Equality and Difference

A common reservation expressed about feminism is that ‘equality doesn’t mean sameness’ (that said, this phrase is also used to mean various other things, many of which I would agree with – I’m just focusing on a particular use of it). Equality per se, it is suggested, is an eminently reasonable goal, but sameness is, well, boring – and quite possibly impossible. That, it is suggested, is where radical feminism goes too far – not content with equality, it misguidedly seeks ‘sameness’. And before you ask, no, I don’t have a specific example to point to, but I’ve heard it used like this often enough, so you’ll have to put up with a vague ungrounded stream of consciousness.

Now there are two main things to say: firstly, to query the truth of this claim, and then to suggest that it’s completely beside the point.

The first response is to point out that ‘sameness’ and ‘difference’ are being treated in a fairly abstract way. What sorts of ‘sameness’ or ‘difference’ are we talking about? After all, if someone were to say that two people were equal, just different, where their difference resided in that one took on the vital job or formulating, issuing, and enforcing orders, and the other took the equally vital job of carrying out those orders, and that we should recognise the equal value of their two roles, and give them equal status – something has gone wrong here, hasn’t it?

The phrase is often thrown around, so I can’t comment on any specific examples or applications, but my suspicion is that whoever the phrase is meant to implicitly criticise is probably feeling something like: power and status are integral parts of gender roles. Manliness is about power, it is about self-assertion, it is about seeking to be dominant. You can’t say that ‘neither seeking to be dominant nor not doing so should be dominant – both should be equal’. Nor can you say ‘one sex will strive for power and status more than the other, and this is fine, as long as they both have equal power and status’. The genders as conventionally understood can’t be equal because inequality is written into their cultural definitions.

Now you might disagree that gender roles are like that, but that at least is the position that needs knocking down.

The second response is to point out that the threatened ‘sameness’ hardly seems to be actually imminent. Neither gender at the moment is internally ‘same’ – there are many different (thought perhaps related) ways to be masculine or feminine. And moreover, what ‘sameness’ there is has usually come specifically from an emphasis on gender roles, through non-conformists being considered insufficiently ‘manly’ or ‘ladylike’.

After all, who are doing the most to deconstruct, disperse, dissolve, gender roles? Isn’t it gays, queers, lesbians, transvestites, transsexuals, and their ilk? Are we really to believe that a world run by the people on gay pride marches is going to be a boring, tedious place of drone-like uniformity?

Equality means freedom: the freedom to take on whatever identity, whether one of the dozens around us already or a new design, you like, and not have it mandated by the kind of essentialising that complains when ‘the women over here don’t know how to be women any more!’ (or similarly for the insufficiently heroic men).

Because really, I think, the fear that without gender roles, everyone will become tediously ‘the same’ isn’t so much about what people’s identities are as about how they wear those identities. In a society still suffused by the gender binary, many people (decorated and eroticised women, and or powerful, ‘virile’, ‘no-nonsense’ men) can look around themselves and see themselves reflected, see it endlessly repeated that they have got it right, that the way they are is in harmony with their inner nature, their truth.

If people just freely define themselves, then no definition they give will ever really define them. It won’t be their ‘truth’, their ‘essence’, it will just be a persona – their essence will be freedom.This, I think, is what worries many people – the fear not that everyone will have the same identity, but that all identities will be recognised as contingent choices, based on the shared underlying essence of freedom. What they fear, to put it in rather high-flown language, is losing the freedom to renounce freedom.

One Response to “Equality and Difference”

  1. Dori Says:

    Well said!

    There is also an aspect of fear, I think, in people who use that phrase, but it is slightly different than how you have defined it. They fear the end of these proscribed roles because the existence of them is the only reason they have for taking those identities. Some people choose more “traditional” gender roles for very concrete reasons, but many choose them simply because you “have to.” The idea that there is no innate truth to these roles gives them nothing left to define themselves by.

    or something 😀

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