Living with Our Differences   /   Spring 2001   /    Reviews

Women and Moral Diversity

Pamela D. H. Cochran

“"The Old and New Style”

Most people say that multiculturalism is a good thing in today’s milieu. After all, multiculturalism attacks not only such “liberal complacencies,” to use Will Kymlicka’s term, as the assumption that all citizens are white, middle- to upper-class, and male, but also the assumption that all citizens in a liberal society share the same language, religion, and culture. In so doing, it joins the ranks of struggles against injustice, like the abolitionist, labor rights, civil rights, and feminist movements, to strive for equal rights for all citizens of America.

Given their seemingly common aims, one might think that feminism and multiculturalism would be easily reconcilable. Certainly Kymlicka, a philosopher and multicultural theorist, assumes this, judged by his contribution to this collection. Susan Moller Okin disagrees. She insists, in her lead essay—around which this volume is focused and to which the other essays respond—that multiculturalism, although a welcome corrective to cultural imperialism, is morally problematic because it resists judging behaviors within another culture. Such a refusal to judge, she argues, is intolerable when the behaviors within other cultures are harmful to women, such as child marriage, polygamy, clitoridectomy, unequal property and divorce laws, even sanctioned or excused rape and murder. She suggests that the treatment of women become the standard by which cultural practices are judged.

Okin begins her argument by observing that many women live in indigenous and other national minority cultures that are saturated with practices and ideologies that are harmful or disrespectful to women. While no culture is perfect in its treatment of women, Okin is convinced that liberal societies have achieved a level of equality among their members that is often missing in minority cultures. To give special rights to these cultures then, Okin argues, is to perpetuate and reinforce sexist practices within them. The problem is that multiculturalists focus on differences between groups, such as those between Western liberal culture and the culture of Native Americans, for example. Feminists claim that the proper liberal focus should be on the differences within, rather than between, them, e.g., the power imbalance between men and women. Additionally, Okin argues that multiculturalists have ignored the private sphere within minority cultures, and in so doing, they have failed to address the inequality suffered by women in their domestic relationships. This failure is especially problematic because it is within the domestic sphere that women form their fundamental conceptions of themselves and through which cultural norms are transmitted across generations.

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