Difference and the Challenge to a Male Paradigm
Although there can be no doubt that the stress on similarity is generally correct and is basic to attaining equality, it is also important to be clear about the hazard of not recognizing gender difference. The danger is that those who minimize difference or attempt to eliminate difference in order to gain admission to the public sphere may be unwittingly accepting and thereby implicitly affirming a masculine view of what constitutes value. This includes accepting a
masculine analysis of women's deficiencies and why these alleged deficiencies make women's exclusion and secondary status understandable or justifiable. Some emphasis on difference is essential to feminism if women are not to be swallowed up in masculinism. The difference emphasis says that women need to define themselves, to construct themselves, not in the image of men nor in the image of what men say they are but in an image they can call their own. This is not an easy task and simply affirming the extent to which male standards prevail will not do it. A case in point here is the pathbreaking work of Simone de Beauvoir. Even though she brilliantly analyzed the extent to which women are measured by male norms and standards of value, she nevertheless tended in her own life and work to valorize masculine perspectives.
The shift in emphasis toward recognizing difference has emerged among feminists of all stripes and their academic counterparts. Betty Friedan, a representative of liberal feminism, in her book The Second Stage strongly affirms women's interest in the family or familial-type relationships that are not to be sacrificed to careerism but somehow combined with it. Friedan states that "we must admit and begin openly to discuss feminist denial of the importance of family, of women's own needs to give and get love and nurture, tenderloving care." Socialist feminists are increasingly questioning whether feminism can ever be totally compatible with Marxism because of the latter's economism and masculinist perspective. Radical feminists have always stressed women's difference, focusing either on the existence and importance of female bonding or on males' sexual oppression of women. Mary Daly has been for a long time engaged explicitly in finding and creating a voice for women, even if the category "woman" must be renamed.
In more strictly academic circles, the difference trend is unmistakable. As early as 1977 Alice Rossi seemed to some to contradict her earlier "immodest proposal," which stresses similarity, by suggesting that women's mothering capacities and needs were greater than men's and were not being met as society is now constituted. The scholarly historical work on women's friendships begun by Carroll Smith-Rosenberg and published in the first issue of Signs has continued and burgeoned, showing that women do bond, but in a way that is different from men, and also showing the extent to which twentieth-century women have been prevented from
bonding by the increasing privatization of the family. Jessie Bernard in The Female World describes the positive aspects of women from a female perspective, not a male perspective. Dorothy Smith in sociology and many others in various disciplines have suggested that women's somewhat different perspectives can inform scientific methodology and help eliminate the male bias that now characterizes science. There is also the work, which I will discuss in detail later, on women's mothering, which sees it as a basis for gender difference and to some extent as a cause of gender difference.
In psychology, the work of Carol Gilligan on the differences between the moral thinking of males and females has won great popularity both within and outside academic circles and has become a focal point for a reintroduction of a positive view of difference. According to Gilligan, women are more likely to think in terms of responsibility and interdependence, whereas men tend to see moral issues in terms of rights and noninterference in the rights of others. Gilligan defines women's approach to moral dilemmas in a way that women can identify with, and at the same time she argues convincingly that the approach more characteristic of females than males is by no means inferior.
Some difference feminists take the idea of difference much too far. Certainly it does a disservice to women and to the facts to posit an essential, unchanging, biologically given female "nature." Such "essentialism" is contradicted by historical and anthropological data on the diversity of human social arrangements and the diversity of cultural definitions of what women and men are and should be like. Most feminists who stress difference, however, do not consider "difference" to be all-encompassing and invariant. Although gender differences exist, they are not absolute or irreducible, rather, they are in large part socially constructed.
It is also dangerous to imply by difference that women are somehow inevitably associated with the private sphere, which often translates to "keeping out of things." In modern times at least, power resides in the public sphere. The difference focus within feminism would be of little use to feminists if the bases of male power in the public sphere remained undisturbed. Women's difference then would need to gain a voice in the public sphere to move women toward more equitable gender arrangements. In the long run, recognizing difference and then bonding on the basis of that
difference might allow women to become a positive force for social change that not only lets women into the public sphere but allows them to effect changes for women in the society as a whole, including changing the ideological separation between public and private.
Certainly the solution to women's inequality does not lie in emphasizing difference. For women to make progress, however, we must explore who we are and what we want to become on our own terms so far as possible. Thanks largely to the degree of assimilation women have achieved, we are in a better position to see our problem and to construct our own version of what women share and what women want. Although women's interests as women are cross-cut by class, race, and ethnic differences, all women have some things in common. Some claim women share only oppression, but I disagree. In the next section I suggest a way of thinking about oppressive and nonoppressive aspects of what women share.