The Disabling Materiality of Feminist Rhetorical Practices*

Consider the expressions “women and other underrepresented groups” and “women and minorities,” terminology that has been readily transported from managerial and juridical discourses (such as corporate social responsibility statements, government policy, university administration protocols, etc.) and uncritically assimilated into feminist (and other) discourses ostensibly designed to contest and reduce the homogeneous character and composition of the discipline and profession of philosophy.

These two expressions, which have been mobilized primarily by nondisabled heterosexual white women philosophers, enable them to conceal their own specificity—that is, their own privileged position vis-à -vis the profession, the discipline of philosophy, and the sub-discipline of feminist philosophy—and simultaneously retain their position of centrality and primacy in the very feminist discourses that they advance to resist the homogeneity of the discipline and profession. For the only women who are not (already) included in the nebulous denouement of the phrases “women and other underrepresented groups in philosophy” and “women and minorities in philosophy” are nondisabled straight white women themselves.

If any women other than nondisabled heterosexual white women are assumed to be encompassed by the category of “women” used in these phrases, then the phrases themselves would be redundant.

Who, after all, are these nameless, faceless, and unidentified other “Others”? That is, it seems that nondisabled heterosexual white women should be recognized as the only women encompassed by the category of “women” in the phrases “women and other underrepresented groups in philosophy” and “women and minorities in philosophy.” Without nondisabled heterosexual white women, that is, the category of “women”—which is prioritized in the phrases “women and other underrepresented groups in philosophy” and “women and minorities in philosophy”—would be empty.

Indeed, it seems that the phrases “women and other underrepresented groups in philosophy” and “women and minorities in philosophy”—which simultaneously position nondisabled straight white women as the paradigm of “women” and de-gender all other women—should be recognized as equivalent to the phrases “nondisabled heterosexual white women and other underrepresented groups in philosophy” and “nondisabled heterosexual white women and minorities in philosophy.”

Because of the furtive vagueness of the expressions “other underrepresented groups in philosophy” and “minorities in philosophy,” furthermore, that is, because the referents of these phrases are rarely, if ever, specified or identified, these expressions have come to be employed interchangeably within feminist discourses on diversifying philosophy, enabling concealment of the fact that, in virtually all cases, the latter phrase—namely, “minorities in philosophy”—has until very recently been used (and, in some cases, still is) to refer to philosophers of racialized minorities only, that is, has not also encompassed philosophers who are underrepresented due to ableism, heterosexism, and gender-border guarding.

Disability is also routinely and systematically left out of most intersectional feminist philosophical analyses that remain preoccupied with and restricted to the trilogies of “gender, race, and sexuality” and “gender, race, and class.” Many feminist philosophers have received a large portion or even all of their philosophical training in areas and sub-fields such as mainstream ethics and political philosophy, bioethics, and cognitive science, where individualized and medicalized conceptions of disability are especially prevalent and explicit; thus, these philosophers have almost certainly not been informed (and have likely not informed themselves) about social-political conceptions of disability.

Indeed, few feminist (and other) philosophers understand disability as an apparatus that is inextricably entwined with gender, race, sexuality, ethnicity, class, age, nationality and other apparatuses of power. In feminist philosophy and elsewhere in philosophy, that is, disability (unlike gender or race) is generally not conceived as a relation of social power in which everyone is implicated, but rather, is still widely regarded as an unfortunate and politically-neutral characteristic (pathological property) that some individuals possess and embody and about which there is little, if anything, for an intersectional, politically-informed feminist philosophy to analyze and interrogate. I call this rhetorical device “ableist exceptionism”.

*Adapted from Shelley Tremain, “Introducing Feminist Philosophy of Disability” Disability Studies Quarterly, 2013.

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