by Rosalind Barnett and Caryl Rivers
Basic Books, 2004
Review by David M. Wolf on Sep 12th 2005
The first wave of American feminism
included an elite group of heroic women who fought for the right to vote. After
women's suffrage was achieved in the early twentieth century, feminism was
quiet for some five decades before the second wave emerged amid the politics of
the 1960s. This second wave has since broken apart, advancing and retreating by
turns and according to differing interpretations. Same Difference is about feminism today, and it takes careful aim
at a subtle sexism inadvertently extended by a feminist "juggernaut,"
Carol Gilligan from 1982 and onward.
Barnett and Rivers, both college
professors, were part of the avant-garde
of feminism's advance in the 1970s. The authors remain convinced that an
authentic egalitarian society with respect to gender differences is one in which
people are viewed individually, not subject to gender stereotypes or
discrimination. Together as authors, they analyze the botched science and the
false and harmful arguments that have, in recent years, propped up the old
sexism with new more subtle forms. Much of their focus is on Carol Gilligan and
the consequences of her success worldwide.
Same Difference is a big
book in three parts with a sweeping scope and plausible arguments about the
harms to men and women that sexism causes. The title refers to a
"same-difference approach" to men and women and a "world of same
difference" that the authors say brings freedom for more people. We can
all celebrate differences, but everyone's treatment before the law, everyone's
opportunities, and the sharing of life's responsibilities can be, from a gender
standpoint, the same.
The book is more than a good read:
it's a journey into the gang wars of academic feminism and the harms to real
people academics like Gilligan--and pundits like John Gray who wrote Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus--have
ideas, say the authors, have already reached through the media to the real
world where people get hired, rear children, get married and divorced, try for
advancement, start or quit promising careers--and in general do all the things
that people do.
Starting with what the authors call
"the seduction of difference," they recount how Gilligan's seminal
work, In a Different Voice (1982),
has extended the reach and range of the old sexism by using feminism itself to
celebrate women's alleged superiority, one which Gilligan identified as women's
greater natural gifts for relationships, that is, basing their thinking in
human connections and caring in ways not accessible to men. Gilligan's feminism
came to be known as "essentialist" feminism. Following Gilligan,
however, say Barnett and Rivers, feminism itself--and many women around the
globe--have fallen into a "caring trap," and have been revisited by a
more subtle sexism and its harms. Gilligan's work has also been used by others
in ways she never intended.
The treatment of this controversy
is bright, succinct, and persuasive. The authors make their case that the
science behind Gilligan's work never should have been credited and given a free
pass into the heart of society's decisions about who women are, what are their
natures, and certainly not as a basis for decisions about women's lives and
careers. Barnett and Rivers make a sweeping case against Gilligan's theory,
showing that it works to the detriment of both men and women. Along the way,
the authors discuss marriage and families, careers, power, work itself, women's
self-esteem, and other issues of importance to everybody.
Difference is unsparing in its insistence that no scientific evidence leads
to any conclusions about how men and women, as genders, perform morally, as
life partners, or at work. Claims otherwise are shown to be junk science, case
by case. Furthermore, the authors are consistent in demanding that all people
regardless of gender can only be evaluated individually and in relation to the
"situation" in which they live and work. The authors' premise that,
when it comes to capabilities,
individuals vary among themselves far more than genders do shows itself
from first to last as the real essential for feminist advance.
© 2005 David Wolf
David M. Wolf is the author of Philosophy
That Works, a book about the practice of philosophy. His book page for
orders (hardback & paperback) is www.xlibris.com/philosophythatworks
; readers can also see the first chapter there.