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 In Susan Okin’s book on feminist political philosophy, Justice, Gender, and the Family, Okin argues for gender inclusive philosophy and against intersectional feminism. In this paper I will argue that Okin’s argument for more gender inclusive philosophy on justice necessitates intersectionality in feminism. First, I will reconstruct Okin’s argument that theorists should not use the needs of men as the basis of justice for all people. Next, I will present Okin’s argument that intersectionality remains unnecessary in feminism and would actually detracts from the cause. Then, I will contrast the logic in the two arguments to reveal the contradiction. Finally, I will explain why intersectionality is vital to feminism.

Okin argues that since theories of justice do not apply to a large part of the population, those theories of justice are flawed, especially if that population already suffers from a lack of justice. Okin does not provide evidence to support her assumption that theories of justice must apply to a large portion of society to be valid, but instead chooses to repeat the assumption. However, since the theories of justice Okin speaks of claim to pertain to all people, justice can safely be considered something that should be attributed to all people, and not just a portion of the population.

Okin does break down the ways in which theories of justice do not apply to women. Okin explains how her contemporaries compose theories of justice using gender neutral terms, such as “they” or “he or she,” and in doing so bury the sexism embedded in the theory. Okin illustrates both the incorporation of hidden sexism into a theory and the incorporation of hidden sexism in policies.

Many theorists assume the subject of their theories of justice to be a man with a wife at home. Since a theory of justice is based on the premise that each valued individual is a man with a wife at home to do the domestic labor, wage earning work can be justly made incompatible with childrearing and other domestic duties. Since wage earning work defacto gets prioritized, domestic work and the women expected to do such work can be devalued. If a theory validates a society in which men are systematically aided and women are systematically oppressed, then that theory has gendered implications.

Many of the theorists whose theories center around men with a wife at home disguise the sexist implication of their theories by using gender neutral terminology to describe these men. Essentially, they keep the gendered implications within the theory, but add ambiguity to the pronoun used so that the reader can assume that the theory of justice applies equally to people of all genders. The problem with this method is that while theorists can now claim that their theories are not sexist because they technically include women, the practice does not help eliminate the sexist implications of those theories.

Governments have also incorporated this type of fake gender equity to legitimize sexist policies. For example, the government validated a policy which allows discrimination against “pregnant persons” because the blanket term “pregnant persons” explicitly includes people of any gender who can get pregnant. However, the policy is a thinly veiled way to discriminate against women, since women almost exclusively make up the pregnant population. This policy exemplifies how one can use a more general term to target or prioritize a specific group of people. The accepted precedent that gender neutral language is equivalent to gender equity allows others to exacerbate the systematic oppression of women using non-gendered terminologies. If Okin’s logic can be trusted, then since such theories and policies disclude and/or further subjugate women, those theories of justice are flawed and feminism is needed to rectify the issue.

Okin also supports the feminists who discount the differences between women. She claims not only that feminists do not need to take factors, such as race, into consideration, but that they should not discuss such factors, because it would take away focus from the issue of gender. As explained in her argument against overgeneralization of the male experience to the female experience, Okin considers the oppression of women a serious problem. Though she acknowledges that factors, such as race, affect the extent and way gender impacts a woman’s life, she still deems intersectionality an unworthy focus. However, since she defines feminism as a ideology which fights for women’s issues, she believes that if intersectionality distracts from gendered issues, then it should not be present in feminist literature. Essentially, Okin feels that the more factors advocated for in one theory, the more each cause’s argument gets diluted, and she thinks it’s feminists job to prioritize women’s issues over other causes.

Okin proves the premise, that intersectionality does belittle the fight for gender issues by explaining that any focus on other factors de-emphasize the readers view of the issues people are having as women. However, she does not provide adequate evidence or reasoning for this stance. She does not further explain the absolutism of her take on the subject, nor does she supply further evidence that a feminist’s primary job is to fight for women’s issues.

Okin would rather focus on commonalities within the woman experience than discuss the experience of each type of woman. Essentially, Okin’s feminism generalizes the un-raced woman experience to all women. The only women who experience the world as women separate from the oppression of race, class, etc. are those who do not experience the oppression of race, class, etc. – i. e. upper class white women. Okin does not recommend calling her women “upper class white women” but rather uses the umbrella term “women.” By claiming that all feminism should be based on women separate from intersections with race, class, etc., Okin generalizes the experience of upper class white women to all women.

Okin’s arguments against intersectionality contrast her argument for more gender inclusive philosophy. Okin’s argument for feminism hinges on the assumption that the disclusion of a large part of society from theories of justice is inherently unjust. Yet, Okin’s non-intersectional feminism discludes most women, including women of color, lower class women, etc., and hides the racism, classism, etc. of the theory using un-raced, un-classed, etc. rhetoric in the same way the theorists she criticizes hide their disclusion of women under gender neutral terminology.

If Okin’s arguments for gender inclusive philosophy are valid, then her arguments against intersectionality in feminism are invalid. In the same vein, Okin’s arguments against using gender neutral language to hide sexist implications must be valid for Okin’s arguments for the gender inclusive philosophy of feminism to be true. So, if Okin’s arguments for gender neutral language inclusivity are invalid, her arguments for feminism collapse. Since Okin’s arguments for gender inclusivity hinge on the validity of the arguments for intersectionality, intersectionality is vital to the validity of feminism.

Intersectional feminism is a useful tool to combat the breaches of justice to portions of the population both in theories and in practice.


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Audrey Thorne

Harvard '19

Audrey is a Senior in Pforzheimer house. She likes writing, adventure, Tatte, and doing things ironically it's no longer ironic. She's also Co-Campus Coordinator of the Her Campus Harvard branch.
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