top of page

Are Women “Free and Equal” in Rawls’s Well-Ordered Society?

Feminists have long worried that Rawls’s political liberalism cannot secure justice for women. Following Okin, many have worried that Rawlsian toleration of sexist but otherwise “reasonable” comprehensive doctrines–– i.e., doctrines which accept gender hierarchy but do not seek to use the coercive power of the state to enforce it––would permit various forms of gender injustice within the family. In this paper, I try to pin down this familiar feminist suspicion in a new way. I argue that previous feminist critiques, while themselves strictly unsuccessful, shed light on the ways in which Rawls’s citizen, as a person regarded as free and equal, is fundamentally gendered. In characterizing the moral psychology of citizens, Rawls makes two assumptions—what I call felt entitlement and internalized assurance—which sexist socialization practices tend to keep girls and women from satisfying. Such practices inculcate, from an early age, norms of self- minimization, doubt, and “going along to get along”, making those subject to them systematically less likely to “cash in” on their rightful political and economic entitlements. More insidiously still, the resulting inequalities could be (artificially) stable. Even at its most idealized, Rawls’s liberalism is compatible with widespread, persistent inequalities along gendered lines.

bottom of page