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Gender justice

Page history last edited by John McMahon 4 years, 5 months ago


Introduction: Gender Justice


Theories of justice from great thinkers such as Plato, Kant, Aristotle, and Rousseau have laid the foundation of what justice can or should look like in a society. In the subsequent years after their works, contemporary theorists have used their theories of justice and applied it to the current status of society. However, many of these justice theorists have circumvented discussing gender and the role of women in society in their works, or actively created patriarchal theories. Thus, as justice has been broken down and analyzed over the years, various additional forms of justice have received focus, including gender justice.


One of the greatest injustices in American history is the role that women have played, or better yet, the lack thereof. Women of all races, ethnicities, religions, socioeconomic statuses, classes, sexual orientation, etc. have all faced some sort of inequality in their life solely due to their gender. It is important to note that these inequalities are heightened when they intersect with other injustices caused by one’s race, religion, socioeconomic status, and so on. Women in American culture have been relegated to a subordinate societal role that has traditionally been mainly confined to the household and the nurturing and care of children. Patriarchy in American culture has been prevalent since the first settlers stepped foot in what they understood to be the New World. Patriarchy seen in everyday society can be traced back to the patriarchy established in the family unit. Men have been and for the most part are still seen as the “breadwinners” and the “head of household.” When families are organized by a patriarchal structure and the children in those families are socialized in that patriarchal system, they then translate that into norms of how they view power and the roles of the genders in everyday society. In response to the subordinate status women have found themselves in, there have been generations of leaders, movements, and organizations who have endlessly and relentlessly fought for the equal rights and opportunities for all sexes and genders present in society. Although progress has been made, there is still much to be done. Gender justice is a human right; every woman and girl is entitled to live in equality and in freedom, without any fear.


A just society is one in which all of its citizens, regardless of gender, sex, race, sexual orientation, etc. should be able to live in an equal and fair state with opportunities for all members to thrive. However, as seen in modern and contemporary justice theorists work, women are still excluded from this just and equal society, which has led to major debates and issues. In response to these issues, many social movements, organizations, and foundations, such as the National Organization of Women, have been created in order to combat the gender injustices and inequalities prevalent in society. The roots of the inequalities and injustices seen in modern day society can be traced back to the earliest theories of justice and their works. Plato, Aristotle, and Rousseau all either make no mention of women in their works and their roles, or subordinate them to lesser roles in society as compared to their male counterparts. 


Major Issues and Debates


John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice has been attributed with some of the most influential modern day contributions to just political theory. His work has been controversial in that the work itself makes little mention of women as individuals in society, but his principles of justice can lead us in the right direction to challenge the gender system present in society. In Justice as Fairness, Rawls states states his principles of justice as: “Each person has an equal right to a fully adequate scheme of equal basic rights and liberties, which scheme is compatible with a similar scheme for all. And social and economic inequalities are to satisfy two conditions: first, they must be attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity; and second, they must be to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged members of society.” (Rawls 1985, 227). Thus, Rawls sees justice as involving all persons, which we can infer to include women, as having equal and fair basic rights, and that inequalities must be present only under fair and equal conditions. In theory, this is a just principle, but when applied to the real world it does not necessarily hold up.


As Susan Moller Okin points out in her book Justice, Gender, and the Family, there are two driving factors as to why there is limited contributions by scholars, including Rawls, to the literature on the justness of gender. In chapter one, Okin identifies the “hidden gender-structured family” and “false gender neutrality” as major hurdles for this realm of justice (1989, 8). Furthermore in chapter five Okin delves deeper in saying, "each of the laws of moral development, as set out by Rawls, depends upon the one before it, and the first assumption of the first law is: 'given that family institutions are just.' ... Thus Rawls frankly and for good reason acknowledges that the whole of moral development rests at base upon the loving ministrations of those who raise small children from the earliest stages, and on the moral character—in particular, the justice—of the environment in which this takes place" (1989, 99). Okin criticizes Rawls’s work by saying “family life is not only assumed, but is assumed to be just-and yet the prevalent gendered division of labor within the family is neglected, along with the associated distribution of power, responsibility, and privilege” (1989, 9). Thus, one of the major issues of past and present scholarship is the assumption of the family as just, when in reality it is structured as a patriarchy. Okin goes on further to say that even if all these disparities were somehow eliminated, we would still not attain equal opportunity for all. This is because what has not been recognized as an equal opportunity problem, except in feminist literature and circles, is the disparity within the family, the fact that its gender structure is itself a major obstacle to opportunity (1989, 16). In order to address equality within society, Okin and other theorists argue we must first find justice within the family structure in order to have a just society. In regard to the family Okin delves into the real world application of justness to the traditional family. Okin writes, “The division of labor in the typical family leaves most women far less capable than men of supporting themselves, and this disparity is accentuated by the fact that children of separated or divorced parents usually live with their mothers” (1989, 6). Okin continues her discussion of women and the family by saying, “rather than being co-equal institutions of a just society, a just family is its essential foundation" (1989, 17).  She recognizes that the family structure and members greatly influence the moral structure of children. Thus, the unequal treatment and division of labor socialized within the family to children, turns into how women are viewed in general society as well. In her work, "Equal Citizenship: Gender Justice and Gender: An Unfinished Debate," Okin references the “Western tradition of political thought, in which questions having to do with women and the division of labor between the sexes are so often ignored or, at best, attributed to “nature” (Okin 2004, 1551). Thus, the norm in Western culture has been to assume that the division of labor where “natural” and not political (Okin 2004, 1540). In the concluding remarks of the unjust family, Okin suggests that “in a just society, the structure and practices of families must afford women the same opportunities as men to develop their capacities, to participate in political power, to influence social choices, and to be economically as well as physically secure" (Okin 1989, 15). In order to create and maintain a just society, we must analyze and reconstruct the structures and practices of the traditional family to rework them to create a more equal distribution of labor and wealth among the individuals.


The unequal and unjust structure of the family laid the foundation for unequal and unjust structures to be built in almost every aspect of life economically, socially, and politically. Women have been subject to subordinate roles in all spheres of life, perpetually living in the shadows of men for decades. Even today, men still far outnumber and overpower women in the political, economic, and social spheres. Although many of the founding fathers and thinkers of the United States put an emphasis on equality and justice, modern U.S. society still has many strides to make towards an equal and just society. In Martha Nussbaum’s Sex and Social Justice, she states that “As recently as 1873, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a law that forbade women to practice law in the state of Illinois, on the grounds that "[t]he constitution of the family organization, which is founded in the divine ordinance, as well as in the nature of things, indicates the domestic sphere as that which properly belongs to the domain and functions of womanhood (1999, 30)." Nussbaum goes on to continue saying, “The situation of women in the contemporary world calls urgently for moral stand taking. Women, a majority of the world's population, receive only a small proportion of its opportunities and benefits. According to the Human Development Report, in no country in the world is women's quality of life equal to that of men, according to a complex measure that includes life expectancy, educational attainment, and GDP (gross domestic product) per capita.” (1999, 31). It is call to action to change the current status quo of the subordinate role and status women play in society. Women and men should be held to equal standards and live life under equal conditions and opportunity to be successful. 


Okin suggests that underlying and intertwined with all these inequalities is the unequal distribution of the unpaid labor of the family. She states that, “an equal sharing between the sexes of family responsibilities, especially child care, is the greatest revolution that has not happened”. Furthermore, Okin states that “until there is justice within the family, women will not be able to gain equality in politics, at work, or in any other sphere (1989, 4). The patriarchal system present in society has demonstrated “a limited capacity for determining what is just, in many cases involving gender. Sex discrimination, sexual harassment, abortion, pregnancy in the workplace, parental leave, child care, and surrogate mothering have all become major and well publicized issues” (1989, 7). The issues presented by Okin can be traced back to the roles boys and girls are socialized into by the patriarchal structure of the family. By teaching boys that girls are subordinate members of society, they in turn then believe they have power over them and can do with women what they want. This is an idea prevalent in the current MeToo movement. Men believe they have entitlements or power over their female counterparts because that is how their family and society socialized them to think. 


The subordinate role of women is then heightened when theories of justice use male terms of reference and mislead with gender-neutral alternatives. Theorists refuse to confront the fact that men and women have inherent differences in many realms along with different stories and histories. In defining a theory of justice for all, Okin states that “theories of justice must apply to all of us, and to all of human life, instead of assuming silently that half of us take care of whole areas of life that are considered outside the scope of social justice” (Okin 1989, 15).  Using Rawls’s principles of justice and the idea of the “veil of ignorance”, society could become just.


Social Movement: The National Organization for Women


The National Organization for Women (NOW) seeks to promote equal rights for women in America. Since its founding in 1966, the National Organization for Women has focused on grassroots efforts to further feminist ideals, lead societal change, eliminate discrimination, and achieve and protect the equal rights of all women and girls in all aspects of social, political, and economic life. They are a group dedicated to eliminating harassment in society, achieving and maintaining reproductive rights, and strive to end violence against women. It is the largest feminist group in the United States, with some 500,000 members as of present in all fifty states. NOW was established by a small group of feminists who were dedicated to actively challenging sex discrimination in areas of American society. Betty Friedan, one of its founders, served as NOW’s first president. The organization is composed of both men and women.


Among the issues that NOW currently addresses by means of lobbying, demonstrations, and litigation are child care, pregnancy leave, abortion rights, and pension rights. Its initial major concern was passage of a national Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution (National Organization for Women). Although the amendment failed to gain ratification by 1982, the organization has continued to advocate for it. NOW also campaigns for issues such as the passage of state equal rights amendments and comparable legislation, like the equal pay for work of comparable value (National Organization for Women). Although focusing mainly on women’s issues, the organization seeks to end all discrimination, and it notably supports the rights of the LGBTQ community as well. While legally nonpartisan, in 1977 NOW created a political action committee that supports politicians who share the organization’s mission and goals. The NOW Foundation is a vitally important asset to the goals of women seeking equality. Women at every level of the socioeconomic ladder face discrimination and equality in various aspects of their life. The NOW Foundation's main goal is to eradicate those inequalities and discrimination. In their education and advocacy efforts, the Foundation works to inform the general public, as well as policy-makers, about the need for equal treatment of women and for a constitutional guarantee of equal rights under the law (National Organization of Women). The NOW Foundation also engages in voter empowerment programs designed to encourage women to register, vote, and stay politically active in their communities. Through education, empowerment, and activism the NOW foundation is making strides towards a more equal and fair playing field for all members of society


The NOW foundation and their goals are analogous to the course material as a whole, but particularly the waves of the feminist movement in the last section. The goals and ways of the leaders of the earliest, often exclusively white, feminist movements have manifested in the waves that have come with each new generation. The NOW organization encompasses many sections of the course in its goals and strategies to meet those goals, from equal pay for equal work, to the right to make a choice regarding one’s reproductive health. The NOW foundation claims to be actively seeking economic justice, reproductive rights and justice, racial justice, LGBQT rights, and constitutional equality (National Organization for Women). By seeking out equality and justice, the NOW Foundation is attempting to adhere a reimagined Rawlsian principle of justice that states opportunities, rights, and resources should be distributed equally to all people, and any inequalities that exist, should be to the  greatest benefit of the least advantaged members of society. Thus, the NOW foundation embodies justice in its mission and actions in the public and private spheres of life. 

Connection to the Broader Theories of Justice:


Theorists such as Plato, Aristotle, and Rousseau who are seen as leaders in laying the foundation of thinking about justice, have an ugly track record with their ideas and views on women’s roles within the body politic. Although the reference of gender is uncommon in some modern and contemporary theories of justice, some theorists, such as Plato, considered the different genders, and the role they played in the just society. In Book V of Plato's Republic, women are a main topic point for a large part of the dialogue. The dialogue amongst the group is somewhat contradictory as they concur on both equality and inferiority in terms of women in society. In terms of inferiority, Plato states, Therefore, my friend, there is no practice of a city’s governors which belongs to woman because she’s woman, or to man because he’s man; but the natures are scattered alike among both animals; and woman participates according to nature in all practices, and man in all, but in all of them woman is weaker than man” (Plato 1986, 455). Thus, although women may equally participate in the activities that men do, they are inherently and naturally weaker. Deeper into this idea of equality Plato suggests, “If then we use the women for the same thing as men, they must also be taught the same things” (Plato 1986, 452a). Here it is evident that the group in some aspect sees men and women as the same, or as equals. Well before the first waves of feminism, Plato was pondering the equitable role women could and should play in society, yet there is still inequality that exists between the genders. One of the continuing and recurring driving forces behind the inequality between men and women in the modern era, is the parental burden of childcare that is carried mainly by the mother figure. By the mother taking on the duty of childcare many women neglect other areas of life such as their professional careers and education, thus becoming reliant on a male to provide for both her and the child. In The Republic Plato depicts a much different picture of the family structure than what the modern traditional family looks like. In Plato’s just society he envisions that, “All these women are to belong to all these men in common, and no woman is to live privately with any man. And the children, in their turn, will be in common, and neither will a parent know his own offspring, nor a child his parent.” (Plato 1968, 457d). The deconstruction of the traditional family and the creation of a communal family breaks down the patriarchy associated with the traditional family structure. By having men, women, and children live in common with one another, the group lives in equal space and there is a communal doctrine of justice that is socialized and abided by the group as a whole. With the breakdown of the family unit, the burden of childbirth and childcare is not sprung solely on the women. Having all the women give birth at the same time allows for the group to help, care, and raise their children equally at the same time together. By not knowing whose child is whose, the members of the society raise each child as if it were their own in the same equitable way. Having the community and shared resources to band together and help take care of the children and reducing the burdens of childbirth and childcare, women become equitable, active, and productive members of society, instead of becoming second tier citizens in the shadows of their husbands. However, although the parental duties are split amongst the members of society equally, Plato uses the phrase “All these women are to belong to all these men” in that excerpt of the family. Thus, Plato seems to conclude and reiterate this idea that women belong to men and have no autonomy. 


Aristotle has been a key figure in the field of justice. Aristotle, just as Plato and Rousseau were, seems to be disinterested in equitable roles for women and men in society. Specifically, in Aristotle’s Politics, he relegates women to the household along with slaves (Book I), and the later writes that “Democrats hold that if men are created equal by birth, they should in justice have an equal share in office and honors” (Aristotle, 102). Again there is a complete disregard for women in a democratic society. 


In Rousseau’s On the Social Contract he makes little to no reference of the role women play as citizens in a sovereign state. Based on his language and use of masculine terms throughout the work, it can be inferred that women were not included in Rousseau’s vision of his citizenry or body politic. Rousseau suggests that, “Men are what make up the state and land is what feeds man.” (Rousseau 1987, 168). Rousseau explicitly states here that men are what make up the state, and thus fails to include women as part of the body of the state. Deeper in his work, Rousseau goes on to say, “So long as several men together consider themselves to be a single body, they have but a single will, which is concerned with their common preservation and the general well-being.” (Rousseau 1987, 203). Again, Rousseau uses the masculine term “men” to describe the body politic and the concern over their well-being and their preservation. This passage shows the explicit rejection of women as part of the body politic. In order to make this passage or theory of justice more applicable to women, Rousseau might have stated instead, “So long as several women and men together consider themselves a single body….”. Rousseau's Emile more explicitly relegates women to the private sphere. Rousseau and Aristotle, unlike Plato, completely skip over the role of women in their just societies. Many contemporary and modern theorists followed suit in this realm. In the large portion of theories of justice from world renowned thinkers, there is little to no mention of the role of women in a just society, an injustice in itself that has been perpetuated by generations of justice theorists. 




Women constitute about half of the population in society. Yet for much of time, women have played half the role men have in society. Women in America could not vote until 1919, more than a hundred years after the Founding Fathers declared that “all men are created equal,” and even then many women of color were unable to vote. Women in societies across the globe have been relegated to subordinate roles in society because men have socially constructed society to believe they are superior than their female counterparts. If children are socialized to see and believe that women are primary caretakers and the men are the breadwinners, that patriarchal structure of the traditional family will for injustices and inequalities to permeate every facet of social and political life. It is essential that women and men share the burden of childcare and equally distribute the division of labor inside and outside the household. A solution offered by theorists and politicians is to introduce paid maternal/paternal leave so that mothers and fathers can have equal time off and equal pay to care for children, or to have longer and subsidized child care programs for single working mothers. No woman should have to bear the burden and choose between caring for their child and providing food and resources to their child. Men and women should equally distribute the labor in the house and in the workforce to create a just family, and a just society.  





     Aristotle, Ernest Barker, 335-323 BCE. Politics  https://moodle.plattsburgh.edu/pluginfile.php/1685458/mod_resource/content/0/Aristotle%20-%20Politics.pdf


     Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Donald A. Cress, 1987. On the Social Contract https://moodle.plattsburgh.edu/pluginfile.php/1685468/mod_resource/content/0/Rousseau%20-%20Social%20Contract%20excerpt.pdf 


     “National Organization for Women.” 2019. National Organization for Women, now.org/. https://now.org/now-foundation/about-now-foundation/mission-statement/


     Nussbaum, M. C., 1999. Sex and Social Justice. New York: Oxford University Press. http://web.a.ebscohost.com/ehost/ebookviewer/ebook/bmxlYmtfXzIzNTEzX19BTg2?sid=7facef1c-09a3-4ced-a5ad-d372ad7413b7@sdc-v-sessmgr01&vid=0&format=EB&lpid=lp_III&rid=0


      Plato, Allan Bloom, 1968. The Republic of Plato


      John Rawls“Justice as Fairness: Political not Metaphysical,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 14.3 https://www.jstor.org/stable/2265349?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents


     Susan Moller Okin, 2004. Equal Citizenship: Gender Justice and Gender: An Unfinished Debate. https://ir.lawnet.fordham.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=https://scholar.google.com/&httpsredir=1&article=3963&context=flr


     Susan Moller Okin, 1989. Justice, Gender, and the Family. https://moodle.plattsburgh.edu/pluginfile.php/1685497/mod_resource/content/1/Okin%20-%20optional%20chapters.pdf





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