Author: Annaleigh Curtis
Category: Social and Political Philosophy
Word Count: 1000
Editor’s Note: This essay is the first in a two-part series authored by Annaleigh on the topic of philosophical feminism. The second essay can be viewed here.
In both academic and non-academic discussions of feminism, there is sometimes a lack of appreciation for the diversity among feminist positions. Two people may be called feminists while disagreeing about a range of theoretical and practical issues, like the nature of oppression, sex work, or abortion. In this and the next two following essays, I lay out three general feminist approaches to sexist oppression: the sameness approach, the difference approach, and the dominance approach.1 This first essay focuses on the sameness approach.
There are many ways of dividing up strands of thought, particularly when they have arisen organically out of a political movement. What is called the sameness approach here shares similarities with what elsewhere is called humanist or liberal feminism. The basic idea is that people ought to be treated equally, regardless of their physical or social characteristics. The general argumentative strategy is this:
Premise 1: If A and B are the same in the relevant respects, then A and B should be treated the same.
Premise 2: Women and men2 are the same in the relevant respects.
Conclusion: Women and men should be treated the same.
This argument seems persuasive at first glance. If two things are the same in whatever ways really matter, it would be irrational to treat them differently. For example, if two job candidates are equally qualified for a job, it would be unfair to hire one just because he is a man. This sort of intuition guides the sameness approach. Notice that this approach does not have to say that men and women are exactly the same. The defender of this approach can admit that there are natural or socialized differences, just not in terms of what really matters. People may disagree, though, about what really matters: human dignity, intellect, a soul, certain capacities, whatever it might be.
One well-known philosopher who can be called a defender of the sameness approach is John Stuart Mill, best known for his writings on topics in ethics and political philosophy. Mill wrote that one thing that seems to distinguish the past and present is a casting away of various sorts of discrimination. “[H]uman beings are no longer born to their place in life, and chained down by an inexorable bond to the place they are born to, but are free to employ their faculties, and such favourable chances as offer, to achieve the lot which may appear to them most desirable.”3 For Mill, meaningful distinctions among individuals could not be made based on irrelevancies like race, sex, or class.
Though the sameness approach has a lot of initial intuitive pull, there may be problems with it. Just take the example of the job candidates from before. We supposed that two candidates who were equally qualified should not be distinguished on the basis of sex. Consider two objections to the sameness approach relating to this example.
First, does the sameness approach entail that affirmative action is impermissible? After all, if it is wrong to distinguish between people merely on the basis of sex, then neither men nor women should receive jobs based on sex. Yet many feminists, including those who support the sameness approach, probably approve of some affirmative action in hiring. This same sort of objection has been made against race-based affirmative action, and it is sometimes even called “reverse racism.” A standard response to these objections holds that affirmative action is justified because men and women, like whites and non-whites, in our society start off on very uneven playing fields. Men, especially white men, have received undue advantages for many years, so it is not really unfair to preferentially hire women and non-white candidates because this merely counters a long-standing bias against them. But it is not so clear whether or how this response can work with the sameness approach. Perhaps the defender of the approach must take the long view about what constitutes equal treatment, holding that some preference now makes up for opposite preference in days past. If so, then the defender of the sameness approach must spell this out in her theory.
Second, but related, there may be a difficulty with our original supposition that two candidates were equally qualified. After all, how often are candidates equally qualified? More to the point, should we address the possibility that women are likely to be systematically underqualified as a result of sexism prior to even being considered for a job? People do not receive the same education, opportunities, and encouragement as they develop. The sameness approach would demand change on these fronts, no doubt, but the defender of the approach may be hard-pressed to say what ought to be done between now and the just future they imagine. Treating everyone just the same if they have been treated differently for a very long time may just perpetuate the difference by assuring that those with a head start remain ahead.
The reader will find listed below several resources for reading about the sameness approach to sexist oppression, though it would also be instructive to observe debates in the news and among friends to see whether one can identify uses of this approach as well as the difference and dominance approaches to be discussed in Parts 2 and 3.
1These divisions are taken directly from Theorizing Feminisms: A Reader, edited by Sally Haslanger and Elizabeth Hackett. They, in turn, find some basis in an essay reprinted in that volume by Catharine MacKinnon called “Difference and Domination: On Sex Discrimination.”
2I talk about men and women in this essay as if those categories were real and exhausted the gendered possibility space. I do this mostly because the thinkers I discuss tended to do so. However, most feminists today accept that there is no hard and fast biological or social binary with men on one hand and women on the other. For a good run-down of ways in which sex, gender identity and expression, and sexual orientation come apart, see http://www.ohio.edu/lgbt/resources/trans101.cfm
3J.S. Mill, “The Subjection of Women” http://www.constitution.org/jsm/women.htm
de Beauvoir, Simone. The Second Sex. 1949.
Hackett, Elizabeth, and Sally Haslanger. Theorizing Feminisms: A Reader. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.
Jaggar, Alison (1983). Feminist Politics and Human Nature. Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Littlefield.
Mill, J.S. “The Subjection of Women.” 1869.
Nussbaum, Martha (2000). “The Future of Feminist Liberalism.” Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association 74: 47–79.
Okin, Susan Moller (1989). Justice, Gender and the Family. Basic Books: New York.
About the Author
Annaleigh is a JD student at Harvard Law School. She has a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Colorado at Boulder, a Graduate Certificate in Women and Gender Studies from CU Boulder, and a B.A. in Philosophy from Washburn University. Her academic interests are mainly in social epistemology, moral epistemology and methodology, feminist philosophy, and philosophy of law. In her free time, she likes to cook and bake vegan food, climb rocks, and watch wacky workplace sitcoms with strong female leads. Website: https://harvard.academia.edu/AnnaleighCurtis
Equality feminism is a subset of the overall feminism movement that focuses on the basic similarities between men and women, and whose ultimate goal is the equality of the sexes in all domains. This includes economic and political equality, equal access within the workplace, freedom from oppressive gender stereotyping, and an androgynous worldview.[not in citation given (See discussion.)]
Feminist theory seeks to promote the legal status of women as equal and undifferentiated from that of men. While equality feminists largely agree that men and women have basic biological differences in anatomy and frame, they argue that on a psychological level, the use of ration or reason is androgynous. For equality feminists, men and women are equal in terms of their ability to reason, achieve goals, and prosper in both the work and home front.
Equality feminism was the dominant version of feminism following Mary Wollstonecraft's "A Vindication of the Rights of Woman" (1792). Wollstonecraft made the case that women's equality to men manifests itself in education and worker's rights, and further produced a proverbial roadmap in order for future women to follow in terms of activism and feminist theorizing. Since then, active equality feminist include Simone de Beauvoir, the Seneca Falls Convention Leaders, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Coffin Mott, Susan B. Anthony, Betty Friedan, and Gloria Steinem.
While equality feminism was the dominant perspective of feminism during the 19th and 20th century, the 1980s and 1990s brought about a new focus in popular feminism on difference feminism, or the essential differences between men and women. In opposition to equality feminism, this view advocates for the celebration of the "feminine" by focusing on traditionally viewed female traits, such as empathy, nurturing, and care. While equality feminists view human nature as essentially androgynous, difference feminists claim that this viewpoint aligns the "good" with male-dominated stereotypes, thus sticking within the patriarchal framework of society.
In both law and in theology women were portrayed as both physically and intellectually inferior. One of the first feminist documents that set the stage for feministic movements occurred when Mary Wollstonecraft wrote "Vindication of the Rights of Woman" in 1792. While this literature was seen as rebellious at the time it echoed the feelings of women throughout France as women's republican clubs demanded that liberty, equality and fraternity should be applied to both men and women. While this movement gained notoriety it was eventually extinguished by Napoleon Bonaparte's Code Napoleon that established that the husband had complete control over the family and regressed equality feminism.
While much of the equality feminism movements that occurred in France weren't successful, they influenced much of the movements that occurred in North America in the 1800s. Both Abigail Adams and Mercy Otis Warren fought for woman's emancipation to be included in the constitution of 1776 to no avail. However, Elizabeth Cade Stanton, Lucretia Coffin Mott, along with thousands of other women changed the dynamics of equality feminism forever with the women's convention at Seneca Falls N.Y. in 1848. Here along with independence they demanded full legal equality in all aspects of life (education, commercial opportunities, compensation, voting rights, etc.). With the influence of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan Brownell Anthony, this movement evolved into Europe. In 1869 John Stuart Mill published The Subjection of Women in which he argued that equality between the sexes would translate to more moral and intellectual advancement which in turn would result in more human happiness to everyone.:87–89
After the expansion into Europe, the movement stifled its growth until 1920 where the woman suffrage movement occurred, as many women were divided when determining whether or not women were on equal standing with men. This continued until the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women was established in 1946 to secure equal political, economic and educational opportunities for women throughout the world. In 1949, a French Existentialist Simone de Beauvoir published the work The Second Sex, in which she debunks many of the claims made towards women and fights for gender equality. In 1963 another literature pertaining to equality feminism arose, with Betty Friedman's The Feminine Mystique in which she discussed "the problem that has no name", being the widespread unhappiness of women in the 1950s. She uses this information to describe many of the gender inequalities that society has created that has resulted in this unhappiness, such as giving up her psychology career to tend to her children. Using these literatures as a guide feminism once again arose in the United States with the development of the National Organization for Women (NOW) formed in 1966. This organization fought for the removal of all legal and social barriers placed upon women to once again influence true equality between men and women. In 1972 women leaders such as Bella Abzug, Betty Friedan, and Gloria Steinem pushed the Equal Rights Amendment through Congress; however, it fell short of ratification by 1982.
Equality feminist theory
Equality feminist theory is the extension of the equality of the male and female into theoretical and philosophical fields of thought. At its core, equality feminist theory advocates for the equal standing of both men and women in terms of desires, wants, goals, and achievement. Thus, from this viewpoint, the basis of human nature outside of culture is androgynous, neutral, and equal.[not in citation given (See discussion.)]
Much of equality feminism focuses on the relation of reason as the central tenet of both men and women equally. Mary Wollstonecraft in "A Vindication on the Rights of Women" (1792) claimed that women should enjoy the same legal and political rights as men on the grounds that they are human beings. Specifically, Wollstonecraft argues for "[a]sserting the rights which women in common with men ought to contend for".:8 In this way, both men and women should have equal access to rights because they have an equal access to the capacity to reason. Similarly, The Subjection of Women (1869), John Stuart Mill advocated that society ought to be arranged according to reason and that 'accidents of birth' is irrelevant. Thus, because both men and women are governed by principles of reason, then the biological elements such as sex, gender, and race aren't contributing factors to the essence of the individual. Mill notes that within a patriarchal society, "Men hold women in subjection by representing to them meekness, submissiveness resignation of all individual will into the hands of a man as an essential part of sexual attractiveness".:1–127 In this way, to say that women have essential characteristics of submission by nature of their sex is an oppressive measure that contradicts the basic principle of reason that governs all human nature.
In 1792 Wollstonecraft wrote one of the earliest works in feminist philosophy and though she doesn't explicitly state that men and women are equal she does call for equality in various realms of life which set the stage for future equality feminist works. In her piece A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects, Wollstonecraft argues that women should have an education comparable to their position in society. She articulates her argument by claiming that since women were the primary care givers they could be able to better educate their own children and be seen as "companions" to the husband rather than wives if they were given this opportunity. Instead of being considered "property" that were exchanged through marriage, Wollstonecraft maintains that women are human beings and therefore deserve equal fundamental rights as men.:74–88
John Stuart Mill
In 1869, John Stuart Mill with the help of his wife Harriet Taylor Mill published The Subjection of Women, in it he argued for equality between the sexes. John Stuart Mill was able to draw off of some of the arguments his wife made in her essay The Enfranchisement of Women, in which she opened the door of favoring equality for both men and women. Mill believe that the moral and intellectual advancement from giving women the opportunity to be considered equal would translate to greater happiness for everyone involved. He believed that all humans had the capability of being educated and civilized, with which he argued women should be given the right to vote. Throughout the book Mill continues to argue that both men and women should be able to vote to defend their rights and be able to have the opportunity to stand on their own two feet morally and intellectually, and constantly used his position in Parliament to advocate for women's suffrage.
Mill attacks many of the arguments that women are inferior at certain activities and therefore be forbidden from doing them by saying that women aren't given the opportunities and therefore we don't know what women are capable of. He claims that males are making an authoritative statement without evidence, an argument solely based on speculation. Mill claims that by giving women this opportunity to figure out exactly what they were capable of would double the mass of mental faculties to serve humanity, and could produce a great impact on human development.:56–79
Simone de Beauvoir
Simone de Beauvoir played a large role in equality feminism with the publishing of her book The Second Sex, broken into 3 parts. In the first part, "Destiny", de Beauvoir discusses the relationship of male to female in a variety of creatures before comparing human beings. This physiological data along with psychoanalytical data help her come to the conclusion that there wasn't a historical defeat of the female sex. Part two, "History", outlines the two factors in the evolution of women's condition: participation in production and freedom from reproductive slavery. In these chapters, de Beauvoir compares being a women to being like an animal, similar to the way male animals dominated a female. Finally in part three, "Myths", de Beauvoir discusses the perceived "everlasting disappointment" of women from a male heterosexual point of view. She then comes back and discusses full reality of the situation to show the discrepancies between perception and reality. Throughout her literary career, de Beauvoir helped unravel some of the "myths" associated with perceptions in gender and set forth a strong message that men and women should be treated equal with equal rights.
Betty Friedan became one of the most recognized equality feminists after writing the book The Feminine Mystique, in which she discusses "the problem that has no name", female unhappiness in the 1950s and 1960s. It was through this book that Friedman was able to address many of the problems and the widespread recognition allowed her to later become president of the National Organization for Women(NOW).
Throughout the piece Friedan addressed the problem that women had "wanting more than a husband, children, and a home". Friedan discusses the societal expectations of raising children and how this caused many women to not be able to do what they wanted. Many decisions that were made for women were made by men and this had worn out many women. She discusses the problem of education and that many families solely focused on education for the male children and women were instead "assigned to be married to fulfill child-bearing expectations". It was through the impact of this piece of literature that women were finally given a voice to say it was okay to not want to conform to societal expectations and fight for equality of opportunities, choices, marriage, education, and voting.
The main objection raised to equality feminism comes in the form of difference feminism, the belief that emphasizes the differences between men and women. This viewpoint, as championed by such feminists such as Carol Gilligan, Joan Tronto, Eva Feder Kittay, Genevieve Lloyd, Alison Jaggar, and Ynestra King, developed out of the rejection of the androgynous view of human nature as emphasized in equality feminism. Begun largely in the 1980s, this viewpoint makes the case that equality feminism fails to account for the uniquely female experience, and thus creates the male perspective as the dominant aspiration.
- ^ abStanford University. Gendered Innovations. Retrieved 3 October 2014.
- ^Wollstonecraft, Mary. "A Vindication of the Rights of Woman". Retrieved 4 October 2014.
- ^The University of Alabama. "Kinds of Feminism". Retrieved 3 October 2014.
- ^Ethics of Care (International Encyclopedia of Philosophy). Retrieved 2 October 2014.
- ^Landes, Joan B. Women and the Public Sphere in the Age of the French Revolution. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1988. Retrieved 1 October 2014
- ^ abcMills, John Stuart and Okin, Susan Moller. The Subjection of Women. Hacking Publishing, 1998. Retrieved 4 October 2014.
- ^ abFriedan, Betty. "The Feminine Mystique." The Essential Feminist Reader. Ed. Estelle B. Freedman. New York: Random House Group, 2007. Retrieved 2 October 2014.
- ^Castro, Ginette. American Feminism: A Contemporary History. Trans. Elizabeth Loverde-Bagwell. New York: New York UP, 1990. Retrieved 1 October 2014.
- ^ abWollstonecraft, Mary. A Vindication of the Rights of Women. Retrieved 4 October 2014.
- ^John Stuart Mills (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)". plato.stanford.edu. Retrieved 30 September 2014.
- ^Beauvoir, Simone De. The Second Sex. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1949.
- ^Bromley,Victoria L. (2012). Feminisms Matter: Debates. Theories. Activism. Toronto, Ontario: University of Toronto Press Inc. ISBN 978-1-4426-0500-8