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Is the distinction between the public and private necessarily harmful to women?

Is the distinction between the public and private necessarily harmful to women?

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An essay for the 2011 Undergraduate Awards Competition by Julianne Cox. Originally submitted for Contemporary Political Theories at Trinity College, Dublin, with lecturer Dr. Irene O'Daly in the category of International Relations & Politics
An essay for the 2011 Undergraduate Awards Competition by Julianne Cox. Originally submitted for Contemporary Political Theories at Trinity College, Dublin, with lecturer Dr. Irene O'Daly in the category of International Relations & Politics

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Published by: Undergraduate Awards on Aug 29, 2012
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Is the distinction between the public and the private necessarily harmful for women?
Liberals define the ‘public’ and ‘private’ in terms of fixed categories that constrain governments
powers over the individual. This ideal finds its origins in Rawls idea of interpreting justice in terms of individuals being free and equal. Rawls political conception of the person portrays her as capable of 
taking responsibility for her ends. Individuals regard themselves as the “
self authenticating sourcesof valid 
(Rawls,2005,p.32) who possess the right to approve or repudiate norms and valuesaccording to the way they have chosen to define themselves. The private sphere provides self defining individuals with a space that is unconstrained by and unaccountable to anything systematicoriginating beyond its self authenticating claims about the good life. The feminist definition of 
‘harmful for women’ is as follows:
“economically exploited, relegated to domestic slavery, forced into
motherhood, sexually objectified.... deprived of a voice and authentic culture, and excluded from
 public life” 
(MacKinnon,1989,p.160) To claim that the distinction between public and private isharmful to women would entail showing that the public-private dichotomy necessarily perpetuatesharmful consequences such as the exclusion of women from public life. In this essay I will first lookat what the main objective of feminism is. I will then examine two of the major inquiries in feministtheory, before examining which theory is most effective at ensuring that the public-private divide isnot harmful for women.The objective of feminism is to ensure that gender is not made relevant to the distribution of benefits. I will examine two types of feminist political theory. The first theory consists in thereconstruction of traditional concepts with the aim of producing a gender neutral theory. The
second type of theory is based on women’s gendered experiences. The theory proposes that
generalizations born out of a gender neutral dialogue are actually necessitated by genderoppression. The thesis is that our identity is partly shaped by the recognition of others, and sowomen in a patriarchal society have adopted an image of themselves that diminishes their worth.(Taylor,1994,p.25) I will show that the feminist theory based on gender visibility rather than
neutrality is more capable of ensuring that women are not excluded from pursuing the things societydefines as valuable.The best known example of a gender neutral feminist theory is the discussion of the merits of  justice, as compared to care-
based approaches. (Bubeck,2000,p.186) In the 1970’s theorists
distinguished between sex and gender: the former referred to the inescapable biological difference,and the latter referred to the construction society imposed on it. The idea was that childbearing is abiological fact, whereas the exclusive responsibility for caring for children reflects an unequalpattern of gender relations, and one that can be rectified by forming a gender neutral state.(Philips,1987,p.4) This issue has been discussed by Susan Okin. Okin criticizes Rawls hesitancy toapply the standards of justice to the family institution. She argues that theories of justice mustintegrate the notions of care : they are inadequate if they do not accommodate the femaleexperience. Okin asserts that the family structure is vulnerable to perpetuating inequality betweenthe genders. For example, a religious household where the god given hierarchy excludes womenfrom positions of power produces the learned acceptance of injustice, enforced by male power.(Okin,1994,p.37) Okin proposes that this unequal pattern of gender relations can be dismantled bycreating a gender neutral state. If a gender-neutral society
was achieved, the necessity of an ‘ethicof care’ would be incorporated into the liberal account of duties. Okin’s method of ensuring that
differences between the genders are not turned into social disadvantage involves making the familystructure gender neutral, whereby female members do not bear a disproportionate responsibility fordomestic work, raising children and caring for the elderly. (Okin,1994,p.42) The idea of genderneutrality finds its origins in the liberal assertion that all individuals are born free and equal. From aliberal perspective, gender is viewed as a manifestation of inequalities between the sexes. The
liberal’s desire for unity between free and equal citizens aims at eliminating difference. The
achievement of universality requires that citizens assume the same impartial point of view.Impartiality can only be achieved if we transcend all particular perspectives and experiences. Byabstracting from the situational particularities that individuate and differentiate people, universality
allows for the attainment of a general will that leaves difference and the body behind in the privaterealm. (Young,1990,p.97)Feminist theorists who endorse gender visibility challenge the traditional opposition between thepublic and private sphere which associates it with an opposition between universality andparticularity. A theory that limits justice to universal principles is too limited a conception of justicebecause justice cannot be opposed to personal need. For example, to treat pregnancy as genderneutral involves assimilating pregnancy under a gender neutral policy of sick leave from work.Assimilating pregnancy under a neutral policy of disability will stigmatize the process as a disablingprocess unworthy of veneration. The politics of difference argues against gender neutral politics ontwo grounds (1) The idea of the unencumbered self is a myth. (2) There is an inescapable biologicaldifference between men and women. Gender neutral theorists misunderstand the fundamentallysocial nature of humanity, the fact that we are conditioned beings. There is no point of exemption,no transcendental subject capable of standing outside society or outside experience. Therefore, theideal of a society governed by neutral principles is liberalisms false promise. (Sandel,1998,p.11) The
myth of the unencumbered self is abundantly clear in Nussbaum’s study of ‘adaptive preferences’.
Nussbaum demonstrates how there are only situated contexts of action, which incorporate an
individual’s partic
ularities of experience and history. She provides the example of Vasanti whovoluntarily stayed in an abusive marriage because she was individualized through a process oentrenched gender inequality and was unable to adopt a point of view that was completely
separated from that unequal context. Vasanti’s inability to transcend her social circumstances
meant that she internalized a picture of her own inferiority and quietly accepted her deprivation.
(Nussbaum,2000,p.139) Nussbaum’s example demonstrates t
hat we cannot view ourselvesindependently of our aims and attachments. Human beings are the products of their society. Theculture that we inhabit profoundly affects our development. The problem shows that the modernliberal emphasis on individuality is limited, thereby challenging us to produce a form of liberalism
that takes account of the way that society shapes and limits women’s freedom and opportunity.

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