Talking to the Brothers

Talking to the Brothers

Justice, Gender, and the Family
by Susan Moller Okin
Basic Books, 1989, 216 pp.

Justice, Gender, and the Family hopes to continue work that political theorist Susan Moller Okin began in her useful Women in Western Political Thought (1979). The earlier book was a history of theoretical justifications for the exploitation and hatred of women from Plato (the hero of the book because of Republic V) to John Stuart Mill (another partial hero), with the nadir lying in a long trough between Aristotle and Rousseau.

This account was lucid and thorough; Okin redid philosophy and poli-sci 101 from a feminist perspective. Her sense of audience was inclusive: the students in 101 could profit and so could their professors, social philosophers working in the tradition without any self-consciousness about gender. Women in Western Political Thought was part of the basic reassessment of the canon going on in the late seventies. Those years—and that kind of work—laid out possible new maps for the academic disciplines.

Ten years later Okin’s second book records an impasse. In these years, political science has flourished, but without incorporating feminism. Other fields—literature, history, anthropology— have responded to feminist questions, sometimes with enthusiasm. But though there are feminist political scientists, political theory has largely remained a male bastion, resisting this monstrous regiment of women. Addressing essentially the same people as last time, now Okin defines and confronts an audience she despairs to reach. Instead of recognizing her discouragement, instead of exploring its possible meanings, she dodges its implications and writes a book in which feminism is flat and fixed, a righteous stick to beat bad boys.

She begins by saying she has a simple goal: to explain why no contemporary theory of justice can be rational or valuable that does not recognize gender as a central source of injustice and the family as a founding institution of that injustice. Why have men in her field resisted a truism so basic to feminist thought? Could it be because, as Okin writes, some academic feminism is now “too arcane to be understood even by most educated people”? Okin plans her own assault on the gates. Unlike those other feminists, she will be “accessible”; she will explain to contemporary male theorists of justice their multiple failures to take adequate account of gender.

Hence she has defined her audience as the brothers, by which I mean that complicated group of people related by field, interests, and shared intellectual traditions, some close and friendly, some hostile and abusive, but all family. Okin writes as if she is the only really present daughter in this family. She is angry—and there is no anger like anger in the family—but at the same time she is by right (and through struggles or compromises here unnamed) a part of her brothers’ world. She shares their questions, categories, and worries. Their sexism poisons the well from which they both must drink.

Okin’s central problem is how to make these brothers listen. Each one has a different deaf spot; some are incorrigible (for example, Michael Sandel in Liberalism and the Limits of Justice, Allan Bloom in The Closing of the American Mind, Alasdair Maclntyre in After Virtue and Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, and Robert Nozick in Anarchy, State, and Utopia), and some are either reformable or, Okin hopes, usable in the construction of a feminist idea of justice (chiefly, Michael Walzer in Spheres of Justice, Interpretation and Social Criticism and The Company of Critics, John Rawls in A Theory of Justice, and Roberto Unger in Knowledge and Politics).


Once one jettisons any expectation of either a book for those outside the family, or for a book that offers its own feminist theory of justice, and accepts instead that Okin is head-to-head in a family quarrel, one meets with some interesting analysis. For example, she offers a strong argument against the idea that families don’t need justice because they are governed by love (Michael Sandel et al.). Okin argues that love and justice are not on the collision course some male theorists fear. Indeed, she’s suspicious of their fear of justice in the family: justice is basic, a without-which-nothing; love can be added to it without loss of spontaneity or generosity. Okin shreds the idea that all members of a family have a common interest and can act in the world as one without the need of any just rules among them.

But when she goes on to criticize the related theory (chiefly Allan Bloom’s) that families are unjust by nature, an aggregate of unequals by definition, her arguments are less cogent. Understandably, she feels it should be refutation enough merely to quote Bloom’s timeless claim that “nothing can effectively make most men share equally the responsibilities of childbearing and childrearing.” But Okin’s outrage doesn’t adequately confront Bloom’s disturbing observation that it may be possible “to soften men. But to make them ‘care’ is another thing, and the project must inevitably fail.” Okin’s book is itself an effort “to make men care,” a project that needs much more analysis—and I think that conceals many more psychological and social difficulties—than Okin acknowledges. In her irritation, she simplifies, reducing feminism to a bland call for fairness, when, in fact, it sometimes asks for transformations here never even hinted at or named.

Her quarrel with Alasdair Maclntyre suffers from a similar limitation. Okin finds it enough to point out that the shared tradition on which Maclntyre wants to build his theory of justice, a complex historical composite of Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas, is sexist to its core. But to Okin’s amazement, “Maclntyre presents, most of the time, a benign portrait of the three traditions he prefers to liberalism. . . .” She writes as if MacIntyre has somehow missed the enormity of the woman hating in the traditions he likes best. Surely an equally likely explanation is the one Bloom offers, that he doesn’t care.

But this thought is hard to bear. Though Okin presents each of the incorrigible theories on her list as unhappy in its own way, cumulatively her criticisms coalesce in a single outcry: this one “neglects” women; that one “rarely acknowledges” their role in the social reproduction of justice; still another “ignores children and their rearing.” The word “ignores” becomes a litany. The book becomes monochromatic, stuck. The male theorists have indeed repeated their act of ignoring women and the family. Okin’s sometimes wearying repetitions are harder to understand; finally, they are the painful redundancies of her disbelief.

Certainly it is harder to argue with an “absence,” with a “neglect,” than with the unapologetically sexist theorists of the past. In her earlier book Okin could engage misogyny front on, but now sexism is more elusive. In one of her best discussions, Okin criticizes contemporary brother-antagonists for their modish pretense at gender neutrality. They ask their computers to sprinkle “he” and “she” randomly through their books, but, argues Okin, “she” never really appears, with her special work in the family. In fact, “she” and “he” are not interchangeable in a sexist society. Each pronoun has its own social history in relation to justice, while the brothers often assume justice is born full-blown out of the forehead of each citizen, that there is no psychology of justice, no process of reproduction by which ideas of justice are reborn and fostered in each generation. In her witty critique of the libertarian Robert Nozick, Okin keeps adding gender to Nozick’s neutral propositions, until she has transformed his theory: his vision of liberty and utopia in which each one owns the products of “his” labor becomes instead a vision of “matriarchy, slavery, and dystopia” in which mothers own the children they produce as their slaves.

Okin’s consternation feels right. The numbness of the modern brothers poses maddening new problems. What remains mysterious is her tone of surprise. Reading her, you would think male resistance to feminism is a discovery.


In fact, Okin’s new book enters what is by now a well-established and honorable genre, the polemical critique of a male-dominated field. Judy Stacey and Barrie Thorne have done this for sociology (“The Missing Feminist Revolution in Sociology”), and Joan Scott has done it for history (“On Language, Gender, and Working-Class History”). Elaine Showalter has done it for English (in a naughty piece that compares male critics to Dustin Hoffman when he cross-dresses in Tootsie). Books like Cynthia Epstein’s Deceptive Distinctions are reports meant for audiences to whom feminism was still news in 1989. Finally, in a series of essays, Adrienne Rich took on the whole male-centered university).

Though such field critiques can sometimes feel thankless, they belong in the category of political work. They serve their communities, engage them in political debates, sometimes with the far-reaching consequence of shaking the walls of the city. They meet the brothers where the brothers are, a necessary starting point.

At the same time, they are inevitably limited by their project of bringing light to the heathen. The discipline’s starting point is often far, far away from the frontiers of feminist work. Feminist polemics risk reductionism: “Look, fellas, feminism is really very simple and self-evident.”

Each writer finds her own solutions to these inherent dangers of the form. Stacey, Thorne, and Scott turn their attention to the history of their fields; they are analytical about just how sexism is reproduced there. Particular male theorists may be their examples, but their criticism goes beyond individual failures of insight and moves toward a description of male social power and the stake men might have in the “absences” in their work. Showalter solves the central problems of the genre by using irony; she deflates the male critics she suspects of appropriating feminism, “wearing a dress” as they continue to assume total control over the conversation. Cross-dressing is a tease, and in this metaphor Showalter gives shading to what really goes on between the brothers and the sisters in her field. The target of Adrienne Rich’s polemic is all the fields in the university, and she solves the genre problem by refusing to address the brothers directly at all: if they would learn, let them do what women have always had to do—eavesdrop on another’s conversation, listen in to a dialogue already in progress and not centrally about them.

In contrast, Okin has not faced these generic difficulties squarely. She has no sustained explanation for why men are so mysteriously ornery that they refuse to consider the family analytically. She can’t debate feminism at its own current cutting edge; that would leave the brothers behind. And she can’t tell them how complex the questions of family, female identity, and difference have become inside feminist work on psychology, philosophy, sociology, anthropology. That would only confirm the brothers in their belief that the whole project of changing the meaning of gender is hopeless.

If Okin has a strategy, it is to survey the field as she finds it, in all its utter ignorance of feminism. Though this is a service to all who teach the currently canonized modern texts, this strategy also has the odd side effect of perpetuating the high boundaries around justice theory. When feminism appears, it is usually banished to the footnotes, to the margins of the argument. Very few feminist voices make it into the mainstream of Okin’s text.

Why doesn’t Okin weave feminism in, if for no other reason than to give the brothers an introduction to it? Her first answer might be that feminists haven’t produced the unified theory of justice attempted by the brothers, and she would be partly right. But feminists have criticized that goal itself and have written extensively about justice under guises less officially stamped as political theory. For example, a philosopher like Sara Ruddick teaches courses about justice, but when she sits down to write a book, it’s called Maternal Thinking. Ruddick crops up a few times in Okin’s notes, but nowhere does her consideration of the actual, complex dynamics of modern families make its mark on Okin’s thinking. Ruddick worries about how to deal justly with a four-year-old—what would it mean? Dorothy Dinnerstein, too, has tried to describe the subtleties of sexism in the family, to get at the psychological reasons why families are so unjust. This list could go on and on. Where is a reference to philosopher Mary Gibson’s work on Rawls? Why doesn’t legal theorist Martha Minow’s major work on the equality problem get its own full treatment? Where is some account of the feminist critiques of liberal justice theory inherent in the current “difference” debates?

I suspect Okin doesn’t report directly on such work because some of this theory goes against her own emphasis on an achievable, unproblematic “equality.” Yet to write about “equality” now, without reference to feminist bitterness about this goal and its prospects, is to gloss over the very questions feminists have named as the hardest to solve, or even to theorize. Okin proposes as a solution precisely what many feminists have posed as a problem: she says if gender would but disappear all would be well, while a variety of feminists can be heard asking, naggingly, why doesn’t gender easily disappear? And some ask, in addition, should it?

Even if, like me, one shares Okin’s longing for a less gendered world, one finds that she has ignored these feminist debates rather than taking useful stands within them. She has defined her field of inquiry narrowly, and much that is relevant in the huge, sprawling, interdisciplinary corpus of feminist thought falls outside, or lands in the notes. Since there is no bibliography, even the most motivated and assiduous brother might have an excuse to come away from Justice, Gender, and the Family without a must-read feminist book list. He could happily continue to see feminism as an endnote to the massive achievements of contemporary social theory.

The few times Okin moves from monologue to dialogue with other thinkers are in her conversations with the brothers who can also be her real friends. Liberals like Rawls and Walzer offer models she hopes to develop for feminist purposes. Rawls suggests an equality, ruled by empathy and benign variation, that might include women (though he rarely consciously considers them). Walzer goes further, has thought about the basic social asymmetry structured by gender. He defines the existence of separate spheres of social life as a problem and recognizes women’s exclusion from the public sphere as an oppression, an injustice.

Okin spends time mining nuggets from this more amenable work, but here, too, she finds a curious lack of real engagement with feminist thought. Gender flickers in and out of consideration in Rawls’s and Walzer’s theories, when instead they should recognize women’s situation as a central instance of the domination, the inequality from birth, and the asymmetry of duties and entitlements that are their subjects.

Yet in these chapters, Okin expresses hope, a dream of partnership. She shares with Walzer and Rawls a liberal sensibility, a vision of a “genderless world,” and a framework for social justice in which gender as a variation will not matter. In this communal spirit, she offers Rawls and Walzer a friendly amendment: they have made gender disappear too fast, without assessing its specific pull. Okin wants what they want, but she cautions them: in our lifetimes, gender will not wither away by wishing.

Though some of the specifics of Okin’s dialogue with these potentially feminist brothers are arguable, here she is at her best, trying to suggest to colleagues how to extend their work. She lays her claim based on her belief in their sense of rationality and fair play. A wilder, messier feminism may have wreaked some havoc with these hopes; yet they recur, and deserve to recur.

Finally, it would be too easy to blame Okin alone for the underdevelopment of her arguments; her failures are also a measure of what can and cannot be said in her field. Obviously no feminist who reviews feminist books for Dissent should fault Okin for addressing male theorists, possibly new to feminism, on their home ground. Like Okin, I believe there is much value in addressing the brothers.

Yet in an intellectual world often split along gender lines, audience is never an innocent given, always a problem demanding conscious attention. Dissent is read both by feminists and by those who for one reason or another stand outside that name. Each group needs a different review of Okin. To those whose work concerns contemporary theories of justice, Okin is necessary. She begins on a feminist response they cannot do without. Feminists will find her account of feminism thin but may well be grateful to her for taking on the texts now read—alongside her old targets Plato et al.—in standard college courses.

The book’s very existence is an interesting test of this kind of intellectual outreach. Okin tells us Maclntyre changed his theory in response to his critics. Will his next book respond to Okin? Can feminists influence men to remember the women and children by writing in this style, in this voice? Time—and Okin’s future readers—will tell.

Whatever force Okin has here comes from the outraged surprise I criticized earlier. She sought, in Adrienne Rich’s great lines:

The phantom of the man-who-would-understand,
The lost brother, the twin—. . . .
did we invent him, conjure him . . .
the man-who-would-dare-to-know-us?

Rich’s answer is clear: the brother is an illusion, a self-defeating invention. There’s no point in trying to talk to him. Okin strongly disagrees, and she hopes to address “the comrade/twin whose palm/ would bear a lifeline like our own.” This can be a fine longing. Still, as it stands, the voice of the book Okin actually wrote measures her great disappointment so far.

Duggan | University of California Press Gardels