Whereas the sameness approach responds to the sexist—who claims that men are better than women in some relevant way—by asserting the sameness of men and women, the difference approach responds by turning the sexist’s argument on its head—at least sometimes, perhaps in many domains, women are better than men. Of course, what is claimed is really closer to this: traditionally feminine attributes and qualities have been undervalued or devalued by a male-dominated society and should be revalued to reflect their true worth. Depending on the particular view, the attributes and qualities associated with femininity may be so associated as a result of either natural tendencies, social tendencies, or a mix of these. At the same time, the difference approach exposes some ways in which masculinity is taken to be normal, neutral, and natural.
An example brings the view into sharper relief. Consider the women’s suffrage movement. John Stuart Mill, who we encountered as a proponent of the sameness approach, argued for women’s rights, e.g. to political participation, on the grounds that they were the same as men in the relevant ways. Jane Addams, using the difference approach several decades after Mill, argued that women had a right to political participation because they were uniquely suited to it.3 She argued that running a city required the same skills as running a home: keeping people clean, fed, fulfilled, and so on. Since women are adept at running homes, they should be adept at running cities, and should thus be afforded the right to vote. In this argument, it is women’s distinctive talents, whether these are due to natural or social factors, that give them special insight into the domain. This argumentative strategy accepts the sexist’s premise that there are differences between men and women, but rejects the claim that men are superior.
Others have made a similar argumentative move in other domains. Perhaps women have a distinct and valuable moral voice, as Carol Gilligan famously argued.4 Perhaps they provide unique agricultural knowledge, as Vandana Shiva has pointed out.5 Perhaps mothering makes them more peaceful, as Sara Ruddick suggested.6 Femininity is often associated with particular characteristics—passivity, emotion, community, home—set in opposition to other, supposedly masculine characteristics—activity, reason, individuality, work. While the latter set is often valued more highly by society, it is easy to come up with contexts in which the former should be preferred. If society were set up to value some of these characteristics more, we might all be better off.
One failing of the sameness approach was its difficulty dealing with cases where men and women really ought to be treated differently, like when evaluating job candidates or college applicants in a system that has not given women an equal chance to succeed. The difference approach may escape this problem at the outset since it can easily justify differential treatment. Perhaps women’s experiences or qualities would…