Beyond Comparison: Sex and Discrimination

By Timothy Macklem | Go to book overview
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The Character of Disadvantage

I. Introduction

It is a common thought that women must change if they are to escape their present disadvantage. The thought is not confined to feminists. On the contrary, it has a counterpart in the general belief, widespread among social reformers, that improving the lives of people, and ensuring that they are no longer disadvantaged in relation to others, necessarily involves improving the capacities of those people, intellectually, physically, psychologically, or otherwise. Among feminists this thought has given rise to a familiar and prolonged inquiry into the question of whether the qualities and characteristics that constitute sexual identity, and so describe what it means to be a woman or a man, are the product of nature or nurture. This inquiry matters to feminists because the source of sexual identity is supposed to make a difference to whether that identity can be changed.

Two assumptions are at work here. First, that what is the product of nurture is subject to change through nurture. What we have made we can unmake; what we have done wrong we can now do right. Second, and more fundamentally, it is assumed that such change is not merely possible but desirable. Women's success in life, it is said, is limited by the very capacities that define them as women. What makes a woman a woman also makes her less. It follows that women must become something other than they now are, something better than they have been permitted to be, if they are to escape their present disadvantage and begin to lead successful lives. We must raise our daughters, and our sons, to be different from ourselves.

Change of this kind is typically thought to be desirable for reasons of equality. It is often suggested, most famously by Catharine MacKinnon, that women and men should not differ from one another in any way that could give rise to disadvantage to either.1 If it is the case, as MacKinnon further claims, that

Feminism Unmodified: Discourses on Life and Law (Cambridge, Mass., 1987), at 43.


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