Feminism, Structural Injustice, and Responsibility

Authored by: Serena Parekh

The Routledge Companion to Feminist Philosophy

Print publication date:  May  2017
Online publication date:  May  2017

Print ISBN: 9781138795921
eBook ISBN: 9781315758152
Adobe ISBN:

10.4324/9781315758152-49

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Abstract

One of the enduring questions of feminist philosophy is how to conceptualize the injustices that women experience. The term most often used to express this unjust treatment is oppression, defined by Ann Cudd as “a harm through which groups of persons are systematically and unfairly or unjustly constrained, burdened, or reduced by any of several forces” (Cudd 2006: 23). However, driven largely by the work of Iris Young, some recent feminist scholarship has moved toward a particular understanding of oppression as a structural injustice as a better way to account for many, if not all, of the particular kinds of injustices women around the world experience today and to explain why oppression persists despite changes in laws and policies aimed at reducing inequality and discrimination. Structural injustice refers to unjust structural limitations that unfairly constrain the opportunities of some while granting privileges to others. However, understanding women’s oppression as structural presents a challenge around responsibility. One feature of structural injustice is that it is often unintentional, that is, it is often grounded in “unquestioned norms, habits, and symbols, in the assumptions underlying institutional rules” (Young 1990: 41) rather than in the malicious intent of an individual or intentionally discriminatory policies or practices. How then do we determine who is responsible for this and how do we hold people responsible for remedying it? If oppression results for interpersonal interactions, then we can ascribe responsibility to the individual doing the oppressive actions; if oppression is rooted in unjust and discriminatory laws, policies, and institutions, then responsibility entails changing these so that they eliminate their unjust elements. However neither the source of the injustice nor what needs to be done to change it is so clear when oppression is understood as structural. Yet nonetheless, contemporary philosophers have argued for changing our notion of responsibility to better address this. Though some feminist analyses of injustice have focused on how it is possible for collectives to be responsible (see Isaacs 2011 and May and Strikwerda 1994), I focus here on the concept of structural injustice. In the entry below, I will give a deeper explanation of the concept of structural injustice and show why many thinkers hold that it is a better way to account for contemporary forms of oppression. I will then outline ways thinkers have tried to overcome the problem of responsibility and note some of the lingering problems.

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