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This argument would be sound if the qualities and characteristics that de¬ne
women as women were moral qualities, if the history of sex discrimination had
ensured that women really are morally inferior to men. I have denied this is the
case, although clearly it is no more than an assumption on my part that I can
merely invite others to share. Even were it true of some of women™s characteris-
tics (as I deny), however, it certainly is not true of all of them, and in particular is
not true of the capacity for concern, to take but one example. The qualities and
characteristics that distinguish men and women, including, let us suppose, the
capacity for concern, are predominantly, and in my view exclusively, nonmoral
qualities, capable of being used for bad or good. It is possible to display con-
cern in ways that are demeaning, as the ways in which women have historically
cared for men shows, but it is just as possible to display concern in ways that
are valuable. After all, it is the capacity for concern that enables human beings
to move beyond self-absorption so as to involve themselves in the fate of other
human beings, to the bene¬t of all. If it is really true that men lack the capacity
for concern, or enjoy it only in attenuated form, then that is very unfortunate
for men.
What is true of the capacity for concern is true of nonmoral qualities gener-
ally. Qualities acquired in adversity, like other nonmoral qualities, have endless
implications, many of which are bad but many of which are good. This explains
why it is dif¬cult, even for tyrants, to compel a bad life, and how it is that so
many women (and other victims of discrimination) have been able to escape
the negative implications of the qualities they have been assigned including, let
us suppose, the capacity for concern. The truth is that except by the use of brute
force, it is not possible to compel a bad life (by which I mean an unsuccessful
life) other than by endowing people, by whatever means, with immoral qualities
of character (as I believe has not happened to women), or by developing and
promoting a misconception of those people. A misconception of what it means
to be a woman either attributes qualities to women that are false of them or
promotes the negative implications of the nonmoral qualities of character that
women genuinely possess, so as to ensure that women are not only endowed
with a heightened capacity for concern, for example, but are led to use that
capacity for demeaning rather than for valuable purposes.
The second implication of value pluralism, then, is that women will escape
sex discrimination when they escape those prevailing misconceptions of what
it means to be a woman that make their lives unsuccessful, and discover instead
what it really means to be a woman, in the broadest sense of that term, so as

24 The best-known argument on these lines is that offered by Catharine MacKinnon in Feminism
Unmodi¬ed: Discourses on Life and Law (Cambridge, Mass., 1987). See particularly the chapter
entitled “Difference and Dominance: On Sex Discrimination”, at 39.
VII. What It Means to Be a Woman 33

to enable them to identify the valuable options in life that their qualities and
characteristics make viable, intelligible, and rational, in the manner described
above.


VII. What It Means to Be a Woman
In the course of this discussion I have frequently referred to the idea of what it
means to be a woman.25 I do not intend anything special to turn on the idea of
meaning; I simply have in mind what it is to be a woman. The word “mean” is
used merely to convey the idea of an explanation in all its fullness, in the same
sense that one speaks, compassionately, of what it means to be unemployed,
to be old, to lose one™s child, or perhaps enviously, of what it means to be
healthy, happy, or rich. I have suggested it is not possible for a woman to lead
a successful life other than by knowing what it means to be a woman, in the
broad rather than the narrow sense of that term. In my view, women need to
go beyond the discriminatory conception of themselves currently prevalent in
society, to discover their true qualities and characteristics, some of which will
turn out to be shared with men, so as to be, strictly speaking, no part of their
identity as women, as well as the qualities and characteristics that are distinctive
to them. Only then can they know which of the valuable options in life suit them
and so are worthy of their pursuit. Only then can they know whether the denial
to them of access to a particular option, as the result of a misconception of what
it means to be a woman, has deprived them of something that, given the kind
of people that they are, they need access to in order to lead a successful life.
Yet some regard such a quest as utterly meaningless, at least when pursued by
women. It may be, it is said, that men do not know who and what women are, but
women themselves surely do. Others regard the quest as essentialist,26 believing
that the search for an understanding of what it means to be a woman implies
that women are, or at least ought to be, no different from one another, when in
fact they are distinguished in any number of ways, by race, class, nationality,
religion, sexual orientation, and so on. They believe a proper understanding of
women™s present predicament and of their future well-being must be particular
and contextual. Still others believe a version of this idea, that being a woman
means different things to different people, so that the quest for an understanding
of what it means to be a woman is likely to give rise to as many answers as
there are women, perhaps as many as there are people.

25 I speak throughout of what it means to be a woman where I might have spoken of what it means
to be women, and so have emphasized the diversity of women™s experiences. I have used the
singular rather than the plural only for the sake of convenience. As I have tried to make clear in
this section, I do not for a moment believe that the experience of being a woman is the same for
every woman.
26 I use the term “essentialist” as it is used by people who hold the view described here. In doing
so I take no position on whether that use of the term is correct.
34 the issues

Some of these concerns can be readily allayed. It is not true that women
necessarily know who and what they are, for we are all vulnerable to error
and deception, at our own hands and at the hands of others. It is not easy to
know our own qualities, beyond the most obvious. On the contrary, personal
qualities are something we discover through a long process of experimentation
and self-examination, in which we draw not only upon our own perceptions
but upon the perceptions of others. To discover one™s qualities through such a
process is, for women, to discover what it means to be a woman in the broad,
nondistinctive sense. To discover what it means to be a woman in the narrow,
distinctive sense, as may be necessary in combating sex discrimination, one
must go further, so as to discover, in company with others, something much
more dif¬cult: namely, which of the qualities that one knows oneself to possess
are distinctive of one™s condition as a woman. To know that, it is also necessary
to discover what it correspondingly means to be a man.
Such knowledge is far from obvious, and the quest for it is certainly not
meaningless. It is all too possible to be mistaken or deceived in such matters. In
the case of sexual identity, in particular, misconceptions are not only possible
but probable, for in respects such as this we know ourselves in part through
the image of sexual (or other) identity presented to us by the society in which we
live and of which we are a part, the image given to us by our parents and our peers,
an image upon which we are bound to draw and to which we are correspondingly
bound to contribute.27 This explains the importance to campaigners against
discrimination, whether sexual, racial, or some other, of image-breaking role
models. In the absence of such models, people are inevitably guided in the
development of their own self-understanding by the images of themselves, as
women and as minority group members, offered to them by their society, images
that are all too often distorted, indeed, that are distorted just as often as they are
prima facie discriminatory.
Nor is it true that to speak of what it means to be a woman is essentialist,
in the sense of implying that all women are alike. It is true, pace Wittgenstein,
that women must have some quality or characteristic in common or it would
not be possible to know them as women at all, whether in speaking of women
generally or in speaking of them particularly and contextually, as black women,
working-class women, Israeli women, Muslim women, or lesbians. That quality
or characteristic need not be of any great signi¬cance, however, except as the
foundation for other, more important distinctions between women and men, and
it need not play the same role in every woman™s life. Exactly what that quality
or characteristic is, what signi¬cance it is capable of having for women, and


27 As I have already indicated, the fact that we are forced to draw upon and contribute to such
misconceptions in any setting where discrimination exists does not mean we must similarly
draw upon and contribute to an accurate conception of ourselves as women and men in order to
end that discrimination and so lead successful lives.
VII. What It Means to Be a Woman 35

what role it plays in the lives of different women, are all part of the question of
what it means to be a woman.
More important perhaps, a true understanding of what it means to be a woman
does not stop there, for it embraces not only the qualities that all women possess
but the qualities that only women possess, as well as the qualities that women
have a greater tendency to possess than men. It is an error to think that concepts
preclude recognition of variety within the concepts. Were that the case, it would
be impossible to use any concept, including particular and contextual concepts
of what it means to be a woman, without being essentialist. If the concept of
a woman is used narrowly and dogmatically, so as to exclude recognition of
the many different ways in which it is possible to be a woman, that is the fault
of those who so use the concept. It is no fault of the concept itself, as is clear
from the fact that it is impossible to speak of essentialism in this manner, so as
to criticize such narrow and dogmatic usages, other than by using the concept
of a woman in a nonessentialist manner, so as to draw attention to the many
different kinds of women that such a mistaken use of the concept is said to
exclude.
On the other hand, to say that being a woman means different things to
different people, so that the quest for an understanding of what it means to
be a woman is likely to give rise to as many answers as there are women, is
true but con¬‚ates two very different ideas, which it is crucial to distinguish in
order to understand sex discrimination.28 Being a woman can mean different
things to different people precisely because the condition of being a woman is
multifaceted in the way I have just described, so that different women emphasize
different aspects of that condition in the course of constructing and pursuing
their different lives. In so emphasizing the different aspects of their condition,
women pursue what it means to be a woman in the broad, nondistinctive sense,
the sense in which they are both like and unlike men. The search for a successful
life cannot be con¬ned to what is suggested by one™s character as a woman in the
narrow, distinctive sense, for to so con¬ne it would be to discriminate against
oneself, while to permit it to be so con¬ned would be to permit oneself to be
discriminated against. It would be to deny recognition to all those aspects of
one™s qualities and character in respect of which one is nondistinctive, namely,
the respects in which women are no different from men, respects to which any
woman needs access in order to lead a successful life.
So what it means to be a woman in the broad sense is, on the one hand, to be
capable, despite what many have claimed, of being a miner or a metalworker,
a doctor or a lawyer, a physicist or a mathematician, and the many other things
in regard to which the capacities of women cannot be distinguished from those
of men. On the other hand, what it means to be a woman in the broad sense

28 I set aside here the possibility that such a statement is to be understood as the expression of a
subjectivist or relativist outlook.
36 the issues

is also, in part, to be unlike men, and so to be capable of exercising those
capacities that are distinctive to women in the sense I have described. So what
it means to be a woman in the broad sense is also to be capable of bearing
children, to be capable of thinking in the special ways that women are said to
have made peculiarly their own, to be capable of showing what is said to be a
woman™s distinctive brand of concern. As I have emphasized, not all women
possess these qualities and capacities, and not all women who possess them
wish to exploit them, just as not all human beings possess (or wish to exploit)
all the qualities that are distinctive to human beings. Some women both possess
and pursue these qualities and other women do not. In both these ways, then,
broad and narrow, nondistinctive and distinctive, being a woman means different
things to different women, so that different women emphasize different aspects
of their condition as women in the course of constructing and pursuing their
different lives, some emphasizing metalwork, others motherhood, others both
metalwork and motherhood.
Yet being a woman can also mean different things to different people because
different people have different conceptions of what it means to be a woman,
conceptions that overlap but do not always coincide with reality. Where a con-
ception of what it means to be a woman is false, the gap between image and
reality may be immaterial, inspiring, or damaging to those women who are
affected by it. Where a misconception of what it means to be a woman is dam-
aging to a woman™s capacity to lead a successful life, it is discriminatory, for
the reasons outlined above.
Misconceptions are immaterial if they have no bearing on the success of
a person™s life. 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 is unlikely to have a bearing on the success of any
woman™s life, special cases aside.29 Other misconceptions have real potential to
damage women but fail to do so in particular cases, because they happen to be
irrelevant to the lives of those against whom they are directed. If a man thinks
women are unquali¬ed for scienti¬c positions, he is mistaken in a way that has
real potential to damage women, but his mistake will be irrelevant as long as it

29 These misconceptions will strike many people as offensive, and for good reason, for they are
often used to trivialize women and so to stigmatize them. It is tempting to take the next step,
and conclude that such misconceptions are in themselves discriminatory, just because they are
trivializing and stigmatizing. Yet in fact their discriminatory character is a function not of their
falsity alone but of their potential to damage women, by denying them the understanding and
respect they need to lead successful lives, personally or professionally. One is bound to notice
that while women correspondingly think foolish things about men, such misconceptions are less
trivializing and less stigmatizing, and so less discriminatory, precisely because they are very
much less likely to have the effect of denying men the understanding and respect necessary to
a successful life.
VII. What It Means to Be a Woman 37

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.30
Misconceptions are inspiring if they encourage people to become what they
otherwise could not have become. In some settings a limited degree of self-
deception, and even of deception by others, can lead a person to believe that
she has qualities that she does not in fact have, yet has the capacity to ac-
quire, qualities that she would not be able to acquire without the assistance of
the deception. This is a familiar phenomenon. What is popularly known as the
American dream convinces people that they have qualities and capacities that
they in fact lack but may acquire through proper belief in the dream. Role models
in sports, entertainment, politics, and the professions convince many who share
the sex, race, ethnic origin, or other salient feature of the role model that they
too can ¬‚ourish in those ¬elds, and so inspire people to acquire the qualities
and capacities necessary to ¬‚ourish in them. Sometimes the people in ques-
tion can do this; sometimes they cannot. For just that reason, reliance on such
misconceptions is dangerous, despite their inspirational potential. Role models
rightly make clear that sex, race, and the like are no barrier to ¬‚ourishing in the
¬elds that the role models have made their own. They are misleading, however,
if they are taken to suggest that all that is needed to ¬‚ourish in those ¬elds is
to dispel the misconceptions of sex and race that have long stood as barriers to
women, racial minorities, and the like. This might or might not be the case for
particular people, and where it is not the case, the misconception is very likely
to be damaging to that person™s life.
Where the gap between reality and a particular conception of what it means
to be a woman is neither inspirational nor immaterial, it is damaging and dis-
criminatory. There are limits, therefore, to the extent to which it can legitimately
mean different things to different people. A conception of what it means to be
a woman can legitimately depart from reality, in any signi¬cant way, only if
that departure assists rather than impairs the ability of those affected by it to
succeed in life.
How dif¬cult is it to know what it means to be a woman, and to distinguish that
from the many misconceptions that women have suffered under? Less dif¬cult
than it might seem. Every person, in order to lead a successful life, must develop
a degree of self-knowledge. We need to know what we are in order to know

30 It is always a question of when this is the case. If, for example, a father discourages his daughter
from pursuing the study of science when she has both the ability and the inclination to do so, he
will cause her real harm if it turns out that access to a scienti¬c career is critical to the success
of her life, as it may be if it is the best or the only vehicle for her talents. However, as many
women have shown, it is entirely possible that the daughter™s abilities are broad enough, and
her inclinations ¬‚exible enough, to permit her to make a success of her life in a ¬eld that her
father is prepared to recognize that women are quali¬ed to explore. It is true that this will require
her to broaden her horizons in a way she would not have had to but for her father™s attitude, but

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