Equality is a Deadly Sin? Feminism as Envy

31 01 2008

Last year, I had to do a presentation on a short story called “Envy” for my Russian Lit class.  It was the perfect opportunity to buy a book in the trendy-looking “Seven Deadly Sins” Oxford series I’d been eyeing up at the bookstore.  I was happily strolling my way through its small, friendly 100-somewhat pages when I came across the following passage:

The modern feminist movement can, I believe, be said to have been built on an impersonal, generalized envy. Women wanted what men seemed to have: freedom of choice in career, in mates, in living with the same irresponsibility (in every field of endeavour) as men. Most women would say, I suspect, that not envy but a strong sense of injustice powered the feminist movement. They would not be wrong, but I would only add that envy and a sense of injustice are not always that easily distinguished, let alone extricated, one from the other. (-Joseph Epstein)

Alright.  First thought: What?! This is wrong!  Second thought: Well…it does kind of make sense.  Hindsight: No, he’s wrong.  And this is why:

When was the last time you felt envious of someone?  (Be honest!)  More importantly, why were you envious of them?  Was it because they had more time to train capoeira than you had, and thus improved more quickly?  Was it because they naturally played the game better than you did?  Was it because they were stronger and more flexible, and floreios came a lot more easily to them?  (If you drew a blank after all of those, insert applicable or non-capoeira example here!)

Envy does not a good capoeirista make!Whether it is skill, money, power, relationships, or circumstances, one thing that nearly all envied objects have in common is either their extraneousness to our current lives, or the large amount of chance involved.  Chance includes things like beauty, talent, intelligence, and personality (“Why did they get to be born <insert envied trait>?  Why wasn’t I?”).  Extraneousness includes things like money, power, promotions, and relationships, and can also be traced back to chance (“I deserve <insert source of envy> just as much as s/he does!  What makes them so great/lucky?”).  If there were neither chance nor extraneousness involved, it would not be true envy, as according to Epstein, inherent in the emotion is a feeling of injustice done—and there is nothing lucky or injust about someone getting promoted over you at work if they have been pulling overtime while you’ve been arriving late for the past three months, for example. 

If you look it up, Dictionary.com defines envy as “a feeling of discontent or covetousness with regard to another’s advantages, success, possessions”.  No one necessarily has a right to natural advantages, extra/better possessions, or chance successes; these are all “privileges” you come across in life, for lack of a better word.  Envy exists precisely because no one necessarily has a right to riches or built muscles or a perfect significant other any more than you do.  That’s why a sense of injustice is inherent in envy.

With that said, why is feminism not envy-based?  At first, it does seem to be: feminists are basically fighting for women to get the same amount of money and power in the world that men get, right?  No, or at least not exactly.  Feminism is about fighting for the opportunity for women who have earned it to achieve the same amount of money and power as men who have earned it, and more than men who haven’t, for equal opportunity.  That, and what Epstein himself says: for freedom of choice. 

Now, the last time I checked, the possession of equal opportunity and freedom of choice were things that were (1) inherent to living as a human being on this earth (it’s called a right) and (2) not controlled by chance (it’s called racism, sexism, homophobia, the glass ceiling, take your pick).   If pure envy originates in the belief that no one necessarily has a right to what is being envied, then how can we envy people for something we all do have a right to?  We can’t; it just doesn’t make sense.   Just because envy involves a sense of injustice doesn’t mean it always works the other way around.  The author may be right in saying the two aren’t always easily distinguished, but not in this case. 

Feminism is not envy, is not based on envy, and for Epstein to relegate the entire feminist movement to such is to drastically demean it, its goals, and its/their importance.  And, to put it bluntly, it’s terrible PR.  I can hear it now… “Ah-hah! <scoff> All that women-are-people equality stuff, and those feminist crankpots have just been bitter greedy little chits all along.”



4 responses

31 01 2008


I read this posting at 6:15 am, when my two boys are still sleeping and I have my quiet time to read, exchange jokes on Facebook and watch new videos on youtube (Capoeira, of course!!!) while cooking my breakfast…

I kind of sense a lot of confusion in this article. All our negative emotions are true and serves us a purpose – each of them signals us of something that we’ve got to do to keep ourselves happy and at peace. I consider envy a signal of confusion, blurred vision of a person’s role and place in life.

People are all different, and we all have different gifts to discover in ourselves and develop to our best. I kinda just enjoy other’s better performance in areas where I am not so good at 🙂 I am aware that I am not perfect and I enjoy every little step I make forward – be it Capoeira, or a goal at work, or my children’s performance. We all have our time to “bloom” and we need to be ready internally to take a step forward. So why pushing it through envy? Why not doing so through a simple set of personal growth objectives – and then celebrate them as intensely as the Olympic champions do?!!!! I know I do that!!!! And I’m loving it!

In regards to feminism… I guess for me this has a lot to do with simple assertiveness and very hard to brake cultural heritage (read: all those “chairs” that are put in your arms by your mom, aunts, granmothers, friends, fairy tales, movies, songs through your entire life, which we accurately and carefully stock on our shoulders every morning as soon as we wake up and then wee do our best to hold them straight up during every single day….).

I regard feminism as just knowing who you are and being OK with that!!!! There is nothing wrong with a woman that loves to cook and do household work (I wish I loved to do that more though, cause being a single mom I’ve got to do all those things…) as well as there is nothing wrong with a woman that loves to skydiving or mountclimbing. It’s about taking off all the unnecessary chairs, which do not describe who you trully are, and being OK with who you really are!

All the best to you guys reading this note. Now I’ve got to finally stop boiling those eggs – we have chicken eggs for breakfast today 🙂


31 01 2008

To me, feminism is the right to regard myself as a woman. To say that I am no better or worse a person than a man.

When I was growing up I was told by my culture, religion and family that I wasn’t as good as if I had been born with a penis. I wished I was a boy, not for any deep longing for a masculine identity, but masculine privilege. Once I discovered that I had the right to demand that privelege, I lost all envy. I learnt that being angry is not a sin, and is not necessarily destructive. It is a powerful energy, and how you use that energy is the important part.

1 02 2008

Hi Mariposa,

Wow, thank you for your long note! The post was rearranged once or twice as I tried organizing my thoughts in it better, so that may account for some of the confusion if it wasn’t that easy to follow. Basically, I was just trying to say feminism really is based on injustice and not envy, because envy means “they don’t have more right than we do to get it”, whereas injustice is “we all have this right, so why do they have it while we’re denied it”?

I wasn’t really intending to focus on envy at all as a topic in itself (everything I typed on it was meant as background information for my argument), but I do like the idea you brought up of it meaning confusion of what a person’s role in life is! That makes a lot of sense, as if we all knew what we were supposed to be doing and were happy doing it, we wouldn’t care about what anyone else was doing. 🙂 Funnily enough, I studied one of Plato’s works in first-year, in which Socrates spends the whole book trying to find out what justice is, and in the end, justice is also just sticking to your own thing and not minding anyone else’s business!

I like your idea of feminism, and I certainly hope I didn’t imply anywhere that there’s something wrong with a woman who likes to cook, etc.! I would add, though, that feminism is not only being okay with who you are but recognizing and denying all the things that tell you why you shouldn’t be okay with who you are—except, as I’ve discussed before, feminism has become such a malleable term now that I suppose everyone can have their own version! 🙂

3 02 2008

Hi misselaneius,

Thank you so much for your comment, and I apologize for taking so long to respond! I definitely agree that feminism means the right to see yourself as no better or worse than a man; we just need everyone else to see us that way, too, and to also see it as a right. I also like what you said about anger and envy; in fact, that was touched on by Epstein’s book. He said that there are several results that come from envy in people, and one of these is actually self-improvement, because the envious person wants to be as good or as successful as the person they’re envying. It’s only when you let any emotions poison you and negatively affect other parts of your life that they are counter-productive and destructive.

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