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Equal access does not guarantee equal outcome

By Wendy McElroy
web posted November 11, 2002

The election's postmortem analysis will be haunted by a shrill complaint: "Not enough women were elected!" The accusation should be ignored because there is no proper ratio of female versus male office holders. Whoever receives the largest vote total in a free election is the proper winner regardless of gender, race or religion.

But the gender card will be played. The argument will run: women constitute 50 percent of the population; if women were truly equal, 50 percent of elected officials would be women; the percentage is far lower; therefore, women are not equal. This argument is false and reflects the changing definition of "equality" within feminism.

Equality used to refer to opportunity: women wanted their persons and property fully protected under the law and to have the same access as men to public institutions, such as universities and the courts. Women's call to vote grew so loud that "woman's rights" and "suffrage" briefly became synonyms. In 1920, ratification of the 19th Amendment assured the vote to American women. And, yet, few women were elected to political office.

Sixties feminists faced a problem. Most legal barriers to women had been swept away. Yet "imbalances," such as the low ratio of female politicians, persisted and were viewed as proof that women were still oppressed. In their view, a true equality of opportunity would have rendered an equality of results.

The call for equality became a cry for women to have equal access to all aspects of society. This new view of equality broke with the old one in two important ways. First, the traditional distinction between "public" and "private" was erased. Equality of access no longer referred to public institutions but to privately-owned ones as well. Second, the law was asked to accord privileges to women in order to compensate them for past wrongs and to establish a "level playing field."

For example, affirmative action regulated whom a business owner could hire.

Today, almost two generations have been raised on this level playing field and have voted their conscience. Yet far fewer women than men are office holders.

One explanation is that '60s feminists were flatly wrong. Equal opportunity in life usually renders unequal results because outcomes depend on many factors other than the equality of either opportunity or access. For example, outcomes depend on the preferences of those involved, preferences that differ widely not only from group to group but also from individual to individual.

Consider how few female firefighters exist. This is not because women are barred from the profession. Indeed, fire departments actively recruit women to comply with affirmative action. The lack of female firefighters may be due to nothing more than the well-documented tendency of women to choose less dangerous, less physically demanding jobs that allow time for their families. In all likelihood, the imbalance has nothing to do with inequality.

Something similar may be at work regarding women office holders. If a majority of women do not choose a political career, if most women voters do not cast ballots for their own sex, this is a fascinating social pattern. But it doesn't necessarily say anything about women's equality: it only reveals women's preferences.

Nevertheless, politically correct feminists will proclaim that the election returns reflect the oppression of women. The definition of equality has changed once more to mean "equality of outcome," not of opportunity or access.

It is always instructive to read United Nations documents because PC feminists speak candidly within them. The new term being used there is "substantive equality."

The International Women's Rights Action Watch is an organization with "special consultative status with the U.N.," that works to "facilitate the monitoring and implementation" of the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). IWRAW speaks of CEDAW's demand that states "ensure an equality of results between women and men." To do so, CEDAW realizes that states need to treat women and men "differently." Women’s needs must be "specially recognised and catered for [sic] in the context of employment, education, financial services, politics and all other spheres of life."

In short, pervasive laws will benefit women and disadvantage men in order to achieve an equality of results.

Election results will probably be included, if only indirectly. For example, in Kosovo, the U.N. mandated a gender quota. Every third candidate in the 2001 election had to be a woman. Close to a third of the offices went to women. The elections were still called "free" because no one tried to rig the vote count, only the nominations. But, as the notoriously corrupt 19th century politician, Boss Tweed once declared, "I don't care who does the electing just so long as I do the nominating."

Dr. Mark Cooray has well expressed the difference between various concepts of equality within feminism. "Equality of opportunity provides in a sense that all start the race of life at the same time. Equality of outcome attempts to ensure that everyone finishes at the same time." Cooray considers "equality of opportunity and freedom" to be "two facets of the same basic concept." Equality of results, however, "is the goal of radical socialism."

As long as women are as free as men to run for office and to vote as they choose, then whatever number of women are elected is the right number for an equality based on freedom.

Wendy McElroy is the editor of ifeminists.com and a research fellow for The Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif. She is the author and editor of many books and articles, including the new book, Liberty for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century (Ivan R. Dee/Independent Institute, 2002). She lives with her husband in Canada.

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