Zeena Elton
Zeena Elton

Project Title: Beyond Dominant Paradigms of Motherhood and the Feminine: In Search of an Alternative Western (Meta) Physics of the Feminine "Other"

Principal Advisor: Associate Professor Marguerite La Caze

Project Abstract: This thesis is a feminist philosophical and historical journey through various methodological fields, most notably phenomenology. My argument is situated within a continental feminist philosophical framework that also stands at the intersection of history, philosophy, religion and classical studies. I engage with French feminist critiques and applications of psychoanalysis to argue for the central importance of the maternal realm to the life of the world. In drawing upon the work of classics theorists I return to the ancient past to trace women through time for their unique importance to life. I critique traditional concepts of ‘woman’ in religious ideals and trace the feminine for women, re-embodying women in history to theorise woman for herself, beyond the question of gender. My argument features the poetics of mythos to trace women who have displaced, erupted into, and subverted masculine history through the centrality of their bodies and their lives in the world. I conclude that women’s poiesis in song, poetry, visions, and love, is an integral relationality to the other, and has always been central to the foundations and development of culture. I explore Greek mythology to claim the crucial importance of female genealogies that link women through time who are real, knowledgeable, and integral to their worlds.

Five women philosophers provide the philosophical framework for my argument. I apply the work of French women theorists, Simone de Beauvoir, Luce Irigaray, and Julia Kristeva, to argue that the female body is the foundation for how a woman lives in, and relates to the world. Italian feminist Adriana Cavarero’s conception of unique narratable lives is central to my theorising and re-embodying women in history; as unique human beings whose life stories have changed their worlds. Likewise Hannah Arendt’s philosophy and political theory is transformed to address the centrality of women to the life of the world. I argue that these theorists reveal the ethical importance of the feminine to all human life. In discussions that extend from the Greek classical world to postmodern critiques I examine interpretations of their work from theorists such as Sara Heinämaa, Moira Gatens, Margaret Whitford, Kelly Oliver, Ewa Ziarek, Amy Hollywood, Andrea Nye and Seyla Benhabib. My interpretation of their work reclaims real women in history beyond the anonymity of the post-structural subject; women who give birth, and live life, whose bodies are spiritual and whose lives are linked by love. I apply the work of many feminists concerned with the story of women in history, such as Penelope Deutscher, Karen Green, Val Plumwood, Genevieve Lloyd, Carolyn Merchant and Grace Jantzen, and new theorising of the maternal from Lisa Guenther, Frances Gray and Jane Lymer.

I commence my argument with an examination of the female-sexed body as a site of difference and explore the maternal realm’s unique importance to the development of all human life. From Simone de Beauvoir’s phenomenological analysis of a woman’s body, I explore the application and critiques of philosophy and psychoanalysis, from Irigaray and Kristeva. My argument privileges a space for the maternal realm and lays the philosophical groundwork for new theorising of maternal importance to the development of all human life. I examine Irigaray and Cavarero’s concern for the ‘original matricide’ of female genealogies and thus return to ancient Greece to explore the appropriation of the birth of life. Through an exploration of feminist critiques of Plato, I draw upon classics theorists to re-embody Diotima beyond the service of masculine philosophy. I develop the theoretical nous of Cavarero to reclaim female figures from western traditions, returning them to their literal significance. Thus I return Diotima to her rightful place among other priestesses with the knowledge of the great ancient mysteries of life. I trace the transformation of the spiritual female body and the loss of ecstatic eros exemplified through an ancient figure such as the Sibyl Heraphile. I explore the female mystical body as the intermediary between human and divine worlds and I apply Irigaray’s concept of the sensible transcendental. Through an exploration of the modern French fascination with mysticism from Beauvoir, Irigaray and Georges Bataille, I set the scene for my analysis of the mystical body in Christianity. I develop a re-visioning of the Apostle Mary of Magdala before turning to mystics such as Julian of Norwich and Angela of Foligno to explore the female body as a mystical eruption of logos. At the intersection of religion and philosophy I examine the persistent philosophical dichotomy of woman as nature and man as culture and problematise limited masculine dualisms. I demonstrate the importance of female relationality and the uniqueness of women’s lives as the foundation for human co-existence and development in the life of the world. I argue that feminine poiesis of love and friendship links women through time and stands at the intersection of all human life in the world.

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