Sex & Social Justice

Sex & Social Justice

Sex & Social Justice

Sex & Social Justice

Synopsis

What does it mean to respect the dignity of a human being? What sort of support do human capacities demand from the world, and how should we think about this support when we encounter differences of gender or sexuality? How should we think about each other across divisions that a legacy of injustice has created? In Sex and Social Justice, Martha Nussbaum delves into these questions and emerges with a distinctive conception of feminism that links feminist inquiry closely to the important progress that has been made during the past few decades in articulating theories of both national and global justice. Growing out of Nussbaum's years of work with an international development agency connected with the United Nations, this collection charts a feminism that is deeply concerned with the urgent needs of women who live in hunger and illiteracy, or under unequal legal systems. Offering an internationalism informed by development economics and empirical detail, many essays take their start from the experiences of women in developing countries. Nussbaum argues for a universal account of human capacity and need, while emphasizing the essential role of knowledge of local circumstance. Further chapters take on the pursuit of social justice in the sexual sphere, exploring the issue of equal rights for lesbians and gay men. Nussbaum's arguments are shaped by her work on Aristotle and the Stoics and by the modern liberal thinkers Kant and Mill. She contends that the liberal tradition of political thought holds rich resources for addressing violations of human dignity on the grounds of sex or sexuality, provided the tradition transforms itself by responsiveness to arguments concerning the social shaping of preferences and desires. She challenges liberalism to extend its tradition of equal concern to women, always keeping both agency and choice as goals. With great perception, she combines her radical feminist critique of sex relations with an interest in the possibilities of trust, sympathy, and understanding. Sex and Social Justice will interest a wide readership because of the public importance of the topics Nussbaum addresses and the generous insight she shows in dealing with these issues. Brought together for this timely collection, these essays, extensively revised where previously published, offer incisive political reflections by one of our most important living philosophers.

Excerpt

Inequality, Resistance, Reversal

In 1975, near Dhaka, Bangladesh, Saleha Begum’s husband became physically disabled and they lost their land. Despite local community norms against women working outside the home, Saleha decided to go to work. At first, ashamed to be seen, she worked in the fields at night, by moonlight. As she got used to working, both her fear and local criticism of her actions abated. She organized a team of female laborers to demand employment at government-sponsored food-forwork sites, where laborers moved large amounts of earth each day. Local officials refused their request, saying, “Women in Bangladesh should not work outside their homes.” Saleha continued her fight. With the help of a group from the United Nations World Food Program, in consultation with the national Ministry of Relief and Rehabilitation, the women won the right to be hired. A nongovernmental organization, the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC), helped organize the local women into specialized groups. In 1977, Saleha’s group husked paddy and cultivated potatoes and sugar cane. Under Saleha’s leadership, the women also attended BRAC’s educational programs. They learned to negotiate loans, to rear poultry, to cultivate silkworms; women chosen from the group received paramedical and paralegal training. A few years later Saleha Begum was nominated for local political office. Although she lost, the narrowness of the margin was taken as a victory for women in that region.

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