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Women and Selfishness
by Carolyn Ray

Date: 11 Jul 98
Copyright: Carolyn Ray

We've gotten the short end the moral stick. That's not news, but you may not know just how bad it is, or have seen it from this perspective.

The key principle of an altruistic morality is that doing something for the self is bad or at least not worth anything morally speaking, while doing something for others is noble and praiseworthy. People are called "selfish" when it appears to an observer that they could have taken one of several courses of action which might benefit other people but they chose to take actions which benefitted themselves. Moral theorists (e.g., Peter Singer) will go so far as to say that favoring one's own children over other people's children — such as by feeding them or giving them medical attention, when there are children who are going without these things — is reprehensibly selfish.

A morality of one kind or another espousing selflessness has dominated since Christianity took hold.

Some factions (e.g., Objectivists) hail business people ("business MEN" in particular) as the victims who have born the brunt of this sort of morality. There is no question that people who owned businesses have always been viewed with suspicion — it is claimed rather casually that if people are rich, they must have got that way by screwing someone else over. And of course it is rare for people to be in business per se in order to benefit others, notwithstanding the many not-for-profit organizations that exist. People in business are generally in it for themselves, for the profit they can make or for the enjoyment that personal achievement can bring.

However, there are other victims of this morality. Surprisingly, feminists miss this point. For some reason, few people are willing to stand up and say, "women have the right to their own happiness, pleasure, time, lives, money, pursuits, and property, and they don't owe anything to anyone else." Yes, there are versions of this statement made by feminists. But they themselves fall into the same old morality of selflessness when they describe women's particular ways of knowing and caring.

Women, some people claim, should rule the world — then there would be no hunger, because women care.

Women, it is claimed, have a maternal instinct that goes beyond competition in dog-eat-dog world of business and sports.

Women have a special endowment, are willing to sacrifice themselves and know that this is the right way to live.

The problem with these kinds of views is that they leave women squarely in the traditional morality, and if you look closely, it is even more obvious that there has been a segregation along gender lines throughout the history of this morality. MEN are SELFISH; WOMEN are SELFLESS.

How this view is supposed to advance the rights and socioeconomic position of women is beyond comprehension. On the contrary, it tells women to keep right on doing what they are doing, and tells men that they should make allowances for us to do this. WE are the ones who care and love, so provide us with daycare while we are working. WE are the ones who are understanding, caring, helpful, so that is why we don't get ahead in business. Rather than object to this view of women, feminist laud women for being this way.

Worse still, many feminists subscribe to a Marxist economic and political theory. Marxism is based on the idea that personal good comes second to the good of the commune or collective or state, on the idea that each person will contribute according to ability and receive only according to need. If there is anything that women DON'T need more of, it is coming second to someone else's needs.

Why is this attitude applauded by feminists, instead of being criticized by them? The best reading to give this is that they simply don't understand that the real plight of women is that their individuality has been thwarted, their egos have been trampled, their self-esteem has been flogged, and their moral sense has been twisted by the hideous morality of selflessness. Feminists claim that there is something special about women: that they instinctively or chemically know that sacrifice is good. They take this idea from observing some mothers' interactions with their children, and some wives' undying support for their husbands' endeavors.

Though they argue that a great deal of women's behavior is a result of the influence of society's norms, they leave this feature to nature.

Why have women, in turn, accepted their role as sacrificial lambs, and accepted the portrayal of the feminists as different from men in this respect? The explanation, I believe, again lies in the role of mother.

Let's look at the role of mother and see how it leads to the view that women are naturally unselfish, taking as the case in point a women who is taking care of her baby. Babies need a tremendous amount of care and supervision. They are not only prerational (in the sense that one cannot negotiate with them), but they are also weak. When a baby is hungry, it cannot be told that it needs to wait only another hour while its mother finishes her conversation with her friend; nor is it wise to make it wait, given that it has not built up the endurance that adults have for waiting for meals. Its interests must be served NOW, and in a lot of cases that means that the mother's current interests must be forestalled. She must hang up the phone, interrupt her own meal, stop washing the kitchen floor, or stop making love in order to feed the baby.

Many women know that things will be like this when they decide to have children, but even so they quickly find out once the baby is born. Someone on the outside looking in may think that the baby can wait for its food, or that it needs to learn some discipline, and that the woman SHOULDn't interrupt herself to attend to the baby. That someone is overwhelmingly often the would-be father of that baby (the actual father or a boyfriend or new lover), who wouldn't dream of interrupting what he is doing just because someone else made a demand. If the man had full responsibility for the child, more than likely he would realize that he can't simply hold his ground on this issue. But as an outsider, he sees the woman's behavior as selfless. He may even admire her for it.

Many people in this outsider position have looked in on women caring for infants and jumped to the conclusion that it was not necessity (stop the child from crying and reestablish peace) and good health (to fill the baby's stomach) that determined the willingness of the mother to drop her own concerns and attend to her baby's, but that is was rather the woman's own moral sense — her own willingness to sacrifice. And so a theory developed, that women — mothers especially — are naturally selfless. From this, oddly enough, a moral theory developed, that women OUGHT to be selfless, and that if they are not, they are bad. How can we know that? Well, just look at the selfless women who are mothers! They are the paradigm of the good woman.

So now we have women being described as selfless and being praised for it by all of society and all the moral thinkers, and then by the very people — the feminists — who were allegedly fighting for their emergence as beings worthy of notice. It would be a very strange woman indeed who said that, if in fact she had performed any selfless act, she was not to be praised but censured! It would be a strange woman indeed who did not take this praise as sanction of her actions, encouragement to repeat her actions and extend them, as moral support, and as part of her identity as a woman.

Now, by an equivocation on the word 'selfless' where it at once means (1) proper infant care — the behavior necessary for the baby's health and well-being — and (2) behavior that is un-self-regarding and a matter of moral prescription — now we have the woman feeling that it is her job not only to raise the baby properly, but to strive for self-sacrifice as a matter of course, no matter who was the beneficiary.

Is it any wonder, then, that feminists, feeling the real oppression of women which has resulted, but not understanding how the morality of altruism created this oppression, have attempted to "free" women by making much of our "natural" tendency to kindness, caring, and self-sacrifice? By demanding that the workplace be more kind and caring, more willing to give so that the needs of women with children can be fulfilled? By criticizing men as "selfish" and praising women for "selflessness"?

Some authors — e.g., Melanie Beatty, — have realized that what women in particular really need is to be MORE selfish, not to maintain the status quo or become less self-interested. Though they would not come right out and proclaim selfishness to be a virtue (as, e.g., Ayn Rand does), they do recognize that all manner of ills suffered especially by women, from sexual disfunction to codependency, are a result of not attending to their own needs. For many years now, we have commonly seen posters and pamphlets explaining to women that they ought not to think of themselves as simply "someone's mother, someone's wife, someone's secretary, someone's lover," but rather as SOMEONE in her own right. Yet still everyone seems to be missing the point that SELF-INTEREST is a good thing, and that if anyone needs it right now, it's women.

Ayn Rand's philosophy of Objectivism goes a long way toward establishing selfishness as a moral virtue. Her novels, unfortunately, tend to be extremely male-centered, and it is not always clear that she is also talking about women when she makes her moral prescriptions. Women are either not mentioned at all or they are portrayed as followers, as supporters, and as worshippers of men. Perhaps this was because, when Rand was growing up and writing her novels, women who were not wives and mothers as their first calling were unusual, even freakish. Perhaps she wasn't convinced that women in general are not destined by their physical weakness and chemical makeup to become mothers. If Rand made mistakes in this sense, then it is our job to fill in the corrections, and when we read passages that seem to be about men only, say to ourselves, "To hell with that!" just as her protagonist in ATLAS SHRUGGED said when she momentarily wondered whether the world would accept a woman railroad executive.

Sadly, many Objectivists and non-Objectivists alike have interpreted Rand's male-centered writing as indicative of some philosophical claim about women, and have argued that the role of women IS male worship, that we are not leaders but followers. Again, this is simply succumbing to the status quo, self-sacrificial moral mentality that sees women as givers and men as takers. They have taken to heart Rand's words that a woman should not be president because she would then have no one to look up to. They have taken to heart her words that woman cannot be leaders of men on the battlefield or in bed. It is easy to swallow this tripe, if one has accepted uncritically the theories about women implicit in our upbringing.

That Rand wrote in this male-centered way should be seen as little more than a sign of her times, a mistake and something of a lack of imagination on her part. Did she not imagine that if girls were raised in an environment that encouraged them to think of themselves, not as "virtuous," selfless, caring, nurturing givers who always make way for boys, keep their dresses clean, and learn to take care of babies by playing with dolls, but rather as persons in their own right who have a right to their own interests and desires no matter who might need our aid — did she not imagine that these little girls would grow up to say "To hell with that!" in response to being treated as second-class creatures, in response to being told they were selfish for not wanting children, in response to being told that masculinity is marked by leadership while femininity is marked by male-worship?

As Rand said, "A leash is just a rope with a noose at both ends." If women, who are constantly in relationships with men, socially or personally or economically, are unable to free themselves of the altruistic mentality that has helped to keep them in their place for so long, then men are not free of it either and must suffer different but equally bad ill consequences. We would all be better off if girls were encouraged to have more self-esteem and if women were encouraged to fight for their own needs first. Viewing women as naturally unselfish, as nurturers, as mothers, or as male-worshippers not only contributes to their own oppression, but ENCOURAGES and PERPETUATES the morality of altruism. After all, women do make up over 50% of the population, they vote, and most of the children are being raised by them. If they are laboring, however consciously or unconsciously, under the delusions of altruism, they will surely pass those delusions on to succeeding generations and to public policy. If we are all to be free, self-realized, independent, selfish people, then bringing the word to women must be given due priority.

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