Why—and How—Women Should Be Free


The Sceptical Feminist: A Philosophical Enquiry, by Janet Radcliffe Richards, Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1980, 306 pp., $21.50.

Classical liberalism signifies maximum liberty and individual choice for all. Historically, the doctrine was largely responsible for the demise of traditional patriarchal justifications for the rights of (male) rulers, according to which monarchs possessed the rights and privileges of fathers and derived these from Adam.

Classical liberalism also opposes "paternalism," or interference with an individual's liberty for his or her own good (drug laws, mandatory motorcycle helmets, protective laws for women, etc.). Many classical liberals—though by no means most—followed the logic of their doctrine and became feminists. Why then, while we are experiencing a revival of classical liberalism, isn't the fight for women's liberty from unjust laws and restrictive attitudes one of the important priorities of classical liberals today?

John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor long ago argued against restrictive social attitudes that enslaved women as effectively as chains. But a look at the chains will show that the restrictions on laborers and entrepreneurs that shackle individual enterprise today as effectively as similar rules and regulations in the time of Adam Smith are minor compared to those imposed then and (to a somewhat lesser degree) today on women. Why aren't classical liberals up in arms and leading the fight for the rights of women?

It is not surprising that classical liberals are not moved to action by feminist calls to the barricades when some feminists claim the right to ban prostitution and Playboy magazine, argue that the state ought to provide day-care and abortion services on demand (for "free"), and blame the oppression of women (and most other woes) on "capitalism." But this should be no more of an excuse for sitting on the sidelines than was the prevalence of authoritarian socialists in the fight against US intervention in Vietnam or in the struggle for racial justice in the '50s and '60s.

The Sceptical Feminist by British philosopher Janet Radcliffe Richards should remedy this situation. Eschewing speculative argument and dubious theory characteristic of many liberation movements, Richards develops a simple and powerful case for radical change in our societies' rules and attitudes governing women and their traditional roles. Her book is contemporary philosophy at its best. She examines carefully the various issues raised by feminist critiques of contemporary and traditional society, analyzes these in detail, and sorts out good argument from bad. Throughout, her appeal is to arguments, and antifeminists courageous enough to pick up the book will not be able to dismiss it as "emotional" or "hysterical."

Richards is critical not only of traditional sexism but also, as the title indicates, of much contemporary feminism. She rejects the view that feminism should "take the woman's side in everything." Instead, she defends the position that feminism seeks to combat the systematic injustice that women suffer because of their sex. "Feminism," Richards argues, "is not concerned with a group of people it wants to benefit, but with a type of injustice it wants to eliminate." Feminists do not necessarily make up yet another pressure group, fighting simply for the (insatiable) interests of its members. This point is important, and true, as it shows how the appeal of feminist claims is ultimately for justice.

In one of the best discussions of the issue that I have ever read, Richards argues that the matter of the "nature" of men and women does not and will not shed much light on what men and women should be or do. Not only does the nature of a thing not entail what that thing ought to be, but traditional sex roles simply cannot be justified by traditional beliefs about the "nature" of women.

Discussing a wide variety of issues, Richards argues against state subsidization of day care and of motherhood, criticizes the common feminist view that prostitution is inherently degrading, and challenges the idea that feminists should be opposed to adornment and beauty in women (or in men, for that matter).

This book will undoubtedly be strongly criticized by many feminists. But the author's challenge of many tenets of contemporary feminism and the "skepticism" in her title should not mislead readers. To be sure, Richards is skeptical about much of feminist theory. But she is not a "skeptical feminist" in the sense of one reluctant to accept a feminist—a radical feminist—position. Rather, her skepticism is a philosophical approach to feminism (and antifeminism), much in the tradition of British philosophy. Her approach is cautious, systematic, and argumentative. As a consequence, her book is extremely powerful and ought to silence the intrepid anti-feminists of contemporary conservative politics.

The skepticism is misleading, however, if readers of the title and dust-jacket come to view the book merely as a refutation of the dubious claims and theories of contemporary feminism. For The Sceptical Feminist is a radical work. Indeed, if readers are convinced of her conclusions—and it is hard to see how in general they could fail to be—they will be committed to undoing all "selection discrimination" against women (the systematic exclusion of women from positions because of their sex) as well as all structural unfairness in the social system that favors men at the expense of women. Her analyses and arguments, especially those concerning "reverse discrimination," are complex and subtle.

Classical liberals (and others) will not be able to dissent from her conclusions, I think, even if she uses John Rawls's controversial "difference principle" of justice to generate her conclusions. Rawls's principle is not radically egalitarian (in spite of having been interpreted thus by many classical liberals and conservatives), and Richards recognizes from the outset that justice "does not entail equality on average between men and women." It will not be enough to show that "women are at a disadvantage to men," for that, she claims, "is not enough to prove that women are unfairly treated." Some people might be tempted to stop at this point, confident that feminist claims of injustice have been rebutted by these remarks about justice. But this is a mistake, for there is a case to be made that the position of women in our societies is the result of gross and systematic injustice even if one does not argue simply that "there is inequality between the sexes, therefore the situation is unjust."

The Sceptical Feminist should be of interest not only to feminists and political philosophers but to all defenders of liberty. Classical liberals especially cannot much longer remain indifferent to the claims of feminism. Janet Radcliffe Richards's exciting book should suffice to persuade the defenders of liberty to rally to the cause of feminism.

Christopher Morris is a philosophy professor at the University of Ottawa, Canada.