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between these limitations of experience and capacity “ which constitute
disadvantages in certain settings “ and disadvantage in the project of one™s life,
what I have called deep disadvantage, that I want to explore in this section.
Women seeking to pursue successful lives as women do not suffer disadvan-
tage in the deep sense, in the project of their lives, simply because they cannot
pursue successful lives as men. There are only two kinds of disadvantage that
women may suffer in the pursuit of the project of their lives. First, they may
suffer if, although correctly understood as women, they are denied access to
goods in life they can value as women, whether those goods are opportunities,
158 the role of sexual identity in a successful life

resources, an adequate range of valuable options, the satisfaction of needs, or
anything else in life that is sensitive to the condition of those to whom it is
addressed, where access to those goods is essential to their capacity to lead
successful lives. This is the kind of disadvantage often experienced by certain
cultural minorities in Western societies, for whom recognition of and access
to the acknowledged difference of their cultures is indeed an essential part of
their capacity to lead successful lives, a recognition and access they are all too
often denied by the majority or dominant culture. This is also, many would
argue, the kind of disadvantage experienced by underprivileged members of
the cultural majority, who are denied the opportunities and resources necessary
to the pursuit of a successful life by a culture that is fully aware of who they
are and what they require. It seems clear, however, that this is not the kind of
disadvantage experienced by women as women,1 who function within a cul-
ture that is largely ignorant of who they are and what they require, and who
suffer therefore from a misconception of the very meaning of their existence
as women. As I have argued, as far as women are concerned the question of
disadvantage in their lives is a question of the character of disadvantage, not a
question of its threshold.
Second, then, women may suffer disadvantage in the conduct of their lives,
as indeed may cultural minorities, because they are forced to live in terms of a
conception of themselves that is false and thus a bar to the success of their lives.
So misunderstood, women are prevented from leading successful lives because
a misconception of what it means to be a woman2 either conceals their equality
with men or misrepresents their difference from men, where recognition of one
or the other of those facts is essential to their capacity to succeed in life.

1 Obviously, many women are members of cultural minorities and many more are underprivileged
members of the cultural majority. It follows that many women suffer disadvantage that is not
based upon a misconception of sexual identity. To the extent that they do so, however, they
suffer disadvantage in common with men and so do not suffer sex discrimination. Conversely, to
the extent that women do suffer discrimination, they suffer sex-speci¬c disadvantage, although
sex-speci¬c disadvantage may well and often does take race-speci¬c and class-speci¬c forms.
2 In referring to what it means to be a woman, I refer to the content of women™s qualities and
capacities, which in some respects are no different from those of men, and in other respects
distinguish women from men and so de¬ne them as women. In referring to women in this broad
sense, I refer to the condition of certain people and not merely to those aspects of their character
that distinguish them from men. Misconceptions of what it means to be a woman, understood
in this sense, may take three forms: they may describe a sexual difference where none exists;
they may describe a particular sexual difference where some other exists; or they may describe
sexual equality where sexual difference exists. The possibility of this last form of misconception
means that a society can misconceive what it means to be a woman in respects in which it has
no conception of sexual difference, and so has no conception of what it means to be a woman in
the narrow, de¬nitional sense. It can also misconceive what it means to be a woman in respects
in which there is no difference between the sexes to misconceive. Women can be party to such
misconceptions, and so pass on to their daughters the disadvantage that they themselves have
suffered, by passing on false assumptions about sexual identity that they have acquired from their
parents, their peers, and all those from whom and in common with whom they inherit, succour,
and bequeath the social practices that constitute their culture.
I. The Signi¬cance of Limitations and Inferiority 159

These kinds of disadvantage are morally signi¬cant because they deny
women what all human beings are entitled to. By contrast, speci¬c instances
of limitation and inferiority, in and of themselves, lack moral signi¬cance, be-
cause they do not deny women anything to which any human being either is
or could be entitled. The distinction between what is and what is not a morally
signi¬cant disadvantage turns on what it is possible for a woman to be or to
imagine being. As I have indicated, I am assuming that human beings are en-
titled to those goods that are essential to their capacity to make a success of
the project of their lives, whether those goods are opportunities, resources, an
adequate range of valuable options, the satisfaction of needs, or otherwise. It
follows that human beings are disadvantaged in a morally signi¬cant sense by
the denial or the misapplication to them of those goods.
Given that what it means to lead a successful life is different for different
human beings, however, the character of the goods to which particular human
beings are entitled re¬‚ects the character of those human beings and the lives
they seek to lead, as does any disadvantage they may suffer as a result of
being denied those goods. It follows that human beings are entitled to goods of
the same character as one another only where the lives they seek to lead are
of the same character as one another, or if of different character nevertheless
require access to the same opportunities or resources. Correspondingly, human
beings can be thought to be disadvantaged by the denial to them of goods of the
same character as others are assigned only if the lives they seek to lead and the
goods required to make a success of those lives are no different from the lives
and related goods of those with whom they are compared.
When different people engage in the same activities, they do so in different
ways, as part of the different projects of their different lives. The signi¬cance
of those activities, and of success or failure in them, is a function of the role
those activities play in the lives of the people who engage in them, which is
in turn a function of the different character of their different lives. It follows,
however, that the fact that a woman is superior to a man in a given realm of
human endeavour, and so is by reason of her sex at an advantage there, can be
signi¬cant to her only to the extent that success in that realm contributes to the
success of the project of her life, as an individual and as a woman, a project
that is as distinctive as she is. Conversely, the fact that a woman is inferior to
a man in a given realm of human endeavour and so is by reason of her sex at
a disadvantage there, be it by reason of naturally created or culturally created
elements of that sex, is signi¬cant to her only to the extent that failure in that
realm is capable of damaging her prospects of success in the project of her life,
and so disadvantaging her as a person.
To reiterate, truly different people are not engaged in the same life projects
as one another, despite the fact that they are necessarily often engaged in the
same endeavours, the endeavours that de¬ne the world they have in common.
Men and women share many activities, but in doing so they may well differ
160 the role of sexual identity in a successful life

in their understanding of the signi¬cance of those activities. Indeed, they are
bound to so differ if the difference between the sexes is of any signi¬cance with
respect to those activities. In such a case not only may shared activities mean
different things to men and women, but they may have a different import, so
that what is central for one sex is peripheral for the other.
Whether disadvantage in any particular realm of human endeavour disad-
vantages a woman or a man in the project of her life or his depends on the role
that success in that realm of endeavour plays in the success of that project. In
other words, disadvantages in particular realms, and the lack of resources or
opportunities that may produce them, are related only contingently to disadvan-
tage in life. They become disadvantages in life when their character and scale is
such as to give them a real impact on the success of the lives of those whom they
affect. It follows that disadvantages that are not relevant to the project of a par-
ticular life, and those that while relevant to that project do not affect its success,
cannot be regarded as disadvantages in the project of that life, although they
might well be disadvantages in the project of some other life. That is why the
distinction between what is and what is not a morally signi¬cant disadvantage
turns on what it is possible for a woman to be or to imagine being.
An analogy would perhaps be helpful here. Maurice Greene is, as I write,
the world™s fastest runner. The fact that neither I nor any other human being
can run as fast as he can may, at least when fully explained and described, tell
us something signi¬cant about the practice of athletics, that is, about the nature
of athletic endeavour and achievement. It tells us what most human beings can
achieve within that practice (very little) and what a few can achieve (something
remarkable). In doing so it describes both the meaning of achievement within
that practice and to some extent the meaning of the practice itself, which is by
its nature constituted in terms of competition and the superiority and inferiority
that competition reveals. Athletics, we might say, is all about winning and
losing.
To put the point in general terms, superiority and inferiority, or advantage and
disadvantage, when conceived of in relation to a particular social practice that
embodies an aspect of human endeavour, describe the meaning of achievement
in that practice, and in doing so help to establish the meaning of the practice
itself. In some cases, those in which competitive ranking is only a peripheral
element, the different achievements of its participants may tell us little about
the meaning of the practice itself. In other cases, such as athletics perhaps, they
may tell us much of what we need to know about it. The fact that I and all other
human beings are inferior to Maurice Greene as sprinters, and so would be at a
disadvantage if forced to confront him in an athletics event, tells us something
signi¬cant about sprinting in particular, about athletics in general, and very
probably about the life of Maurice Greene, subject to what I say below.
However in itself that inferiority tells us nothing signi¬cant about my par-
ticular life or that of virtually every other human being who is less talented and
I. The Signi¬cance of Limitations and Inferiority 161

less accomplished as a sprinter than Maurice Greene. It does not tell us that I,
for example, am disadvantaged in the project of my life by my limitations as
a sprinter, for that will depend upon the character of my particular life and the
role, if any, that success or failure as a sprinter plays in it. As I have argued,
different people engage in the same activities as one another in different ways,
as part of the different projects of their different lives. It follows that inferiority
in a particular activity is a disadvantage to a person in the project of his or her
life only when its character and scale are such as to give it a real impact on the
success of that project.
To know that my inferiority as a sprinter is a disadvantage to my life, we
would need to know that I see myself as an athlete and a sprinter. Otherwise my
inferiority in that respect would be as remote from my disadvantage in life as
my inferiority as a Sumo wrestler or a mountain climber, a ¬nancier or an actor.
None of these activities forms any part of the project of my life. I am unlikely
to engage in them at all, and if I do, my success or failure will be unimportant
to me. They may be endeavours to others, in the project of whose lives they
play a constitutive role, but they would be no more than distractions to me, if
that. If the idea that they could be regarded as disadvantages to my life seems
ridiculous, as surely it does, it is because it seems so obvious that my inferiority
with respect to them is a fact that is entirely remote from my life. That seems
obvious, however, only because and to the extent that it seems obvious that
these activities form no part of the project of my life.
Correspondingly, superiority as a sprinter is an advantage in Maurice
Greene™s life only to the extent that it contributes to the success of the project
of his life. It is reasonable to assume from what we know of his life that the fact
that he can run faster than his Olympic rivals is a critical element in its success.
It may be equally reasonable to assume that the fact that his Olympic rivals
run more slowly than he does is a critical element in the success of the project
of their lives, for to reach the Olympics is normally to want to win. However,
the fact that Maurice Greene can run faster than I and all those other human
beings who are not his Olympic rivals is clearly not an advantage in his life. The
advantage and disadvantage that count for him are those that have a bearing on
his capacity to lead a successful life, which in professional rather than personal
terms is a life as a world-class athlete and sprinter. That life is not made more
successful by the fact that he can run faster than the person beside him on the
street.
To put the point in general terms once again, when conceived of in relation to a
particular life, advantage and disadvantage describe the meaning of achievement
in the project of that life, and by extension, the meaning of that life itself. It
follows that the fact of inferiority in a particular realm, whether as a sprinter
or in any other respect, is not a disadvantage in the project of a particular life
unless success in that respect is a necessary element in that particular life™s
success. To believe otherwise is to believe that at heart we all lead or seek to
162 the role of sexual identity in a successful life

lead the same life, notwithstanding our different approaches to the pursuit of
our different lives and the apparently different capacities and aspirations those
approaches reveal.
To treat every inferiority that human beings may experience in various spe-
ci¬c ¬elds of endeavour as a disadvantage in the project of their lives is to assim-
ilate the experience of different human beings. The ingredients of a successful
life are in fact as varied as human beings and the values they draw upon. If and to
the extent that women are genuinely different from men, therefore, the success of
their lives and the ingredients required to sustain that success will be correspond-
ingly different from the success of men™s lives and its ingredients. That being
the case, what makes a woman™s life a failure is as distinctive as what makes it
a success. Disadvantage and inferiority coincide only to the extent that lives do.
Let me elaborate. I have said that disadvantages in particular realms become
deep disadvantages only when they have a real impact on the success of the lives
of those whom they affect. It follows that disadvantages in particular realms are
not deep disadvantages if they are either irrelevant or marginal to the project of a
life. How then do disadvantages in particular realms come to have a real impact
on a life, so as to become deep disadvantages? Let us suppose that women™s
difference from men is such that on average they are inferior to men in some
particular form of human endeavour, such as sprinting. There are four possible
ways in which that inferiority could be linked to women™s disadvantage in
the deep sense, all of which depend upon conclusions about the particular
character of the respective life projects of women and men, and only one of
which causes deep disadvantage to women.
I have already argued that the quality of a person™s performance in a particular
activity can be an advantage or a disadvantage to that person in the deep sense
only if success in that activity is capable of contributing to the success of
his or her life. It follows that ability in sprinting might matter to neither men
nor women. It is sensible to pursue what one is or could be good at, but it is
neither possible nor desirable to pursue all the things that one might be good
at. Human beings have to choose between projects, for they have only one life
to lead. If men neglect their ability as sprinters in favour of other activities in
which they might ¬‚ourish, and if women understandably avoid their disability
as sprinters in favour of yet other activities in which they might ¬‚ourish, their
relative abilities as sprinters might not matter to either sex. If on the other hand
some men pursue sprinting but no women do, men™s ability as sprinters, and the
opportunities and resources required to develop it, would be an advantage in
the project of men™s lives without being a disadvantage in the lives of women,
for whom it would simply be irrelevant. In both these situations, then, women™s
inferiority as sprinters would ¬nd no place in the project of their lives, and so
would be incapable of causing them deep disadvantage. Inferiorities that are
irrelevant to the project of a life cannot disadvantage that life, although they
might disadvantage some other life, elsewhere.
I. The Signi¬cance of Limitations and Inferiority 163

Different people, however, sometimes pursue similar or overlapping life
projects. That being the case, both men and women might pursue life projects
that included the practice of sprinting, although the signi¬cance of that practice
for each sex would be as different as the difference between their life projects.
This might mean that sprinting was only a marginal activity in the project of
women™s lives, something akin to what I have called a mere distraction. If that
were so, however, women™s inferiority with regard to it would again cause them
no deep disadvantage.
It is often the case that people pursue, as part of the larger project of their
lives, activities in which they are inferior to other people. They do this because
they know that participation in such activities can contribute to the overall
value of their lives, enlarging their meaning without diminishing their signi¬-
cance. Inferiority in those particular respects does not mean that the project of
one person™s life is inferior to another™s, for it is nested within the much larger,
more complex project of that life. That project is as different from other life
projects as the person who seeks to pursue it, and consequently is as incom-
mensurable with the projects of those other lives as that person is with the other
human beings who pursue them. Disadvantage in a particular realm can cause
no disadvantage to the project of a life as long as it remains marginal to it.
However, if sprinting formed part of the project of women™s lives, it might
be central, or at least pivotal to that project. If that were so, women™s inferiority
as sprinters might appear to disadvantage them in the project of their lives, even
if men™s superiority as sprinters did not correspondingly advantage them, as
it would not if sprinting formed no part of the project of men™s lives.3 In fact,
however, the disadvantage that women would experience in those circumstances
would ¬‚ow not from their inferiority as sprinters but from the decision to make
that activity central to the project of their lives.4 In other words, women would
be so disadvantaged only if they were either so mistaken in their own judgment
or so misled by the judgment of others as to focus the project of their lives on

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