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3 In reality, of course, women compete as sprinters against one another and not against men. This
means that despite a common description, women™s and men™s sprinting are different activities.
That being the case, women are not, at least in the context of professional athletics, inferior to
men as sprinters and consequently are able to make sprinting a central element in the project
of their lives without thereby disadvantaging themselves. Where sex-speci¬c practices of this
kind are unavailable, however, for whatever reason, as might be the case with sprinting itself if it
were possible to pursue it seriously outside the context of athletics, women who make activities
at which they are inferior to men central to the project of their lives may well disadvantage
themselves.
4 Some quali¬cation is necessary here. This explanation is adequate for present purposes but needs
to be re¬ned if it is to be fully accurate, for not every disadvantage in a central aspect of the
project of a woman™s life is a disadvantage to that project itself. Whether or not it is so depends,
for example, on the contribution made by ranking “ or by a high ranking “ in the activity to
the value of the activity. While for many athletes winning is what athletics is all about, some
are happy merely to place, or to be in the event at all. See the discussion of misconceptions and
value, below.
164 the role of sexual identity in a successful life

an activity at which they were inferior. As I have argued, it is only sensible,
and indeed in many respects only meaningful, to pursue what one is or might
be successful at; that is, what might be ful¬lling in the particular project of
one™s life. It follows that disadvantage in a given realm is a disadvantage in the
project of one™s life only if one is so mistaken or misled in the construction of
that project as to call upon abilities that one does not possess, and thus to pursue
ends that one cannot succeed at.
This is what I meant in alleging that in themselves limitation and inferiority
lack moral signi¬cance because they do not deny women anything to which any
human being either is or could be entitled. One cannot possibly be entitled to
be what one cannot be, in this case adept at sprinting. One is not disadvantaged
in the project of one™s life by one™s genuine limitations and inferiorities, for the
project of one™s life is something that can be imagined and pursued only in terms
of qualities that one possesses and through which one might reasonably hope
to ¬‚ourish, or conversely, in avoidance of qualities that one does not possess
and through which one could not expect to ¬‚ourish.
On the other hand, however, one is certainly disadvantaged in the deep sense
in committing one™s life to a project in which one cannot hope to ¬‚ourish, and
limitations and inferiorities may constitute evidence that one has done exactly
that. While the mere presence of inferiority in one™s life is not in itself evidence
of such a commitment, and so is not in itself evidence of deep disadvantage,
the presence of inferiorities in aspects of one™s life so central and de¬nitive as
to suggest that one is inferior as a person suggests that the project of that life
may have been misconceived.5
It is with this in mind that I argued above that 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. Those limitations and inferiorities that
are part of the meaning of sexual difference become sexual disadvantage in the
deep sense, the sense in which they are a disadvantage to the project of women™s
lives, only as the result of a mistake as to the meaning and implications of the
character of sexual difference. If this kind of mistake is incorporated in the
project of a woman™s life to such a degree that it threatens the success of that
project, it thereby disadvantages that project and that life.
It is vital to recognize, however, that this kind of mistake is not one committed
primarily by women. Men and women are frequently mistaken in the project
of their lives, but women are no more likely to be mistaken in that respect than
men. Moreover, women are no more likely to be mistaken on the basis of sex
than on any other basis. Indeed, women could be thought to be more often
mistaken than men only if there was something in the difference between the
sexes that made women particularly prone to that kind of error. Since that is

5 For more detailed consideration of this point, see section II.B.iii, “The Implications of Inferiority”,
below.
I. The Signi¬cance of Limitations and Inferiority 165

clearly not the case, it cannot be that women are disadvantaged in their lives,
in a way that makes them inferior to men, primarily as the result of misguided
decisions on their part as to how to conduct the project of their lives. Rather,
women are disadvantaged in this way because the decisions they make about
the lives they hope to lead are reached within the context of the social forms in
and through which their lives are necessarily conducted.
People do not invent or construct the worlds within which their lives ¬nd
meaning and signi¬cance. On the contrary, they very gradually and inarticu-
lately develop the project of their lives, by drawing on the resources of their
own character, as individuals and in this case as women, and on the social
practices of their culture, which make particular life projects both possible and
meaningful by conferring relevance and hence practical signi¬cance on some
portion of the manifold qualities, and their manifold implications, that gen-
uinely distinguish human beings from one another. Different cultures, it need
hardly be said, are characterized by their different social practices, which em-
body different conceptions of what it means to be a human being. It follows that
people, in drawing on the practices of their particular culture in order to develop
and pursue the project of their lives, as they must if that project is to be even
intelligible to them, are compelled to participate in that culture™s conception of
what it means to be a human being. If that conception is in any way mistaken,
and if such a mistake is endemic in the social practices of that culture, people
will be compelled to participate in that mistake and suffer its consequences.
If the project of women™s lives is now mistaken, that mistake, if not the
product of what it means to be a woman, must be the product of the social
practices that give relevance and signi¬cance to the qualities that distinguish
the sexes, and in doing so determine what it is possible for a woman to be
or to imagine being. Any misconception of the meaning and implications of
sexual difference, if broadly embedded in the social practices in and through
which the two sexes are compelled to conduct their lives, and in the options that
those practices offer, will lead men and women to develop the projects of their
separate lives in ways that are untrue to the difference between them, for the
options we choose as individuals are dependent upon the options we have to
choose among. If women commit the project of their lives to sprinting against
men as well as women, an activity at which I am supposing they are inferior
to men, it can be only because they have been impelled to do so by the social
practices in and through which their lives have necessarily been developed,
which express sexual equality and so lead women both to pursue sprinting,
rather than something else at which they might ¬‚ourish, and to pursue it on
equal terms with men, thus forcing them to betray the difference of their sex
twice over.
The pervasive inferiority of one sex to the other in a particular society, there-
fore, one that constitutes sexual disadvantage, is evidence of the existence of a
widespread misconception of sexual identity there. The fact that the inferiority
166 the role of sexual identity in a successful life

of one sex to the other in some respect has come to de¬ne the life projects
of many, perhaps most, members of that sex, indicates that those projects are
mistaken, for otherwise such inferiorities would be no more than incidents in
an approach to life that was incommensurable with that of the other sex. Given
that there is nothing in the difference between the sexes that would lead one
sex or the other to be particularly prone to such an error, we can conclude that
it has occurred only as the result of a misconception of sexual identity that has
compelled women to de¬ne their lives in terms of goals that do not permit them
to ¬‚ourish. Sexual inferiorities, if and to the extent that they exist, do not deny
women access to superior qualities, but rather indicate that women have been
denied access to the value of their own qualities.
This is not, of course, the only way that human beings can be disadvantaged
as the result of a misconception of their difference from other human beings.
As I have argued, broadly held misconceptions of sexual identity may compel
women to pursue critical dimensions of their lives in terms of sexual equality
where sexual difference exists, or in terms of a supposed sexual difference where
no such difference exists, or in terms of a supposed sexual difference where
a sexual difference of a different character exists. Some such misconceptions
may portray women as inferior to men. Others, however, may portray women as
incommensurable with men, and so make their lives alien rather than inferior.
Whether or not a broadly held misconception of sexual identity portrays women
as inferior to men, therefore, it compels them to lead lives that disadvantage
them, because the embodiment of a misconception of sexual identity in the
social practices in and through which the project of their lives must be developed
prevents women from pursuing lives they could truly value. It compels them to
develop their lives on the basis of a false conception of the qualities they possess,
so suppressing the existence of the genuine qualities on the basis of which they
could develop and pursue valuable lives, or at least making it impossible to
pursue life projects based upon those genuine qualities.6
I do not wish to dwell on these issues at any greater length at this stage,
for they warrant more prolonged consideration than it is possible to give them
here without obscuring the question of whether limitation and inferiority are
in themselves properly disregarded in the search for the nature and origins of
women™s present predicament. What does need to be emphasized is that to say
that the limits on human lives implicit in human difference, and the inferiority
they may produce in a particular realm, do not in and of themselves constitute
deep disadvantage, but rather are part and parcel of the speci¬city of existence

6 As I noted above, people can also be disadvantaged by a society that offers no place for any of the
projects that it acknowledges would make their life meaningful, or that simply fails to provide
the opportunities or resources necessary to make a success of such projects. These disadvantages,
however, do not involve a misconception of what it means to be a woman. For the reasons given
above, I believe that women™s present predicament is the product of a misconception of what it
means to be a woman, one of the features of which is the apparent inferiority of women to men.
II. The Signi¬cance of Misconceptions 167

that any form of difference describes, is not to be complacent about women™s
suffering or conservative about what constitutes an appropriate response to that
suffering.
On the contrary, it is no favour to women to pretend that these forms of
limitation and inferiority are deep disadvantages to them, for to do so is in fact
both misleading and itself disadvantageous to women. To impose a ¬ctional
existence upon women, one that denies the reality of their existence and pretends
to transcend the limitations and consequent inferiorities that attend not only that
form of existence but all other forms of human existence, is to impose upon
women a renovated form of the very disadvantage from which they are now
suffering. What is needed is an accurate diagnosis of their disadvantage, one
that can distinguish it from the local disabilities that are often mistaken for it,
the existence of which no more disadvantages women than it disadvantages
men, and the removal of which, were it possible, would result only in the
suppression of sexual difference and the reconstitution of that difference, with
all its attendant and necessary limitations, in other planes and for other purposes.
In conclusion, the focus upon limitation and inferiority, and the consequent
equation of local disadvantage with what I have called deep disadvantage, gives
rise to a form of feminism that offers untenable accounts both of what it means
to be a woman and how that experience is disadvantaged in our culture. What
is needed instead is an understanding of what it means to be a woman that gives
meaning and substance to women™s history and prospects, and an understand-
ing of the disadvantage that women now experience, as a consequence of our
conception of them as women, that has moral signi¬cance.


II. The Signi¬cance of Misconceptions
Before turning to the question of the value of a woman™s life and the ways in
which it can be threatened by misconceptions of what it means to be a woman,
it might be helpful to review brie¬‚y the different kinds of misconception that
may arise, for they raise different issues of access to value. On the one hand, the
failure to recognize women™s equality with men raises questions of women™s
access to known values, in particular their access to those valuable activities
now engaged in by men. On the other hand, the failure to recognize women™s
difference from men, or to recognize the true character of that difference, raises
questions of women™s access to values that only women are capable of realizing,
and in particular their access to valuable activities that we as a society have
neglected or remained largely ignorant of.
In circumstances of sexual equality, there is no difference between what
advantages and disadvantages a man and what advantages and disadvantages a
woman. If every human being is entitled to the goods that will enable him or
her to make a success of his or her life, opportunities that he or she can truly
enjoy and resources that he or she can truly use, in other words, to goods that are
168 the role of sexual identity in a successful life

capable of mattering to him or her because they are sensitive to the particular
character of his or her life, lack of difference between the sexes means that there
is no difference in what men and women are entitled to, and so no difference
in what is liable to cause them disadvantage.
If and to the extent that the sexes are equal to and so no different from one
another, therefore, men and women will pro¬t from the same opportunities and
will depend upon the same resources, and consequently will be vulnerable to the
same kinds of disadvantage. Conversely, if women are genuinely disadvantaged
by a lack of those opportunities and resources whose lack would disadvantage
a man, then the sexes are equal to and so no different from one another, at
least as far as any of the purposes of the culture that is alleged to so disadvan-
tage them are concerned. When we allege that women are disadvantaged by
their lack of parity with men, we implicitly allege that women are no different
from men.
If women are no different from men, however, then men are as vulnerable
to what disadvantages women as women are themselves. It follows that where
women are no different from men, the only way that women can be uniquely
disadvantaged is through the promulgation of a misconception of their existence
that presents them as different from men when in fact they are not. To put it
more precisely, if men and women are equal to one another, then disadvantage
can be con¬ned to women and kept from men only by arbitrarily assigning
signi¬cance to a difference that has none, either by inventing a sexual distinction
where none exists, and so falsely extending the scope of sexual difference, or
by giving weight to a sexual distinction that the practices of our culture have
made irrelevant.
The fact that many and perhaps most allegations of sex discrimination7 have
tended to concentrate on what their adherents regard as the arbitrariness and
irrelevance of sex distinctions, therefore, shows that the understanding of sexual
identity on which those allegations are based is one of equality, namely, that
women are no different from men as far as any of the purposes of our culture
are concerned. Few would dispute that this understanding of sexual identity

7 I have in mind here those allegations that have seen women™s disadvantage in terms of their
exclusion from domains of endeavour occupied by men, and that have sought to secure women™s
admission to those domains by demonstrating the irrelevance of sex and the qualities that de¬ne it
to the capacity to ¬‚ourish there. This position is often described as liberal feminism: see Feminism
Unmodi¬ed: Discourses on Life and Law (Cambridge, Mass., 1987), at 117“18: “ . . . I propose
for your consideration two different strands of feminist theory. Most work on women in sport
(most work on women in anything) comes from the ¬rst approach. In this approach the problem
of the inequality of the sexes revolves around gender differentiation. The view is that there are
real differences between the sexes, usually biological or natural. Upon these differences, society
has created some inaccurate, irrational, and arbitrary distinctions: sex stereotypes or sex roles. To
eliminate sex inequality, on this view, is to eliminate these wrong and irrational distinctions. . . .
This is liberal feminism™s diagnosis of the condition of women.” Many who hold this position
would not endorse the description of themselves as liberal feminists, however, and for that reason
I have avoided the term, as unrepresentative of both liberals and feminists.
II. The Signi¬cance of Misconceptions 169

is correct in many, perhaps most, respects, the respects in which supposed
differences between men and women have been shown to be spurious. Much of
the history of feminism, as expressed in prominent strands of feminist argument
and debate, in the achievements of women in domains once reserved for men,
and in the criteria of legitimacy set by antidiscrimination law in its present
form, has been dedicated to showing that the supposed incapacities of women
simply have no foundation in fact.8 To the extent that this brand of feminism
has been vindicated, it is because men and women are genuinely equal as far
as the forms and practices of our culture are concerned. The question remains,
however, whether men and women are in this sense equal to one another in
all respects, or whether there are certain genuine differences between men and
women that remain relevant to our culture.
If men and women are not in this sense equal in terms of their ambitions
and capacities, that is to say, if there is a real difference between the sexes
that is relevant to our culture, then the success of a woman™s life may well
be dependent upon her access to her distinctive ambitions and capacities, to the
qualities that distinguish her as a woman rather than to the qualities that she
shares with men. If that is the case, then the project of her life will be based on
sex-speci¬c goals and so will need sex-speci¬c opportunities and resources to
sustain it, of a kind that are capable of mattering to her as a woman. Conversely,
her life will be disadvantaged if she is denied access to those opportunities and

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