Equality and opportunity

I recently came across the claim that the feminist movement was a mistake because it led to women feeling unfulfilled by activities traditionally pursued by men. This idea, it seems, was motivated by a study showing that women are less happy today than they were a few decades ago.

In short, this claim can be boiled down to the following: opportunities should never have been opened to women, because they were never suitable for women in the first place, and they simply make women less happy.

Feel free to take a minute to pick your jaw off the floor…

I am not going to dissect the study on happiness, even though it doesn’t quite support the original claim. Instead, I must discuss the claim’s deeper problems: 1) it assumes that men know what’s best for women and 2) it is not consistent with the approach taken to men’s rights.

Historical prejudices against women were, obviously, perpetuated by men. Men felt they understood women well enough to maintain blanket restrictions on their freedom. Women were supposedly not intelligent or independent enough to vote, and they were inherently poorly suited to high-powered, stressful positions of work.  These ideas were, of course, based on thin air rather than first-hand experience (this reminds me of the many restrictions and opinions on sexual intercourse put forth by [allegedly] celibate Catholic clergy, who haven’t the foggiest understanding of what a healthy sexual relationship is).

There is, of course, some evidence of significant differences between men and women, and it would be foolish to ignore these. It may even turn out to be correct, in some narrow sense, to say that women are generally better suited to one type of activity than another. The same could also be said for men.

And that’s really the point. Both men and women have weaknesses or quirks common to their sex.  Importantly, though, these quirks have never barred men from any opportunity. Why then should the quirks of femininity bar them from any opportunity? Put differently, why can’t women be afforded the respect of making their own decision about which opportunities to try?

Another thing to note is that the quirks commonly attributed to men or women as a class are not universally present in all men or women. Some women plainly excel in areas commonly thought of as the man’s domain, and vice versa. The idea that no men should be nurses, for instance, or that women should not be permitted to serve combat roles in the military, are born of grossly over-simplified, often blatantly false, stereotypes, that have no place in the law of the land.

There is only one case in which I support the denial of opportunity to an entire class of people: if the potential for harm is very great. And indeed, such denials are common, and widely accepted: one is required to have a medical degree and sufficient practical training before being permitted to perform open heart surgery. One is required to go through rigorous training before being placed in the cockpit of a Boeing 777 full of passengers. Women are denied access to certain physical activities when they are pregnant, in order to ensure the safety of the child. These may be denials of opportunity, but at least they are based on fact and sound reasoning.

(Image from http://feministobameter.wordpress.com/.)

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