Feminism and Me

A feminist friend asked me to write a piece addressed to this question: How would my work have been different if I had engaged with and learned from the feminists of the late 1960s and 1970s? I have tried to respond, in a more personal style than I usually adopt, but with what I hope is a familiar anxiety.

Before I begin, I need to claim an earlier education. In 1953, I dated and later married a woman who was a bolshevik feminist, who wouldn’t let me open a door for her, or help her on with her coat, or pay for her movie tickets, or do any of the things that boys were supposed to do for girls in those benighted days. And we had two daughters who were egalitarian, and argumentative about it, from their first conscious moment. I wanted them to grow up in a society where they could do…whatever they wanted to do. So long before I ever read a feminist tract, I was committed to August Bebel’s proposition that there couldn’t be a just society without “equality of the sexes.”

But that bit of political correctness didn’t necessarily make for what you might call intelligence about gender. If I had been intelligent in that way, what would I have written differently? The book to focus on is Spheres of Justice, which I wrote in the early 1980s. Spheres deals with the distribution of social goods and bads, the benefits and burdens of our common life, and it includes a discussion of the conventional roles and rewards of men and women. The book provoked a lot of arguments, many of them critical, and for me the most interesting criticism came from feminist writers.

The most important of those writers was the late Susan Moller Okin, a leading member of the remarkable first generation of academic women writing political theory in the United States, which includes Carol Pateman, Jean Bethke Elshtain, Amy Gutmann, Nancy Rosenblum, and Iris Marion Young (who, like Okin, died too young). Okin was a student at Harvard and wrote her dissertation with me; in 1979, she turned it into her first book, Women in Western Political Thought. Her second book, Justice, Gender, and the Family, came out in 1989. I wrote a blurb calling it “a brilliantly argued and highly persuasive critique of current theories.” One of those current theories was mine. I want now to ask what I might have learned from Okin’s critique had she written it and had I read it before writing Spheres.

In order to make sense of her criticism, I have to say something, briefly, about the argument of that book, which I still think is mostly right. Spheres is “a defense of pluralism and equality” against the idea that there is a single principle or a single coherent set of principles that defines distributive justice for all times and places. I argue instead that social goods should be distributed in accordance with their meaning in the life of the people who make them and share or divide them. Different goods exist within different “spheres,” where different distributive principles are applied by different agents, in different ways, with different results. If education is understood as a preparation for democratic citizenship, it must be required of and provided for all future citizens without regard to their talent or intelligence—hence public schools and compulsory attendance. If education is understood as a preparation for the priesthood, say, intelligence and piety are legitimate criteria for its distribution, and older priests are legitimate distributive agents—but now compulsion is obviously wrong and, in a secular society, so is public support. If education is understood as a training for physicians or engineers, intelligence and competence are the right distributive criteria, and competent practitioners are the right agents—and because public safety is at issue, regulation and licensing are necessary.

As these examples suggest, distributions should sometimes be universal across a society, sometimes limited and meritocratic. And, thinking only of our own society, there are many other possible criteria: desert (as in the distribution of judicial punishments), need (as with health care and welfare), seniority (when what is at issue is justice in layoffs), equality (as in one person/one vote), popularity (as in the distribution of political power through democratic elections), and even inventiveness and luck (as in the market). These are our criteria, our “shared understandings” as I called them, but we can imagine different ones in different times and places. Distributions are relative to particular societies and cultures and to the meaning of social goods to their members.

This argument would allow, would even require, unequal distributions in many of the spheres: elections legitimate unequal political power, meritocratic admissions policies distinguish some students from others, trials result in acquittals and punishments, the free market produces winners and losers. But it was my claim that if the distributions were autonomous, if each good was distributed for the right reasons, then different people would prevail in different spheres. Success in one sphere (acquiring political power, making money) would not bring other goods in train, as it now does, and the overall result would be “complex equality”—which might best be understood as widely dispersed inequalities.


Okin argued that a theory of this sort could not be helpful to women, because the social meanings of education, professional work, political office, and much else, in our society and in every other, excluded women in radical ways or pushed them into marginal positions. So, it was widely understood in the world of higher education that certain disciplines and careers were for men only. Women “didn’t want” to study the hard sciences and they “didn’t want” to compete (with men they would rather marry) for graduate fellowships and faculty positions. In politics and the professions, women were largely confined to “helpmate” positions: taking notes at meetings; planning travel; keeping the calendar; and, most important, explaining to men who didn’t know how to deal with people how to do it. Political decisions and professional consultations—these were defined as the work of men. There was no room here, and no resources, for an internal critique based on social meaning or shared understanding.

I responded (in several books about social criticism) that an understanding of education, say, that excluded or marginalized women could not be called a shared understanding because women presumably didn’t share it. It was instead the understanding of the dominant group, not of the society as a whole, and there had to be alternative understandings that could be mobilized against it—against the domination of men, for example, in the sphere of education. A critic connected to and loyal to this society, but hostile to its inequalities, could find in the consciousness of excluded women material for a critique of exclusion.

Political decisions and professional consultations—these were defined as the work of men. There was no room here, and no resources, for an internal critique based on social meaning or shared understanding.

Okin replied that I had simply failed to grasp the totalizing character of patriarchalism. Male dominance was ratified everywhere, in every aspect of daily life, in every distributive sphere, and in all the cultural creations and historical experiences that produced “meaning”—in religious texts and practices, in political life, in the different genres of popular literature, in folk belief, and in “common sense.” Of course, women acquiesced. In every human society, they accommodated themselves to their subordinate roles—what else could they do? The social meanings created by men were, willy-nilly, accepted by women. When social meanings “overlap, cohere, and are integrated and hierarchical,” Okin wrote, it isn’t likely that dissenting ideas will appear or develop. “The more thoroughgoing the dominance and the more pervasive the ideology, across the various spheres, the less chance there is that the whole prevailing system will be questioned or resisted.”

Only universal principles of justice could open the way to a critique of the full range of patriarchal definitions. An account of justice that began with human equality, and specifically with gender equality, an account radically at odds with the “understandings” of this (and every other) society—that was the only basis from which an egalitarian politics could grow.

Okin was a woman of the Enlightenment, and she was soon engaged not only with pluralists like me but also with radical feminists, hostile to the rationalism and monism of the Enlightenment, who called for a “politics of difference” and a multicultural society. These women (and many men writing in a similar vein) provoked her most famous essay, “Is Multiculturalism Good for Women?” She thought it certainly wasn’t, because the different cultures it was intended to accommodate were, pretty much all of them, hostile to women. Making room for difference meant that there wasn’t room enough for cultural critique and universal justice.

I was closer to Okin than to her opponents in this debate. Though I defended a (soft) version of multiculturalism, I argued that democratic states had to intervene in racist or misogynist cultures not only to make exit possible (Okin wrote another memorable article arguing that a right of exit wasn’t enough) but also to protect vulnerable people inside the group. But I also believed that these vulnerable people had to become active on their own behalf, and they would best do that in ways that were meaningful to their fellow members and that drew on their shared history and traditions. They had to refer themselves to texts that resonated even with their oppressors, as Martin Luther King, Jr., did when he recited the biblical line about creation in the image of God or quoted the Declaration of Independence about our inalienable rights.

What I believe I missed in these arguments was the tough realism of Okin’s account of women’s cultural place: the sense of radical constraint that women have felt in much of history and still feel in much of the contemporary world. They feel trapped in a culture and politics that doesn’t offer any possibility of thinking critically about their own condition or of imagining, let alone planning for, a different condition. Whatever memorable lines about equality exist in their tradition have been, as it were, pre-interpreted to exclude them. Every alternative path is blocked; they are prisoners, physically and mentally.

Of course, anyone describing herself in this way is already thinking critically. Okin’s description of the condition of women is a view from outside, and what it is meant to suggest is that liberation can come only from outside. It therefore requires moral and political principles that are independent of every existing oppressive culture. I am not sure that I believe that, even now, especially now, when there are so many strong feminists working to transform Islamic, Jewish, Christian, and Hindu orthodoxies from within. But I would surely have written differently if I had grasped the force of Okin’s picture of women living in radically encompassing patriarchal cultures.


The oppression of women is different from all other oppressions. We all know this, but most leftists still write about oppression as if it has a singular form: one group of people pressing down, holding down, another group. But women are not “grouped” like all the other groups; they don’t live together like natives in a conquered country or workers in a city slum or Jews or blacks in a ghetto. They live with their oppressors, who are also their fathers, husbands, lovers, and sons. Their oppression starts at home, not because their homes are impoverished but because of the internal familial arrangements of domination and subordination, which are then replicated in every sphere of life.

What if women didn’t agree to the replications? What if women around the world, Okin asked, were “convinced (against all the odds) that they too are fully human and that whatever principles of justice apply among their oppressors should rightfully be applied to them too?” We would then have a deep political-cultural disagreement, “two irreconcilable accounts of what is just.” And how could this dispute be resolved without recourse to some singular and universal standard? I think that there is an answer to this question, which draws upon Antonio Gramsci’s theory of hegemony. Hegemonic cultures, he says, have to claim universality as a condition of their legitimacy. So there is always a local version of universal principles to which oppositional forces can refer themselves. I won’t say more about that here; the Gramscian argument definitely was missing in Spheres because I didn’t grasp its necessity until I read Okin’s book.

We had one more disagreement that is relevant here. I argued that inequality in the family should be dealt with indirectly. First, reform all the other spheres of distribution: make sure that women are treated equally wherever meritocratic criteria are applied; make sure that their needs are recognized as quickly as men’s needs are in the distribution of welfare and health care; make sure that their entrepreneurial talents get the same free rein (however free that is or should be) as men’s talents do; make sure that the political arena is as open to them as to men. If society were changed in all these ways (and others too), the family would change in tandem. Equality abroad, so to speak, would produce equality at home. I was leery about, or perhaps I just didn’t want to think about, any more direct intervention in the intimacies of family life.


Looking back, I don’t know what kinds of state intervention Okin would have favored. But she was a strong advocate of ideological intervention. Inequality in the family had to become the subject of a sharp and steady critique. I am sure that she was right about that, though I am not sure that we would have agreed on how to shape the critique. Of course, the personal is political, but it isn’t political in the same way as the impersonal is, and some feminist writers never noticed the difference. We should want impersonal economic, social, and political relationships to be subject to political decisions and legal regulation. Personal and familial relationships need to be shielded, except in the extreme cases (which are, however, more common than we like to think) of abused children and battered partners. Still, the argument about what the family was and is should be central to any theory of justice.

Okin congratulated me, a little sarcastically, for a “clause and a footnote” in Spheres describing housework as an activity that had to be shared equally by men and women. Yes, I would now write much more about that than I did in the 1980s, and I would worry now as I didn’t then about why greater equality in the spheres of politics, education, and economy hasn’t reverberated as I thought it would in family life. The indirect approach hasn’t significantly transformed the distribution of housework and child care. There have certainly been changes for the good but not on the scale that I imagined. Okin’s book was a necessary corrective to my arguments (and also to all the other theorists that she took on).

The practical critique of gender inequality is only just begun. I would still try to make it a “spherical” critique, worked through our understanding of the different social goods and bads, the different distributive criteria, and the different agents of distribution. But exactly how to realize complex equality in the family is less clear to me now than it was in 1980, and that is perhaps a small advance. The family has to be what Christopher Lasch called a “haven in a heartless world.” But it can’t continue to be a source of the inequalities that make the world heartless. The defense of intimacy and justice at the same time—that is the task of the next generation of political theorists.


Michael Walzer is co-editor of Dissent. His latest book is In God’s Shadow: Politics in the Hebrew Bible.