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way of showing that af¬rmation of any difference must be based upon the value of that difference
and the contribution it can make to the success of some person™s life.
II. The Character of Disadvantage 109

human diversity in all its fullness necessarily brings to an end the oppression
of women in the very act of doing so.
In my view, however, both of these propositions are false. Neither the oppres-
sion of women nor their liberation and redemption can in truth be said to turn
upon a question of the unquali¬ed and comprehensive af¬rmation of human
difference, for af¬rmation of all forms of human difference is neither possi-
ble nor desirable. On the contrary, af¬rmation of any given difference between
human beings, including the difference that constitutes a particular conception
of what it means to be a woman, and hence a particular conception of sexual
identity, takes place only at the expense of nonaf¬rmation of all those other
forms of human difference with which the difference in question is necessar-
ily in con¬‚ict. These include most obviously all those conceptions of what it
means to be a woman that are either more or less sensitive to the existence
of differences among women than the particular conception that is af¬rmed.
That being the case, a failure to af¬rm human difference cannot be the correct
explanation of women™s disadvantage. Nevertheless, I believe that the appeal to
human diversity, while in itself unsatisfactory as an explanation of or answer to
sex discrimination, is indirectly helpful in arriving at that explanation, since the
reasons for its inadequacy as an explanation offer the ¬rst clue as to where the
true explanation lies.
In brief, for I address the issue fully below, I believe more speci¬cally that
an examination of the ideas of human complexity and diversity shows, ¬rst,
that human beings are not unequivocally complex or diverse creatures, for they
are both complex and simple, diverse and uniform, depending on our purpose.
Second and consequently, it shows that the af¬rmation of human complexity
or diversity in any particular context must be based on reasons that explain and
justify both the value of complexity or diversity in that context and the value of
the particular forms of difference that are sought to be af¬rmed there. Finally,
it shows that af¬rmation of all valuable forms of human difference is neither
possible nor desirable. It follows that the af¬rmation of one aspect or the other
of sexual identity, whether in general or in any particular context, must be based
on reasons that explain and justify the af¬rmation of that form of difference in
that context. It further follows that such reasons cannot be based on the value
of difference itself, but must be based on some determinate understanding of
the meaning and value of sexual difference in that context, or more precisely,
the value of the activities that the acknowledgment of that difference makes
possible there.


II. The Character of Disadvantage
It is often thought to be wrong to endorse or accept standards that by their
very de¬nition place a certain category of human beings, de¬ned other than by
reference to the standard itself, at a disadvantage in relation to other human
110 reasons for feminism

beings. Indeed, much of the force of MacKinnon™s argument stems from the
sense that it must be wrong to understand women in terms of qualities that
ensure their disadvantage in relation to men. If women are caring and men
are ruthless; if women are cooperative and men are aggressive; if women are
passive and men are active; then men will prevail. That cannot be right, for it
cannot be right to understand any category of human beings in terms that ensure
their inferiority to other human beings. Or so it is said.4
MacKinnon™s response to this wrong is to insist upon the transformation of
sexual identity as we know it, so that women and men are rede¬ned in terms
that preclude the inferiority of either sex to the other, in any respect. According
to her, existing sexual differences serve only to subordinate women; they must
be abolished in favour of a model of sexual identity that is constructed on
strictly egalitarian lines. This is a distinctively radical solution to the problem
of sex discrimination. The argument against women™s disadvantage is more
typically and cautiously presented from the opposite point of view, which seeks
to change our understanding of value rather than the qualities of women and
men. It must be wrong, it is often said, to judge women by standards that
ensure their disadvantage in relation to men. If ruthlessness is valued above
concern; if aggressiveness is valued above cooperation; if activity is valued
above passivity; and if men are ruthless, aggressive, and active, or more likely
to be so than women; then men will prevail. That cannot be right, for it cannot be
right to endorse standards that ensure the inferiority of women to men, or more
generally, that ensure the inferiority of any category of human beings to other
human beings. Accordingly, one of the main projects of antidiscrimination law
has been to identify and remove any conditions and requirements that have a
disparate impact on women or men, unless it can be shown that the cost of that
removal is prohibitive.
The difference between these approaches, one seeking to reform human
qualities, the other seeking to reform human values, masks a common basis and
a common concern. If women and men are rede¬ned in terms that preclude the
inferiority of either sex to the other, in any respect, as MacKinnon demands,
then the realm of value will cease to include any standards, such as ruthlessness
and concern, that engender the inferiority of women to men.5 Conversely, if our
sense of value is rede¬ned so that it ceases to include any standards that have
a disparate impact upon women and men, then women and men will cease to
differ from one another in any way that matters. In short, distinctions between
men and women are ultimately distinctions of value. Accordingly, to rede¬ne
sex is to rede¬ne value; to rede¬ne value for the sake of sex is to rede¬ne sex.
Antidiscrimination law is in this respect as radical as Catharine MacKinnon.

4 See, for example, Feminism Unmodi¬ed (Cambridge, Mass., 1987), at 41, 43.
5 MacKinnon vehemently rejects the possibility that such standards might survive and apply equally
to both sexes: id. at 4“5.
II. The Character of Disadvantage 111

This is no accident. Underlying both these approaches is the belief that it
is possible to comprehend human advantage and disadvantage in the abstract,
simply by assessing the relationship between two categories of human being,
without reference to the kind of person, and the kind of quality, that is said
to be disadvantaged. Sometimes, if truth be told, that belief seems entirely
plausible. After all, it cannot be denied that human beings need food when they
are hungry, drink when they are dry, shelter against the elements, and treatment
for disease, to name but a few. We need to know only that one person has
received these things and another has been denied them to know that the latter
has been disadvantaged. We need know nothing else about the disadvantaged
person. Or so it seems. It is then tempting to conclude that what appears to be
true of needs such as these is true of all human needs, and so of human welfare
generally.
Yet in fact advantage and disadvantage can never be understood merely in
the abstract, or in relation to other people. They are always relative to the
person in question, not to some other. A person denied food and drink is
disadvantaged by that denial if and only if he or she needs food and drink;
so it is only because and to the extent that we know a person™s needs by
virtue of their humanity alone that we can know that denial to that person
of what has been accorded to any other person is a disadvantage. Beyond
the realm of such basic human needs, which all human beings share, this
is rather more evidently the case. Advantage and disadvantage for any par-
ticular person in these further respects is profoundly shaped by the kind of
person that he or she is. A reader needs good books and is disadvantaged by
their denial; a swimmer needs open water and is disadvantaged by its denial;
but the reader is no more disadvantaged by the denial of open water than the
swimmer is disadvantaged by the denial of good books, unless of course the
reader is also a swimmer and the swimmer a reader. Advantage and disad-
vantage are principally and fundamentally relative to the person in question,
and only secondarily and consequently relative to some other person, who
shares that person™s qualities and the commitment to a particular application of
them.
If that is the case, women are disadvantaged by denial to them of what is
necessary to their well-being, given the kind of people they are. To the extent that
women are no different from men, the requirements of their well-being will be
no different from those of men, so that women will be disadvantaged in respect
of those requirements by denial to them of what men have received, not because
men have received it, but because women need it. To the extent that women differ
from men, the requirements of their well-being will differ from those of men,
so that women will be disadvantaged by denial to them of what men have never
received, just because women need it, and conversely, will not be disadvantaged
by denial to them of what men have received, simply because women have no
need of it. To deny this is to deny the signi¬cance of sex, or of any other human
112 reasons for feminism

difference that is capable of engaging value, in the construction of a successful
life.
The existence of sexual difference implies the division of certain realms of
human experience into male and female aspects, access to which belongs exclu-
sively or predominantly to those whom that division de¬nes as male and female
for those purposes. In any context in which sexual difference functions so as
to offer an advantage to the qualities possessed exclusively or predominantly
by one sex, it necessarily imposes a corresponding disadvantage upon the qual-
ities possessed by the other sex. In this way sexual difference constrains the
experience of those de¬ned by it even as it enables, constraint being simply the
obverse of capacity in any given respect. It follows that the attempt to af¬rm
a conception of sexual difference that avoids all limitation and disadvantage
is ¬‚awed in two ways. First, it is inconsistent, since it seeks to af¬rm a form
of human difference while denying what difference means, and second, it is
empty, since it seeks to af¬rm a difference between the sexes while denying
any content to that difference.
This is not to say, of course, that women do not suffer illegitimate disad-
vantage as a consequence of their existence as women, disadvantage that they
experience distinctively as women and that is embodied in the understanding
of them as women.6 Rather, it is to say that the disadvantage experienced by
women as a consequence of their existence as women, which ¬‚ows from the
perception of them as women and that we call discrimination, cannot be equated
with the fact that certain incidents of limitation and disadvantage are present in
the lives of women (and correspondingly absent from the lives of men), despite
the fact that those incidents are a consequence of their existence as women,
for limitation is a function of the existence of any form of difference, and a
consequent degree of exposure to disadvantage the inevitable product of that
existence.
It follows that the avoidance of disadvantage in this brute sense cannot be
the basis for rejecting one conception of sexual identity and af¬rming another.
However, the attempt to make it so offers a second and ¬nal clue to the true ex-
planation of sex discrimination, by suggesting what might constitute a morally
compelling objection to a particular conception of sexual identity and a morally
compelling basis for af¬rming a different conception as its replacement. To
see how and why this is so it is necessary to return to the accepted facts of
discrimination, features that attend all descriptions of it and so constitute the
necessary basis for its explanation without predetermining the character of that
explanation.


6 This is in addition to the disadvantage they suffer as a consequence of their existence as human
beings who are distinguished from others on bases other than sex, which some women experience
in common with some men and is embodied in some understanding of human existence other
than that of sex.
III. The Role of Sexual Identity in a Successful Life 113

III. The Role of Sexual Identity in a Successful Life
Any account of feminism and any explanation of discrimination, I have said,7
must address and answer satisfactorily the two features of women™s predica-
ment to which Catharine MacKinnon calls attention. These are the widespread
instances of disadvantage that women face in attempting to lead successful
lives, and the incorporation of those disadvantages, or at least the qualities that
entail them, in our very understanding of what it means to be a woman. The
problem facing those who seek to explain discrimination, then, is one of show-
ing how our understanding of a certain image, namely, that of what it means to
be a woman, has become so corrupted as to impair the life prospects of certain
people, namely, women.
It follows from this description of what I take to be uncontroversial features of
discrimination that the question of discrimination that feminism seeks to address
cannot be as broad as the question of the disadvantage that is experienced by
women in whatever capacity, for not all such disadvantage can be linked to the
perception of them as women. It is certainly the case that many of the forms of
disadvantage now experienced by certain women on bases such as race, religion,
or national origin, disadvantage that those women experience in common with
men, are illegitimate and call for redress. Nevertheless, the imposition of such
forms of disadvantage can be understood only as sex discrimination, and hence
redressed through the rede¬nition of sexual identity, if and to the extent that the
qualities that give rise to them constitute part of our understanding of sexual
identity. In other words, it is possible to regard a species of conduct as sex
discrimination only if it either picks out women or has a disproportionate impact
upon women. It can be necessary to alter our perception of sex, as both feminism
and antidiscrimination law ask us to do,8 only if that perception is in some way
implicated in the creation of the disadvantages experienced by women.
Nor can the question of feminism be as broad as the question of the disad-
vantage that is experienced by women as a consequence of their existence as
women. If that were discriminatory, we would have to rede¬ne sexual identity
in such a way as to eliminate the disadvantage, which we cannot possibly do,
for some such disadvantage is a necessary consequence of the very existence of
sexual difference. As the analysis of Drucilla Cornell™s arguments showed, any


7 Chapter 2, notes 125“127 and accompanying text.
8 Some might argue that antidiscrimination law differs from feminism in asking us to change our
treatment of sex rather than our perception of it. However, unless it is merely clumsy, treatment
is based on perception, so that a change in treatment must ultimately be founded on a change in
perception. In its present form, antidiscrimination law asks that men and women be treated as
equals. The only explanation for this requirement is that those whom we now treat as different
are in fact the same, at least for all purposes addressed by the law. Any differences that appear
to distinguish men and women in those respects are merely super¬cial, and so irrelevant to the
ultimate moral assessment upon which the allocation of social goods must be based. It is true,
therefore, to say that the law, like feminism, asks us to change our perception of sex.
114 reasons for feminism

attempt to eliminate the limitations that ¬‚ow from the fact of sexual difference,
however that difference may be conceived, amounts to an attempt to eliminate
sex itself, by eliminating the very thing that gives it structure and so de¬nes
it. And as the analysis of Catharine MacKinnon™s arguments also showed, any
attempt to eliminate the disadvantages that ¬‚ow from the fact of sexual differ-
ence amounts to an attempt to nullify that difference in any setting in which it
is coextensive with a question of value, and hence to nullify the possibilities
that sexual difference expresses there, advantageous or disadvantageous.9
The question of feminism, put simply, is a question of the ways in which
our conception of sexual identity has been misconceived so as to impose an
illegitimate set of disadvantages upon the lives of a whole category of people,
namely, women. While neither the failure to af¬rm diversity nor the failure to
avoid disadvantage in its brute form can be taken as answers to that question,
I believe that the reasons for their inadequacy offer an indication of where the
correct answer lies. Each of those approaches suggests the correct explanation of
one of the two features of the problem of discrimination, and it is the conjunction
of the two features, and hence of the two explanations of them, that in my view
makes a practice discriminatory. The ¬rst feature brings our conception of
sexual identity into issue, while the second makes the role of that conception in
the lives of women and the disadvantage it imposes on those lives not merely
unwarranted but morally signi¬cant.
From the conclusions reached regarding the af¬rmation of human diversity
and the avoidance of disadvantage, it is possible to deduce the character of
a genuine commitment to feminism and to a particular conception of what it
means to be a woman. First, that commitment must be based on reasons that
explain and justify it as a commitment to that form of human difference, rather
than to the other forms of difference with which the recognition and pursuit of
that difference is necessarily in con¬‚ict. Those reasons can be found, I argue,
only in the truth of any particular conception of what it means to be a woman, in
the relevance of that conception to the culture in relation to which it is invoked,
and in the value the pursuit of that conception is capable of realizing within the
culture.
It follows that we cannot simply choose which conceptions of womanhood
to endorse, for any such endorsement is shaped, on the one hand, by what is
genuinely true and valuable, and on the other hand, by what it is rational and
possible for us to pursue in a particular cultural setting.10 Conversely, it follows

9 I am ignoring here the possibility that men and women might occupy a world in which they are

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