This is the second part of my talk on the family at the Hay Festival last weekend. Yesterday I wrote that family is the true key to equality. Today I examine the perversion of the notion of equality to mean sameness, at the expense of valuing and appreciating differences between the sexes.
Must we accept that achieving equality necessarily means that some will lose out? No, the pursuit of equality, unlike an Athenian democracy built on slaves or a communist state which robbed the bourgeoisie, does not make somebody else pay the price.
The problem does not lie with the pursuit of equality. If women want more political power, give it to them. If men want to look after babies, let them.
The problem lies with the underlying beliefs which have shaped how equality has been defined.
There is a widespread belief that society has been structured by an oppressive patriarchy created by men and that women have been controlled and subordinated by them.
There is also a widespread belief that gender differences are socially constructed – that apart from a few superficial differences men and women are exactly the same.
If we believe in gender sameness, then we will expect men and women to be engaged in the same sorts of activities. So it is only when we have achieved equality of outcome that we will know that patriarchy has been erased.
This belief sets us in competition with each other. And precisely for those resources which are most valued – highly paid prestigious jobs and political power. This sets up a zero-sum game.
But what if there never was an oppressive patriarchy?
Women see male advantage in the workplace as the male attempt to control women. But this overlooks the historically universal and highly burdensome obligation that men had to support women – which might partly explain why men were so much more likely to end up in a debtors’ jail. Men may have always earned more than us but they earned for us. We still very largely control how this money is spent.
Seeing work as a source of male privilege overlooks the negative connotations which have been universally associated with work. In Hebrew, avoda meant to serve. In Greek ponos meant suffering. In Latin labor meant hardship and endurance. Women have universally been privileged because they have been protected from the most arduous and gruelling forms of work.
And what if men and women, far from being the same, do have real differences – in reproductive roles, in physical strength, in our preferences and in our abilities? Of course there is overlap between us, but perhaps it didn’t require patriarchy to tell us apart.
The problem is not striving for gender equality. The problem is the belief system which underpins that striving. If we believe in an oppressive patriarchy we will want to obtain those resources which we believe kept us down. If we believe we are the same as men but excluded by them we will hanker after what they’ve got.
This is limiting. Real equality is not about having a single yardstick – the attainment of public power – along which everything can be measured. This is the path to hierarchy, not equality. Real equality means appreciating different choices, different motivations and different ways of finding fulfilment and valuing them equally. Then we will be on a path to achieving equality where none will lose out. And a good place to start is by valuing and appreciating not just the similarities but also the differences between women and men.