the dilemma of difference

by mraynes

cross posted at the exponent

i recently began research for my thesis into public policy and the way it affects women. one theme that i keep running into again and again is what feminist legal scholar Martha Minow calls the dilemma of difference. in her book Making All the Difference: Inclusion, Exclusion, and American Law, she writes:

“The dilemma of difference may be posed as a choice between integration and separation, as a choice between similar treatment and special treatment, or as a choice between neutrality and accommodation.”

this is an area rife with landmines for feminist scholars. some believe that women should only accept equal treatment without regard to biological differences such as pregnancy if women have any hope of reaching a modicum of equality. their argument is that by accepting special treatment, women risk reinforcing the age old narrative of women’s vulnerability and inferiority. but those who argue for special treatment believe that policy needs to be put in place that addresses the unique needs women have from men. they also believe that failing to acknowledge the differences does little to remedy systematic inequality.

there is no magic solution here, both sides have merit. american law was created by and for the male experience and it is increasingly well-documented that women are disadvantaged by this system. but because of the continued gender disparity in our legislative bodies it is unlikely that the situation will change anytime soon and women are not well served by perpetuating sexist stereotypes. in the end, women may be granted equal protection under the law but they certainly won’t get equal outcomes.

as i’ve thought about this dilemma in public policy, i’ve wondered how it applies to the mormon female experience as well.  in many ways, mormonism is where public policy was 50 years ago, on the brink of substantive progression towards equality. when secular feminists were confronted with this situation they were really only able to get the equal treatment laws like title ix and the equal pay act put in place. special treatment laws like federal maternity leave or subsidized daycare were soundly defeated and nobody has the political will to fight for those things even though they would greatly equalize outcomes for women.

when it comes time for the mormon church to further progress towards equality and i think it is a given that they will, i wonder if we won’t see a similar pattern. women will be granted equality based off of the male experience. we may be given the priesthood and/or all of the bureaucratic responsibilities that go along with it but there will be very little engagement with aspects of the doctrine that profoundly affect women. just as male legislators were unable to see how they’ve been privileged by policy designed for their experience, our male leaders may not be able to see how they’ve been privileged by having and knowing a male god.

equal treatment does not necessarily mean equal outcomes. until women have that same privilege, until we can look into a mirror and recognize the face of God, can we ever truly be equal?