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or later discover that they have committed their lives to activities in terms of
which they can be ranked as inferior to other people. It does not follow either
that the projects of their lives are without value or that the people who pursue
those activities with only modest success are inferior as people to their more
successful peers.
To put the point in terms of the relationship between women and men and the
hierarchies it may produce, there is an important difference between activities
in respect of which women are inferior to men and activities that are without
value. Activities that are without value are not worth pursuing, by women or
by men. Activities in respect of which women are inferior to men, however, are
often valuable and so worth pursuing by whomever has the capacity to pursue
them, be they women or men. It is only in special circumstances that inferiority
with regard to an activity, even an activity central to the project of a life, will
make that project a failure, or make it intelligible to regard as inferior the person
who pursues that project, thereby disadvantaging him or her.
To be precise, inferiority with respect to an activity diminishes the value
of that activity, suggests that pursuit of it has been a mistake, and invites the
conclusion that one sex is inferior to the other only in cases, ¬rst, where ranking
is central to the value of an activity, as may be true of athletics, for example;
second, where an inferior ranking erases the value of that activity, as may
sometimes be but is not always the case in athletics; and third, where one sex
has devoted itself to some such activity, in relation to which not only is ranking
central but that sex is ranked as inferior. Even then it would be possible to know
that the sex in question was disadvantaged by pursuit of that activity only on
the basis of a full understanding of the approach to the projects of their lives
taken by those members of that sex who pursue the activity. If we learn thereby
that the inferiority-producing activity plays a critical role in the success of those
lives, we learn that the inability to ¬nd value in that activity is a disadvantage
182 the role of sexual identity in a successful life

to those lives. Only in that way can inferiority be linked to disadvantage. It
is simply not possible to infer disadvantage from the bare fact of inferiority
in certain activities, even when those activities are central to the project of
a life.
Inferiority in a certain activity leads to disadvantage in life only where it
reveals either that the project of a life is not consonant with the character of
the person who seeks to pursue it or that the project lacks true value. When
it does either of these things, it reveals that the person in question has been
disadvantaged by a misconception of his or her character. It does not follow as
a corollary, however, that where there is no inferiority in any activity there is
no disadvantage. On the contrary, just as inferiority does not always produce
disadvantage, so disadvantage does not always produce inferiority. In fact, given
that disadvantage in the project of a life, properly understood, can be conceived
only in terms of that particular project and the qualities of character upon which
it draws, little can be learned about the disadvantage that may be experienced
in the conduct of any life from a comparison between that life and other lives,
such as that which reveals its inferiority in a particular respect.
More profoundly, then, what consideration of the role played by value in
the construction of a successful life con¬rms is that, contrary to what is gen-
erally assumed, not a great deal can be learned about the lives of women and
the existence of disadvantage there through comparison with the lives of men.
Disadvantage in the project of a life is revealed not through comparison to an-
other life and what makes that life successful, but through comparison between
the project of the life in question as it ought to be and as it is in fact. Success
and disadvantage in the project of a life are related to what one is and ought
to be, not to someone else and what he or she is and ought to be. It follows
that women™s disadvantage is intelligible only in terms of what it means to be a
woman and the lives that that meaning makes possible. Women™s disadvantage
can never be fully perceived or explained by comparing the lives of women as
they are now lived with the lives of men as they are now lived. On the contrary,
it can be understood only by understanding women.

iv. devaluation. One ¬nal point needs to be addressed and clari¬ed. It might
be argued that the preceding discussion of the role played by value in the
construction of a successful life raises the possibility that women™s present
disadvantage stems not from a misconception of what it means to be a woman
but from an undervaluing of what is correctly conceived. Some might argue
that the existence of what are sometimes called female ghettos, that is, areas of
employment dominated by women and characterized by low wages and poor
working conditions, is evidence not of the existence of a misconception of what
it means to be a woman but of our society™s refusal to recognize the true value of
activities that women engage in, either exclusively or predominantly, through
the exercise of their distinctive capacities.
II. The Signi¬cance of Misconceptions 183

In fact, however, the undervaluing of activities that are predominantly en-
gaged in by women can occur only through a misconception of what it means
to be a woman, for only a misconception can explain the fact that women are
more often undervalued than men. The only reason that undervaluing appears
not to involve a misconception is that it involves a misconception not of the
character but of the scope of what it means to be a woman, one that presents a
true but incomplete picture of sexual identity, and in so doing fails to recognize
in women those qualities that permit them to pursue genuinely valuable and
distinctive activities. In short, the existence of female ghettos in our society
tends to con¬rm rather than contradict the view that women are disadvantaged
by a misconception of what it means to be a woman.
This can be made clear through an examination of the several different ways
in which it is possible to think that an undervaluing of activities predominantly
engaged in by women could take place without involving a misconception of
what it means to be a woman. As I see it, there are three ways to interpret our
present tendency to undervalue what women do, one of which is in fact not a
case of undervaluing at all, while the others involve misconceptions of what
it means to be a woman. First, it might be that we as a society are aware of
the true value of activities predominantly engaged in by women, but refuse to
acknowledge that value. We might simply be hypocrites. More plausibly, and
in the same vein, we (or the men among us) might see women as members of
an alien culture, whose distinctive values we felt no obligation to recognize. In
that case, however, we would not undervalue what women do but rather would
refuse to give it its due. While this involves no misconception of what it means
to be a woman, it is not an accurate description of our society™s treatment of
women. As the allegation of undervaluing assumes, our society believes that
the activities that take place in ill-rewarded, female-dominated ghettos are not
alien but of little value. In short, the issue is not whether we undervalue women,
but whether the undervaluing that we are guilty of involves a misconception of
what it means to be a woman.
Second, it might be that we as a society are simply mistaken about the value
of certain activities engaged in largely by women. In that case, however, our
tendency to err more often with regard to women than with regard to men, so
as to establish female rather than sex-neutral ghettos, can be explained only in
terms of a misconception of what it means to be a woman. More speci¬cally, it
can be explained only in terms of a misconception of the scope of what it means
to be a woman, which disproportionately excludes women from participation
in activities that we value and directs them toward activities that we do not
value. The proper response to such a misconception is to understand women
as well as we understand men, so as to reveal their like capacity to engage
in activities whose value we recognize. Of course, this would do nothing to
end the presence of economic ghettos in our society, but it would end their
discriminatory character.
184 the role of sexual identity in a successful life

Finally, it might be that we as a society are guilty of a false inference, namely,
that if an activity is dominated by women, it must for that reason be of little or no
value. Such an inference openly depends upon the misconception that women
are not capable of engaging in genuinely valuable activities, a misconception
that relies, directly or indirectly, on a misconception of the scope of what it
means to be a woman. It remains the case that the undervaluing of activities
dominated by women, and the disadvantage it may produce, is the product
of a misconception of what it means to be a woman, not the product of an
undervaluing of what is correctly conceived.


III. Ascertaining Misconceptions

A. The Scope of Inquiry
The above examination of the role played by sexual identity in the construction
of a successful life suggests that if women are to be ensured access to a successful
life, there are three things that we as a society need to know about them, the
same things that we need to know about any person in order to ensure his or
her access to a successful life. First, we need to know what it actually means
to be a woman, for success in life depends upon the ability to pursue goals that
are consonant with one™s character, which in turn depends upon the availability
of such goals in our culture and the recognition of one™s capacity to pursue
them. Second, we need to know what aspects of what it means to be a woman
are essential to the pursuit of valuable activities in our particular culture, for
the success of one™s life further depends upon the ability to pursue goals that
are both valuable and relevant to the culture in which one ¬nds oneself. This in
turn depends upon the presence of genuinely valuable goals in our culture and
upon recognition of one™s capacity to pursue them.
Third and critically, however, we need to know to what extent the success of
a woman™s life depends upon access to particular valuable activities, and thus
upon acknowledgment that women possess the qualities of character that make
pursuit of those activities possible. To put it in familiar terms, we need to know
to what extent the success of a woman™s life depends upon access to sex-neutral
activities and thus upon acknowledgment that women possess the same qualities
of character as men “ that is, upon an acknowledgment of sexual equality “ and
to what extent it depends upon access to distinctively female activities and thus
upon acknowledgment that women alone possess the qualities of character that
make pursuit of those activities possible “ that is, upon an acknowledgment of
sexual difference.
The good at issue here, which a society owes each of its members, is the
good of a successful life, not the impossible good of a culture whose forms
and practices are fully consonant with the different characters of its different
members and all the different values those members are capable of embracing
III. Ascertaining Misconceptions 185

and pursuing. A society™s obligation is to ensure the availability of whatever
valuable goals, consonant with a woman™s character, are essential to the success
of a woman™s life. It has no obligation to ensure the availability of valuable
goals, consonant with a woman™s character, that are super¬‚uous to the success
of a woman™s life. A society that attempts to ensure the availability of all
valuable goals not only attempts the impossible, but is in danger of overlooking
the very issue that would inspire such an attempt, namely, the need to end the
disadvantage now experienced by women by assuring them the ingredients of
a successful life.
What is needed is an understanding of what it means to be a woman that
is suf¬ciently comprehensive to enable women to lead successful lives. There
is no need for, and indeed no possibility of, an understanding that is fully
comprehensive, for some things that womanhood makes possible are irrelevant
to our particular culture, while others are incompatible within the setting of
any one culture. Nor is there any need for an understanding that is explicit or
integrated, for our knowledge of what it means to be a woman, like any other
aspect of our knowledge of ourselves, cannot and need not be any more accurate,
precise, explicit, or integrated than is necessary to clarify the existence and
character of the capacities that are critical to the success of a woman™s life and
to correct disabling misconceptions of those capacities. It follows that women
can and must pursue the projects of their lives within a culture whose forms
and practices re¬‚ect a limited understanding of their character. It is possible,
for example, that within some culture we can imagine women might be able to
construct successful lives entirely on the basis of their equality with men, that
is, entirely on the basis of qualities that they share with men, without reference
to sexual difference. Conversely, it is possible that within some culture we
can imagine women might be able to construct successful lives entirely on the
basis of their difference from men, without reference to their equality with
men. More plausibly, perhaps, it is likely that in our culture, women™s ability to
construct successful lives depends upon their access both to certain aspects of
their equality with men and to certain aspects of their difference from men. We
can know if that is so, however, only if we know what it means to be a woman,
what valuable activities that makes possible, and what valuable activities that
makes necessary.


B. Internalized Misconceptions
Can it really be maintained, however, that the true character of what it means
to be a woman is always what matters? What status have those psychological
truths that embrace a misconception of what it means to be a woman? Suppose
that women believed themselves to be incapable of doing something that they
were in fact, at least apart from that belief, capable of doing. In that case women
would be disabled by a truth about themselves that embodied a falsehood about
186 the role of sexual identity in a successful life

themselves. There are normally several dimensions to any human capacity or
incapacity, psychological as well as physical or intellectual, dimensions that
are connected without necessarily being congruent. As a result a person may
well lack a capacity in one dimension that he or she possesses in another, so
as to be psychologically incapable, for example, of doing what he or she is
otherwise capable of doing. Given that participation in an activity normally
requires more than one dimension of capacity, any dimension of incapacity is
enough to prevent a person from taking part in most activities.
It follows that a woman may well be capable of taking part in an activity in
one dimension yet incapable of doing so in another, and so may be on balance
incapable. In particular, if a woman believes she is incapable of taking part in
an activity that she is, apart from that belief, in fact capable of taking part in,
then she cannot take part in that activity, for belief is an essential component of
the capacity to take part. I have argued that such a misconception of a woman™s
capacities is itself the product not of what it means to be a woman but of the
social order within which women pursue the project of their lives and that order™s
conception of what it means to be a woman, which shapes what is possible for
women to be or imagine being. That is not enough, however.
What I have not yet considered and what needs to be clari¬ed is the possibility
that the social order has generated a comprehensive or critical misconception of
what it means to be a woman that has been internalized in women™s psychology,
so as to become true of women in that dimension while remaining false of them
in other dimensions. If that is the case, women may now be incapacitated, and so
potentially disadvantaged, by the character of what it means to be a woman. The
remedy for women™s present disadvantage would then be to change, not af¬rm,
that character. In my view, however, while some women may be disabled in
this sense, most women are not. Moreover, if some women are indeed disabled
by a psychological incapacity, our response must be to continue to seek the
character of what it means to be a woman, and the valuable activities that that
makes possible and necessary.
There are two ways in which belief in incapacity might be understood.
The ¬rst is that women™s belief in their incapacity is suf¬ciently shallow as to
remain a misconception, in which case the proper response is to seek to dispel
it. Misconceptions of one™s character by de¬nition form part of that character
and for that reason are dif¬cult both to perceive and to remove. However, it
does not follow from the fact that they are internalized in one™s psychology
that they are impossible to perceive or remove. On the contrary, as long as a
misconception of what it means to be a woman is not shared by all women or
all men, there is reason to believe that it can be both addressed and removed.
If a woman believes she is incapacitated in some respect by the fact that she
is a woman, with the result that she is incapacitated in that respect, the fact that
other women do not share her belief, and so do not exhibit incapacity in that
respect, must make clear to her that her belief is a misconception of her sex.
III. Ascertaining Misconceptions 187

Of course, the knowledge that other women believe will not necessarily enable
such a woman to believe, for self-doubt is often profound. That being the case,
it is possible that some, perhaps all, women possess a belief in women™s lack
of capacity, either generally or in some particular respect, that is too profound
to be considered a misconception. By lack of capacity generally I mean lack
of capacity for any valuable activity, and by lack of capacity in a particular
respect, I mean lack of capacity for some particular valuable activity. In my
view, a profound belief in women™s lack of capacity generally is not only a
true incapacity but also a psychological aberration, false of most women, true
of a few, that we are bound to remedy as best we can in those who suffer it.
Profound belief in women™s lack of a particular capacity, on the other hand, is
a true incapacity we are bound to respect.
It might be argued that at least some women have a profound belief in
women™s lack of capacity generally. That belief is false to the extent that it
takes that incapacity to be a necessary consequence of being a woman, yet is

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