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misunderstood as obliterated and rede¬ned the content of women™s character, so that while the
image of women it presents is in one sense a misconception, it is in another sense, the sense that
de¬nes women™s present predicament, true. As I see it, this approach to disadvantage and to the
social construction of gender ignores the fact that, like success, disadvantage in any person™s life
is a function of the terms of that life and what is true of them. It fails to distinguish between what
is now true of women, whether socially constructed or not, and what is false, and to recognize
that the genuine features of women™s character, whether socially constructed or not, are open to
manifold application, both valuable and nonvaluable, and so are open to valuable application,
even if constructed for the purpose of a nonvaluable application, or as the consequence of a
history of subordination.
146 the character of disadvantage

as to the character of the conception that they believe should replace it. All
acknowledge, however, that the debate over the content of sexual identity is at
the heart of the debate over women™s disadvantage, despite the fact that few
are agreed about what it means to be a woman, and hence what can be said to
disadvantage women.
This is not to suggest that it is necessary to agree on every detail of sexual
identity.17 On the contrary, such a level of agreement is neither to be expected
nor desired. Where, however, critics of the prevailing picture of sexual identity
disagree about whether women are or are not different from men in any rele-
vant respect, it cannot be claimed that we understand women well enough to
understand the disadvantage we believe they experience, and so cannot begin
to consider the question of its threshold in their lives. That being the case, all
those concerned with women™s disadvantage are committed, at least in the ¬rst
instance, to a debate over the true content of what it means to be a woman.
Anyone who wishes to establish the existence of disadvantage in the lives of
women, as all feminists hope to, must call upon a genuine conception of what it
means to be a woman in order to do so, a conception whose content is implicit
in the character of the disadvantage they seek to establish. If, as I take to be
the case, the content of that conception cannot be taken for granted, it must be
explained and defended.
The point should not be overstated. Although feminists disagree with one
another about what it means to be a woman, they are entirely clear that it does
not mean what it was once thought to mean. The long struggle for recognition
of women™s equality with men, for example, has been a struggle to overcome
misconceptions of what it means to be a woman, which have portrayed women
as lacking capacities they in fact possess. At the heart of every claim to equality,
and correspondingly, of difference, lies such an assertion, without which the
claim would not be intelligible as a claim about women™s disadvantage and
what is needed to remedy it.
To the extent that such claims are well founded, we already know what it
means to be a woman. Conversely, when we notice that such claims do not
appear to serve women well, what we are noticing is that the assumptions they
embody about what it means to be a woman are not well founded. However,
we need to be clearer and perhaps more careful than we have been about the
assertions that underlie and sustain such claims. For while it is possible to
overstate the present degree of ignorance about what it means to be a woman, it
is also important to remember that many claims about women™s disadvantage,
most obviously that women must change in order to escape disadvantage, are
predicated on the assumption that it is not necessary to know what women are
in order to know that they are disadvantaged or what needs to be done about it.
In my view that assumption is false.

17 See the discussion of knowledge in the next chapter.
II. Understanding Disadvantage 147

iii. what women are and are not. Some clari¬cation is needed here as
to what I mean by a genuine conception of what it means to be a woman,
for to refer to it ambiguously, as I have done so far, is to risk claiming too
much.18 There are in fact two aspects to the conception: that which describes
what women are and that which describes what women are not. It is not always
necessary to know the former in order to know the latter, for in any context
in which there are more than two possible descriptions of what women really
are, it is possible to know that women are not what they have been taken to be
without knowing which of the two or more possible descriptions of what they
really are is the right one.
It follows that while it is necessary to establish what it means to be a woman
in order to consider the question of the threshold of disadvantage in women™s
lives, it might be that all that needs to be established is that women are not what
we have taken them to be. Lack of agreement as to what women are, therefore,
would not in itself bar feminists from establishing the existence in our society
of a misconception of what it means to be a woman, and in some circumstances
the very existence of that misconception will be enough to establish that women
are disadvantaged there.
The moral signi¬cance of any misconception about human beings is a prod-
uct of its tendency to frustrate its subjects™ capacity to lead successful lives.19 It
is this that makes a misconception a genuine disadvantage to those upon whom
it is imposed. If a misconception is widespread and profound, so as to govern
entirely the options and resources available to those whom it misconstrues, it
will necessarily frustrate the capacity of those people to lead successful lives.
In that case there is no need to inquire into the particular character of their lives
and what might make them successful, because we know that whoever they are
and whatever they might value does not include any part of the picture now held
of them and the options and resources that have been assigned on the strength
of it. If, however, a misconception about certain people is local and limited in
scope, its tendency to frustrate its subjects™ capacity to lead successful lives
will depend upon the character of those lives and the impact of the misconcep-
tion on that capacity.20 To establish that, it is necessary to establish what those
people are and not merely what they are not. In short, to establish the existence
of genuine disadvantage in the lives of women it is in all cases necessary to
establish the true meaning of sexual identity, and in many if not all cases that
will require us to establish what women are and not merely what they are not.
This, however, is to risk claiming too little, for if we hope to move beyond a
general condemnation of the conception of sexual identity that is held in this or

18 I should stress that despite my singular description of it, what it means to be a woman is not
singular but plural in form.
19 For a discussion of the moral signi¬cance of a misconception, see the next chapter.
20 I discuss below the particular character of the successful life to which all human beings are
entitled.
148 the character of disadvantage

any other society, as I take it we all hope to do, by specifying either the character
of the wrong done to women or the steps needed to remedy that wrong, we must
establish what women are, and not content ourselves with simply establishing
what they are not. In other words, the necessary ambitions of feminism compel
feminists to establish the positive content of what it means to be a woman if they
are to understand and remedy the disadvantage now experienced by women, a
content that is implicit in the character of the disadvantage they seek to identify.


C. Distinctive Forms of Disadvantage
i. universal goods and particular people. This explanation dis-
closes yet another element of ambiguity, however, one that masks the kind of
disadvantage at issue here and the character of the way of life that the assertion
of disadvantage implies. I have already argued that it is only in circumstances
where the character of a way of life and hence the character of what may dis-
advantage it is already agreed upon that it is possible to shift the focus of the
debate from the question of the character of disadvantage to that of its thresh-
old, so as to ask whether any particular denial to those de¬ned by that way
of life is a denial of something critical to the success of their lives. As I have
said, this makes agreement over the character of an allegedly disadvantaged way
of life and of what may disadvantage it the primary issue in any consideration of
disadvantage. That agreement, however, itself depends upon the resolution of
another, prior issue.
Any assertion of disadvantage on the part of certain people raises two possible
questions as to the character of those people, for there are two aspects to the
character of disadvantage. There are aspects that re¬‚ect facts about all human
beings, and so are disadvantages to anyone, and those that re¬‚ect particular facts
about particular human beings, and are disadvantages to particular people only.
It is my view that the values that render misconceptions about certain people
morally illegitimate are those that call into issue particular facts about those
particular people, whether the facts are about people™s oneness with others or
their difference from others. To see why this is so, it is necessary to explore the
distinction between universal and particular forms of disadvantage. This is the
third and last of the three elements in the relationship between disadvantage
and what it means to be a woman, to which I referred above.
Some might be prepared to acknowledge that it is necessary to agree on the
content of what it means to be a woman in order to understand and remedy the
disadvantage that women are now alleged to experience while also believing
that, with respect to the disadvantage women now suffer, that content is both
universal and already agreed upon. They argue that women have been deprived
of certain universal human goods, to which all human beings are entitled by
virtue of their very status as human beings because they are crucial to a success-
ful life, whether those goods are properly understood as access to an adequate
II. Understanding Disadvantage 149

range of valuable options in life, or as the resources necessary to pursue those
options, or as the resources necessary to satisfy basic human needs, or as some-
thing of the kind. It follows that we know all we need to know about women
in order to understand and criticize their present disadvantage. That being the
case, the current debate over sexual disadvantage is quite properly understood
as a debate over the threshold of disadvantage in the lives of women, not as a
debate over the character of that disadvantage.21
In my view, however, this line of reasoning is misconceived. The facts that
are implied by a charge of disadvantage founded on an alleged denial to women
of the goods to which all human beings are entitled in order to lead successful
lives are particular facts about what it means to be a woman, and not, other
than at the level of the existence of the entitlement itself, universal facts about
women as human beings. The universal entitlement takes particular shape for
particular people, and it is in that shape, and only in that shape, that a particular
person can claim the entitlement and be disadvantaged by its denial.
There are two reasons for this. First, the selective denial to certain people
of goods to which all human beings are entitled would be simply arbitrary and
without any pretence of explanation, let alone justi¬cation, if there were not
some at least purportedly rational connection between the denial and the people
who are said to suffer it. Universal human goods can be rationally denied to
particular people only in instances where, ¬rst, the sensitivity to character of
the goods is emphasized (a sensitivity that requires that the application of those
goods be appropriate to the character of particular people), and, second, where
the universal character of the human beings to whom they are owed is denied
(at least with respect to the ground of entitlement to those goods).22 It is then
possible to argue that the universal good has no application to women in this
form, so that what they are denied is not, for them, a denial of the universal
good, despite the fact that it is, or would be, a denial of the good for others.
If a society hopes to justify the denial to women of goods to which all human
beings are nominally entitled, therefore, it must both interpret those goods in
such a way as to explain their sensitivity to sexual difference and understand
what it genuinely means to be a woman in such a way as to explain the particular
character of the universal goods to which women, as particular human beings,
are entitled, and how that differs from what they have been denied.
Second, and more important, even where no explanation or justi¬cation is
offered for it, the apparent denial to women of these universal goods cannot be
con¬rmed and so cannot be understood as a disadvantage to women without an

21 Catharine MacKinnon might be classed as a critic of this kind, as might Iris Young, Justice and
the Politics of Difference (Princeton, 1990), from the perspectives of equality and difference,
respectively.
22 Societies often refuse to justify such deprivations, or offer only empty justi¬cations for them.
Even so, it remains the case that it is impossible to understand such deprivations as disadvantages
to women without an understanding of what it means to be a woman. See the next subsection.
150 the character of disadvantage

understanding of what women are and what may cause them disadvantage. The
application of these universal goods, and hence the fact of their extension or
denial to particular human beings, is dependent upon an understanding of the
particular human beings to whom they are owed. It follows that both the need
of apologists to justify any apparent denial of universal human goods to women
and the need of critics to establish the impact of that denial on women and so
show it to be a genuine disadvantage to women require us to develop a genuine
understanding of what it means to be a woman. Let me explain more fully.
Where a genuine understanding of what it means to be a woman shows that
women do not in fact possess the qualities on which entitlement to the particular
goods in question is based, women are not disadvantaged by being denied those
goods, for one cannot be disadvantaged by the denial of what one does not need
and cannot enjoy. No woman is disadvantaged by the denial to her of options
that she cannot value and resources that she does not need. A society that tells
its members that they cannot have what they do not need and cannot enjoy is
not disadvantaging those members, but on the contrary may just be giving them
good advice.23
Where, however, a genuine understanding of what it means to be a woman
shows that women do indeed possess the qualities that entitle them to the goods
in question, and so have been denied those goods as the result of a misconcep-
tion (be it innocent or malign) of who they are and the qualities they possess,
women have been disadvantaged as a consequence of their sex,24 or at least as a
consequence of what their sex has been taken to be. In showing that women are
the same as men where they have been thought to be different, or are different
from men where they have been thought to be the same, a genuine understand-
ing of what it means to be a woman shows that women have been denied that
to which they are entitled, and so have been disadvantaged as a result of our
society™s failure to understand them as they genuinely are.
It follows that sex-speci¬c disadvantage may arise in either of two ways: ¬rst,
where a false picture of women™s difference from men denies women access to
goods that men possess by denying the reality of sexual equality; second, where
a false picture either of women™s equality with men or of the nature of their
difference from men denies women access to goods that they need or would
enjoy as women, by denying the reality of sexual difference. The comparisons
to men in each case are merely secondary and consequential. In both settings
women™s disadvantage is the product of a misconception of what it means to be
a woman. It is this form of disadvantage alone that can be genuinely understood
as sexual disadvantage.


23 See the discussion of the meaning of disadvantage below.
24 To be more precise, it shows that women may have been disadvantaged by denial of the good.
Whether they have been in fact disadvantaged will turn on the question of the threshold of
disadvantage.
II. Understanding Disadvantage 151

ii. denials of humanity. I have assumed up to this point that it is incumbent
upon any society to justify the selective withholding from women of what is
alleged to be an instance of a universal entitlement. As a matter of social practice
this is clearly an overly benevolent assumption. I am well aware that many
societies fail to recognize any such obligation and that a good number of them
are actually prepared to ¬‚aunt their failure to do so, in an attempt to elevate the
status of their dominant members and diminish the status of their subordinate
members through an overtly arbitrary denial to the latter of goods that are owed
to all human beings. Within such societies it is sometimes claimed, particularly
with regard to racial minorities, that the victims of this arbitrary disadvantage
are not full human beings and so are not entitled to universal human goods. At
other times it is claimed that although such people are human beings they are
nevertheless to be arbitrarily excluded from the range of social concern.25
These purported justi¬cations are not, of course, justi¬cations at all, but
merely attempts to cloak brute authority with the appearance of justi¬cation
and so make practices of persecution seem rational. Nevertheless, the fact that
such social practices are without justi¬cation does not mean that when applied
to women they are not properly understood as sex discrimination. Many of their
victims might quite understandably contend that such practices constitute sex
discrimination, despite the fact that sex is merely the locus of the disadvantage
that they create and not, in rational rather than arbitrary terms, its ground. In my
view, however, to the extent that such a contention claims to bypass the need for a
particular understanding of what it means to be a woman, it is not supportable.26


25 Many societies either deny or ignore the existence of the universal entitlement and so deny or
ignore their obligations to those of their members who lack the options or the resources to make
a successful life. This is generally the predicament of the poor and underprivileged. However,
it is not the predicament of people who are discriminated against in those societies, who are
selectively denied access to a universal entitlement the existence of which is acknowledged.

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