The new Bryan Caplan book

The title has attracted a lot of attention and controversy, it is Don’t be a Feminist: Essays on Genuine Justice, description here.  Bryan writes a letter to his daughter, telling her not to be a feminist.

To counter Bryan, many people are trying to cite the “official” definition of feminism, which runs something like:

feminism, the belief in social, economic, and political equality of the sexes.

Who could not believe in that?  But here is a case where the official definition (which comes in varying versions) is off base.  Many people do not consider themselves feminists but would endorse those conclusions or come close to endorsing those conclusions entirely (I’m not sure what “social” equality for the sexes is supposed to mean.)  Or can’t you be a pretty radical fighter for women’s rights, without necessarily believing full equality (of which kind?) is possible?  What if you thought women shouldn’t be drafted into the military for combat?  Would that disqualify you?  Could Mary Wollstonecraft qualify on that basis?  Yet Wikipedia presents her as the founder of feminism.

Bryan’s preferred definition of feminism is:

feminism: the view that society generally treats men more fairly than women

That also seems off base to me.  If you were a feminist, but all of a sudden society does something quite unfair to men (drafts them to fight an unjust and dangerous war?), does that mean you might have to stop calling yourself a feminist?  Somehow the definition ought to be more weighted toward the status of women and remedies for women, rather than treating men and women symmetrically.  It seems weird to get people thinking about all of the injustices faced by men.

I don’t go around calling myself a feminist.  There is too much in “the other people who call themselves feminists” that I don’t agree with.  And it seems to me too aggregative a notion, and furthermore an attempt to win an argument by putting forward a definition that other people will be afraid to countermand.  Nonetheless here is a view I do agree with:

There is an important emancipatory perspective, one that would improve the lives of many women, and it consists of a better understanding of how social institutions to date have disadvantaged women, and a series of proposals for improvement.  Furthermore large numbers of men still do not understand the import of such a perspective, one reason for that being they have never lived the lives of women.

Unlike Bryan’s definition, this puts the treatment of women at the center of the issue.  And unlike some of the mainstream definitions, it does not focus on the issue of equality, which I think will be difficult to meet or even define.  Do we have to let men play in women’s tennis?  In women’s chess tournaments?  Whether yes or no, I don’t think the definition of feminism should hinge on those questions.

If you want to call that above description of mine feminism, fine, but I am finding that word spoils more debates and discussions than it improves.  I won’t be using it.  By the way, John Stuart Mill’s On the Subjection of Women remains one of the very best books ever written, on any topic, and indeed I have drawn my views from Mill.  Everyone should read it.  He never used the word feminist either.

I also would stress that my definition does not rule out emancipatory perspectives for men or other gender categories, or for that matter other non-gender categories, quite the contrary.  Freedom and opportunity are at the center of my conception, and that means for everybody, which allows for a nice kind of symmetry.

In the meantime, I will read Bryan’s book once it comes out Monday.  I’ve seen its component pieces already in Bryan’s other writings, I just am not sure which ones are in the book.

By the way, I wonder if Bryan’s views on gender are fully consistent with his views on poverty.  He advocates marrying, staying married, etc., that whole formula thing.  But if men are treated so badly in society, maybe in many cases there just aren’t enough marriageable men to go around?  What are the women (and the men) to do then?



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