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true to the extent that it takes that incapacity to be a possible consequence of
being a woman, one that applies to those who hold it. If some women indeed
believe this then it follows that they are incapable of leading successful lives,
for as I have said, the capacity to lead a successful life is dependent upon the
belief that one possesses that capacity.
In my view, however, very few women believe profoundly in their lack of
capacity generally. Most believe they are capable of certain valuable activities
but incapable of others, a belief that is frequently based on a misconception of
what it means to be a woman and so is properly responded to by an assertion of
what this genuinely means. If some women do indeed have a profound, patho-
logical belief in their lack of capacity generally, it must be the task not merely
of feminists but of all those concerned for the fate of those women as human
beings to seek to enlighten them. This must be done with full understanding of
and compassion for their predicament, including the possibility that they may
not be able to escape it, by representing in words and in actions what it actually
means to be a woman and the valuable activities that makes possible. Again, it
is respect for the true character of sexual difference that matters here; this time
it is the truth that being a woman need not lead to incapacity.
On the other hand, it may well be the case that some or many women have
a profound belief in their incapacity in certain particular respects, respects in
which they would be capable of pursuing valuable activities but for belief in
their lack of capacity. In that case, however, it is an inescapable fact that those
women lack capacity in those respects and must develop the project of their
lives in terms of other capacities, at least until they discover or develop those
capacities they believe they lack, as human beings constantly discover and
develop their capacities in response to changing circumstances. As long as an
incapacity is genuine, it does not much matter what its source is, for one can
pursue the project of one™s life only in terms of what one is capable of doing.
188 the role of sexual identity in a successful life

More important, one has no reason to reject one™s present capacities and what
they make possible as long as some portion of one™s capacities is capable of
sustaining valuable activities that are relevant to our culture, and so is capable
of serving as the foundation for a successful life.


C. Rival Concerns
This is not to say that there are no reasons to try to change what one is, dif-
¬cult as that change may be. The reasons, however, lie not in the attempt to
make a success of one™s life but in the desire to pursue goals outside oneself,
an ideal, for example. Pursuit of goals such as these is, of course, one way of
making a life go well, and to that extent must draw on all the considerations
outlined above. That is to say, such goals must be both valuable and consonant
with one™s character. Nevertheless, there may be reasons to try to change one™s
character in ways that do not make one™s own life go better but rather, without
making it go worse, better serve ideals to which one has committed oneself.
There may even be reasons to try to change one™s character in ways that make
one™s life go worse but that better serve ideals to which one has committed
oneself. Those reasons, however, cannot include the need to redress the wrong
of sex discrimination, which has to do with the inability to pursue a success-
ful life, not, except constitutively, with the inability to pursue goals outside
oneself.
Nor is this to say that there are no reasons, other than the success of a
woman™s life, to call attention to the distinctive qualities of her sex and the
distinctively valuable activities those qualities make possible. On the contrary,
it may be that women are capable of pursuing successful lives on the basis of
their equality with men, that is, without referring to their distinctive capacities
and the activities those capacities make possible, but that as a culture we would
be diminished by their doing so. Just as we would be diminished by a world
without art even if all those who would otherwise be artists were capable of
pursuing successful lives without it, we might be diminished by a world without
the presence of those goods that only women can bring to it, even if women
were capable of pursuing successful lives without them. This gives us reason to
notice rather than to change sexual difference, but again it is not a reason that
has anything to do with the need to redress the wrong of sex discrimination,
which as I have said has to do with the inability to pursue a successful life.
Nor is this to say, ¬nally, that there are no reasons to pursue myths about
ourselves, including myths about sex, rather than truths. On the contrary, it
is clearly the case that certain myths about ourselves are valuable and so are
capable of mattering to us in the same way as does any cultural artefact. In other
words, the creation, preservation, and communication of a myth or set of myths
about ourselves is one way of making our lives go well. That being the case,
however, the practice of myth making must draw upon all the considerations
III. Ascertaining Misconceptions 189

outlined above. That is, if myth making is to form part of the project of a
successful life, it must be both valuable and consonant with one™s character.
While the truth about ourselves is not all we value, for we value goals and not,
except instrumentally, the capacity to pursue them, the truth about ourselves is
the only basis upon which a particular goal can become an aspect of making
our life go well.
As part of the project of a successful life, therefore, myths about ourselves
have something of a paradoxical character, for their value depends upon their
capacity to take the form of truths about ourselves, yet at the same time they
should never be mistaken for such truths, for only on the basis of truths about
ourselves are we capable of valuing myths at all. Of course, there may be
reasons to pursue myths as goals in a way that is indifferent to the success of
the project of one™s life. Some take religious faith to be such a reason. As I have
noted, however, such reasons cannot include the need to redress the wrong of
sex discrimination, which has to do with pursuit of a successful life, not, except
constitutively, with pursuit of goals outside oneself.


D. Sources of Knowledge
Where, then, are we to look for the answer to the question of what it genuinely
means to be a woman, and in so doing, how are we to distinguish truth from
misconception? As I have argued, there is no reason to look for a precise
answer, for it is enough that the answer we arrive at be suf¬ciently accurate and
comprehensive to enable women to lead successful lives. Moreover, there is
no reason to expect a stable answer, for what it means to be a woman and
the valuable activities that makes possible is something that, like the universe,
is constantly if very slowly expanding, although only a small portion of that
meaning is accessible within any given culture. In the end, perhaps the most
that can be said is that collectively, as men and women, we come to know our
sex as we come to know the other dimensions of ourselves, roughly, tentatively,
always subject to correction, yet well enough to be able to make sense of the
project of our individual lives, as distinct from the lives of others.
In other words, the answer to the question of what it means to be a woman, or
correlatively to be a man, is something we discover through the conduct of our
lives. More particularly, it is something we discover through actions that test the
prevailing conception of our character and the activities that conception allows
us to pursue, and through subsequent re¬‚ection on the success or failure of those
actions. This is very familiar territory, of course, for feminism has always ded-
icated much of its effort to questioning and exploring accepted understandings
of sexual identity in an explicit search for a genuine understanding of what it
means to be a woman, what that meaning makes possible, and what it makes
necessary. As I have said, all those who contribute to the ongoing debate over
the status of women in our culture, by their words or their actions, in support
190 the role of sexual identity in a successful life

of the claims of feminists or in opposition to them, whether in the end proved
right or wrong, contribute to the determination of those issues.
Feminists such as Catharine MacKinnon depart from this approach, of
course, in that they explore what it means to be a woman in our culture only
in order to expose the institutionalization, in the forms and practices of the
culture, of sexual hierarchy. More speci¬cally, MacKinnon™s enquiry into the
meaning of sexual identity takes as its premise the belief that women are, as
a matter of natural fact, no different from men. Her inquiry is thus designed
to expose the ways in which sexual difference as we know it is generated by
a social order in which women are constructed so as to be both different from
and inferior to men. As far as the question of what it means to be a woman is
concerned, what is striking about MacKinnon™s account is the belief that cer-
tain features of womanhood in our culture, including the capacity for concern
identi¬ed by Carol Gilligan, are true of women yet ought to be denied because
they have been improperly acquired, as the result of a practice of subordina-
tion.17 The real issue, however, is not why or how something has come to be
true of women, but whether it is indeed true. If and to the extent that feminists
such as MacKinnon agree that differences exist between men and women, the
real question is whether in so doing they are agreeing on the existence of a
misconception or on the existence of the truth.


E. Responsibility for Change
Who, then, are we to charge with the responsibility of establishing a new un-
derstanding of what it means to be a woman? How are we to remove miscon-
ceptions, once we have recognized them? These are issues it is not possible
to enter into fully here, but to which the short answer is that a misconception
can be removed only by those who hold it, and need be removed only by those
whose holding of it disadvantages a woman™s life. It follows that all those who
contribute to the content of our culture, by their words and their actions, and
the convictions that those express, and whose understanding of what it means
to be a woman thus establishes the framework through which a woman™s life is
necessarily lived, are authors of the present conception of what it means to be a
woman, and must bear the responsibility for changing that conception, insofar
as it causes disadvantage to women. This includes not only the state, public
organizations, private organizations, and individuals, but more profoundly, any

17 Feminism Unmodi¬ed, supra n. 7, at 39. I must emphasize that I am assuming for the moment
that qualities such as those identi¬ed by Gilligan are true of women. In that case, to deny sexual
difference is to promote a misconception of what it means to be a woman. However, it is possible
that MacKinnon believes that the apparent differences between men and women produced by
subordination are not true. In that case, to deny sexual difference is to promote the truth of what
it means to be a woman. In fact, I do not ¬nd it possible either to read MacKinnon this way or
to believe that the differences to which she draws attention are entirely false.
III. Ascertaining Misconceptions 191

and all forms of human activity, such as the arts, sports, and social life, that
express attitudes to what it means and does not mean to be a woman in the very
way that they are imagined and pursued.
Change needs to be thought of, then, in terms not only of institutions, or
even of individuals, but also of attitudes that are embodied in our beliefs and
our actions. This is all the more important if and to the extent that women
need access to the fact of their difference from men rather than to the fact of
their equality with men in order to lead successful lives. While equality can be
legislated by institutions, as indeed can differences where institutions have a role
to play in sustaining the goals that those differences affect, such as childbearing,
many forms of difference form part of our conception of what it means to be
a woman only because they are expressed by each of us in the conduct of our
lives, and so can be changed only if each of us changes the conduct of his or her
life and the attitudes that conduct expresses. It is for this reason that feminist
argument and debate have always had, and must continue to have, as important
a place in changing women™s prospects of a successful life as legislation and
judicial decision.
8
Equality, Difference, and the Law




I. The Importance of Being Understood
What women are entitled to, and what a misconception of their character may
deny them, is the opportunity to make a success of the projects of their lives.
That opportunity is not one that is owed to women in particular, as a special
entitlement born of their special condition, but one that is owed to all human
beings yet ¬nds its particular meaning in its application to particular human
beings, in this case, women. The particular character of what women are owed
is simply a consequence of the fact that human beings can develop and pursue
the projects of their lives only on the basis of the particular qualities of character,
distinctive and nondistinctive, that they happen to possess, and more important,
that not only they but the societies in and through which those projects are
pursued understand them to possess.
It follows that if a society misunderstands what it means to be a woman,
either comprehensively or in some respect that is critical to the success of the
project of a woman™s life, as I have contended we now misunderstand women,
it thereby denies them the opportunity to which they are entitled as human
beings. No society is obliged to understand its members perfectly, of course,
but every society is obliged to understand its members suf¬ciently well to ensure
that they are not denied the fundamental ingredients of a successful life, and
so is obliged to understand them in terms that are not false, or irrelevant to
its forms and practices, or incapable of valuable application. To put the point
from the opposite perspective, the reason that the character of what it means
to be a woman, and the accuracy and completeness of our understanding of
that character, is of central importance to the success of a woman™s life is that
the understanding that any society owes to its members, if it is to give them a
genuine opportunity to make a success of their lives, is necessarily as speci¬c,
particular, and distinctive as the people to whom it applies, and the particular
projects of their particular lives.
Some maintain, however, that what people are entitled to in life is not the
opportunity to make a success of the particular projects of their particular lives,
I. The Importance of Being Understood 193

and hence to the opportunities and resources appropriate to those projects, but
to equal opportunities, or equal resources, or some other form of equality.1 The
argument that I have offered clearly denies this. As I see it, there are three ways to
understand claims to equality of this kind, depending upon whether what is to
be made equal is the character of the good owed, the value of that good, or
the possession of the entitlement to the good. In every case the argument for
equality of the good is sensible only when understood in such a way as to take
account of the role played by a particular conception of what it means to be
a woman in a woman™s construction of a successful life. As I have just noted,
such claims to equality are sometimes couched in terms of opportunities and
sometimes in terms of resources or some other good. In what follows I address
the argument for equal opportunities, in the belief that the conclusions I reach
about equal opportunities will apply, with necessary modi¬cations, to any claim
to equality that is not based on the fact of equality.
First, the claim that all human beings are entitled to equal opportunities
might be understood as a claim that all human beings are entitled to the
same opportunities as one another. For reasons given above, however, what
human beings are in fact entitled to are those opportunities that are neces-
sary to sustain and, more important, make a success of the different projects
of their different lives, projects that are pursued through the medium of com-
mon social practices, yet remain as distinctive as the people who de¬ne and
pursue them, the people for whom they are desirable and accessible. It fol-
lows that to accord people the same opportunities as one another is to accord
them what they are entitled to only when they are similar enough that the
success of their lives is dependent upon access to the same opportunities as one
another.

1 I have in mind here all those who believe that what human beings are entitled to in life is equality
with their fellow human beings, be that equality of opportunity, resources, welfare, or some other
dimension of equality. Those who hold beliefs of this kind are committed to the position that
the differences between human beings should not be permitted to undermine their equality, or
more precisely, to the position that we must not allow the differences between human beings to
be exploited in such a way as to suppress or betray the more fundamental and morally signi¬cant
fact of their equality. In the familiar phrase, all people are not created equal, but they must be
treated as such.
The alternative view is that people must be treated as the people they are, whether they have
been made so by nature or society. On that view, people are not, strictly speaking, created equal
and should not be treated as equals. Rather, the in¬nitely complex pattern of human similarities
and differences reveals that people have been created, by nature and by society, in such a way as
to make them incommensurable as people, albeit commensurable with respect to many if not
most of the activities they undertake, so that people must be treated not with reference to the
lives of others, as an entitlement to equality would require, but with reference to their own lives,
their own capacities and aspirations, good and bad, a reference that can be undertaken only on
the basis of a proper understanding of particular people. It follows that on this view, equality
of treatment, or opportunities, or resources, is contingent upon a coincidence of character and
of goals in the lives of apparently different people. All people are created different and must be
treated in a manner that acknowledges that difference and its signi¬cance in what it means for
them to lead successful lives.
194 equality, difference, and the law

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