The issue of gender equality has come to center-stage in British public thanks to the debate on male-preference primogeniture. American readers may be unfamiliar with the term ‘male-primogeniture’ so a brief word of explanation may be helpful.
The rules of succession for the British thrown are governed by a system in which firstborn sons take precedence over their older sisters in line for the throne. A woman will only inherit the throne of Britain if she has no male siblings. A younger brother – no matter how young – will always bump ahead to first-place in line above older sisters. Given the system of male primogeniture, the present Queen became monarch only because she did not have any brothers. Similarly, Queen Victoria (1819 –1901) was only able to inherit the throne because she had been the only child of Edward, Duke of Kent and Victoria Maria Louisa of Saxe-Coburg.
I don’t intend to defend or criticize the system of male primogeniture in this post. In fact, I don’t think it is a clear-cut issue biblically. Rather, I’d like to use the recent debate as an opportunity to make a few observations about gender equality. Specifically, I will suggest that (a) gender discrimination is both laudable and inescapable, and that (b) those who are advancing gender equality are often guilty of the same problem as those who practice male domination; as such, feminism and male domination are both opposite sides of the same coin.
OK, I suspect a lot of angry readers will not read any further, but hear me out.
Gender Discrimination: Good or Bad?
In a letter last week to the heads of the different Commonwealth countries that share the monarchy with England, Prime Minister David Cameron said, “We espouse gender equality in all other aspects of life and it is an anomaly that in the rules relating to the highest public office we continue to enshrine male superiority.” The Prime Minister is not alone in seeing the current succession laws as a card-carrying case of gender discrimination. Earlier in the year when Keith Vaz MP put forward a Bill attempting to change the succession laws, he commented
“At the centre of this debate is a great principle: gender equality…. Our country leads the way in equality issues, and that should be reflected in our succession rules…. Sex discrimination has been illegal in the United Kingdom since 1975. Some 35 years after the passage of the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, Britain’s employers must ensure equality between the sexes. Those who break the law are rightly punished. The Bill attempts to bring such gender equality into our succession rules.”
In his book The Retreat of Reason: Political Correctness and the Corruption of Public Debate in Modern Britain, Anthony Browne showed that gender discrimination is not only accepted in many instances, but many times is laudable and defensible. Browne writes:
“Young men pay higher rates for car insurance than young women and older men, because young men are, on average, more dangerous drivers than young women and older men. A young man who is a safe driver is thus discriminated against because of the characteristics of other people in his age and sex group….Anti-discrimination campaigners may publicly declare that all discrimination on the grounds of sex should be outlawed, but they are unlikely to agree that all men should have the right to use women’s toilers, that men should be allowed to go to women’s gyms, or to demand overturning the right of women’s clothes shops to refuse to employ men….Men pay smaller pension contributions than women for a given level of private pension, for the simple reason that, on average, they have shorter lives and so on average claim less….The various forms of rational discrimination that are widely accepted are not often called discrimination – although that is clearly what they are – because accepting that some discrimination is actually essential to the working of a society would undermine the public acceptance of a ‘zero tolerance of all forms of discrimination’. The war on discrimination would become meaningless if there were general public awareness that actually some forms of discrimination are needed.”
Sex discrimination simply means treating a person differently than you would if that person were a different gender. For example, when a man dates a woman he is, in a sense, ‘discriminating,’ since he would not offer the same treatment to members of his own gender category, unless, of course, he is gay. In short, there are many cases where men and women are unequal, and these are diversities to be celebrated rather than inequalities to be lamented. The real question, therefore, is not whether something is a case of discrimination, but whether it is a case of justifiable discrimination.
When this is applied to the question of male primogeniture, as well as all the other controversial issues about gender equality, it follows that what we need to ask is whether sex discrimination in this case is rationally justified. We cannot know that male primogeniture is wrong merely from the fact that it discriminates against women. Rather, the burden rests on those who oppose the practice to first establish that it is a case of unjustifiable discrimination. However, instead of making this case, opponents of male primogeniture tend to follow Mr. Vaz in simply assuming that the discrimination of the succession laws is equivalent to illegal and unjust discrimination. This is a typical feminist move to short-circuit rational discussion of the specifics merits of the issue, turning it instead (but erroneously) into a question of political correctness.
Gender Equality: Myth or Reality?
A related issue concerns gender equality. On this issue, there are two primary views. First, we have the egalitarian view, which maintains that men and women are equal in all respects other than biology. Egalitarians maintain that individual persons and society in general both have an ethical obligation to treat men and women the same. They will often point out that because men and women are equal in both value and human nature they are also equal in respect to their functions and tasks. Egalitarians are also fond of pointing out that their equalitarianism acts as a hedge against male chauvinism, patriarchy and gender hierarchy. This is because lack of gender equality implies male superiority, or so the egalitarian alleges.
The alternative to gender equality is the view known as complementarianism, or variations of it such as New Feminism. According to complementarians, men and women have been created as the natural complement of each other. Consequently, men have a unique role that only they can fulfill just as women have a unique role that only they can fulfill. Such roles are equal in value and dignity but unequal in function. Complementarians rightly point out that egalitarianism is based on a faulty non sequitor, assuming that equality of function and task can be derived from equality of human nature and of value. By contrast, Complementarianism completely avoids this error, making a distinction between personal worth and personal function. Other strong-points of Complementarianism are that
• The claims of egalitarianism are unscientific since they have been disproved by contemporary neuroscience and cognitive psychology.
• The role-differentiation assumed by complementarians is trinitarian, emphasizing the beauty of mutual interdependence.
• Men and women flourish best when they function as one another’s complements.
• Evidence exists for the fact that the different bodily structures of men and women lead both to different lived experiences in the world. Such differentiation makes egalitarianism impractical.
Feminism and Male Domination: Two Sides of the Same Coin
Interestingly, feminism and gender egalitarianism are actually just the opposite side of the coin of male domination. Both feminism and male domination assume that there is a necessary relation between personal role and personal worth. Both insist that personal role and personal worth must go together, so that any limitation to the former reduces or threatens the latter. The only difference is that while feminism thinks this is a bad thing, and hence attempts to increase a woman’s worth through nullifying any limitation of role, male domination thinks it is a good thing, and hence attempts to decrease a woman’s worth by maintaining her role.
Feminism thus shares the very premise upon which male domination is founded, namely, that my personal significance is measured according to my rung on the ladder, and my opportunity for personal fulfillment enlarges or contracts according to my role. Both are wrong. As Ortlund as pointed out,
“Ironically, feminism shares the very premise upon which male domination is founded, namely, that my personal significance is measured according to my rung on the ladder, and my opportunity for personal fulfillment enlarges or contracts according to my role. By this line of reasoning, the goal of life degenerates into competition for power, and no one hungers and thirsts for true fulfillment in righteousness. No wonder both male domination and feminism are tearing people apart.”
We are now in a position to see how David Cameron has unwittingly capitulated to the same error as those who practice male domination. Think back to his comments cited earlier that “We espouse gender equality in all other aspects of life and it is an anomaly that in the rules relating to the highest public office we continue to enshrine male superiority.” Given that the context of Cameron’s remarks is the succession of the throne, it seems clear that by ‘gender equality’ Cameron means equality of function. Mr Cameron assumes that for the law to recognize a functional difference between men and women (which it does when it gives the throne to the first-born male over older daughters) is to have the attitude of one sex being superior to the other. He thus presupposes that equality of worth is dependent on a woman’s role or function, and that to limit that function is therefore to limit her worth and to enshrine male superiority. By implication this reduces a woman’s value to her function since it assumes that a limitation of the latter reduces the extent of the former. Such an implication is demeaning to females even though those who espouse it think they are elevating women. But such is the legacy of gender egalitarianism.