Graphic by Melinda Szekeres/Connor Pearce

Rethinking Feminist Notions of Equality

The insistence on treating men and women the same will do little to even the playing field.

Apr 2, 2017

My mom doesn’t think she is a feminist. The woman who worked two jobs to pay for her college education. The woman who raised three kids not out of social pressure but out of love and choice. The woman who does not treat her daughter any differently than she does her sons. The woman who encourages my academic and career ambitions. She does not think she is a feminist.
Don’t get me wrong. My mom believes wholeheartedly that women are just as capable as men and that they should have the same rights and opportunities. But her problem with many feminists is that they associate equality with sameness, thus ignoring fundamental differences between men and women.
There are two strains of feminist thought. The first strain is based on formal equality. Essentially, feminists who follow this school of thought, such as Catherine A. MacKinnon, advocate for equal treatment across genders. That being said, feminists who adhere to this belief do not claim sameness across genders, but rather, they believe that the biological distinctions between men and women should not make any difference within legal, political, social and economic contexts. Men and women are not the same physiologically, but that shouldn’t matter when it comes to the issues of rights and opportunities.
The second school of thought focuses on substantive equality. Advocates of substantive equality, such as Frances Olsen, argue that it is acceptable to treat both genders differently if the aim is to prevent the further exacerbation of gender relations and to correct current inequalities. The main claim is that even if men and women are treated the same, many of the institutions that exist today favor male values and standards. Thus, under some circumstances, granting women different, not preferential, treatment is just. And essentially, this is what my mom argues — that the point of feminism is not equality but justice for two different kinds of human beings.
That is not to say that there aren’t instances in which our physiological differences should be irrelevant. When it comes to suffrage, taxes, property and inheritance rights, to name just a few, gender should be insignificant. But there are cases in which establishing equal rights does not bring about equality, largely because of the biological distinctiveness of women.
For example, many health insurance companies practice gender ratings in which women are charged more than men. This is because of the expectation that women require more healthcare services, due in large part to pregnancy. Female school attendance rates in developing countries are affected by an absence of separate toilet facilities or the lack of sanitary products, which thereby impacts girls’ performance in school during their menstrual cycles. In addition some employers avoid hiring women in order to avoid dealing with maternity leave and child care responsibilities because of their financial costs.
These are all issues that are not resolved simply by giving women the same rights to healthcare, education and employment as men. In order to address the additional problems women face, we cannot overlook the biological differences across genders. Attempts to treat men and women the same and expect equality to emerge are mistaken.
Even in light of equal legal rights, there are systematic changes that need to be made in order to achieve actual gender equality. Advocating for sameness sets women up for an arduous uphill battle trying to meet societal expectations that were created for men. Employer and societal demands are at conflict with the distinctive reality of being a woman.
Feminism seeks to achieve equality of the sexes, but due to biological and historically contingent facts, a girl and a boy born today are not guaranteed the same quality of life. The solution is not to minimize their biological distinctiveness, because that is the fundamental source of the problem. We need to address and accommodate these inherent differences in order to achieve true equality.
The insistence on treating men and women the same will do little to even the playing field. By downplaying our differences, we forget to appreciate the beauty in our uniqueness. Feminism shouldn't be about equality but about equity, and in order to do this, we must take into consideration the natural and biological differences between men and women.
My mom still doesn’t think she is a feminist. But I think she couldn’t be more mistaken. She is the greatest feminist I know.
Paula Estrada is Deputy News Editor. Email her at feedback@thegazelle.org.
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