feminist educator she both defined and reflected the
progressive era philosophies of reform and social change through
educational progress. In 1903, Mitchell became the first dean of women
at the University of California at Berkeley where she encountered the
sexism that was pervasive in the academy in that era. After moving
back to New York, she began a 60-year career in child-centered
education, combining educational scholarship in both research and
practice, with founding and administrating innovative programs. In her
lifetime, she was also seen as an example for other women who were
interested in professional lives while marrying and raising children,
something that was rarely available to the women of her
generation. Mitchell’s Bank Street School demonstrated
the effectiveness of pragmatist child-centered education and continues
to influence childhood development specialists and educators.
Ella Flagg Young (1845–1918) was a lifelong
educator and then administrator in the school system in Chicago, and
later was a professor of education at the University of Chicago. She
was elected the first woman president of the National Education
Association and worked for women’s suffrage. According to
Seigfried, Dewey was specific about how Young’s “original
interpretations and applications of his theories went beyond his own
understanding” (Seigfried 1996: 80). According to Joan K. Smith (1977), Young
began taking classes from John Dewey at the University of Chicago in
the fall of 1895; at that point she had over 30 years of experience in
teaching and administration. She published three books on
2. Feminist Re-reading of Classical Pragmatist Philosophers
Feminist philosophers have taken on the project of re-examining
philosophic texts through the lens of gender, analyzing how particular
thinkers’ philosophies often depend on the subjugation of women;
for example, Rousseau’s idealized “Emile” is only
possible through the supporting role of the idea of
“Sophie”. Likewise, feminist pragmatists are examining the
role of women and gender in the canon of pragmatist philosophy,
particularly looking at the work of John Dewey, Charles Sanders
Peirce, William James and George Herbert Mead. Pragmatism originated
in a time when our culture was in the midst of enormous change in
women’s roles, yet early century male pragmatists were often
unaware of how gender biases affected knowledge and culture as well as
their own ideas. Like many figures in the philosophical canon, at
times they universalize the male perspective. Yet, as we will see,
pragmatism and feminism overlap in significant ways, and even in their
critiques, feminists find value in these thinkers’ works.
Books such as Feminist Interpretations of John Dewey
(Seigfried 2001) and Feminist Interpretations of William
James (Tarver and Sullivan 2015) have made these influences
clear. In this latter volume Erin McKenna’s essay, “Women
and William James”, points out James’ expectation that the
women in his life (particularly his wife, mother and sister) play
traditional roles of self-sacrifice. The concept of “free
will” is central to James’ work, yet, as McKenna reveals,
he didn’t grasp how his gender, class, and race provided him
this freedom.
The opportunity to exercise “free will” was not shared
equally, and he did not see now his freedom intersected with the
oppression of others. (McKenna 2015: 83)
Other pragmatist feminists have also examined the gendered reception
of philosophers’ writings, for example, Marilyn Fischer reread
James’s acclaimed “The Moral Equivalent of War” in
the context of its time, demonstrating that James drew on
“common conceptions shared by militarists, misogynists, and
imperialists of the day” (2018).
Dewey’s thinking was also shaped by the gendered expectations of
his time and place, even though women played more equal roles in his
life. As Seigfried noted (1998), Dewey was a supporter of many
feminist causes. Yet, as she also pointed out later, “the
pitfalls of a view of women seen solely from a male perspective, even
that of a sympathetic male” still affect Dewey’s writing
(2001: 10). Why does this
matter? As Nancy Tuana has said,
Paying attention to the workings of gender within the texts of
philosophy will make visible the complexities of the inscription of
gender ideologies. (Tarver and Sullivan 2015: ix)
These feminist re-readings and analyses have provided a view of the
cultural context of pragmatist writings; it helps us understand how
and why women were marginalized in the intellectual history of
pragmatism. As we will see, these important critiques have not
deterred feminist pragmatists from seeing the value in and building
upon the work of these classical pragmatist thinkers.
3. Pragmatist Feminist Philosophical Themes
Contemporary feminists are also implementing and extending pragmatist
philosophies as a foundation for feminist theory. These feminist
philosophers working in the pragmatist tradition point out that
pragmatism offers a valuable, although often unrecognized, resource
for feminist thinkers, especially as it is developed in the work of
women pragmatists and activists. We see this particularly in feminist
pragmatist writings on experience, epistemology, education and social
For example, contemporary feminists point out how traditional
philosophy’s emphasis on rational, logical absolutes devalues
the ambiguities of the experience of an embodied life. For feminist
pragmatists, pluralistic communities have epistemological value and
provide the base for an inclusive problem-solving approach to social
issues. The pragmatist understanding of education as a social and
political force, as a major aspect of how society and individuals are
shaped, has been echoed by contemporary feminists who analyze our
educational curriculum and methods of teaching. Both pragmatism and
feminism are more likely to bring social context to the forefront of
philosophy, opening space for realities in flux, for emergent
situations to be shaped and reconstructed by their context.
Pragmatists emphasize that we must include particular and individual
experiences in a pluralistic discussion of multiple realities, and
that all parties involved in an issue also be involved in the
3.1 Valuing Experience
A historical examination of pragmatism shows a reverse ordering of the
theory-action method sometimes assumed in philosophic thought, and
often critiqued by feminist thinkers. In its privileging of theory,
some philosophical texts leave us with the impression that ideas
normally originate from ideal and often solitary theoretical thinking
that is then diffused into the general culture. However, in the case
of many women activists, like Jane Addams, it is evident that public
and political activism shaped the character of the philosophy. Indeed,
she advised leaders to “move with the people”, aiming to
first “discover what people really want” so that they can
together uncover a way forward that neither could alone “see
very clearly till they come to it” (“Democracy and
Social”, 1902 [2002]: 69). Such a method is consistent with
pragmatism; as 20th century pragmatist Sidney Hook said,
“social action is the mother of inspiration and not, as is
usually imagined, its offspring” (1940 [1991]: 3). Feminist
theory has also grown out of the activism of the women’s
movement; it incorporates the understandings that have resulted from
social activism. Pragmatist philosophers often made these same points
in their critiques of positivism. Both pragmatists and feminists
advocate for the practical use of philosophy in the realm of personal
and public experience; pragmatism and feminism generally also share a
social and/or political focus and advocate specific cultural
The pragmatist commitment to situated knowledge, rather than abstract
or idealized knowing has been influential in some fields of feminist
ethics, particularly in care ethics. Maurice Hamington draws on
Addams’s ethics to articulate “a proactive embodied
care” based on “ habits of interaction” (2004: 104).
George Herbert Mead’s philosophy of the self has also played a
prominent role in care ethics for both Hamington and Heather Keith.
As Keith said of Mead’s concept: “ the self is wholly
integrated into an ecology of both physical and social relationships
facilitates a conception of selfhood valuable to the sort of personal
and moral liberation called for by feminism” (1999: 330).
Currently feminists and pragmatists share an effort to radically
change oppressive political and social structures, an effort that
finds resonance with the early feminist-pragmatists. Jane Addams and
other feminist reformers like Charlotte Perkins Gilman were
continuously involved in fighting oppression, especially of women,
children, and minorities. Pragmatism’s continued insistence that
philosophy address the problems of the current social situation
supports critiques of gender, race and class oppression, even though
the majority of pragmatism’s male founders were often relatively
inattentive to cultural gender-related oppression.
3.2 Epistemology
Feminists and pragmatists share an interest in the situatedness of the
knower within their social environment. They are both committed to an
epistemology that is based in experience and relationality.
Feminist-pragmatists point out that the search for universalized
ideals bankrupts ordinary experience and robs from philosophic thought
the creativity of thinking with and through complex networks of
experience and interaction. In Pragmatism and Feminism,
Seigfried highlights aspects of pragmatism that make it useful to
feminist epistemology, noting both fields share a critique of dualism.
Seigfried reminds her reader of four dualistic aspects of
rationalistic philosophy critiqued by Dewey and some feminists for its
oppressive support of invidious social/economic hierarchies. The four
dimensions of this rationalist approach include:

  1. The depreciation of doing and making and the over-evaluation of
    pure thinking and reflection;
  2. the contempt for bodies and matter and simultaneous praise of
    spirit and immateriality,
  3. the sharp division of practice and theory, and
  4. the inferiority of change and superiority of a fixed reality.
    (Seigfried 1996: 113)

Jane Duran, in “The Intersection of Pragmatism and
Feminism” (1993), points out that feminist theorists critique
this preoccupation with universals, writing that it seems “to
pervade much of analytic philosophy (indeed philosophy as a
whole)”. This desire for universals, she says, leads all the way
back to Plato. Plato’s idealism carries with it a devaluation of
the changing realm of the physical world. Duran points out that
feminists, as well as pragmatists, are often less interested in
universal generalities and notes that an emphasis on particulars as
well as “relations and connections become almost more important
than particulars themselves” (1993: 166). This pluralistic sense
of refusing to constrict reality to that which is defined by logic or
language helps feminists as philosophers propose an alternative vision
of philosophy.
Susan Dielman points to the importance of discourse and
language analysis in addressing hegemonic epistemic exclusions; she
brings neopragmatist theory, specifically that of Richard Rorty, into
the feminist pragmatist dialogue in order to understand “the
interconnectedness of power and discourse” (2012: 99).
Feminist pragmatists have also built on John Dewey’s concept of
experience as philosophical support for a position that holds together
the subject and object in a nondualistic epistemology. Yet, as
postcolonial feminists have pointed out, experience in itself is
conditioned by one’s cultural background. Ofelia Schutte (2000)
notes that “the nature of knowledge is not culture-free but is
determined by the methodologies and data legitimated by dominant
cultures” (2000: 40). Feminist-pragmatist Celia T.
Bardwell-Jones (2008) draws on Josiah Royce’s theory of
interpretation to address the problem of translation “at the
borders of conflicting experience…where differences are
translated instead of assimilated” (2008: 22). Such
epistemological translation work is essential for feminists and
pragmatists, given that in both fields theory is inherently about
changing the world. Jane Addams embodied this intersection of
pragmatism and feminism in her efforts to interpret across class and
cultural boundaries; through this interpretative and activist work she
sought to reconstruct the social order and increase justice for women
and the underprivileged. Addams’ understanding of the
relationship between action and truth contributed to her choice of a
career in the public world. For her, a motivation to understand truth
would compel her to seek it out in the world of action. As a public
philosopher, reformer, and activist embedded in her community, Addams
was called to act under inherently messy, dynamic, and ambiguous
situations (see Fischer 2005, 2011, 2013 and Lake 2014, 2015). This
interpretive activism opened opportunities for reconstruction,
redefining relations between the public and the expert, students and
the instructor, the governed and the governors.
Similarly contemporary feminist thinkers have changed the academy and
the larger culture by re-analyzing and reconstructing the ways that we
think, the hierarchies of knowing, as well as the social conventions
that have defined gender. Erin McKenna in The Task of Utopia:
Pragmatist and Feminist Perspective (2001) uses this
process-orientation to create a social/political philosophy that is
always open to change, rather than one with finished
“ends” in view. With both feminism and pragmatism we can
consider philosophizing contextually as a creative force, reacting to
as well as reconstructing our multiple environments.
Feminist social analysis often produces the conditions for philosophic
reflection, creating what Addams called “perplexities”
that are the starting-points for philosophical and political change
(1902 [2002]: 77). In “Feminist-Pragmatist Revisioning of Reason,
Knowledge, and Philosophy” (1993), Phyllis Rooney notes that the
classical pragmatists would have welcomed the challenges that
contemporary feminisms have brought to philosophy. She compares these
rifts to what Peirce called the “irritations of doubt” (Peirce
1877, quoted in Rooney 1993: 21) which open the door to inquiry and
signal possibilities for recreation and rediscovery. Dewey called this
irritation “an unsettlement” which “aims at
overcoming a disturbance” or the “uncertainties of
life” (1916 [1985]: 336–337), which he says, are the
motivations for beginning to do philosophy. In Democracy and
Social Ethics, Addams references moments of
“perplexities” as openings to begin rethinking social
values and epistemological claims. Pragmatism and feminism then share
a movement toward active philosophizing about those
“irritations”, “uncertainties”, and
Feminist epistemologists such as Susan Bordo and Alison Jaggar point
out how traditional philosophy’s emphasis on rational, logical
absolutes has devalued the ambiguities of changing embodied
experience. Feminist and pragmatists have both rejected body/mind
dualisms. Shannon Sullivan in Living Across and Through Skins
(2001) brings the pragmatist tradition of transactional knowing
through embodied and relational lived experience to the feminist
epistemology of standpoint theory, describing what she calls a
“pragmatist-feminist standpoint theory”. This
pragmatist-feminist perspective suggests knowing unfolds in
relationships enacted through our physical embodiment and the social
environment; knowing should thus incorporate “multiple
marginalized perspectives”. Using Dewey’s standard of
truth as that which results in “transactional flourishing”
Sullivan considers “questions about which standpoints can help
promote flourishing transactions” (2001: 146–47). In doing
so, she corrects the privileging of women’s experiences that is
found in Sandra Harding’s feminist standpoint theory, and
locates knowing as transactions among diverse others, possibly even
non-humans. Sullivan’s work is particularly significant in the
ways she investigates feminist issues of embodiment drawing on both
Continental and American Pragmatist perspectives.
Wicked problem scholars and community change-agents Valerie Brown and
Judith Lambert also employ a feminist pragmatist epistemology in their
2013 Collective Learning for Transformational Change: A Guide to
Collaborative Action. Brown and Lambert, for instance, argue that
sustainable and just transformational change on our collective social
problems requires we begin by first sharing our values. Since our core
values tend to shape our perspective and our actions, recognizing the
range of values involved explicates the complexities. Their model also
emphasizes individual narratives and legitimizes a range of knowledge,
including individual, community, specialized, organizational,
holistic, and collective knowledge cultures (2013:
This shared epistemological framework has had—and continues to
have—a significant influence on educational practices.
3.3 Education
Pragmatist feminists of the Progressive Era had an enormous influence
on childhood and adult educational theory and practice. Addams’
educational philosophy provides a model for the interaction between
thinking and action. For her, as well as for other educators like Lucy
Sprague Mitchell, education is not seen as standing apart from life
but rather blending seamlessly into the fabric of experiences and
providing a meaning-making function. Addams understood that while
education informs experience (providing historical context as well as
skills), it must also interact with and change in response to current
social needs. In understanding the culture that students come from as
well as the values of their lives, Addams argued for an educational
approach that uses students’ own experiences (personal as well
as cultural) as starting points for learning.
In general, early pragmatist-feminist writing consistently
demonstrates a distrust of educational theories that are disconnected
from experience. In Twenty Years at Hull House (1910), Addams
talks about how the professor’s lack of interest in matters of
the “welfare of mankind” leaves behind the messy and
chaotic experiential realm of student relationships for the more pure
intellectual realm; she argued this separation also opens students to
the influence of “charlatans” (1910 [1990]: 247).
Addams’ vision of education, even in the early days of Hull
House, fostered an interchange between the intellectual culture of a
liberal arts education and the practical aspects of urban industrial
life, bringing life and thought together.
Addams was involved in educational reform in the Chicago Public
Schools and later was a member of the Chicago School Board. However,
her philosophy of education has had more enduring impact on adult
education theory and practice, primarily as a result of her
innovations at Hull House. In working with adults, she integrated
arts, literature and history into industrial life; later she
celebrated the arts and culture that was already present in the lives
of her industrial immigrant communities. In contrast, Lucy Sprague
Mitchell’s Bank Street School demonstrated the effectiveness of
pragmatist child-centered education and continues to influence
childhood development specialists and educators.
Further, a host of feminist pragmatists had a direct and sustained
influenced on Dewey’s educational philosophy: from Jane Addams
and Alice Chipman Dewey, to Ella Flagg Young, Elsie Ripley Clapp, and
Lucy Sprague Mitchell. Indeed, Dewey had not published in philosophy
of education, or worked on educational issues, before he came to
Chicago where he experienced Jane Addams’s Hull House and worked
with individuals like Ella Flagg Young. Her contributions to Dewey’s
philosophy included: (1) “the extent to which freedom meant
… a respect for the inquiring or reflective process of
individuals”; (2) an understanding of “the way that the
interactions of persons with one another influences their mental
habits”; and, (3) “how all psychology that was not simply
physiological was social” (Seigfried 1996: 80).
Pragmatist philosophy of education continues to have a global influence. Dewey is
often cited as the catalyst for experiential learning and civic
engagement practices. For instance, David Kolb utilizes Dewey’s
philosophy to advocate for a move away from narrowly framed and
abstract specialization towards experiential learning (2003). Kolb,
like many others, extends this philosophy of education, emphasizing
learning as a spiral cycle of reflective action and engagement (Brown
and Lambert 2013; Norton 2005).
Other contemporary feminist philosophers of education draw on the
pragmatist tradition, especially the work of early pragmatist women,
in their conceptualization of education as a political and
emancipatory practice. Possibly because of its interest in the
relationship between theory and action, philosophy of education has
always occupied a privileged place in pragmatist philosophy, and
feminist pragmatist writing reflects this.
Feminist philosophers, such as Elizabeth Minnich and Jane Roland
Martin, have critiqued the traditional canon,
pointing out the ways that the canon perpetuates the traditional power
structures by excluding the works of women and minorities. Minnich
points out that the administrative structures of colleges and
universities often place programs like women’s studies or
African-American studies on the periphery of the college hierarchies.
Minnich’s 1990 book, Transforming Knowledge, draws on
both a feminist critique and pragmatist practices to advocate for a
rethinking of the patriarchal assumptions at the base of our academic
traditions. This work reconstructs what it means to do philosophy,
opening our definitions of philosophy to voices that may have been
previously excluded or marginalized. Minnich and other feminist
thinkers show us how many traditional theorists have been blinded by
their inability to conceive of ideas outside of the dominant hegemonic
traditions. Minnich points out that pragmatism can share with feminism
the vitality that arises from an opening of philosophy to newness, to
otherness, to diversity.
Maxine Greene, a philosopher of education who draws on multiple
philosophical traditions, has inspired a generation of educators and
philosophers to think of education in terms of a practice of freedom,
to provide an opening of spaces
for new ways of thinking and being.
In The Dialectic of Freedom (1988), Greene relies on John
Dewey, the example of Jane Addams, as well as feminist novels, to
describe the ways that women have told the truths about their private
and public lives. Greene wants an educational system that allows
radical difference, that leaves open a space for diverse others to
appear in the public world, to “tear aside the conventional
masks…that hide women’s being in the world” (1988:
More recent feminist pragmatist pedagogies integrate scholarship on
wicked problems, sustainability education, and community engagement
(Lake 2015; Whipps 2014a); Parker 2010). This educational approach
extends the work of Dewey and Addams, highlighting the need for
“context-sensitive, dialogue-driven, action-based”
learning (Lake 2015: 252). The integration and application of these
fields offers students opportunities to impact real problems, develop
skills, and foster virtues necessary for collaboratively addressing
public problems. Current research on this form of education highlights
how it prepares students to take on the role of an integrator and
“boundary spanner” (Ramaley 2014: 12) in addition to
fostering “change agent” skills (Svanström,
Lozano-García, and Rowe 2008).
3.4 Social Action
Early feminist pragmatists often influenced the intellectual culture
of the Progressive Era and early pragmatist thought through activism.
While early feminist pragmatists were influenced by Darwinian thought,
they rejected the harsh position of Social Darwinism that pits humans
in a competitive fight for individual survival. Instead, they used the
concepts of evolution to theorize the possibilities of social
progress, affirming a social ethic that mandates humans have both the
ability and the responsibility to improve their environment. Charlotte
Perkins Gilman, for example, concentrated much of her writing on
social issues of women’s environment, working towards radical
changes in the home environment to make it more democratic and
egalitarian. Gilman’s writing recommended some Hull House
innovations as examples of some of the social changes she recommended,
such as having professional cooks making healthy family meals in a
public kitchen, instituting day care centers, and abolishing
industrial child labor. Addams was also quite perceptive about the
perplexities of home life for women; in Democracy and Social
Ethics, she consistently advocated that the private home life of
women should more directly align with a public social good.
Addams’s life work—involving both place-based local
activism and global outreach—is a powerful illustration of
enacting experimental values under specific conditions through an
iterative process of concrete experience and reflective
theorizing. Rather than a philosophic retreat from the events and
textures of everyday life, feminist pragmatists have chosen to do
philosophy in an interactive and public mode. Marilyn Fischer
describes Addams’s activism and writing as “an experiment
in real time of the process of democratic, pragmatist political
reconstruction”. She continues by labeling her activism as the
“the sort of concrete experience from which pragmatist theory
emerges and to which it must return for validation” (2013: 229).
In Jane Addams’s Evolutionary Theorizing: Constructing
Democracy and Social Ethics (2019), Fischer shows that Addams, in
analyzing the most pressing social issues of her day, drew on a vast
array of international intellectual resources, most notably from
theorists across the disciplines who patterned their work on
evolutionary biology. By showing that Addams was a more wide-ranging
intellectual than has been documented to date, Fischer’s work
also expands our understanding of the roots of classical American
Peace activism is a field of social activism that engaged many of the
women of the early progressive pragmatist era. Starting with the
Spanish American War of 1899 and in the decades prior to World War I,
pragmatists and feminists worked on anti-imperialist campaigns and
fought militarist influences in society. After the beginnings of the
war in Europe, political activism in opposition to war and working for
alternatives to war became, for some women, their primary occupation.
Yet, for most of these activists, “peace” was much more
that the absence of war; instead it signaled a new cooperative
approach to social life. As noted early, Jane Addams and Emily Greene
Balch both received the Nobel Peace Prize (Addams in 1931, Balch in
1946). Addams and Balch were also founding members of Women’s
International League for Peace and Freedom, an organization which
continues to be internationally influential in gender justice
In the early 20th century peace activism and women’s
suffrage movements were often linked. For these women, the movement
toward social justice, toward egalitarian economic structures, and
away from competitive hierarchies necessitated a social structure
based in cooperation and peace, not war. Such belief in the
possibility of substantially changing social and political realities
is at the heart of both pragmatism and feminism. Contemporary scholars
of peace, such as political scientist Patricia M. Shields, draw on
Addams’s philosophy of “ positive peace” which
includes advocacy for social justice at all levels of society and
governance (2017: 37).
Twenty-first century feminist pragmatists also have expanded the
philosophies of early pragmatists feminists by bringing new activist
voices into the philosophic dialogue such as Gloria Anzuldua, Grace
Lee Boggs, bell hooks, Audre Lorde and Angela Davis (see Lake 2019,
2020; McKenna and Pratt 2015; James 2009, 2013; Varner 2020 (Other
Internet Resources)). A number of contemporary feminist pragmatists
(Heldke, Lake, McKenna, Parker) are advocating for ecological justice,
food justice, and animal justice. Others are looking to scholars of
wicked problems like Valerie Brown and Bryan Norton, and Design and
Systems Thinking experts like Margaret Wheatley, Josina Vink, and
Arturo Escobar for new ways to address social problems.
Asian American Civil Rights activist Grace Lee Boggs (1915–2015)
has received particular attention in recent years from pragmatist
feminists who have found Boggs’s emphases on lived experience,
pluralism, complexity, and praxis to align with pragmatist feminist
traditions (Lake 2020). Boggs’ place-based philosophic-activism
in Detroit was preceded by formal philosophical training in
pragmatism. She received her 1940 Ph.D. in philosophy (see Grace Chin
Lee) from Bryn Mawr where she wrote her dissertation on pragmatist
George Herbert Mead.
3.5 Democratic Pluralism
Democracy was a core concept for many early feminist pragmatists,
especially Jane Addams and Mary Parker Follett. For example, democracy
as an ethic provided the theoretical framing for Addams’
beginning work at Hull House as well as her later work with labor
unions and feminist activism. In Democracy and Social Ethics
(1902) Addams theorized a continually evolving democracy based on
social association, particular to each generation and locality. As an
ethical system, it placed on each person “a moral
obligation” to chose experiences of “mixing on the
thronged and common road” where we can “least see the size
of one another’s burdens” (1902 [2002]: 8–7). She
critiqued earlier formations of liberty and democracy that
weren’t developed out of experience and interaction, and that
didn’t embrace all classes of society. Addams took this sense of
empathic understanding to larger and larger communities, as she moved
from local to national to international work. Democracy, for Addams,
is built upon dialogue, joint experiences and social equality. She
understood we must give up on the hope that we will “settle our
perplexities by mere good fighting”, suggesting this stance
emerged from a “childish conception of life” (1910 [1990]:
57). Her nephew, James Weber Linn, wrote that Addams’ distrusted
legislation when it was not “preceded by full discussion and
understanding” (155). Addams’ commitment to dialogic and
relational democracy emerged from the recognition that “genuine
social reform” across ideological differences tends to happen
through “slow, plodding dullness” (Fischer 2016: 5).
As a political philosopher, Mary
Parker Follett wanted to move the practice of democracy away from the
mere action of voting to small community based decision-making. She
believed that problem-solving via dialogue and action in local but
diverse networks and organizations was the best basis for democracy.
Rejecting compromise as a way of dealing with difference, she instead
advocated for “integration”, believing conceptual
resolution of differences must be worked out in everyday action
together. According to Follett, the process of resolution requires
full honesty, self-knowledge, careful listening and understanding of
what is symbolized in the others’ demands.
A pluralistic community is an important theoretical and practical
component of pragmatist conceptions of democracy. The “social
ethics” advocated by Dewey and Addams embraces equality and
multiplicity, narrative and perplexity, fellowship and cooperative
action, sympathetic understanding and the expansion of our ethical
framework. Scott Pratt has noted that these pluralistic values in
American philosophy may have deeper roots than James, Dewey and
Addams. For example, in Native Pragmatism Pratt traces the
gender and cultural pluralistic values of American philosophy to the
early 19th century writings of Lydia Marie Child on
indigenous North Americans.
In fact, Addams, Dewey, and Follett all critiqued the ideal of liberal
individualism which positions individuals as autonomous beings in
competition with each other for their freedoms. Instead pragmatist
feminists focus on living in a reciprocal and interdependent social
environment, believing this holds the promise of civilization,
cooperation, and coexistence; they work to build communities that
foster these joint associations. By prioritizing community,
pragmatist-feminists encourage us to rethink what it means to live in
a democracy (Green 1999), to provide a feminist communitarian
philosophy (Whipps 2004), or to re-conceive alternative ways of
structuring societies (Boggs and Kurashigo 2012). Early pragmatist
writers join with contemporary feminists in a critique of the
hierarchical systems of power that limit diverse perspectives. Several
contemporary pragmatist-feminists have built upon these foundations to
develop pragmatist-feminist political philosophies, including Judith
Greene in Deep Democracy: Community, Diversity,
Transformation (1990), Beth Singer in Pragmatism, Rights and
Democracy (1999), and Erin
McKenna in The Task of Utopia (2001). These feminist
pragmatists imagine a participatory democracy in which all members of
the society are involved in creating the community. Yet many
contemporary feminists criticize recent communitarian philosophies as
potentially harmful to feminist issues; they argue the call for a
“return” to community values means a return to values that
restrict gender roles or limit diversity. With this critique in mind,
Addams can be seen as a basis for a feminist progressive
communitarianism that critiques isolated individualism and
understands personal identity as necessarily embedded in social and
political community. While pragmatists and feminists share the concern
for relational community and pluralistic thinking, they differ in how
they construct the Other. Pragmatists, Seigfried says,
are more likely to emphasize that everyone is a significantly and
valuably Other … and tend to celebrate otherness by seeking out
and welcoming difference as an expression of creative subjectivity.
(Seigfried 1996: 267)
As Francis Hackett, an early resident of Hull House, said about
Addams, “one feels in her presence that to be an
‘other’ is itself a title to her recognition” (1969:
76). Feminists, on the other hand, having experienced the position of
marginalized otherness as women, are more inclined to “expose
the controlling force exercised by those who have the power to
construct the Other as a subject of domination” (Seigfried 1996:
Shannon Sullivan, in Revealing Whiteness (2006), notes that
Addams was “ahead of her time” in her theoretical and
practical focus on reciprocal class and race relations, yet cautions
that such reciprocal relations have also “unintentionally
furthered white people’s ontological expansiveness” (2006:
168). Sullivan draws on Dewey’s and James’ writing on
habit, as well as psychoanalytic theory, to call for responsibility
for one’s unconscious attitudes. In either embracing the
diversity of the other, or in critiquing a system that makes persons
into object-others, both feminism and pragmatism provide theoretical
tools to analyze and actively fight against the unjust hierarchies
created by racism, classism, and sexism. Contemporary black feminist
pragmatists such as V. Denise James are building on the work of Anna
Julia Cooper, Ida B. Wells and others, to develop black feminist
visionary pragmatism, a term which describes “academic, cultural, and
activist projects that attempt to take a practical view of social
amelioration, while positing a vision of a radically changed, more
just society” (James 2013).
4. Global Pragmatist Feminisms
Nancy McHugh’s (2015) The Limits of Knowledge
highlights one of the most compelling aspects of feminist pragmatist
work: the need to engage along and across borders. McHugh argues for a
transactionally situated approach that aims to generate and sustain a
vantage point from which to see complex, interconnected problems
facing both local and global communities across social, economic,
cultural, educational, and political divides. This means we begin in
“the complexities of the everyday world” and engage with
those who are impacted by the results. At its best, such an approach
seeks out “ marginalized views and marginalized
knowledge,” recognizing that long-standing histories shape the
present situation, and that our location is embodied (10). Phillip
Dorstewitz highlights how feminist pragmatists seek to engage
“at the system’s edges” (370) in order to engage in
philosophic-activist work. Susan Griffin (2009) notes that such work
is critical for fostering “ the capacity to recognize the actual
circumstances of the world, while simultaneously seeing what lies
beneath them” (9).
In the twentieth century, those identifying as pragmatist feminist
scholars were mostly from North America. In the first two decades of
the twenty-first century, global pragmatist feminist voices have made
important contributions to the field. For instance, Clara Fischer, who
also writes on Irish Feminism, turns to John Dewey to address
body/mind and emotion/reason dualisms, demonstrating that feminists
could draw on the pragmatist tradition to address philosophies of
embodiment (2018). Dorothy Rogers current projects seek to highlight
the work of indigenous and early Mexican feminists who rejected the
assimilationist agenda in education (2020, Other Internet Resources)
and Alessandri and Stehn uncover the Mexican influences on Gloria
Anzaldua’s writing (2020). Núria Sara Miras Boronat,
Universitat de Barcelona, organized a feminist pragmatist conference
in Barcelona in January 2020. She has published on Addams and
pragmatist peace philosophies (2019), and also works on philosophies
of play, drawing on Mead’s work which was influenced by his
interaction with Hull House (2013). There has also recently been a
shift towards uncovering and exploring the philosophic-activist work
unfolding beyond the borders of the global north.
5. Conclusion
As pragmatist feminist philosophy continues to develop, more women who
worked in the pragmatist tradition are being uncovered, and their
voices incorporated back into the pragmatist tradition. Contemporary
pragmatist feminist philosophers are utilizing those perspectives to
address contemporary philosophical and activist concerns. Feminist
philosophers bring these recovered perspectives to contemporary
feminist projects, such as domestic violence (Banerjee 2008), queer
theory, sex trafficking and community organizing (see Fischer,
Jackson, Brown and Hamington in Hamington 2010) and human rights
(Lowe 2019). The combined force of pragmatism and contemporary feminism
is leading to a deeper understanding of contemporary progressive
feminist goals, bringing action and theory together in egalitarian more

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