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remained but in fact did not. Rather, what matters is a picture of what men and
women have now become, for good reason or bad, as a result of the impact on
the content of sexual identity of in¬‚uences suf¬ciently powerful and prolonged
that their effects have acquired the force, if not the status, of natural facts. What
men and women now are is what they have been given from which to build the
project of their lives, and that and only that is what they may be disadvantaged
in terms of. All those who contribute to the ongoing debate over the status of
women in our culture, by their words or their actions, in support of the claims
of feminists or in opposition to them, whether in the end proved right or proved
wrong, contribute to the determination of that picture.
In fact, what is much more likely, as MacKinnon™s example of concern
suggests, is that women have been encouraged to focus their lives not on
nonvaluable characteristics but on the nonvaluable application of potentially
valuable characteristics. Here the answer is even clearer. Women need to dis-
cover whether it is true, for example, that they have a special capacity for con-
cern. If they do, they need to appreciate the full implications of concern, and
the many valuable applications to which it may be put. Finally, they need to
ensure that their lives, if committed to concern at all, are committed to such
valuable applications, rather than the many nonvaluable applications to which
they have been historically con¬ned.
b. Limited Relevance. This cannot be the whole story of the disadvantage
now experienced by women, however. The character of what it means to be a
woman, and the valuable activities that that character makes it possible, and
even necessary, to pursue merely establishes the kinds of life that it is rational
for women to pursue in some imaginable culture. It does not establish which
of those kinds of life it is rational for particular women to pursue, women who
inhabit particular cultures and so must pursue the projects of their lives in and
through the forms and practices of those cultures. In other words, many activities
176 the role of sexual identity in a successful life

that are both valuable and consonant with what it means to be a woman simply
have no place in a culture such as ours.
That being the case, a conception of what it means to be a woman that is
indisputably true and comprehensive enough to permit women access to gen-
uinely valuable activities may nevertheless disadvantage women if the activities
it permits access to are ones that have no place in the forms and practices of our
culture. It is quite possible that some portion of what it means to be a woman is
capable of being applied to the pursuit of valuable activities that have no place
in contemporary culture, or in some particular contemporary culture. That be-
ing so, a society that con¬nes its understanding of women to that irrelevant
aspect of their character thereby prevents women from making a success of
their lives. The valuable activities it regards them as capable of undertaking
have insuf¬cient relevance to its culture; while the valuable activities that are
relevant to its culture are activities it regards them as incapable of undertaking.
In other words, a society may fail to see the relevance of certain human qualities
that it knows women to possess, or may fail to see that women possess certain
human qualities that it knows to be relevant, and so may fail to see that sexual
difference matters in that culture in ways other than it is taken to.
Some cultures, for example, although modern in themselves, view women
in highly traditional terms, which might once have described a valuable way
of life, but no longer do so, for the conditions that made that way of life pos-
sible no longer exist. Such women need to be understood in more contempo-
rary terms if they are to ¬‚ourish in contemporary society. The same is true,
in reverse, of the place of certain modern, Westernized women in traditional
cultures. If such women are viewed exclusively in modern, Western terms,
which we may suppose also describe a valuable way of life, they will be de-
nied access to crucial dimensions of the traditional culture in which they ¬nd
themselves. Such women need to be understood in more traditional terms, that
is, in ways that are compatible with traditional life, if they are to ¬‚ourish in
that traditional setting. Their modernity might be recognized as a contempo-
rary variation on a traditional theme, so that their commitment to modernity
is recognized as compatible with the capacity to engage in a traditional way
of life.
Three clari¬cations are necessary here. First, this problem of relevance is
not, as it might appear to be, one of a ¬xed understanding of what it means to
be a woman, which sees women as they always have been, untouched by their
history. That would be a false understanding of what it means to be a woman,
for women are what they have become as a result of their history, for good
reason or bad. Rather, as was the case with valuable activities, the problem
is one of an accurate but incomplete understanding of what it means to be a
woman, one that disadvantages women if the picture it presents of them lacks
valuable application in our culture. This is what I have called a misconception
of scope. Such a misconception may exclude women from valuable activities
II. The Signi¬cance of Misconceptions 177

altogether, but it may also exclude them only from those valuable activities that
are relevant to our culture, with just as damaging consequences.
Second, I should emphasize that to say that the project of a woman™s life
must be relevant to the culture in which she ¬nds herself is not to be pessimistic
or unimaginative about the range of activities that being a woman makes it
possible to pursue in any particular culture. On the contrary, I take it for granted
that women are capable of pursuing a wide range of valuable activities in every
culture, as the evidence of their lives regularly gives proof. Nevertheless, it is
essential to recognize that particular women can pursue the projects of their
lives only through the forms and practices of the particular culture they happen
to inhabit, a culture they at once draw on as a framework for those projects, and
constantly rede¬ne by the manner in which those projects are carried out.
The obligation to pursue activities that are relevant to our culture is in no way
an obligation to conform to our culture™s misconception of what it means to be
a woman. Rather, it is no more than an acknowledgment that what it means to
be a woman is relevant to a particular culture if and when it has a role to play
in that culture, not some other. It is critical, therefore, to distinguish this sense
of the relevance of sexual identity, which addresses the truth of what it means
to be a woman, from the sense in which sexual identity is often thought to be
relevant, which addresses our present conception, or misconception, of what it
means to be a woman. In both cases it is the relevance of sexual identity that is
assessed, but in each case something different is meant by sexual identity.
In the former case, it is the true meaning of sexual identity that is compared
with the forms and practices of a particular culture, in order to assess the
rationality of the pursuit in and through those forms and practices of certain
valuable activities that are acknowledged to be consonant with the character
of women. That assessment poses a challenge to the prevailing conception of
sexual identity. In the latter case, however, it is the prevailing conception of
sexual identity that is related to the forms and practices of the culture that
subscribes to it, in order to assess the justi¬cations that are offered for practices
that prefer one sex to the other there. That assessment all too often collapses
into a description of the very misconception of sexual identity that women
are disadvantaged by; at best it reveals inconsistency in the application of that
misconception.15 The former approach expects us to accept the truth of what
people are, as we must; the latter approach expects us to accept the truth of
certain people™s judgments of what people are, as we have no reason to do
unless those judgments are actually shown to be correct.
As a third and ¬nal clari¬cation, I must also emphasize that an assessment
of the relevance to a particular culture of activities that are acknowledged to
be both valuable and consonant with the character of women does nothing to
preclude, as again it might appear to, the pursuit of ways of life that are at odds

15 As Catharine MacKinnon emphasizes.
178 the role of sexual identity in a successful life

with the mainstream of that culture. Suppose, for example, that the success of
some women™s lives is dependent upon access to an aboriginal culture, either
because they need access to the distinctive activities that it offers or because
they need access to its distinctive setting for activities that might also be pur-
sued in nonaboriginal settings. If that aboriginal culture is independent of any
other culture, so as to function as a separate society, then the question of rel-
evance must be directed to the forms and practices of that separate society. If
the aboriginal culture is interdependent with another culture, its host, for ex-
ample, so as to be part of a multicultural society, then the question of relevance
must be directed to the forms and practices of that multicultural society. In nei-
ther case are aboriginal activities or an aboriginal setting liable to be regarded
as irrelevant because they are marginal.
What matters, then, is the ability to draw upon the forms and practices of
one™s society in imagining and pursuing the project of a life and in carrying out
that project successfully, an ability that depends upon a genuine understanding
of what each person is and what she or he might value in that society. People
have every reason to expect that the society of which they are members will
understand them accurately and completely enough to permit them access to
all those valuable activities that may be rationally pursued within its forms and
practices, and no reason to expect more. If we are to end women™s disadvantage,
we need to discover not only what it means to be a woman, but the relevance
of that way of life to our culture.

ii. nonlimiting misconceptions. The corollary to this conclusion, and
what I call the second implication of the role played by value in the construction
of a successful life, is that a misconception of what it means to be a woman does
not disadvantage women unless it touches those aspects of their character they
must call upon in order to lead successful lives. As I have argued, it is neither
possible nor desirable to pursue all the valuable implications of what one is, that
is, to pursue all the valuable goals that one is capable of pursuing. Accordingly
we do not need a complete, or fully accurate, understanding of sexual identity
in order to prevent women™s disadvantage, provided our understanding is both
accurate as far as it goes and comprehensive enough to embrace qualities that
can be applied to the pursuit of a range of valuable goals in our culture, a
range that permits women to lead successful lives.16 In other words, while
the disadvantage that women now suffer is the product of a misconception of
what it means to be a woman, it does not follow that all such misconceptions
disadvantage women. On the contrary, many such misconceptions, annoying
though they may be, simply have no bearing upon the success of a woman™s
life.


16 See the discussion of knowledge in section III below.
II. The Signi¬cance of Misconceptions 179

As I have argued, misconceptions are disadvantaging if they are either com-
prehensive in their character or critical to the success of the project of a life. A
comprehensive misconception of what it means to be a woman disadvantages
a woman because it denies her access to all goals that are consonant with her
character, and so denies her access to all goals that she is capable of valuing.
Even an apparently minor misconception of sexual identity will disadvantage
a woman, however, if it denies her access to goals that are critical to the suc-
cess of her life. If, for example, women are understood to be different from
men in some limited degree when in fact they are not, and if the success of at
least some women™s lives is dependent upon access to the very qualities that
women are mistakenly thought to lack, then women will be disadvantaged by
the prevailing misconception of them, despite its limited degree. Conversely, if
women are understood to be the same as men in certain limited respects, when
in fact they differ from men in just those respects, and if the success of at least
some women™s lives depends upon access to their difference in those respects,
then women will be disadvantaged by the prevailing misconception of them,
despite its limited degree.
It does not follow from any of this, indeed, is ¬‚atly contradicted by it, that
a misconception of what it means to be a woman, or to be any person, in itself
constitutes a disadvantage to that person. On the contrary, it is very often a
matter of indifference that other people make mistakes about who and what one
is. The true signi¬cance of a misconception, in terms of its capacity to cause
disadvantage, depends upon who those other people are, the contexts in which
their judgments are made, and the signi¬cance of the goals, access to which
those judgments affect, in the project of one™s life. It follows that the invocation
of false generalizations or stereotypes, about women or about any other class
of person, is not in itself a disadvantage to the people thus falsely described,
whether those stereotypes are entirely false, that is, untrue of any member of the
class described, or false as applied, that is, untrue of the individual in respect
of whom they are invoked.
To repeat a point made earlier, men think many foolish things about women,
but they do not always harm women in doing so. Some misconceptions of
women are simply trivial, so that their perpetuation is an annoyance rather
than an injury. If men think that all women love clothes, or conversation, or
admiring babies, they are mistaken, but the mistake has no bearing on any
woman™s life, special cases aside. Other misconceptions have real potential to
damage women but may fail to do so in a particular case, because they hap-
pen to be irrelevant to the lives of those against whom they are directed. If
a man thinks that women are unquali¬ed for scienti¬c positions, he is mis-
taken in a way that has real potential to damage women, but his mistake will
be irrelevant as long as it has no bearing on the success of any woman™s
life, which is just as long as he has no in¬‚uence over access to scienti¬c
positions.
180 the role of sexual identity in a successful life

For the most part the attitude to such misconceptions is and must be “so be
it.” It is only when such misconceptions have a critical impact on the success
of some woman™s life, as they will if they form a basis for denying her access
to opportunities and resources that she would otherwise value and on which
the success of her life is dependent, that they are disadvantaging and wrongful.
This is not to say, of course, that false generalizations and stereotypes are
unobjectionable. On the contrary, it is almost always desirable to know the
truth about other human beings. Nevertheless, however undesirable they may
be on other grounds, false generalizations and stereotypes do not, without more,
disadvantage the project of a life.

iii. the implications of inferiority. This brings me to the third im-
plication of the role played by value in the construction of a successful life.
The explanation I have just given of the relationship between a misconception
of what it means to be a woman and the disadvantage women experience in
the projects of their lives makes clear that it is necessary to qualify my earlier
remarks concerning the signi¬cance of sexual inferiority. I argued above that
inferiority to men in central aspects of a woman™s life reveals the existence
of a misconception of what it means to be a woman, a misconception that is
the source of women™s present disadvantage. It is clear from the discussion of
value, however, that this is too quick a conclusion. Whether inferiority in a
given respect disadvantages a woman™s life depends upon the particular terms
of the project of that life, considered as a whole, and the differences, if any,
between those terms and the terms of the life of the person who is superior in
that respect. The terms of a woman™s life, and those terms alone, will determine
whether inferiority with respect to a given activity disadvantages her life.
I have argued that to regard one person as inferior to another is to misconceive
the character of the person so regarded as inferior, and perhaps to misconceive
the character of both people, for different people are not comprehensively supe-
rior and inferior to one another, but incommensurable. Such a misconception of
inferiority, being comprehensive in character, necessarily causes disadvantage
to the people it affects. However, the fact that we regard one person as inferior
to another with respect to certain activities does not mean that we regard that
person as inferior to his or her more able peer as a human being, even when
the activities in question are central to the project of that person™s life. The fact
that we regard Gentileschi as an inferior artist to Caravaggio, if indeed we do,
does not mean that we regard Gentileschi as inferior to Caravaggio as a human
being, despite the fact that artistic success was central to the life of each.
The true connection between a person™s inferiority with respect to certain
activities and disadvantage in the project of his or her life depends, ¬rst, upon
the impact of inferiority upon the value of engaging in the activities in ques-
tion, and second, upon the impact of any inability to realize the value of those
activities upon the overall success or failure of that person™s life. In short,
II. The Signi¬cance of Misconceptions 181

whether inferiority disadvantages a life depends upon the terms of that life.
This is because the different projects of different human lives constitute com-
plex packages of commitments and activities, so that the impact of inferiority
in any particular activity on the overall success or failure of the project of a
particular life can be assessed only in terms of an understanding of the various
components of that project and the weight given to each by the person who has
designed and sought to realize it.
The fact that one person is inferior to another with respect to activities that
constitute a central, or de¬nitive, feature of the project of his or her life may
show that that project has failed to exploit the full dimensions of the character
of the person who pursues those activities with only limited success, and thus
may show that the project is based on a misconception of his or her character.
But it does not, without more, show that the project is without value, and thus
that the misconception on which it is based has caused disadvantage to the
person in question. On the contrary, life being what it is, most people sooner

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