What Does A Commitment to Gender Equality Imply?

January 7, 2009

Some may find it difficult to believe, but as late as 1975, women could not even open bank accounts in Spain without their husbands or fathers co-signing. As the linked article from the   New York Times explains, this restriction was a reflection of the influence that Catholic doctrine had on Spain at the time.

Religion has, for the most part, devalued women and supported absurd and unjustifiable restrictions on women’s rights. Not unexpectedly, humanists almost universally support civil equality for women and men.

But what does a commitment to gender equality entail? Some answers to this question are easy. Obviously, women and men should have identical voting rights, the same opportunities to become political candidates, indistinguishable legal capacities to acquire, manage, and dispose of property, and so forth.

But some humanists believe that to achieve meaningful equality for women, personal freedom for some must be restricted. Humanists have traditionally opposed censorship and supported the right of consenting adults to engage in whatever sexual conduct they find acceptable. However, some feminists argue that pornography degrades women and that prostitution should be banned because no woman can freely choose to sell her body. (I take no position on these issues here other than to note that banning pornography and prostitution on the ground they exploit or degrade women raises an interesting question about how we should deal with gay pornography and gay prostitution.)

Since the percentage of humanists who are aficionados of porn or utilize the services of prostitutes is presumably not very high, those particular issues may not be considered that important. But most of us work for a living and do not want to be discriminated against because of gender.

We all favor equal pay for equal work, and none of us, I assume, believe an employee should receive less compensation because of her/his gender. But how about pay based on “comparable worth”? Similarly, we oppose discrimination based on sex, but does that require support for affirmative action?

Before answering that question, we would probably need to define “affirmative action” because different people have different understandings of that term. Some equate affirmative action with set-asides or quotas. This term has been used that way in the past, but after the 1978   Bakke decision, it is clear that quotas (at least for public employers and institutions) are illegal. In the United States, employers can, for the purpose of increasing diversity, favor a woman or a minority for hire   provided all candidates for the position are similarly qualified. Of course, therein lies the rub. How is the similarity of qualifications determined? Those who oppose affirmative action suspect that it operates as a cover for quotas, whereas those who favor affirmative action maintain that, properly applied, it is a legitimate tool for achieving truly meaningful equal opportunity.

Many people are passionate about these issues. That’s not bad in itself—these are not issues for which indifference is a virtue—but this passion sometimes results in an exchange of invective, insults, ad hominem attacks, and the usual sort of intellectual gibberish produced by overwrought emotions.

Here’s a news flash: someone who supports affirmative action for women isn’t necessarily anti-male, nor is someone who questions the methodology of comparable worth necessarily a misogynistic pig.

Personally, I find that all these policy questions both significant and difficult. In my view they require careful study, and we can hope to arrive at an acceptable resolution only if we utilize the methods traditionally used by humanists—reasoned arguments supported by empirical evidence.

But what’s your take on these issues. Should humanists try to ban pornography? Should prostitution be legalized or prohibited? Is affirmative action (as you define it) laudable or morally questionable? Moreover, given the disagreements among humanists about these matters, should CFI ever take an official position on these issues?

You now have the floor.

[FULL GENDER BIAS DISCLOSURE: I AM MALE; MY COMPANION IN LIFE AND LOVER IS FEMALE; I HAVE A DAUGHTER; I HAVE A SON; OF THE THREE CATS WHO OCCUPY MY HOME, TWO ARE FEMALE, ONE MALE]