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Gender EqualityEquality, Liberalism, And Feminism, Equality And Sexual Difference, Gender Asymmetries And The Limits Of Formal Equality

The coupling of equality and gender may indicate a paradox, if not an oxymoron. If equality were to exist, would gender? Does the persistent salience of the idea of gender with regard to equality provide evidence of fundamental flaws or contradictions in theories and practices of equality? Can the pursuit of equality reproduce rather than undermine gender dominance? While these questions are central to contemporary discourses on equality and gender, consensus on answers or even means to address them is absent.

Equality is a relational term. It entails establishing a relation between two or more things. Logically, differences between the objects of comparison must exist, for otherwise the question of their equivalence would not occur. However, establishing equality requires specifying a characteristic potentially shared by each thing. Furthermore, it demands identifying a class of objects among which the characteristic might be found. For example, if one declares, "all men are born equal," then one must specify the criterion that warrants this statement. In so doing, the boundary marking equality's terrain is simultaneously established. In this case, equality is significant, or meaningful, only in relations among men, not men and other beings; within this formulation the question "Are men and animals equal?" is unintelligible. Establishing equality thus requires identifying the common criterion and commensurable objects. Having done so, it is then possible to evaluate the relation of each relevant thing to the common measure—if each partakes of the common quality to the same degree, then equality exists.

Thus establishing equality does not require that the objects within its specified class be in all respects identical. However, while discourses of equality do not deny that differences exist, they do claim that in regard to some practices or claims, existing differences are irrelevant. In these practices or claims, what matters is partaking of the common quality. Those who share the quality equally ought to count identically or have equal access to the practice or claim. For example, if one claims that natural rights are innate to each human, then each human's rights are entitled to the same treatment and regard as every other human's. So equality requires a commitment to disregard some characteristics when distributing certain goods or treatment in favor of a presumption of equivalence.

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