A feminist friend asked me to write a piece addressed to this question: How would my work have been different if I had engaged with and learned from the feminists of the late 1960s and 1970s? I have tried to respond, in a more personal style than I usually adopt, but with what I hope is a familiar anxiety.
Before I begin, I need to claim an earlier education. In 1953, I dated and later married a woman who was a bolshevik feminist, who wouldn’t let me open a door for her, or help her on with her coat, or pay for her movie tickets, or do any of the things that boys were supposed to do for girls in those benighted days. And we had two daughters who were egalitarian, and argumentative about it, from their first conscious moment. I wanted them to grow up in a society where they could do…whatever they wanted to do. So long before I ever read a feminist tract, I was committed to August Bebel’s proposition that there couldn’t be a just society without “equality of the sexes.”
But that bit of political correctness didn’t necessarily make for what you might call intelligence about gender. If I had been intelligent in that way, what would I have written differently? The book to focus on is Spheres of Justice, which I wrote in the early 1980s. Spheresdeals with the distribution of social goods and bads, the benefits and burdens of our common life, and it includes a discussion of the conventional roles and rewards of men and women. The book provoked a lot of arguments, many of them critical, and for me the most interesting criticism came from feminist writers.
The most important of those writers was the late Susan Moller Okin, a leading member of the remarkable first generation of academic women writing political theory in the United States, which includes Carol Pateman, Jean Bethke Elshtain, Amy Gutmann, Nancy Rosenblum, and Iris Marion Young (who, like Okin, died too young). Okin was a student at Harvard and wrote her dissertation with me; in 1979, she turned it into her first book, Women in Western Political Thought. Her second book, Justice, Gender, and the Family, came out in 1989. I wrote a blurb calling it “a brilliantly argued and highly persuasive critique of current theories.” One of those current theories was mine. I want now to ask what I might have learned from Okin’s critique had she written it and had I read it before writing Spheres.