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OverviewMovements For Equality—equal To Whom?

Since the mid-1800s, equality has been the rallying cry in the United States for abolitionists, suffragists, the civil rights movement, the feminist movement, gay and lesbian movements, and even some sectors of the environmental movement. One striking aspect of many such movements is their persistence in appropriating the language of the Declaration of Independence that "all men are created equal" or, more broadly, in returning to what Martin Luther King Jr. called the "great wells of democracy … dug deep by the Founding Fathers" ("Letter from the Birmingham Jail," pp. 33–34). Frederick Douglass's abolitionism, the Declaration of Sentiments of the early U.S. women's movement, King's rhetoric, and some voices in the gay and lesbian movement have generally called not for changing the fundamental institutions or political values of the United States but for fully and equally including particular groups in American political life. Equality for these movements has to a large extent meant equal rights, including equal voting rights for women, equal civil rights for African-Americans, and equal marriage rights for same-sex partners (although the latter is debated within gay and lesbian communities).

Members of such movements have debated whether this emphasis on inclusion—in place of a broad critique of the system that has excluded certain groups—is a strength or a weakness. More moderate activists have argued that American ideals and institutions are fundamentally sound and that the problem lies in the unequal inclusion in practice of certain groups into political life. Radical voices in all these movements have suggested that it is not enough to assert a right to the privileges enjoyed by heterosexual white men. The political theorist Wendy Brown has built on this critique. She argues that to the extent that feminists as well as racial and ethnic minority movements operate within the framework of the liberal individualist tradition, they privilege their particular identity as the basis for equality claims. Such thinking "overburdens" their particular identity with the harms they perceive. It also overburdens with blame members of the group defined as dominant in the unequal relationship between identity groups (for women, men; for African Americans, whites; for gays and lesbians, heterosexuals). A larger analysis of the political economic system and inequalities that come from their other social relationships (particularly class) tends to be absent. This, in Brown's words, "wounds" equality claims by failing to notice the power of the capitalist political economic system to unequally distribute harms and goods. This overburdening also can produce a backlash by placing too much blame for one group's perceived harms on members of the dominant identity groups. In a sense the dominant group is "wounded" beyond the harm they may have caused when a critique of the political economic system is missing. Such thinking also fails to notice that many harms are also suffered by members of the dominant group who are in inferior social relationships themselves along some axes of domination—especially class.

Questions such as what kinds of equality are important, as well as equality to whom and for whom, are still contested, even within movements for equality. Multiple identities—ethnic, racial, class, sexual, religious, and so on—create multiple sites for inequalities to emerge, and movements often choose to focus on one site of inequality, sometimes at the expense of another. Moreover, with the globalization of economic production and consumption and the emergence of institutions such as the European Union, questions about the equal treatment and equal rights of migrant and minority groups remain unresolved (see Kymlicka).

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Ephemeris to Evolution - Historical BackgroundEquality - Overview - Ancient Views Of Equality, Equality In The Church And The Protestant Reformation, Liberalism, Civic Republicanism, And The Age Of Revolution