Freeman argued that the key to the movement’s success was its potential to combine two ways of addressing society’s gender problems: the Egalitarian Ethic and the Liberation Ethic. The first demands an end to sex discrimination and fixed gender roles, but the second seeks a deeper change. ‘To seek only equality, given the current male bias of the social values, is to assume that women want to be like men or that men are worth emulating,’ she wrote. ‘It is to demand that women be allowed to participate in society as we know it… without questioning the extent to which that society is worth participating in.’
Meanwhile, the Liberation Ethic has faded from view. The Furies’ concept of a ‘male world view’, and their notion of dismantling competition and acquisitiveness, would sound, to many modern ears, like antiquated gibberish. And yet the Liberation Ethic might be the best place to start, not only for addressing the special burdens modern women continue to bear, but also for making life better, along a whole lot of dimensions, for both men and women.
And yet, outside the realm of traditional politics, many people – especially young ones – are seeking entirely different ways of seeing relationships, gender, and sex. Growing numbers of people identify as neither male nor female, upending not just gender roles but gender itself. Polyamorous triads and quads and more exotic geometries are reconfiguring romance. BDSM (bondage, dominance, sado-masochism etc) players are dragging unspoken assumptions about sexual dominance and submission out into the light and then reworking them in novel ways. These movements are often framed as simply a matter of individual choice, but they owe their existence to a Liberation Ethic, and they have the potential to cut to the core of centuries-old assumptions about women and men. Kate Bornstein, a prominent gender theorist and transgender activist, argues that challenging assumptions about gender is part of a broader campaign against all sorts of power structures. ‘The value of breaking the gender binary will be to use what we’ve learned to help break down the false binaries masking hierarchical vectors of oppression – namely age, race, class, religion, looks, ability, language, citizenship, family, and reproductive status and sexuality,’ Bornstein said in a 2011 interview with the magazine Herizons.
A feminism based on the Liberation Ethic would question the very foundations of our work and family lives. It would attack the ‘masculine’ obsession with narrowly defined profit and productivity. It would demand generous social welfare programmes and part-time jobs with good pay, interesting work, and room for advancement. It would help people transform marriage to work for them – or create different kinds of relationships that suit them better. It would ditch the false dichotomy of dependence and independence and acknowledge that, in a complex human society, we are all necessarily interdependent. Above all, it would argue not that women should live more like men, but that everyone, regardless of gender, should live more like they want to.