In this post I will be responding to the political philosopher Will Kymlicka, as he wrote in his book Contemporary Political Philosophy: An Introduction. The part I will be responding to will be in his section written on Feminism. The book is intended to be an educational text, but there is a clear (and intentional) bias throughout, so I will be working from the assumption that Kymlicka agrees with the arguments he put forward. In the chapter on Feminism, he breaks down three major arguments in favor of contemporary feminism in the West, the first of which being what he refers to as the dominance approach. In this argument, he tries to show that taking a stance against discrimination of women is not enough to achieve sexual equality. This is because the very manner of which society has been set up is for the benefit of men. If one wants to make society more equal for women, then one must rethink how society is structured. One such way that he demonstrates this is by critiquing traditional marriage, demonstrating that it is an oppressive institution that makes women dependent on men. I will attempt to represent Kymlicka’s argument on such a subject as accurately as I can and will then provide a rebuttal to his points.
The Feminist Argument Against Traditional Marriage
Kymlicka asks us to “Consider a society which restricts access to contraception and abortion, which defines paying jobs in such a way as to make them incompatible with childbearing and child-rearing, and which does not provide economic compensation for domestic labour.” These three conditions are the foundation upon which a patriarchal society is situated. As long as these three conditions are present, then society is sure to be structured in a way that oppresses women and privileges men. The fact that they do not have any legal means to avoid pregnancies through the use of contraceptives and abortions, and simultaneously are not allowed to raise children while working a full-time job, forces women to make life decisions that lead them towards dependence on men. Kymlicka argues that women’s means for doing this are becoming “sexually attractive to men.” They will inevitably not go for the same economic opportunities and will instead try to appeal to men. “This, in turn, results in a system of cultural identifications in which masculinity is associated with income-earning, and femininity is defined in terms of sexual and domestic service for men, and the nurturing of children.” This characterizes patriarchy. There are roles that men and women are prescribed to and they are specifically defined to place men in a position of privilege over women. As a result of these differing pressures on men and women, they go into the institution of marriage with differing outlooks. The woman is going in dependent on a man to help her survive, especially if she intends to have children. Then, as time goes by, the marriage only makes her more dependent, as she is expected to be the one who stays home to take care of the children. She is incapable of establishing a career so the prospect of a divorce is almost out of the question. If the woman can’t support herself outside of the marriage, while the man can, then that gives the man leverage over the woman. He has less incentive to maintain that marriage than she does, so he can use this to control her.
In response to the oppressive nature of the institution of marriage, Kymlicka claims that society needs to reject the three basic conditions that serve as the foundation for patriarchy. If abortion is legalized and contraception is made available to the population, if institutions of employment are structured in a way that makes them compatible with child-bearing and child-rearing, and if women are compensated for the all of the domestic duties done by them, then this will have a trickle down effect, where masculinity and femininity as roles in a society are defined equally. As is obvious, this argument is put forward purely in the abstract. Kymlicka is not claiming that any particular society, especially in the West, fits this characterization perfectly. He does, however, claim that all Western liberal democracies contain elements of what is described and are, therefore, all are patriarchal to some degree (1).
Problems With The Feminist Argument
There is quite a lot to unpack with this argument, so to begin, I will start by saying that I will be critiquing various elements of this line of reasoning followed by an argument for why the institution of marriage is actually preferable. Not only is it not oppressive to women, but it is specifically tailored for everyone’s benefit, as it acknowledges human nature.
Let us take a look at the three conditions that provide the basis for a patriarchal society:
The first of which is not having access to abortion and contraceptives. Standing against this condition is the most reasonable of the three. If women are denied access to abortion and contraceptives, then that will severely alter their approach to everyday life, as they will have to either practice chastity while gunning for a career, or latch on to a man who will support them. Unfortunately for feminists, abortion in particular is something that is more nuanced than they would like it to be. Looking at it in the abstract terms of gender equality, it seems to be common sense that abortion be legalized. It is not that simple, though. There are detractors, many of them women, who believe abortion to be an immoral act, as it involves terminating the development of a fetus after it has already begun. I will not get into the weeds of this issue in this post; I am simply pointing out that there exists another dimension to this issue that feminist will happily ignore if they can get away with it. It is one of those issues where both sides of the debate are so uninterested in the other side of the argument that it inevitably devolves into moral grandstanding and accusations. But to get back on point, if we are going to involve the issue of abortion in this debate, whether you like it or not, it is not accurately characterized by giving the women a choice over whether she wants a child or not. Some people claim that the child has a life with value. Middle ground may be accessible with the acknowledgment of adoption centers, as they can serve as a replacement for abortion, but this will inevitably require concessions of the feminist side of the debate, as women will still have to deal with the implications of child bearing.
The second condition is a society where institutions of employment are defined so that they are incompatible with childbearing and child rearing. This is mainly referring to how institutions do not have employee benefits like paid maternity leave, which hurts women’s prospects of successfully maintaining a career while also having a child. This is regardless of whether that woman is married or not.
The first point I want to make here is that employee benefits like paid maternity leave will actually have a negative effect on women’s employment prospects. Something that is regularly being talking about in intersectional feminist circles is the concept of unconscious bias and how this affects women and minorities in their everyday lives. Studies have shown that men and women have their applications for jobs selected for at differing rates, even when the applications are identical. This is considered to be a great issue in the modern West, and it even has its own big, scary name to shock the masses into action: systemic oppression. Upon the adoption of paid maternity leave, I argue that what is referred to as systemic oppression will only increase. Place yourself in the shoes of the employer for a moment. If you have the possibility to hire a man or a woman, you would absolutely take into account the fact that the women will likely go out on paid maternity leave at some point or another, possibly multiple times. This will increase the amount of bias against women in hiring.
The first response to this is to provide paternity leave as well as maternity leave, but this is complicated by the fact that men rarely ever use their paternity leave, mainly because it is not necessary. They may be able to take time off to care for the child, but they don’t birth children, so it is not the same. It is unrealistic to expect that paternity leave will mitigate the amount of discrimination against women upon being hired. The second response to this would be to use social pressure to influence how people are hired. In other words, use quotas that prescribe the amount of people within a particular demographic that can be hired within that institution. An example of this would be an institution making sure fifty percent of their employees are women. This will eliminate the discrimination against women in hiring even in spite of paid maternity leave. The problem with this is that institutions that are now adopting this strategy are no longer hiring people according to their qualifications. Instead, they are hiring people on the basis of characteristics that say nothing about their ability to contribute to that institution. In the interest of maximizing the output of any institution, it is advisable to avoid such practices. Over time, it is possible that the market will be a disincentive to companies opting into this quota solution, as other companies could be more successful than them. If this happens, then government action would be required to maintain quotas. You can see where this is going.
Government control is a slippery slope. Government solutions often create problems, which require more solutions. Using the government to force paid maternity leave on business owners will ultimately lead to more systemic oppression of women in hiring, which will spur on even more government intervention to fix that new problem: quotas. It is questionable whether this will ever end. The issue is much broader, too: Requiring paid maternity leave is a government intervention in an employer’s business, which sets a precedent of government control of private property. Once this precedent has been established, it then opens up the possibility of other ideological forces using this government power to push whatever agenda they may espouse. If you can do it, so can they.
This strategy also involves throwing individuals under the bus. Men who are qualified for those positions can potentially lose out against women for no other reason than because they were born that way: mainly because of a presumption of inherent privilege. This privilege is conceived of at a collective level of understanding of human relations, and is then grafted on to individuals. In other words, they claim that men as a collective generally have it better than women as a collective, so it is okay to assume that every individual man has it better than every individual woman. This argument is obviously absurd. Men who are homeless are in no way more privileged than even a single mother on welfare. Group trends are nothing more than just that: group trends.
Paid maternity leave is the main employee benefit discussed here, and it mostly relates to women’s need to take time off as a result of child bearing. Child rearing is another matter. What Kymlicka is demanding here is that institutions of employment be structured so that it is compatible with the raising of a child. Working out the practical application of this seems to be an impossibility. Is it really possible to hold both a job and also raise one’s children? This is not how family structure manifests itself in reality. Usually one parent stays home with the children, and this is usually the mother. If the mother is single, then she is required to have her children cared for by another, which is generally not seen as desirable. It just strikes me as wholly unreasonable to think that this part of the condition can be avoided.
The third condition is a society that does not provide economic compensation for domestic labor. The stance against this condition is the most unreasonable of the three. The belief that women don’t get economic compensation for domestic labor is completely unfounded. Women who do domestic work in a patriarchal society, as described above, do get compensation for their work. The woman does the domestic work in exchange for resources acquired by her husband. This is what marriage is: an exchange of resources and services. The man gives the woman protection, resources, and his seed and the woman gives him sex, domestic services, and children. This is to achieve the common goal of raising a family together. The only gripe one can have with this is that the man doesn’t exactly give the woman a wage, but this is just being technical. The woman is receiving resources from the man and this is partly because of her domestic labor.
Kymlicka’s characterization of the institution of marriage eviscerates the exchange that I described. He completely ignores the nature of the exchange in order to claim that women are being exploited. This is exemplified in the following quote that I provided earlier: “This, in turn, results in a system of cultural identifications in which masculinity is associated with income-earning, and femininity is defined in terms of sexual and domestic service for men, and the nurturing of children.” Note how he slips in the phrase “for men” after his description of femininity to remind the reader that she is subject to the will of the man. At the same time, when he describes the conception of masculinity in society, he neglects to slip in the phrase “for women” despite the fact that that is precisely what the man is expected to do. This is one of those absurd double standards wherein when women do things for men, this is an example of women being exploited because it is for the benefit of men, often at the expense of women; but when men do things for women, this is also an injustice towards women because they are now dependent on men for those things.
I think the response to this would be to point out the nature of the exchange. What the man is providing are resources necessary for the survival of the woman, while the woman is simply giving the man things that he may desire, but does not necessarily need. This imbalance is what makes it unequal and gives men leverage over women. My response to this is going to be my biggest critique of this argument thus far. Kymlicka’s mistake is that he makes what I will call the humanist assumption.
The Humanist Assumption
The humanist assumption is the assumption that any two particular groups of people—men and women, in this case—are equal to one another, particularly in behavior and temperament, until proven otherwise. This is an assumption made by most people in the West that I believe is fundamentally flawed. Focusing in on men and women specifically, why is it that we work from the default position of equality between the sexes until shown otherwise? Have men and women ever been equal in temperament and behavior in any society throughout human history? If this is the case, how often is it? Couple this with the obvious physical differences between the sexes, you should wonder why this assumption is being made. Obvious physical differences like breast development and genitalia are not evidence of behavioral differences, in and of themselves, but they should make you question what your default position on this subject should be. Are men and women equal until proven unequal, or are they unequal until proven equal? I argue the latter. This is especially reasonable when you consider that these observable differences are not necessarily all biological in origin. There are environmental influences, as well as biological ones. The humanist assumption starts from the extraordinary position of zero biological differences.
Upon the removal of the humanist assumption, the assertion that marriage gives men power to control women starts to fall apart—this argument being that women are dependent on men to support them, so women will naturally value the marriage more than men, giving the man leverage over her. The problem with this stance is that they are ignoring biological drives in men that influence their behavior. Men evolved to be protective of women, as it was beneficial to the survival of the species as a whole. I discuss this more in depth in my post, The Curious Case of Sex Relations (2). This leads to social norms, such as men sacrificing themselves for the sake of their women that rarely, if ever, happen the other way around. The relevant point is that this shows commitment. It is hard to argue that men have less commitment than women to a relationship if men have a biological drive within them that sometimes leads them to kill themselves for the sake of their women. The feminist critique also completely side steps the emotional component to marriage, that being love. A major binding force to these relationships is this emotional bond that men and women have for one another. When looking at tendencies to dismiss romantic attachment across cultures, it was found that men were no more dismissive of this emotional attachment than women were (3).
Neither of these points show that women are not dependent on men, as I am sure a feminist will be quick to point out, but I am going to go one step further and assert that women, specifically those that have children, are inherently dependent. Two things should be established: most women want children, and children are tied to their mothers. A mother and her children should be treated as a single unit. Because of this, motherhood renders women dependent. Feminists are correct to point out that women are dependent on men in the traditionalist framework, but they are naive to think that this can be changed. Think about it this way: when a woman has a child, she must find someone to financially prop her up, whether that be her husband or boyfriend, the father through alimony, the state through welfare, food stamps, charity, or their employer through paid maternity leave (or any combination of these things). The prospect of being a single mother is horrible. This is for a reason. Mothers need support. Traditionalism recognizes this and specifically tailors itself for their benefit.
Kymlicka’s humanist assumption also leads him to make a presupposition in his argument about men and women. He assumes that both men and women are equal in their desires; he assumes that they have the same paths to fulfillment. Here is a series of relevant facts that I think one should consider: When looking at self-reported surveys of happiness, women tend to evaluate their self-esteem on how close they are in their relationships with others and with god, while men tend to evaluate their self-esteem based on their active leisure and mental control. Women focus on domestic and personal problems, while men focus on matters without, like their job. Women’s love life and family life are the most relevant factors in determining their happiness, while, for men it is their job and appearance. When looking at depression, women are more likely to be depressed because of family problems, while men are more likely to be depressed because of financial issues. When looking at stress, women are more likely to report stress being caused by other people (relationship issues), while men are more self-focused, reporting stress over academic success or other related endeavors (4).
These facts show an obvious trend that women are more focused on relationships, while men are more focused on their success in their career. And even if you do want to make the humanist assumption and claim that this is all neatly explained away by socialization, you would have to explain why there are cross-cultural trends in personality differences between the sexes. Cross-cultural trends are a strong indicator of biological underpinnings to human behavior. Given that women score higher on agreeableness and openness to feelings, it lends credence to the series of facts shared here (5). Women also prove to care more about resources and socio-economic status than men do when selecting mates (6,7). It’s almost as if men and women evolved specifically to fit the roles prescribed to them in the traditionalist framework. Finally, both men and women have been getting progressively less happy in the West within the past thirty years. Not only this, but women have been twice as likely to have depression than men for the past twenty years (4). This is not to say that the destruction of traditionalism is the cause of these things, as this is only some correlation, but if the progressive liberation of women from the private sector correlates with the regression of their own happiness, then it should at least make you stop and think.
This established, men and women are proving themselves to fit into the traditionalist framework quite well. Traditionalism places women in a position where they interact with people, that being motherhood, and places men in a position where they are working at a job. Nothing I have said here necessarily translates into absolute and rigid roles for men and women, but the general trends will and should exist. Arguments about oppression are nonsensical. Given the fact that men and women make up about the same percentage of their populations, it strikes me as naive to try and argue that social norms like that of gender roles within traditional marriage do anything to suppress women as a collective relative to men. This would require extraordinary evidence. Feminists are presented with two possibilities: women’s oppression by social norms is a naturally occurring phenomenon in human behavior, or women simply exhibit interest in different things, leading to the two sexes taking up different roles in society. Either way, pointing out the apparently oppressive nature of the dynamics of these two roles is ultimately irrelevant, as biology is strongly suggested by how consistent these circumstances are.
Kymlicka’s feminist critique of the institution of marriage is flawed at best. Abortion is too contentious an issue to receive the treatment it does in this argument. Paid maternity leave is not the panacea it is pretended to be. The institution of marriage is fundamentally an exchange, which is ignored. And finally, it fails to take human nature into account and properly recognize the differences between the sexes. Because of this, it characterizes the male and female dynamic in the traditional sense as oppressive when it is actually preferable. It does not render women dependent on men; it recognizes that this dependency is inherent to the human condition and specifically tailors itself for that reality.
(1) Book: Contemporary Political Philosophy: An Introduction: Second Edition
(2) Post on gender relations: https://stateofthenihil.wordpress.com/2017/05/09/the-curious-case-of-sex-relations/
(3) Relationship attachment in men and women: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/1475-6811.00052/full
(4) This is a compilation of sources; the primary sources are at the bottom of the page: http://www.psy.gla.ac.uk/~steve/courses/pospsydocs/oldwikis/2%20Gender.pdf
(5) Personality differences: http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.463.9292&rep=rep1&type=pdf
(6) Male and female attraction: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10508-006-9151-2
(7) Another study on male and female attraction: https://www.cambridge.org/core/services/aop-cambridge-core/content/view/S0140525X00023992