In the second GOP debate, candidates were asked an inconsequential question about what woman they would want to see on the $10 bill. Three mentioned family members who were caregivers and one mentioned Mother Theresa. Other candidates did mention women who were political leaders, but it is worth noting how difficult it is for some to imagine, even now, a great woman who is not caring for others. Rather, it is still hard for too many people to imagine that leading and fighting for justice and rights is a form of caring for women that is worthy of admiration.
The idea that women should be good, as women, but not in the same way that men might be good, is about as old as civilization. Men have placed women in an impossible bind forever. For striving to be the best person possible, they are often denounced, attacked, or even murdered for stepping above their station. In the seventh century BCE, Chinese poet and princess, Xu Mu found herself in a position where she felt she must defend her kingdom (Wei) against the Di people (see Barbara Bennett Peterson’s essay about dutiful daughters of ancient China here). She successfully rallied her brothers and friends from neighboring kingdoms to preserve their home.
A man in her position would simply luxuriate in the waves of honor and gratitude flowing over him, but Xu’s position was more complicated. She is remembered for her accomplishments, but she also faced the wrath of the men in her community. She recorded her mixed experiences and feeling in a poem, “Speeding Away”:
Harshly though you may judge me,
From my course I will not veer.
Compared to your limited vision,
Do I not see far and clear?
Harshly though you may judge me,
My steps you never can stay.
Compared to your limited vision,
Am I not wise in my way?
I’ve climbed the heights of A Qiu,
Gathered herbs on the slope alone.
All women are prone to sorrow,
Each follows a path of her own.
The people of Xu still blame me,
Such ignorance has never been known.
Out of necessity, she stepped out of the role of good wife, daughter, and mother to save her homeland only to be criticized, but she didn’t accept the criticism. She said, “O listen, ye lords and nobles, Blame not my stubbornness so,” but she was denied the opportunity to emerge as an unvarnished hero. If she had been a man, she would have been good, but she could not be considered a good woman without qualifications. Her society had two concepts of virtue: one for men, and one for women.
A couple of centuries later, Plato advocated for a single measure of virtue and goodness. He felt that the ideal form of the good was universal, so it wouldn’t make sense for some people to aim at one ideal and others at another ideal, as there can only be one ideal. Consequently, women and men should aim at the same ideal, and men, just by chance, seem to have an easier time getting close to it. In Plato’s Republic, women would be trained and educated in the manner of men in hopes of achieving their highest possibilities of human perfection. Women who succeeded in being the most like the best men would be the best women. Men who resembled women, on the other hand, were the worst of men. In Plato’s world, then, Xu Mu might be admired for embodying the virtues of men, but she may still be censured for failing in the virtues of womanhood.
Plato’s unusual conception of a single standard for virtue for men and women didn’t last long. His student, Aristotle, found insistence on a single standard for goodness unnatural and unfair. Men and women, being different, should strive for different ideals. A woman should be a good woman and a man should be a good man. To judge a woman on her ability to be like a “good man” would be as absurd as judging a musician on his ability to make good shoes. Women should do what is right and natural for them, he believed. Under Aristotle’s guidance, Xu Mu would do better to leave saving the kingdom to the men, who would be more rational and better prepared for war.
Those who feel women have different strengths than men will insist that they are not misogynistic. No, they love women for the things women do best. These men (and women) say that women have civilized men, make peace in families, and rear children for greatness. They love their mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters as they make it possible for men to achieve greatness in war, politics, business, science, and philosophy. For example. Ronald Reagan explained his high regard for women by saying, “If it wasn’t for women, us men would still be walking around in skin suits carrying clubs.” The problem is that the things these men suppose women excel at doing are also denigrated by society precisely because women do them, which means that women are devalued as well. In the third century BCE, another Chinese poet, Fu Xuan, summed up the problem nicely:
How sad it is to be a woman!!
Nothing on earth is held so cheap.
Boys stand leaning at the door
Like Gods fallen out of Heaven.
Their hearts brave the Four Oceans,
The wind and dust of a thousand miles.
No one is glad when a girl is born:
By her the family sets no store.
By this measure, to be the best woman possible is still to be something inferior to even a mediocre man. Women may not attain the highest levels of virtue.
Upon reading the works of many men claiming that women are inferior at birth, Christine Pisan, wrote a rhetorical query to God in 1405 CE:
“Alas, God, why did You not let me be born in the world as a man, so that all my inclinations would be to serve You better, and so that I would not stray in anything and would be as perfect as a man is said to be? But since Your kindness has not been extended to me, then forgive my negligence in Your service, most fair Lord God, and may it not displease You, for the servant who receives fewer gifts from his lord is less obliged in his service.”
Trapped in a paradox, extreme virtue is demanded of women while it is simultaneously denied them. By asking God to resolve the paradox, Pisan brilliantly illustrates that it is men, not God, who created the paradox, for no God would be so irrational. The binary is not only absurd; it is impossible.
In 1694 CE, Mary Astell eschewed literary maneuvers and stated directly that men are to blame for the situation of women. In her Serious Proposal to the Ladies, she remarked, “That therefore Women are unprofitable to most, and a plague and dishonour to some Men is not much to be regretted on account of the Men, because ’tis the product of their own folly, in denying them the benefits of an ingenuous and liberal Education, the most effectual means to direct them into, and to secure their progress in the way of Vertue.” She goes on to say, “For since God has given Women as well as Men intelligent Souls, why should they be forbidden to improve them?” Astell issued a call to arms for women. Many have responded, and continue to respond.
In the late 19th century, Mary Wollstonecraft repeated the call: “To account for, and excuse the tyranny of man, many ingenious arguments have been brought forward to prove, that the two sexes, in the acquirement of virtue, ought to aim at attaining a very different character: or, to speak explicitly, women are not allowed to have sufficient strength of mind to acquire what really deserves the name of virtue.” Wollstonecraft argued that two standards of virtue only serve to cement the power of men over women. A single standard will liberate both.
Simply choosing between a singular or dual ethics does not resolve the problem of misogyny, masculine power, or the systematic devaluing of anything “feminine.” If we choose to embrace a single ethics, the default position is to embrace the ethics previously associated with “masculine” virtue. To do so, women must themselves then disparage “feminine” virtues, which will mean debasing the activities traditionally associated with women. Thus, both women and men engaged in such pursuits are permanent held in reduced stature.
On the other hand, to embrace a dual system of ethics is to preserve the status quo. The male system of ethics continues to be the good and noble ethics while the female ethics is valued only for its contributions to maintaining the power and worth of male activities.
A single ethics that values all virtues and activities that are, in fact, valuable demands a complete deconstruction of gender and power so that it can be replaced with a non-binary system that embraces and venerates all activities that aid human flourishing. If nurturing children is a good, then it is good for both men and women. Such a system can have no concept of “women’s work” or “men’s work.” The idea that activities or dispositions (caring, assertive, protective, sensitive) are “masculine” or “feminine” must become a foreign idea. This will require radical resistance. Xu Mu and others like her began this battle nearly 3,000 years ago. After watching the second GOP debate, I believe it may take another 3,000 years to finish the war.