Gender Justice

By Gheaus, Anca | Journal of Ethics & Social Philosophy, November 2011 | Go to article overview

Gender Justice


Gheaus, Anca, Journal of Ethics & Social Philosophy


1. Introduction

AT THE NORMATIVE HEART OF FEMINISM lies the belief that nobody should be disadvantaged because of their sex. Here I propose, and defend, a principle of gender justice meant to capture the nature of a very wide range of injustices based on gender. (1) In a nutshell, the principle says that, in a gender just world, a gender-neutral lifestyle would be the least costly option for both women and men. Gendered lifestyles need not be ruled out, but should not be achievable at lower costs than a gender-neutral lifestyle. This principle is grounded in the values at the core of liberal egalitarian justice: equality of access and the good of individual choice.

Because the principle is meant to explain the injustice of a very wide range of phenomena, the sense of "costs" is similarly wide. Such costs can be material--for example financial, time or effort--psychological--self-respect, a good relationship with one's body and emotions--and social--such as reputation, social acceptance and valuable social relationships. (2)

I illustrate my proposal by discussing the injustice involved in the gendered division of labor, which is one of the most important, yet philosophically disputed, gender issues in the developed world. Some liberal egalitarians contest that a freely chosen gendered division of labor is unjust. (3) Others believe that in order to know whether particular outcomes are gender just we need to pay attention to the context of people's choices, to the processes of preference formation and to the cumulative effects of particular choices. Some of the latter even doubt that liberal egalitarianism has the theoretical resources to recognize the gendered nature of the gendered division of labor. (4) I argue that it does.

The gendered division of labor is also at the core of a long-lasting debate about two different models of change, embodied by different strands of feminism. Here is a crude picture. The first model, centered on equality between women and men, consists in empowering women to enjoy all the "good things of life" that men have traditionally enjoyed. The second model, centered on "difference," consists in discovering, explaining and enhancing the value of what has long been deemed "women's lifestyles." Traditionally, women have been associated with the spheres of the family, close relationships, domestic work and with the individual virtues believed (5) to make life in these spheres as good as it can get. Men have been associated with the complementary spheres of politics and commerce and their respective virtues.

Since "feminine" as well as "masculine" functional spheres are necessary for individual survival and social reproduction, (6) both emancipatory models proposed by the two different strands of feminism have run into major difficulties. If women and men are to have an equal share of the good things in life by merely opening men's lifestyles to women, the question is: Who will do what it takes to maintain the spheres of family, close relationships and domestic work? Feminists who advocate "masculine" lifestyles for women have been criticized as compromising the quest for equality by relegating "feminine" work to the often-exploited women whose poverty, race or immigrant status pushes them to the margins of society. (7) The alternative possibility, that the entire "feminine domain" be outsourced, looks unappealing to most, and possibly not even coherent. (8) The second solution to gender justice, that is, making women and men equally well off by giving more recognition and economic support to "feminine lifestyles," was criticized for entrenching the gendered division of labor and therefore curtailing women's access to "masculine" lifestyles. (9)

These solutions sacrifice either equality between women belonging to different classes/races/national groups, or women's substantive freedom to choose nontraditional lifestyles. Such sacrifices could be avoided if women and men were to voluntarily share paid and domestic work and their benefits. …

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