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resources because an entrenched misconception of what it means and does not
mean to be a woman misrepresents what she is and what is capable of mattering
to her.


A. Comprehensive Misconceptions
These are points I have defended above and there is no need to pursue them
further here. However, they imply a further point I have yet to defend fully,
namely, that the success of a woman™s life depends not merely upon access
to goods that are capable of mattering to her as a woman, in the sense of
being consonant with her character and abilities, but upon access to goods that
are genuinely valuable. Many goals in life that are consonant with a person™s
particular character and abilities are simply not worth pursuing. Some such
goals are without value, while others have no place in the social practices of our
culture and so cannot be rationally pursued by its members. As far as women are
concerned, therefore, certain goals in life that are entirely consonant with their
character and abilities as women, and so are apparently capable of mattering to

8 This was particularly true of the modern feminist movement in its initial and in many ways most
in¬‚uential stages, which drew on models of race discrimination to entrench in the law, statutory
and constitutional, the conclusion that it is equality that women lack and equality that they must
be accorded if they are to escape their present predicament.
170 the role of sexual identity in a successful life

them as women, are in fact simply not worth pursuing, either because they are
not valuable or because they are irrelevant, or both.
As I have emphasized, however, valuable goals are accessible only to those
who possess the capacities and resources necessary to secure them and, more
to the point, to those who know themselves and are known by others to possess
such capacities. The enjoyment of any capacity, and by extension, access to the
goals it makes possible, is dependent upon the knowledge that one possesses
that capacity, a knowledge that is embodied in the prevailing conception, self-
determined and socially determined, of who and what one is. It is not possible to
pursue goals that oneself or others believe one lacks the capacity to enjoy, for the
value of those goals, however genuine, would then be something that oneself or
others believed one to be incapable of realizing. Goals that one believes oneself
to be incapable of realizing cannot rationally form part of one™s ambitions,
while goals that others believe one to be incapable of realizing will either ¬nd
no recognition in the social practices in and through which the project of one™s
life is necessarily pursued or be assumed to be accessible only to persons other
than oneself.
Women may be disadvantaged in the development and pursuit of the project
of their lives by the restriction of their lives to a range of goals that re¬‚ects
a misconception of what it genuinely means to be a woman. But they may
also be disadvantaged by the restriction of their lives to what they can be but
cannot value, that is, by restriction to a range of goals that re¬‚ects an accurate
but incomplete conception of what it means to be a woman, one that provides
a diminished account of women™s ambitions and capacities, and in so doing
con¬nes the project of women™s lives to a range of goals that lacks genuine value.
In either of these ways, disadvantage in principle can become disadvantage in
practice.9 In principle, a misconception of what it means to be a woman may
disadvantage women by ascribing to them qualities they do not possess and
failing to recognize in them qualities they do possess. In practice, however, a
misconception will disadvantage women only if the qualities it misapprehends
are those upon which the success of a woman™s life depends, which they will
be if the misconception is either comprehensive or critical in character.
If the prevailing understanding of what it means to be a woman is fun-
damentally misconceived, that is, if our misconception of sexual identity is
comprehensive in character, then disadvantage will certainly result from it. In
that case, whatever valuable goals women are thought to be capable of pur-
suing will be those they are in fact incapable of pursuing, goals that they can
neither rationally endorse nor attain. However, a comprehensive misconception
of this kind is not the only, or even the most plausible way in which women
can be disadvantaged by a misconception of sex; for what we might otherwise

9 A misconception of what it means to be a woman can also take the form of a misconception of
the relevance of sexual differences to our culture. See the discussion of relevance below.
II. The Signi¬cance of Misconceptions 171

regard as relatively minor misconceptions are fully capable of disadvantag-
ing women, and also constitute rather more plausible descriptions of women™s
present predicament than the possibility that we misunderstand sexual identity
completely.


B. Critical Misconceptions
A relatively minor misconception of what it means to be a woman will dis-
advantage women if it recognizes in them only the qualities they possess that
cannot be put to valuable use, or conversely, if it fails to recognize in them qual-
ities that would otherwise be put to valuable use and upon which the success
of their life depends. An understanding of what it means to be a woman that is
largely accurate may nevertheless disadvantage women if it portrays them as
lacking, altogether or in some key dimension, qualities they in fact possess that
are necessary to the success of their lives. In short, the success of a woman™s
life may be as readily compromised by half-truths regarding her character as by
comprehensive falsehoods. Both misconceptions render certain valuable goals
inaccessible to a woman, goals upon which the success of her particular life
depends.
It follows that there are three signi¬cant implications to the role played by
value in the construction of a successful life, and it may be useful to outline
them brie¬‚y before examining them in more detail.10 The basic ingredients of
a successful life are those qualities of a person™s character that are capable of
sustaining valuable activities, or more accurately, whatever selection of such
qualities is necessary to ensure the success of his or her life. That being the
case, the attempt to lead a successful life does not require a person, ¬rst, to alter
the qualities of his or her character, or second, to correct all misconceptions of
that character, or third, to avoid all experience of inferiority, even where that
inferiority is central to the project of his or her life. This simply follows from
the fact that, for any particular person, the ingredients of a successful life are as
distinctive as the values that his or her character makes it possible to embrace,
and so are a function of that character, not of some ideal to which each person
and their character is expected to conform.
As I have said, we express different values in de¬ning and pursuing the
different projects of our different lives. This means it is possible for each of
us to ¬nd within our own character, without any need for an alteration of that
character,11 the ambitions and capacities necessary to pursue valuable activities,
and so make a success of the project of our particular life. The value of the
activities that any one of us is capable of pursuing, on the basis of the character
we have been given, is not inferior or superior to, but incommensurable with,

10 See sections II.B.i“iii below.
11 Apart from special cases of morally ¬‚awed character.
172 the role of sexual identity in a successful life

the value of the activities that are pursued by other, different human beings.
Conversely, however, given that success in the project of one™s life is dependent
upon the pursuit of valuable activities rather than on full realization of the
qualities of one™s character, qualities that are not called into play by the pursuit
of such activities are simply irrelevant to the success or failure of one™s life,
whether they are understood correctly or not.

i. limiting misconceptions.
a. Limited Value. Let me begin with the problem raised by those features
of sexual identity that are said to be the product of the historic ill- treatment of
women. It may be the case that certain misconceptions of what it means to be a
woman, having been reiterated comprehensively and over an extended period
of time, have now become true of women. Some contend, for example, that if
it is true that women are more caring than men, it is only because providing
care for others is part of the role that has historically been assigned to women.
That role has been assigned to them because at least some of those cared for,
namely, men, have wanted to be cared for by women and have possessed the
ability to insist they be so cared for without any regard to whether a distinctive
capacity for concern was part of women™s character.12 Many might argue that
if this is indeed the historical record, not only with regard to concern but with
regard to other qualities that distinguish the sexes, then the features of sexual
identity it has given rise to ought not to be respected, because they carry with
them the taint of their origins. Such features are inherently degrading, so that
af¬rming them would only con¬rm women in their present predicament instead
of releasing them from it. These are aspects of sexual identity that we should
want to bring to an end, not endorse.
Nor are these features, which might be called tainted, the only features
of sexual identity that are thought to be objectionable and so unworthy of
af¬rmation. It may also be true, for example, that women™s character genuinely,
that is, without any original informing misconception, displays a number of
features that constitute disabilities in a culture such as ours, which women
would accordingly wish to see removed, not af¬rmed. With that possibility in
mind, some13 argue that if, for whatever reason, there is any aspect of women™s

12 Catharine MacKinnon in particular has argued this. See, for example, her discussion of the work
of Carol Gilligan in Feminism Unmodi¬ed, supra n. 7.
13 See, for example, Christine Littleton, “Reconstructing Sexual Equality”, 75 California Law Re-
view 1279 (1987), especially Part IV, “Making Difference Costless”, at 1323ff. See also Deborah
Rhode, Justice and Gender (Cambridge, Mass., 1989), at 312“13: “If women are to obtain ad-
equate recognition of their distinctive experience, they must transcend its constraints. . . . The
critical issue should not be difference, but the difference difference makes.” I must stress that
both Littleton and Rhode wish to change society, not the character of women. Nevertheless,
Littleton™s aim, for example, in her own words, “is to make gender differences, perceived or
actual, costless relative to each other, so that anyone may follow a male, female, or androgynous
lifestyle according to their natural inclination or choice without being punished for following
II. The Signi¬cance of Misconceptions 173

character, however genuine, that is capable of causing women disadvantage
in a society such as ours, that aspect ought to be removed, whether through
education or some other form of rehabilitation.
This desire to address and eliminate the disadvantageous features of women™s
character has a familiar ring to it, however, one that suggests that the proper
answer to these issues lies in a proper understanding of the meaning of disad-
vantage. I have argued above that women are disadvantaged not only by the
restriction of their lives to what they cannot be but by the restriction of their lives
to what they can be but cannot value. The reason for this is that the authenticity
of the characteristics on which a woman™s life is based is a necessary but not
a suf¬cient condition for the success of that life, which is also dependent upon
the exercise of characteristics that are genuinely valuable. The corollary to this
is that the inauthenticity of the characteristics on which a woman™s life is based
is a suf¬cient but not a necessary condition of what may disadvantage that life,
for that life will also be disadvantaged if based on authentic but nonvaluable
characteristics.14
It does not follow, however, that the authentic presence of nonvaluable char-
acteristics in a woman™s character causes her disadvantage. On the contrary,
women are no more disadvantaged by the presence in their character of qual-
ities that they cannot value than they are disadvantaged by the absence from
their character of valuable qualities that others possess, provided, that is, that
the project of their lives is not improperly restricted to the exercise of such qual-
ities. Disadvantage in the project of one™s life is not the product of the qualities
that do or do not form part of one™s character. It is the product of the fact that
that project has been either so mistaken or so misguided as to be based on the
wrong qualities, namely, those in terms of which one cannot ¬‚ourish, whether
they are qualities one does not possess or qualities one cannot value.

a female lifestyle or rewarded for following a male one”: id. at 1297. That is to say, Littleton
seeks to eliminate the disadvantages that now follow from the interaction of certain features of
women™s character with the features of our culture. It is merely a sense of fairness and shared
responsibility, coupled with the assumption that it is easier to change society than to change
the character of women, that leads her to call for the restructuring of society rather than of
the character of women, not a recognition and acceptance of sexual differences that would im-
pose limits upon women, or serve as the occasion for their disadvantage within those limits. As
I have argued above, however, there is less difference between the two positions than might at
¬rst appear, as Littleton herself implicitly acknowledges, id. at 1309“10: “I believe that both the
meaning of sex and the meaning of equality are socially constructed, and that they can be socially
reconstructed from the ashes left by feminist critique.” And later, in discussing the relationship
between her position and that of Catharine MacKinnon, id. at 1333“34: “The social construction
of ˜woman™ . . . can be disrupted either by revaluing what women have been perceived to be, or
by reassigning the attributes that comprise the social sexes, or both.”
14 I am assuming that what is at issue is nonvaluable characteristics, and the misconceptions that
lead women to live in terms of such characteristics. In fact, I suspect that what is at issue
is the misconceptions that lead women to apply potentially valuable characteristics, such as
the capacity for concern, to nonvaluable ends. Yet the same arguments would apply, mutatis
mutandis.
174 the role of sexual identity in a successful life

To put it more succinctly, a proper understanding of disadvantage, one that
takes into account the constitutive role played in the success of a woman™s life
by those qualities of her character that she can genuinely value, yields a proper
understanding of the relationship between the qualities that describe a woman
and the circumstances in which she may be disadvantaged. According to that
understanding, disadvantage is not the product of the qualities that genuinely
describe a woman, but of a misconception of those qualities, whether it be a
misconception of their character or a misconception of their scope.
As one might expect, then, there is an element of truth in the contention that
women may be disadvantaged by certain features of their sex, for women™s lives
may well be focused upon non-valuable features of their character as women, as
well as upon false, or supposed, features of that character. It follows that I spoke
too quickly, but not inaccurately, in saying that women™s present predicament
is the product of a misconception of sexual identity, for there are a number of
different ways in which such a misconception can arise, and a mistake as to the
character of what it means to be a woman is only one of them. A misconception
of the meaning of sexual identity can also arise as the result of a mistake as to
the scope of what it means to be a woman. The in¬‚uence of this mistake will
compel a woman to overlook the aspects of what it genuinely means to be a
woman that she can value in favour of aspects that she cannot value.
Women are not disadvantaged, therefore, by the mere presence in their char-
acter of qualities that cannot be put to the service of valuable goals in our
culture. Rather, women are advantaged and disadvantaged in the development
and pursuit of the project of their lives, which is formed in terms of who they
are and what they can value and is, as a result, as distinctive as they are, or more
accurately, as distinctive as what they are capable of valuing. It follows that the
existence of disadvantage in the lives of women can no more be inferred from
the presence in their character of qualities that serve no valuable goals in our
culture than it can be inferred from the presence in their character of qualities
that may, for certain purposes at least, show them to be inferior to men.
Conversely, and as I have already indicated, women will be disadvantaged if
the resources of character on which the project of their lives draws are restricted
to dimensions of their character that have no valuable application in our culture.
I have argued that this will occur if a misconception of what it means to be a
woman is critical to the success of a woman™s life in that it denies her access
to qualities she must exercise if she is to succeed. This means, however, that
the prevailing understanding of what it means to be a woman must be not only
true but comprehensive enough to embrace a range of qualities that are capable
of being applied to the pursuit of valuable goals in our culture, goals that will
permit women to pursue a genuinely successful life. We need not know the
whole truth of what it means to be a woman, but we must know enough of it
to know what in it can constitute the basis for a valuable and thus a potentially
successful life.
II. The Signi¬cance of Misconceptions 175

What is needed to end the disadvantage that women now experience, there-
fore, is not to change what it means to be a woman but to perceive that meaning
correctly. Then we must see that women are enabled to devote the projects of
their lives, as indeed is only rational, to whatever aspects of that meaning are
capable of serving valuable goals in our culture and so are capable of forming
the basis of a successful life. The problem women now face is not that they
possess the wrong qualities on which to base a successful life, conceived with-
out reference to who they are, but that they lack access to the right qualities,
namely, those aspects of their character capable of being brought to bear on the
pursuit of valuable goals in a life conceived and pursued in terms of who they
are and what they can be.
What matters, and hence what we need to seek and af¬rm, is not a primor-
dial picture of sexual identity, unaffected and so untainted by the actions of
the human beings who have responded to it over the course of history and be-
fore, which would tell us only what men and women once were and might have

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