Thursday, January 13, 2011

All men are created equal

Another thought on language and gender.

Sentences such as "all men are created equal" are ambiguous. Does the word "men" refer to men, or does it refer to men and women? Usage today is mixed, with most people saying "people" when they want to refer to men and women, and some people using "men" to refer to all members of humanity.

But when this phrase was written in the Declaration of Independence in 1776, to announce the value of democratic government and speak against the divine right of kings, it did refer to men specifically, and in particular to white, property-holding men. For this reason, Elizabeth Cady Stanton referred to but modified the phrase in her 1848 Declaration of Sentiments to say that "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men and women are created equal."

Some students in my feminist theory class say they see no harm in referring to humanity as men. One argument given in favor of this practice is that everyone already knows that 'men' in this context means 'everyone.'

However, the question of whether 'men' really means 'men and women' (or even 'white men and black men') becomes politically relevant in the context of originary interpretations of the Constitution. Originalists believe that the Constitution grants only those rights which were actually intended by the people who wrote it or who approved its later amendments.

At times, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia appears to be a strict originalist. For instance in an interview he recently denied that the 14th amendment can be used to protect the rights of women (in spite of decades of Supreme Court precedent). While saying that it could be used to deny them those rights.

From what I can tell in this interview, he does not deny that women can be given civil rights. But any rights that women have (other than the right to vote), would have their origin in legislation. Unlike men's rights, they are not constitutional rights.

Here's part of what Justice Scalia has said:

Certainly the Constitution does not require discrimination on the basis of sex. The only issue is whether it prohibits it. It doesn't.

More here:

1 comment:

Evelyn Brister said...

Another commentary on Scalia's comments is here