Review of "Same Difference"

By Rosalind Barnett and Caryl Rivers
Basic Books, 2004
Review by David M. Wolf on Sep 12th 2005
Same Difference

The first wave of American feminism included an elite group of heroic women who fought for the right to vote. After women's suffrage was achieved in the early twentieth century, feminism was quiet for some five decades before the second wave emerged amid the politics of the 1960s. This second wave has since broken apart, advancing and retreating by turns and according to differing interpretations. Same Difference is about feminism today, and it takes careful aim at a subtle sexism inadvertently extended by a feminist "juggernaut," Carol Gilligan from 1982 and onward.

Barnett and Rivers, both college professors, were part of the avant-garde of feminism's advance in the 1970s. The authors remain convinced that an authentic egalitarian society with respect to gender differences is one in which people are viewed individually, not subject to gender stereotypes or discrimination. Together as authors, they analyze the botched science and the false and harmful arguments that have, in recent years, propped up the old sexism with new more subtle forms. Much of their focus is on Carol Gilligan and the consequences of her success worldwide.

Same Difference is a big book in three parts with a sweeping scope and plausible arguments about the harms to men and women that sexism causes. The title refers to a "same-difference approach" to men and women and a "world of same difference" that the authors say brings freedom for more people. We can all celebrate differences, but everyone's treatment before the law, everyone's opportunities, and the sharing of life's responsibilities can be, from a gender standpoint, the same.

The book is more than a good read: it's a journey into the gang wars of academic feminism and the harms to real people academics like Gilligan--and pundits like John Gray who wrote Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus--have caused. Many bad ideas, say the authors, have already reached through the media to the real world where people get hired, rear children, get married and divorced, try for advancement, start or quit promising careers--and in general do all the things that people do.

Starting with what the authors call "the seduction of difference," they recount how Gilligan's seminal work, In a Different Voice (1982), has extended the reach and range of the old sexism by using feminism itself to celebrate women's alleged superiority, one which Gilligan identified as women's greater natural gifts for relationships, that is, basing their thinking in human connections and caring in ways not accessible to men. Gilligan's feminism came to be known as "essentialist" feminism. Following Gilligan, however, say Barnett and Rivers, feminism itself--and many women around the globe--have fallen into a "caring trap," and have been revisited by a more subtle sexism and its harms. Gilligan's work has also been used by others in ways she never intended.

The treatment of this controversy is bright, succinct, and persuasive. The authors make their case that the science behind Gilligan's work never should have been credited and given a free pass into the heart of society's decisions about who women are, what are their natures, and certainly not as a basis for decisions about women's lives and careers. Barnett and Rivers make a sweeping case against Gilligan's theory, showing that it works to the detriment of both men and women. Along the way, the authors discuss marriage and families, careers, power, work itself, women's self-esteem, and other issues of importance to everybody.

Same Difference is unsparing in its insistence that no scientific evidence leads to any conclusions about how men and women, as genders, perform morally, as life partners, or at work. Claims otherwise are shown to be junk science, case by case. Furthermore, the authors are consistent in demanding that all people regardless of gender can only be evaluated individually and in relation to the "situation" in which they live and work. The authors' premise that, when it comes to capabilities,† individuals vary among themselves far more than genders do shows itself from first to last as the real essential for feminist advance.

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© 2005 David Wolf


David M. Wolf is the author of Philosophy That Works, a book about the practice of philosophy. His book page for orders (hardback & paperback) is ; readers can also see the first chapter there.


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