Saturday, July 10, 2010

Feminism: Equal Yet Different? But What Is Equality?

“Women are the equals of men and should be treated as such” is feminist author Wendy McElroy’s opinion, even as she asks, “But what is equal? How is equality defined? Does it mean equality under existing laws and equal representation in existing institutions? Or does it involve a socio-economic equality—a redistribution of wealth and power—that, in turn, requires new laws and an overturning of existing institutions?”

When equality is defined as equitable treatment under the law, even the staunchest conservative would probably agree with McElroy. “No one questions the concept of equal access to the Law; to a just and fair treatment for all in the Courts, before the bar of Justice,” says Jacob van Flossen, ultraconservative author of a 1998 political novel entitled Return of the Gods.

This basic concept of equality has been the broad legal intent in certain earlier cultures as well. Notable among them is first-century Jewish society. Under its laws, men were given definite instructions on their obligations to their wife’s needs, and women were endowed with inheritance and property rights not enjoyed by Western women until modern times.

Such a definition of equality doesn’t go far enough, however, to pacify adherents to all the numerous branches of feminism, particularly those known as gender feminists or radical feminists, who maintain that women will be oppressed as long as traditional gender roles are accepted by society. This form of feminism, like most others, is hard to pin down dogmatically, because the approaches to ending such “gender oppression” are as numerous as the individuals who seek to apply them. While some may go so far as to reject heterosexual relationships and/or advocate complete separation from patriarchal society in the belief that men are inherently evil, other gender feminists focus on changing media portrayal of gender differences or removing gender-specific pronouns from communication. The latter group, believing that equality simply means sameness, is trying to eliminate perceived differences between men and women.

But are there differences? And if so, is that a bad thing? Or does the idea of complementarity have some merit? Van Flossen asks, “By what compulsion do we make the denial of human difference—the denial of that which makes each of us unique—an ultimate goal?”

Danielle Crittenden, author of What Our Mothers Didn’t Tell Us, echoes his question: “Should men and women be trying to lead identical kinds of lives, or were there good reasons for the old divisions of labor? If so, do these divisions make us ‘unequal’?”

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