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chose. A life was expected to be led through a socially de¬ned role, determined
not by choice but by the circumstances of one™s birth and sex, among other
factors. The extent to which this was in fact true, as a historical matter, need
not concern us here, for the point is to draw a contrast between a life based on
roles and a life of autonomy, and what each demands of women and men. That
contrast should not be exaggerated, for as I have already indicated, autonomous
lives are dependent upon social forms and practices. Nevertheless, it is a real
contrast, for socially de¬ned roles are less diverse, less ¬‚exible, and above all
less susceptible to choice, in both their adoption and their execution, than the
social forms and practices of an autonomous life.
Unfamiliar, indeed alien, as roles may be to most people today, given that
most of them are now lost in the past, they can have real value, a value that
is missing from autonomous lives. Roles are created and developed over time,
entrenched in social forms and practices, passed down from generation to gen-
eration. Their connection to value is (or is supposed to be) tested in these
processes, so that their occupants can be assured that what they are expected
to do is valuable, to a degree that is not possible in the improvised structure of
an autonomous life, where one™s choices are all too often undermined by a lack
of knowledge or understanding of the options among which one is choosing.
What is more, where a role turns out not to be valuable, or not to suit a certain
person, the damage done to that person™s life can be seen as the fault of the role,
not of the damaged person, as it must be, in large part at least, in an improvised
life. This means that roles can release people from some of the destructive con-
sequences of blame. Even the fact that roles are typically assigned to people
according to the circumstances of their birth and sex, to the extent that that is
true, frees people from the angst produced by the knowledge that they may do
anything, coupled with the fear that they may lack the capacity to do anything
very well, or that they do not know themselves and the world well enough to
choose what genuinely suits them from among what is genuinely worth doing.
We are more familiar with the serious drawbacks of roles. They are very
often unsuited to the people who are expected to ¬ll them. Sometimes they are
unsuited to anyone. Sometimes (and what is close to the same thing) they are
not valuable. Even where they are valuable and suit the people who are expected
to ¬ll them, they are usually too limited to be the whole story of a successful
life, as they are very often expected to be. More profoundly, the matching of
V. Equality, Difference, and the Ending of Roles 21

particular roles to particular people tends to be justi¬ed by the attribution of the
appropriate role-related characteristics to the people who are expected to ¬ll
the roles in question. So farmers™ children are (or at least once were) thought to
possess the qualities that make them ¬t to be farmers and, conversely, un¬t to
be anything else; carpenters™ children are (or were) thought to be ¬t simply
to be carpenters; tailors™ children to be tailors; and so on. The point is not that
the roles to which people are (or were) thereby assigned are bad, but that the
assignment is based not on ¬tness for the role but on a self-ful¬lling attribution
of the characteristics appropriate to the role to the person who has already been
assigned to it on other grounds.
Such attributions are usually false, although sometimes people are able to
adapt, acquiring the qualities that have been attributed to them in order to jus-
tify the roles they have already been assigned to. Where the role in question is
valuable, the adaptation possible, and the cost of adaptation not too high, this
may be a worthy enterprise. Where the role is not valuable, however, the enter-
prise of adapting one™s qualities to suit it becomes an enterprise of justifying,
to oneself and others, the nonvaluable role to which one has been wrongfully
assigned.17 Where adaptation is impossible, or its cost too high, the attempt to
adapt, and to succeed by adapting, is doomed to failure, and the role, even if
valuable, becomes a guarantee of an unsuccessful life to the person who has
been assigned to it.
It is a familiar fact that women™s lives have long been, and to some extent
still are, led through socially de¬ned roles, to which women are committed not
by any choice of their own but by the circumstance of their sex. As is also well
known, those roles have been almost exclusively domestic or quasi-domestic in
character. Above all else, women are expected, just because they are women, to
take on the role of wife and mother. As conventionally understood, that role is
doubly circumscribed. On the one hand it constrains the ful¬lling possibilities
of marriage and parenthood, by entrenching a restricted understanding of what
it means to be a wife and mother. This, even where it does not demean women
overtly (as it often does), fails to recognize the many other valuable, albeit
unconventional ways of ful¬lling those functions. On the other hand, and to
some extent consequently, the conventional role of wife and mother prevents
women from pursuing any other occupation, unless that occupation con¬rms
women™s ¬tness to be wives and mothers as conventionally understood. To the
extent, then, that women have been permitted to work outside the home, it
has been in roles that are understood to call for the same domestic skills that
good wives and mothers are thought to possess. Women are permitted to be
nurses, teachers, and social workers, for example, because and to the extent
that the image that we as a society hold of nurses, teachers, and social workers
corresponds to the image that we hold of wives and mothers.

17 I say wrongful because the role is nonvaluable and de¬nitive of a life.
22 the issues

As in the case of roles generally, assignment of women to the roles that
they are expected to ¬ll is justi¬ed by attribution to women of the appropriate
role-related characteristics. So women are thought to possess the qualities that
¬t them for domesticity and quasi-domesticity (as we understand those), and
to lack the qualities that would ¬t them for anything else, just as farmers™
children were once thought to possess the qualities that made them ¬t to be
farmers and, conversely, un¬t to be anything else. Again, as in the case of roles
generally, this attribution to women of the characteristics that would ¬t them for
the roles that have already been assigned to them is usually false. Sometimes
women have been able to adapt themselves so as to acquire the characteristics
they are assumed to possess already, and consequently have been able to lead
successful lives as both parents and nurses, for example. All too often, however,
women have been unable to adapt successfully, or have adapted successfully
to a role that either is not valuable in itself or, if valuable, is too limited to
be the whole story of a successful life. Where that has occurred, women have
found themselves coopted into the enterprise of perpetuating a conception of
themselves that is not only false but destructive of the lives of the very people
who are expected to perpetuate it. In this way, women have found themselves
joined with men in preparing other women to be, or to try to be, the kind of
people that they themselves are falsely assumed to be.
By their nature, then, roles are enforced through the attribution of difference.
The assignment of a person (or class of persons) to a particular role is justi¬ed
by attributing to that person the qualities that distinguish her or him from those
who are assigned to different roles. Where the attribution is false, so that the
people (or classes of people) whom it describes as different from one another
are not in fact different in terms of their ¬tness for a particular role or occupation
in life, the assertion of difference is contradicted by the fact of equality. It is
for this reason that equality has historically been coupled with autonomy as
the great emancipator of people from traditional roles and the limitations those
roles have imposed on their lives. The story of liberation has been in large
part the story of equality, just because the roles from which people have been
liberated have been sustained by false assertions of difference.
To the extent that women still occupy conventional roles, and that their
place in them is maintained by an assertion of their difference, it is perfectly
understandable that their release from those roles has been pursued through a
strategy of equality. Yet what women have actually been liberated from is not
inequality or difference, but a conception of themselves that has con¬ned them to
roles that, for the reasons sketched above, cannot be the vehicle for a successful
life, at least in their hands. Correspondingly, what women have pursued through
a strategy of equality is not equality itself, but a recognition of their qualities,
as women and as people, that is suf¬ciently accurate to grant them access to a
range of options broad enough to enable them to lead successful lives. In other
words, a strategy of equality is vindicated not by some alleged principle of
VI. What It Means to Lead a Successful Life 23

equality, but by the fact of it. The strategy is successful only to the extent that a
true understanding of what it means to be a woman reveals women to possess
qualities that, on comparison, are no different from those of men, and that,
furthermore, women need access to in order to lead successful lives. Conversely,
a strategy of equality fails women to the extent that a true understanding of
what it means to be a woman reveals women to possess qualities that genuinely
distinguish them from men, and that women need access to in order to lead
successful lives.
I have already suggested that it is a mistake to think that if the damage to
women™s lives produced by sex discrimination is the consequence of women™s
having been forced to act under a false description of what it means to be a
woman, then the success of women™s lives must depend on their acting under
a true description. It is a related and just as serious mistake to think that if
women have been falsely described in terms of difference, they can be truthfully
described in terms of equality. Assertions of difference may have been women™s
enemy, but it does not follow that assertions of equality are their friend. If women
are to have successful lives they must draw on an accurate understanding of
themselves as the people they are, which means identifying and pursuing, on
the one hand, what is valuable in life, and on the other hand, what in that value
suits the people they are. In other words, they must know both what it means
to lead a successful life and what it means (and does not mean) to be a woman,
questions that I consider in the next two sections.


VI. What It Means to Lead a Successful Life
In the preceding discussion I have often referred to the idea of a successful
life. By a successful life I do not mean a conventionally successful life, marked
by wealth, celebrity, or the like. I simply mean a good life, a worthwhile life,
a life worth living. I take such a life to be composed of valuable projects and
activities that are endorsed as one™s personal goals. Lives are unsuccessful if they
are restricted to activities that are not valuable, or if valuable are too limited
to be the whole story of a life, as women™s lives too often have been. Lives
are correspondingly successful if they are composed of an adequate range of
valuable activities. It is not possible to appreciate the idea of a successful life,
therefore, other than by appreciating the nature of value.18 To misunderstand
value is to misunderstand what it means to lead a successful life, and in what

18 I do not mean to suggest that I can or should offer a complete account of the nature of value here.
In speaking of what it means to lead a successful life, I intend to address only those aspects of
a person™s success in life, and the questions of value that underlie and sustain them, that could
possibly be brought into play by the distinction between men and women, for what concerns me
here are those aspects that are denied by discrimination. I do not consider, therefore, the many
other important questions about the nature of value that the idea of a successful life gives rise
to, although certain answers to those questions are undoubtedly implicit in what I say.
24 the issues

ways that is denied to women. As I see it, certain familiar but mistaken accounts
of value have yielded familiar but mistaken accounts of feminism.
Objective accounts describe value in a way that places pressure on the char-
acter and qualities of human beings. We lead good lives not merely by realizing
ourselves, so as to give effect to our qualities in our actions, but by ensuring
that our qualities and actions conform to what goodness requires. This is most
obviously true of the aspect of value that governs our relations with other peo-
ple, which we call morality. By its very nature, morality is demanding. Less
obviously, everything that is of value is demanding. We realize the value in any
activity by living up to the standards of that activity, so that we become suc-
cessful cooks by preparing good food, successful musicians by creating good
music, successful doctors by practising good medicine. To the extent that one
cook, musician, or doctor is better than another, therefore, his or her life is more
successful in that respect. Whether that life is as a consequence more successful
overall depends upon the implications of success (and failure) in that respect
on the success of the life as a whole, about which views differ.
Certain well-known objective accounts of value are monistic, or one-
dimensional, in character. Monistic accounts of value treat the various sources
of value in life as no more than means to the realization of some single, more
profound value, such as happiness, perhaps, or dignity, or honour, or redemp-
tion, a value to which any successful human life must ultimately be dedicated
and to which all other values can be reduced. Such accounts of value have a dis-
tinctive consequence for the evaluation of any given life, one that has a particular
bearing on the question of sex discrimination. Since those accounts treat value
as differing only in degree, not kind, the pressure they place on the character
and qualities of human beings is necessarily egalitarian. No person deliberately
seeks a lesser life, one that is less happy, less digni¬ed, or less honourable than
another. That being the case, there is a pressure to pursue whatever activity in
life yields the greatest amount of value. If a person™s qualities prevent him or
her from pursuing that activity, then those qualities are ¬‚awed, and should be
changed so as to make that person™s life as successful as possible. To fail to do
so is to condemn that person to an inferior life. In the monistic picture, valuable
lives cannot be merely different from one another; ultimately, they can only be
better and worse.
What is striking about such accounts of value, and what gives them particular
and familiar resonance for those interested in the question of sex discrimination,
is their corollary. It is not simply the case that value, as a monist understands it,
generates a demand for equality, so as to commit human beings to the pursuit
of the same activities as one another, and to the extent required for that pursuit,
to the development of the same qualities as one another. It is the corollary: that
the pursuit of equality is dependent on the truth of value monism, for it is not
possible to regard the different activities that people pursue, the different human
qualities that serve those activities, and the different lives that are constituted
VI. What It Means to Lead a Successful Life 25

by those activities, as superior, inferior, or equal to one another other than by
treating them as serving a single, ultimate value in terms of which they can be
ranked as better than, worse than, or equal to one another.
This explains why campaigners for sexual equality, at least in their more
radical incarnations, call for the reformulation of sexual identity along egali-
tarian lines, so as to make women and men indistinguishable in any way that
matters. Sexual equality in this sense could be thought to be necessary only by
those who believe that any sexual difference that is relevant to value entails the
inferiority of one sex to the other. This further explains why many campaigners
for sexual equality treat the lives of men as the standard against which the lives
of women are to be judged, and to which the lives of women should aspire.
For if men™s lives are more successful than women™s, as they are wherever sex
discrimination exists, and if success and failure in life is a matter of better and
worse, then the kinds of activities that men pursue, and the kinds of qualities
that men possess, must be better than the corresponding lives and qualities of
women. In turn, this explains why the qualities that distinguish the sexes are
often so emphatically said to be the product of nurture rather than nature. For
it is only a need to change one™s qualities that could make it matter that such
change is possible, as it is said to be possible of whatever nurture has produced.
A distaste for conclusions such as these has led some, unfortunately, to reject
not value monism (as they should), but the very idea of objective value itself,
and to embrace relativism instead. Relativist accounts of value, as commonly
understood, are those that regard value not as a property of whatever is valued
(in this setting, a human activity or the human quality that produces that activ-
ity), but as a re¬‚ection of the attitudes of those who ¬nd it valuable. In short,
according to such value relativists, things are valuable only to the extent that
people take them to be so. Different relativist accounts have different views as
to which general attitudes should be regarded as the foundation of value. While
they all agree that value is nothing more than the product (or projection) of a
collective outlook, they disagree as to which collective outlook it is the product
of. Some believe that value is relative to the secular culture that one inhabits,
others that it is relative to religious culture, still others (referred to above) that
it is relative to one™s sex.
What matters here is that relativist accounts of value place pressure not on
the character and qualities of human beings (except to the extent that they fail
to conform to the collective outlook that de¬nes value), nor on the prevail-
ing cultural conception of value (which, being the source of value, cannot be
mistaken), but on the very idea of value itself. For that reason they are hardly
recognizable as accounts of value at all, for they present value as being utterly
undemanding, a mere re¬‚ection of prevailing preferences, which are answerable
to no standard other than the fact of their existence as the focus of some belief
or commitment, the very fact that de¬nes them as a preference. According to
relativists, we lead good lives to the extent that we re¬‚ect whatever relativists
26 the issues

believe value is properly related to, and so lead good lives to the extent that we
re¬‚ect, for example, our religion, or our culture, or our sex, and the understand-
ings of value that those give rise to. It is not merely that relativists regard good
Catholics as good because they conform to Catholic doctrine, good Americans
as good because they conform (say) to the American dream, good men and
women as good because they conform to prevailing notions of masculinity and
femininity. To do that would be only to treat the idea of goodness as equivalent

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