Gender Equality

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Gender Equality

The coupling of equality and gender may indicate a paradox, if not an oxymoron. If equality were to exist, would gender? Does the persistent salience of the idea of gender with regard to equality provide evidence of fundamental flaws or contradictions in theories and practices of equality? Can the pursuit of equality reproduce rather than undermine gender dominance? While these questions are central to contemporary discourses on equality and gender, consensus on answers or even means to address them is absent.

Equality is a relational term. It entails establishing a relation between two or more things. Logically, differences between the objects of comparison must exist, for otherwise the question of their equivalence would not occur. However, establishing equality requires specifying a characteristic potentially shared by each thing. Furthermore, it demands identifying a class of objects among which the characteristic might be found. For example, if one declares, "all men are born equal," then one must specify the criterion that warrants this statement. In so doing, the boundary marking equality's terrain is simultaneously established. In this case, equality is significant, or meaningful, only in relations among men, not men and other beings; within this formulation the question "Are men and animals equal?" is unintelligible. Establishing equality thus requires identifying the common criterion and commensurable objects. Having done so, it is then possible to evaluate the relation of each relevant thing to the common measureif each partakes of the common quality to the same degree, then equality exists.

Thus establishing equality does not require that the objects within its specified class be in all respects identical. However, while discourses of equality do not deny that differences exist, they do claim that in regard to some practices or claims, existing differences are irrelevant. In these practices or claims, what matters is partaking of the common quality. Those who share the quality equally ought to count identically or have equal access to the practice or claim. For example, if one claims that natural rights are innate to each human, then each human's rights are entitled to the same treatment and regard as every other human's. So equality requires a commitment to disregard some characteristics when distributing certain goods or treatment in favor of a presumption of equivalence.

Equality, Liberalism, and Feminism

The idea that public life ought to be organized on the basis of this presumption of a formal equivalence and its ensuing entitlements emerged relatively recently. It is a distinguishing characteristic of modern liberalism, modes of thought and practices that emerged in seventeenth-and eighteenth-century Western Europe. Thomas Hobbes (15881679), John Locke (16321704), and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (17121778) are among the most important early liberal theorists. Their writings reflect and refine the new bourgeoisie's claims of equality arising in the political struggles in early modern Europe against older feudal hierarchal orders. These new movements rejected the ideas of a natural basis for authority or the relevance of certain ascribed characteristics, such as one's family of origin, to the legitimacy of claims to rule or to the distribution of public power.

In the apparent rejection of the significance of at least some ascribed characteristics to the distribution of power, discourses of equality would appear to have the potential to dissolve the basis of many asymmetrical relationships. Indeed, one can argue that modern feminisms emerged simultaneously with and within theories and practices of liberal equality. However, while perhaps siblings, feminisms and their related liberal discourses are not identical. From the first, feminisms exposed the contradictions and limits of liberal equality. Feminist movements fought (and in some countries, continue to fight) sustained and difficult battles to attain suffrage and equal rights to education, reproductive freedom, employment, and protection under the law. Such rights are called formal equality. As more countries extend formal equality to previously excluded groups and declare their commitment to gender neutrality, however, the contradictions and limits of formal equality become more evident. Consequently the meanings of and relationships between equality and gender are increasingly complex and contested.

Equality and Sexual Difference

Tensions between equality and gender exist partially as the result of each term's traditional construction. While equality is understood as equivalence and entails stipulating a common quality or uniform measure, gender has been constituted through difference, specifically "sexual difference." Until recent feminist discourses, gender and sexual difference have been interchangeable and identical terms. As traditionally conceived, gender is constituted in and through "naturally occurring" sexual (anatomical) differences. Male and female are dichotomous natural kinds; gender categories simply reflect a biologically determined order. All humans are one and only one of gender's constituent binary pair: man/woman. Conventionally, gender is not only a binary, but an asymmetrical, hierarchical one. The male is the norm and superior, the female deviant and lacking.

Given this ranking, when theorists began to evaluate the significance of equality discourses to women's situations, certain questions inevitably arose. These included whether sexual difference was a kind of difference relevant to theories and practices of equality and, if so, if women's difference was mis-conceived. In other words, despite women's difference, were they in the relevant sense equal to men? The relevant sense would be that they sufficiently partake of the common quality the possession of which warrants claims to equality. Thus eighteenth-century writers such as Mary Wollstonecraft (17591797) argue that reason is the common quality that renders humans equal. Women are as capable of reasoning as men; hence, they deserve equal enjoyment of all public rights. Later John Stuart Mill (18061873) argues that given the existing subordination of women, it is impossible to know what their true nature might be. Therefore, one ought to assume that they are as able and desiring as men to exercise the innate capacities of self-development and reason that define humanness.

Gender Asymmetries and the Limits
of Formal Equality

Coupled with strenuous political activity, such claims of women's samenessin regard to being "like men" in their possession of the essential quality grounding equalityeventually produced formal legal equality for women in most states. In most countries in the early twenty-first century, according to law, women can vote, own property, enter professions, receive an education, hold public office, and so forth. However, despite this formal equality, few would argue that gender asymmetries have disappeared. Women worldwide are far more likely than men who are otherwise similarly situated in race, ethnic, and class positions to be poor or illiterate; to perform the most dangerous, low-paying work; to suffer sexual violence; and to be absent from positions of public, economic, and cultural power.

The persistence of such gender asymmetries generates vigorous feminist debate. Some argue discourses of equality replicate rather than undermine male dominance. The male side of the gender binary remains the norm, hence female difference is devalued. Equality simply means the integration of women within "male-ordered" states. Insofar as individual women seek to emulate male-dominant values, they may attain equal access to political, cultural, and economic institutions. Such individual access will do nothing to transform the devaluation of the feminine or undermine patriarchal ways of life. True equality would require a revaluation of female difference and its incorporation, not erasure, within revised norms and social practices. Alternatively, some argue that the persistence of gender asymmetry is a symptom of pervasive, systemic domination. Equality is insufficient or inappropriate to overturn such social relations. Instead, theorists recommend a variety of alternate approaches, for example, ones rooted in theories and practices of justice, radical democracy, or sex or class revolution.

Beyond Gender Neutrality

Other feminists deconstruct the apparently gender-neutral qualities said to ground human equality and question the putative neutrality of the liberal state. They examine abstract notions of reason and the individual posited by philosophers such as Immanuel Kant (17241804) or John Rawls (19212002) to warrant formal equality. Abstract reason and individualism require a split between the particular, phenomenal, material, embodied person and the universal, noumenal, unsituated mind. The identification of body with error and mind with capacity to grasp truth maps too neatly with the gendered split of female (body)/male (mind). In particular, some argue, it replicates the devaluation or denial of the unique, generative power of womenonly they can give birth to children. Excluding female difference from the public world enables the actual constitution of its modal citizens, male heads of households, to remain obscured. Incorporating sexually differentiated embodiment within reason would undermine its universalistic appearance and hence its capacity to ground equality. If females were no longer the only markers of embodied difference, the gender specificity of all citizens could no longer be denied. Once this were to occur, the patriarchally ordered nature of existing public worlds would be evident. Unless transformed, a patriarchal state cannot institute true gender equality.

Some deconstructive approaches raise the further question of whether there are any universalizable (gender-neutral) qualities that could ground equality, and if so what they might be. Equality would have to be radically rethought without recourse to the presumption that such qualities exist. Such questions intersect with the concerns of gender activists in "postcolonial" states. Here, as in the West, states may use gender as the basis for differential social control and distribution of resources, but such practices may also be justified in the name of a "tradition" that resists contemporary forms of cultural and political-economic Western imperialism. For example, in contemporary Iran and Saudi Arabia, state-sanctioned constraints on women's mobility, public activities, and employment are justified as protecting women's modesty. This modesty is said to be required by the Koran, and in turn Islam is represented as a barrier to postcolonialist Western domination. Given the effects of globalization and transnational politics on the post-colonial states, whether discourses of equality are intrinsically "Western" and colonizing remains an important concern for feminists of these countries.

Inequality or Domination?

Rather than a reflection of biologically given sexual difference, feminists argue, gender is socially constructed or an effect of power. Male/female is constituted so as to sustain male dominance. So are all other aspects of human existencework, culture, family, politics, knowledge, sexuality, and subjectivity. Writers point, for example, to the structure of work in capitalist economies. Working hours and responsibilities are often inflexible and do not easily fit with caretaking or other household responsibilities. Hence, work replicates and reproduces a gendered public/private split and the sexual division of labor. The modal worker is a heterosexual, married male. His wife takes care of children and all other domestic responsibilities. Due to their reproductive capacities and existing gender expectations, women are disadvantaged within these structures. Formal equality cannot resolve or even recognize such systematic disadvantage, for it only comes into play when women are already equally situated relative to men. Equality stipulates equal pay for equal work, but it does not transform the workplace to take equally into account the multiple demands of wage labor and caretaking. Thus structural disadvantage persists.

Indeed some writers argue that it is in precisely those areas where sexual difference most disadvantages women that formal equality is most ineffective or even counterproductive. Three areas of particular concern are reproduction, the sexual division of labor, and sexual violence. Women are not similarly situated to men in any of these areas. Currently only women can be pregnant; moreover, public policies regarding matters such as abortion or forced sterilization, maternity leave, and exclusion from certain jobs on "health" grounds will necessarily impact women differently than men. Similarly, women are far more likely to suffer sexual violence and harassment than are men. The power of cultural norms and pressures of socialization and unconscious subjective desires and identity formation sustain gendered norms of caretaking so that most responsibility for domestic labor, child care, tending to the elderly, and so forth, continues to fall on women. Differential effects of public policies (or the lack of them)concerning social welfare provision, divorce law, and health careon women and men result from this sexual division of labor. Insistence that women are "like men" or that there is a gender-neutral norm in such areas is likely to sustain women's current disadvantages.

Politics of Inequality and Difference

Writers differ, however, on policies to remedy such problems. Some emphasize the need to reorganize the sexual division of labor within the family so as to render males and females equally situated there. Others envision a radical reorganization of all spheres so that caretaking is treated as a public matter and civic responsibility, not simply a private duty. Some extend this argument to support a more extensive breakdown of the gendered split between nurturance and public action and a revaluation of stereotypically female values. They argue that the "female virtues" of care and attention to particulars ought to inform practices of citizenship and all other aspects of political-economic life.

Attention to disadvantages arising from women's difference has generated many social movements. Some activist groups have pushed for reproductive rights for women (both for legal abortion and for women's ability to shape "population" policy and eliminate forced sterilization). Other groups have successfully generated pressure to recognize sexual harassment as a form of sexual discrimination, actionable under law. Reproductive-rights activists in some countries have succeeded in ensuring that women now have increased access to legal and safe abortions and more control over decisions affecting their own bodies. Still other groups focus on the social provision of resources in areas typically seen as women's responsibility; such resources range from child care to clean water, care of the old and sick, and "microloans" to fund small-scale economic enterprises so that women can support themselves and their children.

Gender, Sexuality, and Sexual Difference

While respecting the practical achievements resulting from attention to gender/equality, whether in the form of formal equality or sexual difference/disadvantage, some writers and activists claim neither approach goes far enough in identifying and combating the fatal flaws intrinsic to current constructions of gender and equality. Of central importance are the constructions of gender itself. Some writers argue that gender, sexual difference, and sexuality must be delinked and reconceived. Others stress the internal complexity of gender and its simultaneous constitution through social relations such as race, sexuality, class, and geographic location. Attention to these concerns raises further questions about the relevant measure by which equality ought to be gauged and also in whose name "equality" is claimed.

Judith Butler and others argue that sex difference should not be understood as a "natural" kind. Rather, gender relations produce sexual difference by organizing the body in particular ways and attributing social significance and meaning to certain of its features. There is no necessary relation between anatomy and gender; rather, each subject is engendered through mandatory social practices. These social practices, rather than biology, demand that individuals locate themselves and others on one or the other side of the binary male/female. Absent gender domination, there might be many genders, or none at all, and embodiment would not be read as and through "sexual difference." Similarly, there is no necessary relationship between anatomy and sexuality. Sexuality is about desire and pleasure, and practices expressing and gratifying these affects are highly variable. Hetero-and homosexuality are equally social constructs, ones that reinforce and naturalize gender and sexual difference. Appropriate objects of desire are specified and gender identities are stabilized by linking desire and "sexual difference"; I am a man because I desire a woman; I desire a woman because my penis makes it "natural" to do so.

In this view the goal is not equality between men and women, but an end to compulsory gender and heterosexuality. This would both produce and necessitate radically different notions and practices of subjectivity, family, and kinship. Rather than distribute labor more evenly among men and women within heterosexual families, the emphasis should be on multiplying the possibilities of affective ties and seeking their legal-social recognition and support. These ideas both undergird and reflect a move toward "queer" politics, in which the goal is to resist gender and to undermine male/female as mandatory subject positions. In pursuit of such goals, queer politics advocates policies including recognition of legal rights of homosexual partners and alternate kinship relations, nontraditional adoption, treating homophobic or violent acts toward those who resist traditional gendering as legally actionable wrongs, and extending the right of privacy beyond heterosexual practices.

Race, Gender, Class, and Geographic Location

Another area of sharp contention is whether gender can be understood best as the subordination of women by men. What then defines women is their shared inequality. While some writers such as Catharine A. MacKinnon and Susan Moller Okin claim that gender subordination is universal (all women are oppressed by male domination), others argue for a more differentiated view. First, the question remains, what is the valid standard or norm serving as the unit of measurement? Is it the social, political, economic, and cultural positions of the most privileged men in the world? In relation to this group, many men, due to their race, ethnicity, geographic location, sexuality, or other social relations, are extremely disadvantaged. Are women to be situated in relation to men who share their other social locations? In this case, a poor woman might in many dimensions be equal to her male peer, yet highly disadvantaged in relation to other women.

Second, the binary approach to gender cannot do justice to the multiple ways it is enacted. Binary conceptions occlude the particular, complex qualities of women's and men's locations. The doing of gender is shaped by many factors. Gender is always inflected by other social relations, just as those relations are inflected by gender. Global patterns of the distribution of resources have an enormous impact on women's (and men's) lives, and not all these patterns are solely a function of male dominance. Relative to some marked female, others constituted differently enjoy many privileges. The privilege of some women, due to constituting constellations of race, sexuality, class, or location, and so forth, often rests on the continuing disadvantage of others. For example, the sustained economic deterioration of some areas leads to the immigration of poor women into more prosperous countries. The low-wage labor of these women enables other women to purchase domestic services and compete more effectively for access to higher-paid professions. Conversely, the shared oppressions of many women and men along race, location, ethnic, class, or other lines produces forms of solidarity and common interest among some women and men. In the United States, for example, the intersections of race and gender have produced complex patterns of deep loyalty among many women and men of color as well as oppression of these women both by men of color and by white men and women. Similarly, the horrific forms of colonialist and racist domination of men by other men and some women's complicity in it cannot be ignored. Thus struggles for meaningful transformations of women's condition and gender relations must take local and diverse forms. Unable any longer to speak in the name of a singular subject or to generate a consensus on a universalizable equivalent, discourses of equality may be poorly suited to address such complexities.

See also Feminism ; Gender ; Human Rights: Women's Rights ; Identity, Multiple .

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Jane Flax

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