A quick thought experiment. Imagine two possible worlds:
In World A, all the income and material wealth is owned by men. Women have no right to earn money or to own property of any kind. They are given the use of resources by the men in their lives, but they have no legal right to this. It is always done at men’s discretion, and men retain the power to take back property they have given to women at any time. However, it so happens that the men in World A are all perfectly just and compassionate, and always use their income and wealth wisely and judiciously. They never squander their resources or use them in ways we might consider immoral. They ensure that women and girls, while having no legal right of their own to control property, nonetheless have all their material needs met, and are provided with everything they need.
In World B, both women and men have a legal right to earn money and to own property, and the income and wealth of that world is equally distributed between men and women. However, the women in world B are not perfectly just and compassionate women, and frequently use their share of resources unwisely or immorally. They sometimes squander resources through foolish gambles, and sometimes spend money on immoral projects, such as buying weapons to pursue imperialist conflicts.
Let’s leave aside the question of which world, all things considered, you prefer, or which world, all things considered, you think we ought to bring into existence if we had a choice. My question instead is this one: is there anything at all to be said for World B? Is there any respect in which World B is better than World A? Or, to put the question slightly differently, is there any reason at all – no matter how weighty or decisive you may deem that reason to be – to criticise World A? Is there any reason at all – no matter how weighty or decisive you may deem that reason to be – to praise World B?
As someone who endorses both feminist and egalitarian principles, I think the answer to all these questions is straightforwardly “yes”. World B is better than World A in at least one respect, namely, that income and wealth are equally distributed in that world, and there is no unjust division of resources in accordance with the morally arbitrary characteristic of sex. Of course, you don’t need to be a feminist to think that. You could swap the sexes around in the examples and come to the same conclusion – that World B is in one respect better, because in one respect fairer, than World A. It is unfair if some people are denied the right to own property or acquire resources while others enjoy this right, and this unfairness is not dependent on how wisely or judiciously they might exercise that right. And since fairness is of value, one thing among many others that we have reason to care about and to promote, a world in which income and wealth is distributed unfairly is in one respect worse than a world in which it is distributed fairly. There is something to be said for World B. There is at least one reason – fairness – that counts in its favour. This doesn’t tell us very much about which world we should prefer, because fairness is just one value we need to weigh up against others. Depending on many other things, including how costly the effects of women’s irresponsibility would be in World B in terms of overall utility, we might decide that on balance, all things considered, World A is preferable. But even so, we could still criticise World A, and still point out that with respect to one important criterion, World B fares better.
Income and wealth are not the only goods which a political society must distribute among its citizens. Political power and access to positions of office and influence must also be distributed, and one of the values we want this distribution to realise is fairness. A world in which women are systematically and structurally excluded from positions of power and influence is unfair. It is more fair, and so in one respect better, if women also have access to those positions. Crucially, this argument from fairness is not contingent on what women actually do once they get that power. If it turns out that women in positions of authority use that authority badly, or use it in ways that make people worse off, and even in ways that make women worse off, that does not make the argument from fairness evaporate. The value of fairness might be outweighed by other values, such that all things considered, we might decide it is preferable to have a socialist male Prime Minister than a conservative female one. But the value of fairness does not disappear. And so in the current context of men continuing to possess a disproportionate amount of political power and influence, the arrival of a female Prime Minister is in one respect good, and we can celebrate the realisation of that one type of value, while simultaneously wishing that we had a different Prime Minister, one who embodies more of the values we care about.
You might hope that this would be such a trivially and obviously true claim that it would not be worth saying, and yet within hours of the news emerging that our next Prime Minister would be female, up sprang the inevitable comment pieces castigating those imaginary feminists who had apparently heralded the dawn of a feminist revolution. This struck me as strange, since I hadn’t actually seen any feminists doing that. Rather, I had seen feminists making the much more modest but still important point that while a female Prime Minister might be bad for women in many, many ways, depending on her politics, there is at least one way in which she is good for women – and that is simply by virtue of the fact that women as a class have a right to an equal share of political power with men. And further, each woman who holds power makes it a little bit easier for the next, by normalising the fact of women with power, and through her visibility publicly cementing our claims to have a right to it.
I made this point on twitter, perhaps clumsily because of the character limit, but I stand by the basic point:
It is a feminist victory for women to be able to hold power and use it as incompetently and disastrously as men have always done.
— Becca Reilly-Cooper (@boodleoops) July 7, 2016
I do not believe that feminists should be elated that we have a Conservative Prime Minister just because she happens to be female. I do not believe that we should expect Prime Minister May to be overall a positive thing for women, or even overall better for women than many male politicians might have been. But when I say it’s a feminist victory, I mean it: it is one of the gains of the feminist movement that women can access the highest positions of political power and influence, without condition, and it should be a basic tenet of any feminist politics that our right to such positions is not contingent on our using power better than men have traditionally used it. Some feminist goals, especially those related to welfare provision, might be better realised by other governments, with other Prime Ministers, who might very well be male. But at least one important feminist goal – the goal of women exercising power, for its own sake, just because it is something we have a right to – has been realised for one woman, and made a tiny bit easier for all the women that follow. And perhaps one day we will have so many senior female politicians that we are no longer surprised to discover they are just as capable of being incompetent, corrupt and self-serving as men are, and no longer demand they demonstrate their moral and practical superiority before acknowledging their right to hold office.
That would be a cause for a feminist celebration. If only a small one.