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whether of human beings in general or of women in particular, but it is not
possible to maintain such understandings in the same dimension at the same
time. Women cannot be in the same respect or dimension both women generally,
that is, without distinction as to sexual orientation, and also lesbians; they cannot
be women without regard to race, and also black.7 To the extent that human
differences are multiplied, therefore, and forms of human diversity are af¬rmed,
the forms of solidarity within which those differences are acknowledged and
af¬rmed are brought to an end. Those forms of solidarity include not only
humanity but sexual identity, sexual orientation, race, and any other distinction
that assimilates and identi¬es, however brie¬‚y and contingently, the experiences

7 This depiction of womanhood is designed for the purposes of the present discussion; it is not
entirely true to the relation between the category of sexual identity and those of race and sexual
orientation. Womanhood need not be understood as a set of qualities that all women enjoy, and
so is capable of embodying distinctions of race and sexual orientation. For fuller discussion, see
the next chapter.
134 the value of diversity

of more than one human being. Ultimately, a commitment to recognition of
all forms of difference would undermine individual identity itself, that is, the
identi¬cation of a set of experiences with the constitution of our existence as
individuals who have an ongoing history, past, present, and future.
Furthermore, and more to the point here, since all these forms of solidarity
are themselves forms of human difference, the recognition of difference by
its very nature suppresses other differences, superordinate and subordinate,
as well as undermining the coherence on which our existence, individual and
collective, depends. In short, the unquali¬ed af¬rmation of difference has as
great a tendency to undermine any particular difference, such as sex, sexual
orientation, or race, as to af¬rm them. The attempt to recognize all forms of
difference, therefore, is not merely threatening to our capacity to sustain social
value and ultimately personal identity, but is internally inconsistent: it under-
mines the very categories it purports to af¬rm. That fact alone is reason enough
to reject the simple af¬rmation of difference, not only as a basis for the af¬rma-
tion of women™s existence but as a basis for af¬rmation of any form of human
difference.
This is not to say that diversity can never be af¬rmed, or that women™s present
predicament is not the product of a neglect of their difference. On the contrary,
as I have already indicated, I believe it may well be the case that women™s
predicament is at least in part the product of a failure to recognize the true
signi¬cance of being a woman, a signi¬cance suppressed and concealed by the
present social order. However, it is possible to establish the correctness of that
belief only by showing what it is that might make sex matter in a culture such
as ours. We need a reason to notice sex in any given setting, and hence a reason
to know whether it can matter to us at all, and if so, where and when. In short,
we need to discover what reasons we have to notice someone™s sex rather than
to overlook it, or to notice one conception of sex rather than another, so as to
know why we might reject the present conception of sexual difference and seek
to af¬rm either another or sexual equality in its place.
6
The Character of Disadvantage




I. Introduction
It is a common thought that women must change if they are to escape their
present disadvantage. The thought is not con¬ned to feminists. On the contrary,
it has a counterpart in the general belief, widespread among social reformers,
that improving the lives of people, and ensuring that they are no longer disad-
vantaged in relation to others, necessarily involves improving the capacities of
those people, intellectually, physically, psychologically, or otherwise. Among
feminists this thought has given rise to a familiar and prolonged inquiry into
the question of whether the qualities and characteristics that constitute sexual
identity, and so describe what it means to be a woman or a man, are the product
of nature or nurture. This inquiry matters to feminists because the source of
sexual identity is supposed to make a difference to whether that identity can be
changed.
Two assumptions are at work here. First, that what is the product of nurture
is subject to change through nurture. What we have made we can unmake; what
we have done wrong we can now do right. Second, and more fundamentally,
it is assumed that such change is not merely possible but desirable. Women™s
success in life, it is said, is limited by the very capacities that de¬ne them as
women. What makes a woman a woman also makes her less. It follows that
women must become something other than they now are, something better than
they have been permitted to be, if they are to escape their present disadvantage
and begin to lead successful lives. We must raise our daughters, and our sons,
to be different from ourselves.
Change of this kind is typically thought to be desirable for reasons of equality.
It is often suggested, most famously by Catharine MacKinnon, that women and
men should not differ from one another in any way that could give rise to
disadvantage to either.1 If it is the case, as MacKinnon further claims, that

1 Feminism Unmodi¬ed: Discourses on Life and Law (Cambridge, Mass., 1987), at 43.
136 the character of disadvantage

the existing differences between the sexes serve only to privilege men and
subordinate women, then those differences must be eliminated, for the sake
of equality.2 In the short run that would leave men and women with identical
capacities, and so would end the difference between the sexes. In the longer
run, however, it is possible that sexual difference might be reinvented in a
nonhierarchical form, one that does not threaten disadvantage to either sex.3
Equality demands that we eliminate the disadvantage that now ¬‚ows from
sexual difference. It does not thereby demand that men and women cease to
differ from one another, for the achievement of equality is compatible with the
recognition of difference. Men and women can differ from one another without
being disadvantaged in relation to one another. Or so it is said, not only by
MacKinnon herself but by most egalitarians.4
Other feminists, more respectful of the present content of sexual identity,
perhaps, or more skeptical of the possibility of changing it, seek change not in
the character of women but in the standards by which they are judged.5 If the
standards that a given society subscribes to favour the qualities of men over
those of women, thereby placing women at a disadvantage in relation to men,
then those standards should be eliminated, again for the sake of equality. If,
for example, society expects combativeness in candidates for executive of¬ce,
and if women are less combative than men, then society should ¬nd another
standard of executive excellence.
The apparent opposition between these two strategies masks their underly-
ing similarity. As I have pointed out above, the difference between changing
the standards by which people are evaluated and changing people themselves
is largely one of emphasis, given that the distinctions between people, here be-
tween men and women, are ultimately distinctions of value. To rede¬ne sex so
as to escape certain valuations is to rede¬ne the realm of value, for it is to elimi-
nate from sexual identity features that register certain values that favour one sex
over the other, leaving those values unrecorded. If combativeness, for example,
were to be eliminated from sexual identity (on the ground that it favours men),

2 Id. at 173, 36, 41.
3 Id. at 45.
4 See, for example, Catharine MacKinnon, Sexual Harassment of Working Women: A Case of
Sex Discrimination (New Haven, Conn., 1979), at 140; Deborah Rhode, Justice and Gender
(Cambridge, Mass., 1989), at 304; Christine Littleton, “Reconstructing Sexual Equality”, 75
California Law Review 1279 (1987), at 1297. Put positively, it is often claimed that what is
different can also be equal, typically because differences in treatment can be so tailored as to
ensure that they have an equal impact on different people. This is true, of course, only if the
differences in treatment are ultimately differences in degree rather than in kind.
5 I have feminists such as Carol Gilligan in mind here. See her In a Different Voice: Psychological
Theory and Women™s Development (Cambridge, Mass., 1982). See also Martha Minow, Mak-
ing All the Difference: Inclusion, Exclusion and American Law (Ithaca, 1990), and Littleton,
“Reconstructing Sexual Equality”. Their approach is supported by the requirements of current
legislation against indirect discrimination, which call for the elimination, wherever possible, of
conditions that either sex ¬nds it signi¬cantly more dif¬cult to meet than the other.
I. Introduction 137

it would be correspondingly eliminated (in effect) from the realm of value, for
there would no longer be any such characteristic to value, in men or in women.6
Similarly, and more to the present point, to rede¬ne value for the sake of sex is
to rede¬ne sex, for it is to eliminate from the realm of value those standards that
enable us to register sexual difference. If combativeness were to be eliminated
from the realm of value, it would be correspondingly eliminated (in effect) from
sexual identity, for its (relative) presence in men and its (relative) absence in
women would then go unrecorded. It follows that both strategies seek to change
people, directly or indirectly, and in every way that matters, in order to secure
women™s escape from disadvantage.
There is an element of truth in all this, but the underlying idea, that escape
from disadvantage is dependent upon a change in the qualities and character-
istics of the disadvantaged, is false. By and large we do not need to change
ourselves, to become something other than we are, in order to lead successful
lives. Disadvantage in life is a matter of lacking the ingredients of a successful
life, which are by and large relative to the person whose life it is.7 No person is
ever disadvantaged except in terms of the ability to become the kind of person
that he or she should be, and the kind of person that he or she should be is a func-
tion of the kind of person that he or she is “ in some respects the same as other
people, in other respects different from them. Contrary to what is popularly
assumed, therefore, we are never disadvantaged merely by our inability to be
someone else, and so to possess the qualities and characteristics that distinguish
that person, and their forms of ¬‚ourishing, from our own.
The point should not be overstated. It is true that a successful life involves the
development of the capacities that people have, so as to bring out the richness
of those capacities, or at least as much of that richness as is necessary in order
to make life successful. In this sense, it clearly asks us to change. From infancy
onward we must learn in order to live well, be it to walk, talk, run, dance, swim,
sing, read, think, and so on until death. Learning means growth, and growth
means change, not only in the capacities that one has, but in the capacities that
one acquires in the course of developing the capacities that one has.
It is also true that a successful life involves elimination from one™s character
of qualities that amount to moral vices, and correspondingly, development in
one™s character of qualities that amount to moral virtues. In this sense, too, it
asks us to change. We must cease to be dishonest, if that is what we are, to be
cruel, or cowardly, or proud, or sel¬sh, and so on. We must learn instead, and

6 And correspondingly, if noncombativeness were to be eliminated from the character of women,
so the sexes were neutral with respect to combativeness. That is, of course, unless combativeness
were to be simply displaced, so its burdens and bene¬ts fell equally on men and women, enabling
certain women to escape the disadvantage it gives rise to at the expense of other women and certain
men. According to Catharine MacKinnon, “if this is feminism, it deserves to die”: Feminism
Unmodi¬ed, supra n. 1, at 5.
7 To be precise, the ingredients are relative, though their value is not.
138 the character of disadvantage

correspondingly, to be honest, kind, brave, modest, and sel¬‚ess. As I have said
earlier, we lead good lives not merely by realizing ourselves, so as to give effect
to our qualities in our actions, but by ensuring that our qualities and our actions
conform to what goodness requires.
There is no doubt that the lives of some women are unsuccessful for just these
reasons. Some women, like some men, fail to develop the valuable capacities
that they know themselves to have, and that others recognize in them. Some
women, like some men, suffer from moral vices, or fail to develop moral virtues.
Such women must change in order to lead successful lives. But neither of these
things is true of women as a whole. Most obviously, and contrary to what has
often been pretended, moral vice is no part of what it means to be a woman
as distinct from a man. Women are not scheming, deceiving, conniving, or
cheating, whatever country music may say. Few if any would dispute this.
Less obviously, perhaps, women™s lives are unsuccessful, in ways that are the
result of sex discrimination, not because women have been denied the opportu-
nity to develop capacities they are recognized to have, but because women are
said to be something other than they actually are, so that they are said to lack
capacities they in fact have, and to have capacities they in fact lack; or to put
it in comparative terms, to be different from men when they are in fact equal,
and equal to men when they are in fact different. This is a more controversial
claim and I return to the question of its defence below.
What matters at this point, however, is that those who seek to change the
qualities and characteristics of women, in order to secure women™s release from
disadvantage, do not seek change in this respectful, developmental sense, of
enabling women to bring out the full richness of the capacities they are recog-
nized to have. Their goal is not to make the best of what women now are, for as
they see it, to do so would merely be to con¬rm women™s present disadvantage.
It would be to make women better than they now are at playing the subordinate
role that women have been assigned, the subordinate role that women™s capac-
ities have been designed to serve. As I have said, such people assume that what
women are now is responsible for the predicament women now ¬nd themselves
in, so that women must change what they are now if they are to lead successful
lives.8
That assumption would be correct if the qualities that de¬ned women, in the
sense of distinguishing them from men, constituted moral vices, so that to pursue
the implications of those qualities would be to ensure that women led bad lives.
Yet that is simply not the case, as I have emphasized. The distinction between the
sexes is not a moral one.9 Moral qualities aside, however, one does not need to


8 The best known example of this way of thinking is MacKinnon™s Feminism Unmodi¬ed.
9 In fact, there may be certain moral distinctions between the sexes. Perhaps men are violent, or at
least more so, or more often so, than women. In the argument that follows I have suppressed this
possibility as marginal and so distracting. It is true that MacKinnon implicitly regards women™s
I. Introduction 139

change what one is in order to ¬‚ourish in life. On the contrary, one must identify
and understand what one is in order to identify and understand what would
make one™s life successful or unsuccessful. If the qualities and characteristics
that de¬ne women as women, and men as men, are not in themselves virtues or
vices, but qualities that are capable of being used for good or ill, the question
must be what those qualities and characteristics are, what goods they might
yield, and how it is that those goods have come to be denied to women. That is
the subject of the argument to follow.
I should begin with a brief caveat. While it is true that it is possible to be
disadvantaged only in terms of the qualities and characteristics that one actually
has, it is also true that many have sought success in life, and some have found
it, through changing those characteristics in favour of something more socially
advantageous. Where a society refuses to permit people to ¬‚ourish in life as
the people that they are, those people will sometimes, as a matter of survival
in a discriminatory setting, seek to turn themselves into the kind of people that
a discriminatory society will permit to ¬‚ourish. In this way homosexuals have
sought to live as heterosexuals, and women have sought to live like men. Such
people pass themselves off as the people they are expected to be, people other
than they are, in order to ¬‚ourish in life. Sometimes they are successful in this,
but only where some aspect of what they actually are forms part of what they
seek to become. Homosexuals can live successfully as heterosexuals if and to
the extent that they are in fact bisexual. Women can live successfully like men
if and to the extent that they do not in fact differ from men. Yet even when they
succeed, people who seek to ¬‚ourish in this way do so only by suppressing
all those aspects of themselves that con¬‚ict with the kind of person they seek
to become, often at great personal cost, one that may be so great as to make
their success more apparent than real. What is more, such people neglect the
predicament of the bulk of their fellows, who do not share their ability to absorb
the qualities and characteristics necessary to ¬‚ourish in that society, those of
heterosexuality, masculinity, or some other.
What is needed, if we are to ¬nd an answer to the problem of sex discrimi-
nation, is an understanding of the disadvantage that discrimination causes that
has moral signi¬cance, so as to impose an obligation on ourselves to bring it
to an end, and an understanding of sexual identity that has genuine substance.
Given the fact that in my view an understanding of disadvantage depends upon
a genuine understanding of what is said to be disadvantaged, it is to the ques-
tion of the relationship between disadvantage and sexual identity that I turn
¬rst.


qualities as vices, on the ground that they are the hallmarks of powerlessness, but in doing so she
fails to appreciate that the qualities she has in mind, qualities such as concern for others, have
manifold implications, good as well as bad, and so are not in themselves vices. See the discussion
in note 16.
140 the character of disadvantage

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