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Women and Equality

Akmal Asghar

The current debate on women's rights has until now been predominantly shaped by its progress in the west. Whilst attitudes towards women have changed significantly in the west through the endeavours of feminists and women's rights movements of different philosophical persuasions, Akmal Asghar questions some of the assumptions and their universality as well as the broader impact of their successes. The treatment of women in any society has become, without doubt, a key marker in evaluating its progress. The accepted framework of the debate on women's rights has centred around the need for 'equality', to redress a historic imbalance that has empowered men considerably more than it has women, and to undermine patriarchy and societies modelled on its assumptions. !t is without doubt that the perception, treatment and rights of women are now dramatically different to those of even the last century. "ut alongside the rapid changes that followed the 'domestic revolution', as some term it, a number of very key questions remain unanswered. While historical pre#udices and assumptions may be slowly eroding in areas of opportunity, employment conditions, political rights, and marriage particularly in the West it would be difficult to argue that the debate on women's rights is now over. $any feminists and women's rights activists, while welcoming the changes of the last century, believe that there are many battles still to be fought, although they remain deeply divided on which battles they are. These unanswered questions not only relate to the rights of women, but to the impact that the successes of women's movements have had on society as a whole. Their progress has fuelled increasingly comple% dilemmas on issues such as the rights of children, relationships with the opposite se%, and the escalation of previously rare social problems. They have e%posed shortcomings in the accepted framework and in its very assumptions, illustrated by the bitter divisions that plague post feminist movements. &ritically, one must ask if the discussions in the West promoted as a template and international standard have addressed the core issues of the debate. !f, however, they have overlooked them we are in need of a new perspective. The conte%t The currently accepted framework of debate on women's rights originated shortly after Europe's age of enlightenment. !t was $ary Wollstonecroft, influenced by her company of liberal thinkers, who first applied the conclusions of the enlightenment to the issues of women in her ''indication of the (ights of Women' in )*+,. !t followed the publication of 'The (ights of $an' by her close friend Thomas -aine and challenged the 'domestic tyranny of men' as -aine had challenged the 'divine right of kings'. After nearly a century of campaigning, and through the turbulence of the .rench (evolution, another landmark work on the rights of women was the publication of 'The /ub#ugation of Women' by 0ohn /tuart $ill.

'$odern' perspectives on the rights of women are largely based on the liberal conclusions first articulated by Wollstonecroft and $ill. Also termed 'constructivism', liberal positions assert that men and women are fundamentally 'perfectly' as $ill puts it equal. Accepting anything less is to promote the oppression of one se% over the other, rendering the other subordinate. 1bserved differences between men and women, they asserted, are neither biological nor innate but the product of centuries of conditioning. This is why feminists are keen to differentiate between 'gender' as a social construct and 'se%'. /imone 2e "eauvoir, one of the most significant voices after Wollstonecroft, famously remarked in her book 'The /econd /e%'3 41ne is not born, but rather becomes, a woman4. Equality translated to equal political, economic, and social rights and opportunities, such as those to independent education, employment and political representation. The 'division of labour', between housewife female and breadwinning male, was deplored as a symbol of sub#ugation and patriarchy 5male dominated society6 and a consequence of the growing in#ustices of the industrial revolution. 7iberal individualism, therefore, was the bedrock on which classical theories of women's emancipation were founded and which now form the foundations of modern perceptions. The traditionalists, or essentialists, who maintained that the differences between men and women were a biological fact and not a social construct, are now less prominent in the debate on women's rights. Advocates such as 0ames .it80ames /tephen, a contemporary of $ill, in his book '7iberty, Equality and .raternity' held that differing political, social and economic rights should follow from these determined differences. The 'ictorians held that men and women should operate in two separate spheres 5with the women confined to the home6 based on the long established belief of the world as a naturally ordered whole, in which all was harmonious as long as things stayed in their ordained places. This is the division of labour feminists deplored. Although conservatives and traditionalists still maintain similar arguments, the liberals have the victory in the debate thus far. Equality3 The European conte%t 9reat significance and importance has been assigned to the discussion of 'equality', and to the specific meaning it has come to assume, by western writers. "ut its symbolism as a key tenet in the debate on women's rights, such that it has become the very prism through which emancipation is measured, is largely because of its European conte%t. $ovements who championed women's emancipation were defined by their struggle against a distinctly European mindset and the inconsistency with which it treated women in relation to men, particularly during its medieval to post industrial period. !t is events in Europe and post revolution America both of whom share a common European tradition which have defined the accepted framework of the debate on women. A number of contributions forged the historical conte%t in which equality between the se%es was first suggested in Europe. &hristian theology, a pillar of Europe's medieval monarchies, played a pivotal role in forming Europe's confused perspectives on women. The 2ecretum 9ratiani, which formed the basis of &hurch law for nearly eight hundred years between )):; and )+)*, assigned roles and duties on the basis that 4sin came into

the world through them <women=4 and that 4because of original sin they <women= must show themselves submissive4.i Apart from blaming Eve for original sin, and so condemning women, the belief that Eve was created out of the bent rib of Adam popularised their secondary nature. !ndeed, even after the (eformation, the works of theologians that asserted women possessed an innately evil capacity, and that even their humanity was questionable convinced monarchs and senior clergy. -ope !nnocent '!!!'s endorsement of the book 'The >ammer of the Witches' in ):?:, which asserts3 4What else is woman but a foe to friendship, an inescapable punishment, a necessary evil, a natural temptation, a desirable calamity, a domestic danger, a delectable detriment, an evil of nature, painted with fair colours4,ii resulted in thousands of women being burned at the stake.
These theological traditions positioned women at the start of the industrial revolution. Industrialisation, however, did not liberate women from their historical treatment but merely compounded their subordination. The considerable wealth generated during the industrial age created a growing male middle class who increasingly disregarded women. Women either found themselves working for a pitiful wage in the large factories brought on by industrialisation or married to the expanding group of middle class industrialists to whom they deferred ownership of their property, control over wages they earned independently, and the major part of their marriage rights. Accompanying the increasing power middle class men enjoyed, was domestic abuse and violence. Women bemoaned their treatment at the hands of men, who justified their typically drunk and unruly behaviour on the pressures of increasing competition in commerce and industry and showed no interest in domestic matters other than to demand that their needs were met. Indeed, it was this situation in industrial urope that formed the key notion of patriarchy, or male dominated societies, that feminists have opposed ever since. ven the enlightenment!s most eminent thinkers spoke of the subject in a manner reflective of more traditional attitudes. "ousseau in ! mile!, his seminal work on education, wrote# $%en and women are made for each other, but their mutual dependencies are not e&ual. We could survive without them better than they could without us. They are dependent on our feelings, on the price we put on their merits, on the value we set on their attractions and on their virtues. Thus women!s entire education should be planned in relation to men. To please men, to be useful to them to win their love and respect'$iii In this historical context, e&uality was significant and indeed very controversial when first suggested. The e&uality debate established the framework by which urope dealt with the subjugation of its women, corrected perceptions of their inferiority and founded movements that worked for their emancipation. (ut if we separate the long history that formed the backdrop to the notion of e&uality, we find the assertion that neither men nor women are inferior to one another is a very simple, indeed obvious, truth. )orrecting historical prejudice alone cannot be a basis for defining a relationship between people. valuating the idea of e&uality The simple assertion that men and women are e&ual*that women are not inferior to men*alone articulates very little if considered outside its historical context+ it leaves a number of unanswered &uestions. It does not address how best men and women can cooperate to forge a socially cohesive society. In the wider context of human relationships, we are in need of more than just this simple assertion of e&uality to handle the disputes and organise the relationships that naturally arise between people. Indeed, we are in need of a body of additional ideas and principles. ,iberal individualism, however, may regard this an irrelevant criticism+ it considers men and women as individuals and the unanswered &uestions justified because they represent the personal freedom for both men and women to conduct their lives in the way they see fit. The issue of social cohesion may, therefore, be of marginal importance if it means restricting the choices of individuals in the name of the health of the collective. There are two important issues to consider in responding to liberal objections. -irstly, the need for a framework of additional ideas and principles arises from no more than human interactions that occur within families, social groups, and society as a whole. ,iberal individualism, characterised sometimes as putting the !individual before society!, would articulate a deficient political theory if it were to ignore relationships that

are often not a matter of much choice. Individuals could always choose to isolate themselves from family and society, but we are born with family and relatives and so naturally relate with them+ we engage in social activity with friends, and relationships between men and women determine the very future of the human race through human reproduction. .ome framework is needed to articulate rights, indeed responsibilities, that men, women and their offspring should be appropriated in order to produce a socially coherent society. .econdly, the issue of difference. /ifferences between men and women can lead to specific needs and complex disputes, whose management is a key element of ensuring social cohesion. Any failure to acknowledge or manage them effectively in the name of e&uality can be just as oppressive and detrimental as believing they symbolise the superiority of one sex over the other. A simple assertion of human e&uality provides limited guidance on the issue of difference and gives rise to a need for additional, more elaborate, ideas and principles. /ifferences between men and women laborating on each of these points, let us briefly consider the issue of difference. 0ften received with scepticism, liberal and feminist thinkers asserted that perceived differences between men and women were a social construct, not biological fact, and that the discussion of differences had been used historically as a tool for condemning women to subordinate roles. 1istorically in urope, there have been some perceived differences between men and women 2whether or not women possessed deficient intelligence, reduced capability for sound verdicts, and a lower capacity to learn and reason3 which were assumptions, not facts, about women. The distinction between gender and sex therefore appears justifiable and a helpful way to seperate social construct from biological fact. (ut rejecting all differences by attributing them to the product of social conditions may e&ually result in a dishonest account of human nature. There are observable differences between men and women, the nature of which have been the subject of many contemporary debates in science, indeed the themes of philosophical discourse over many millennia# from studies by evolutionary psychologists and neuroscientists, to the conclusions of 4lato and Aristotle.iv In fact, among the increasingly fragmented post*feminist movements are those who assert, rather than deny, differences between men and women. They draw on differences between men and women to identify the uni&ueness of women and refuse male assimilation that results from interpreting female characteristics in male terms. They assert femininity and characterise contemporary thinking in many ways. The 54o et 4syche6 attempted to understand the uni&ueness of women through the use of -reudian, amongst other, psycho*analyses. The early eighties saw the emerging popularity of the !difference feminists!, after the publication of )arol 7illigan!s !In a /ifferent 8oice! in 9:;<, following conclusions by =ancy )hodorow published in !The "eproduction of %othering!. 7illigan attempted to assert that women possessed a different type of intelligence, a more caring and emotionally sophisticated psyche that was uni&uely different*although some went on to assert it more superior*to that of men. The conclusions of these scientific and philosophical studies have been disparate and varied*some clearly disproved and erroneous, as have some of the methods used to understand them, particularly -reudian tools or 7illigan!s surveys 2as well as the &uestionable relevance of knowledge of the precise nature of differences in solving practical social problems3. 1owever, these discourses demonstrate that differences between men and women have been consistently observable and are not recent phenomena. It is crucial to note that unlike some conservative conclusions,v differences do not translate to the inferiority or superiority of either sex and must be considered in this context. Addressing differences and relationships between men and women &uality alone appears an unsophisticated conclusion in dealing with differences. This is because they may result in a demand for different treatment, indeed additional rights under certain circumstances. -or example, it is women that give birth and carry the physical impact of doing so during pregnancy and delivery, just as they carry the burden of doing what they can to give birth to a healthy child. This may re&uire specific medical treatment and care arrangements during pregnancy and after the birth of the child, for both mother and child. These are re&uirements that men will never need as the difference in treatment arises from biological differences between men and women. In simple e&uality terms, this may appear an endorsement of une&ual treatment, and so demanding e&uality alone can be misleading. ,eaving aside simple differences due to biology, the issue is more complex when dealing with disputes. The issue of children is particularly divisive if not managed correctly, as they involve a collective group of individuals and the relationships between them. -or example, if a couple decide to separate after the birth of

their child, or even some time after that, who takes responsibility of the child if both want to do so> If one does take custody, what governs the relationship, access, the amount of time spent, financial assistance the mother or father have with that child if they are not the ones granted custody> Women may consider they have a greater right over the child because of the physical impact they endured carrying the child during pregnancy, a demand that asserts biology can justify different, indeed additional, rights. .uch disputes have proven a challenge for western legislators, and lucrative for its legal profession+ among other things, the increasing divorce rates present a number of complex scenarios. The failures of the current system 2discussed in detail later3 to deal with such situations have left both sexes, in different situations, complaining of unfair treatment. The !-athers for ?ustice! campaign in (ritain is one public example of parents expressing their sense of anger at the unfairness with which they believe the system has treated them in relation to women. .uch feelings of unfairness are unfortunate, as fairness rests at the heart of any pursuit for, or perception of, e&uality. Indeed, a number of problems naturally confront men and women, regardless of the precise nature or extent of differences between them, simply because of the fact that the continuation of the human species depends on their mutual coming together. 4oliticians and thinkers have not only been preoccupied with disputes, but also with the ideal setting for their convening and the impact that fractured relationships can have on both sexes and society as a whole. The need for a social framework A simple assertion of e&uality alone, therefore, has limited practical use+ there is a need for something more detailed and sophisticated. It provides limited insight into the rights either sex should be appropriated in such disputes. As the philosopher ? " ,ucas points out# $It is clear that formal &uality by itself establishes very little' %any of these differences we may wish to rule out as not being relevant, but since the principle of formal &uality does not provide, of itself, any criteria of relevance, it does not, by itself, establish much. It gives a line of argument, but not any definite conclusion$.vi The words of 4eggy Antrobus resonate these limitations as she describes !e&uality vs difference! being amongst the woman!s movement!s $paradoxes and dilemmas$vii in her book !The 7lobal Woman!s %ovement!. We are therefore in need of a social framework comprising additional, more elaborated, ideas and principles that tackle justice, rights and responsibilities, and how to administer them. Terms such as !justice!, !e&uality!, !une&ual!, and !fair! are closely associated, and do not always carry reciprocal meanings as has been briefly illustrated, but exactly how depends on this framework. )ritics also point to the fact that a principle of e&uality provides insufficient guidance in, for example, arbitrating justice.viii )riticising through the prism of e&uality Indeed, feminist activists and thinkers implicitly acknowledge this. The meaning of !e&uality! is heavily contested exactly because it has come to include perspectives on the ideal social framework, and how to attain it. -or liberal feminists, it is largely correcting prejudices in the prevailing, western system+ for some radical feminists it is primarily fighting patriarchy+ for socialist feminists it is e&ualising economic conditions+ for some it is even reasserting motherhood, and all these are among many others. These disagreements and disputes all centre on translating or !practicalising! e&uality, which often results in fundamentally opposing conclusions. -or example, the use of the women!s body in advertising or pornography+ whether to correct, undermine or replace the current system+ whether or not to assert difference or to regard it as having no bearing in the appropriation of rights+ whether or not the domestic mother is a subjugated role or a symbol of distinct femininity+ whether or not the terms !feminine! or !femininity! themselves inherently depict subjugation and should be rejected, are just a few of the subjects that deeply divide contemporary feminist thought. (ut although termed !e&uality!, it is essential to separate it from opinions on social framework and policy. Asserting that neither men nor women are inferior to each other can be accepted as universal+ current opinions on social policy are not. Therefore, approaching the subject of women!s right through the term !e&uality! can be ambiguous, if not misleading, as can criticising alternative perspectives on women!s rights through its use. The substantive debate is thus over the social frameworks used to manage the relationships between men and women, and not the somewhat nebulous labels used to describe them. -ailures of the current social framework The predominant approach to social framework, labelled !e&uality!, in western liberal democracies has been to grant women the rights and opportunities that men have enjoyed historically. It has translated into a

demand for e&ual employment, political, economic, and social rights and opportunities, and attempts to combat sexist prejudices. It is an approach that seeks to e&ualise rights and opportunities in the context of the existing system+ not to replace it, but to e&ualise treatment under it. 1owever, a policy that seeks simply to e&ualise treatment in an existing system may also be oppressive. In fact, a considerable segment of feminist thought rejects it as a counterproductive approach. It does not correct inherent errors in the values that form the existing system, but assimilates women into them. 4articularly if the existing system is institutionally at the service of men, women continually refer to their rights in male terms as they play catch*up in a system that is accepted as preferential to and prejudicing men, therefore institutionalising their disadvantaged status. The issue of employment opportunities and rights has featured significantly in this approach. -eminist thinkers considered financial independence from men a key part of emancipation+ that men!s monopoly over earnings has meant that power has rested with the male half of humanity historically. 4romoting economic independence, however, has led to difficulties of other kinds. -or those couples, or single mothers, with children, liberation against domestication through pursuing paid employment has often made little financial sense, and has created concerns over relationships with children. Alongside increases in the number of women in paid employment has been an increase in demand for childcare, and with it substantial costs of hire, compounded by current shortages.ix The cost of day nurseries in the @A, nationally, is estimated to be nearly BCDDD a year for a < year*old child, peaking to B9E; per week in ,ondon,x and the cost for a nanny is estimated at averaging over B<9,DDD a year,xi above the national average wage. ven for most dual*income families this is a considerable financial burden, and says nothing of the mental and physical effort that is re&uired to combine paid employment with responsibility for children. Indeed, the situation is rather ironic. A mother seeking employment creates an employment opportunity in doing so, through the need for someone to mind her child whilst at work+ hiring the child*carer costs a considerable proportion of her own wage, and more often than not will hire a woman.xii .uperficially, it appears a rather complicated reshuffle but with the same net effect*someone must care for the child. If the mother, or father, had remained at home it would not have considerably altered her, or the couple!s, income or costs. (ut as current employment debate demonstrates, despite the financial paradox, employment has become an icon of empowerment and is demanding that women!s child*bearing nature should not put them at any career disadvantage to men. It is not only financial pressures that women and couples have come to endure. The onset of a number of social dilemmas and problems can be traced back to confusion and a lack of guidance over social responsibilities, although liberal individualists may interpret such shortcomings as welcome freedom. %en and women may lead independent, indeed irresponsible, lives but the birth of a child brings with it a shared responsibility that needs to be managed. Working parents have a limited amount of time with their children, an issue of considerable regret as surveys indicatexiii and there is confusion over responsibilities towards children in respect of time, commitment, values, and whether or not to divide or share tasks between couples. While women increasingly confront the assumption that they are primarily responsible for the care of children, it appears that the popular perception among men is that they are not.xiv .ome couples may share responsibilities but the numbers of single parent families are rising, as are children available for adoption, teenage pregnancies, abortions, and !unintended! births. The impact has been to burden parents with numerous social and financial dilemmas and to burden society with the impact of their inevitable mistakes. A 7reat /isruption> In his book !The 7reat /isruption!, -rancis -ukuyama points to the, $'negative social trends, which together reflect a weakening of social bonds and common values in Western societies'$ understanding the causes of which he dedicates a book. 1e contends that the onset of service based industries and the independence provided by the invention of oral contraceptives in the EDs and CDs unleashed women to the labour markets, a trend which has subse&uently compromised traditional family structures. The breakdown in family structures and the loss of !social capital! in the west he asserts, has subse&uently created crime, insecurity and moral decline. (ut the technological advances which delivered the computer and the pill were not the cause of women entering employment+ but rather tools for advocates of women!s liberation, as the conomist magaFine points out.xv It is ironic, that while heralding the triumph of liberal democracies in !The nd of 1istory and the ,ast %an!, -ukuyama admits that individualism 2which conse&uently led to the basis of feminism3 now compromises social stability# $The tendency of contemporary liberal democracies to fall prey to excessive individualism is perhaps their greatest long*term vulnerability and is particularly visible in the most individualistic of all democracies, the @nited .tates$.xvi This increasing confusion over social responsibility has prompted some to attempt to identify the most

appropriate social setting for children, families and society as a whole. Indeed, none other than ?ack .traw, when he was (ritish home secretary, wrote in his introduction to !.upporting -amilies!# $The evidence is that children are best brought up where you have two natural parents and it is more likely to be a stable family if they are married. It plainly makes sense for the government to do what it can to strengthen the institution of marriage$, a view fought vociferously by radical feminists in his own party.xvii (ut promoting !stable! family structures in the context of expanding dual income families, as women seek empowerment in the labour markets, and the costs of childcare, is fraught with dilemmas, complications, and apparent paradoxes. The heart of the problem in the current framework lies in the paradox created by trading*off liberal individualism and the need for social cohesion+ liberating women from traditional family settings and the need for stable homes+ challenging men!s monopoly on earnings and the disadvantage created by women!s child*bearing nature+ seeking e&uality with men and appropriating for human differences. The logic of each creates an impasse. "oles G "esponsibilities Western societies have increasingly rejected the notion of different roles and responsibilities between men and women to handle their increasing social dilemmas, as part of a social construct of gender and a disadvantageous division of labour. 1owever, the &uestioning of social construct, both social roles and policy, by feminist thinkers has largely been to undermine historically western assumptions about women. =o right to vote+ to own property or to dispose of income as one wishes+ denied access to education and work+ considered meaningless in political and intellectual circles+ regarded as inferior to men*all these describe the condition of women in uropean history. It seems appropriate to undermine these assumptions, indeed to reject them, as it does challenge this subjugated feminine construct. (ut it would be short*sighted to reject all beliefs about social relationships between men and women on the back of uropean experience and the roles it appropriated its women. -rom the discussion on managing differences, it appears that even after deconstructing social roles and constructs, the reality of men and women lead us back to conclude that some social system is needed to regulate their relationships, to prevent subjugation, abuse of rights and manage disputes between them. A framework is needed to articulate responsibilities and rights that men, women and children have towards each other. Thus, should we reject the notion of a !social construct! per se, or specifically those false !social constructs! that lead to the subjugation of either sex> (ut in a secular framework, an answer is difficult as it is trapped in gender polarisation. ither it is men that decide roles and responsibilities, or women. Whoever decides, they will fuel accusations of bias, preference, and privilege towards the deciding sex, by strengthening either patriarchy or matriarchy. In the development of the debate in the West these are the accusations that arguably rendered the appropriation of roles irrelevant in the first place. Huestioning the assumptions G presenting alternatives The story of the modern woman is one of her journey through the history of Western urope and =orth America. Whether the depiction of %ary Wollenstonecroft as the !first feminist!, the -rench revolution, %ill!s work on the !.ubjugation of Women!, the 4ankhurst!s and the suffragettes, or the !successes! of !second wave! feminism in the EDs and CDs+ it is the uropean experience that has been taken as the global model for women!s emancipation. It inspires, indeed defines, feminism in other parts of the world. (ut its uropean context has entrenched a number of urocentric assumptions. This is most apparent when considering alternatives, such as the Islamic social framework. It is true that in the industrial middle class, men translated economic prowess as power both in society and in family, and the domestic mother in the context of advent of liberalism and capitalism came to represent a subjugated role. 1owever, a domestic mother in the Islamic social framework is in an empowered and honoured position. .he is afforded rights to property, is encouraged to learn and gain scholarship, to be politically active*indeed is granted the vote*and is afforded a number of marriage rights including access to divorce. This Islamic framework does not measure worth in terms of wealth or access to it, as has increasingly been the case in the West since the advent of liberal )apitalism, and so motherhood is valued no less, and often more so, than a highly paid role. (y the same token, Islam does not consider men predominating in the work place as representing patriarchy, or placing society at the service of men!s needs. The Islamic framework is built on accepting that men and women are e&ually human, neither inferior to the other 2indeed it did so well before urope!s

enlightenment3 and are judged e&ually before their )reator. (oth men and women may choose to work and earn, and those earnings are measured by merit and not by sex+ women will earn the same as men if undertaking the same work. ,ikewise, the validity of opinions is not measured by assumptions about the advocating sex, but as the product of human reasoning. It promotes different roles for men and women, but does not suffer from gender polarisation as it is not men or women who decide the preferred roles and responsibilities but their )reator. It is common to hear criticisms of Islam!s treatment of women because of the difference in, for example, dress code. This is interpreted as representing ine&uality and subjugation to men, or even sexist. (ut as the discussion earlier demonstrates, criticising difference as ine&uality is an unsophisticated outlook and practical views on e&uality are actually views on social framework. And so labelling Islam!s social framework as promoting ine&uality is to do no more than say it is different+ alone it represents no universal criticism as views on social framework are particular to broader viewpoints of ideology and disputed among feminists themselves. References
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