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.”