Liberalism and segregation

I have recently got embroiled in a long argument at Crooked Timber ( about discrimination at playgroups. The facts (as far as we know them) are these. A Dutch muncipality has started a playgroup for 18 months-2 years old, which is for women only. The (presumed) reason is that this was because it was trying to reach out to immigrant women who would not be willing to go to events with strange men present. (Note: the person who started the discussion had not been able to confirm that it was immigrants who were the target audience). A heated discussion has ensued on whether any such playgroups should be allowed. This is my attempt to pull some of the issues together in a way I can’t do in serial posts.

I’m not going to get into the question of state versus private funding, because it doesn’t seem the key issue to me. At least in the UK any such non-profit group would a) be liable to the discrimination laws, and b) would probably aim to get some state funding as well at some point. For this age-group of children, I think it’s also safe to assume that they will be unable to tell the difference between single-sex and mixed-sex groups. (It would be different for older children). So sex-segregated groups would not adversely affect the children, whereas they would possibly benefit from the activities planned. The plan also seems to be to give advice to the mothers on childcare, nutrition, play etc, so it would benefit the mothers. Does this justify sex discrimination?

Some people on Crooked Timber have argued that single-sex groups are never acceptable, as they are discriminatory. Traditionally, however, feminist thinking (and similarly liberals talking about race, sexual orientation, disability etc) has seen the existence of segregated groups (i.e. specifically excluding one sex/race/sexual orientation etc) as acceptable under some circumstances. In fact many of these equality movements have early on had *some* women-only, black-only, gay-only groups. The reason is that these are seen as necessary for such subordinated parts of society to gain their own voices and be able to speak freely. If they have let in members of dominant groups, however, well-intentioned these people might be towards the oppressed groups, the group dynamics have been adversely affected. For the same reason it seems to me reasonable that there are still occasions when single-sex groups are necessary today and that such groups can reasonably decide that they want to exclude all members of the opposite sex. Consider, for example, a support group for new fathers. They might decide (possibly from experience) that allowing any mothers along, made fathers less willing to discuss sexual problems, more defensive, unable to bond properly via ‘lad-talk’ etc. It would seem to me justified to ban women from the group in that case. Similarly, a group encouraging mothers to breastfeed might feel that having fathers there, however, supportive, would make other women uncomfortable and less willing to attend. Again, this seems to me justifiable in principle. If you are going to argue that sex-segregated groups are *never* acceptable, you will get no fathers’ groups, for a start, and I haven’t seen anyone on the thread arguing for that.

The question then becomes what general principles might justify such segregation. After all, how do you avoid the same justification being used for white-only parent groups? My tenative list of criteria would be:

1) the group intended to be helped is socially disadvantaged (either in society as a whole or with respect to some particular activity)

2) the aims of the group meeting/activity are socially beneficial

3) the aims would be severely compromised if members of another social group were allowed to take part

4) the excluded groups are not put to too much inconvenience or disadvantage

These seem to me to give some way of distinguishing when segregation can be justified. For example, this wouldn’t justify whites (in the West) having racially segregated groups. It wouldn’t justify having men-only social clubs, because even if their aims are socially beneficial, it’s doubtful that these would be severely compromised by having women present. Similarly, you could justify having women-only sessions at sporting facilities on the grounds that women use them much less, it would be good if they took more exercise, and some women get very put off by having men in the pool/gym with them. But you couldn’t justify having a large percentage of the available time women-only, because this would cause too much inconvenience to the excluded group (here, men).

On this basis, it seems to me fairly clear that the women-only playgroups satisfy the first three criteria. Migrant women are socially disadvantaged, this scheme would help them and mixed-sex playgroups have presumably been found not to work for some immigrant cultures. (I should point out here that although some people have tried to turn this into a religious question, it’s not strictly one. There are Muslim women who will socialise in mixed sex groups. It is only Muslims from some cultures (and possibly non-Muslim women from these cultures as well) who have problems with this.)

The problem comes with deciding on criterion 4. Do the single-sex groups inconvenience/disadvantage those excluded too much? There is a practical problem here and also a moral problem. The practical problem is whether you have sufficient mixed-sex groups that fathers with small children can go elsewhere reasonably easily? My suspicion is that provided there were only 1 or 2 single-sex groups and a number of similar mixed-sex groups, they would probably not be disadvantaged much. (One point I made in my posts is that immigrants are normally concentrated in urban areas, where there is a relatively high density of provision). The moral problem here is that fathers are themselves disadvantaged as parents and full-time fathers in particular face discrimination. As they already suffer, why should they be made to suffer more?

You can certainly argue whether in any specific case the benefits of sex-segregated playgroups outweigh the disadvantage to men. But what about the principle of the matter? Is it ever justified to discriminate against fathers? My view would be that the existence of two discriminated against groups doesn’t in principle mean that you can’t provide opportunities for one at the (temporary) expense of the other. For example, women and ethnic minorities are both discriminated against getting jobs in the media. Supposing someone sets up a ‘Minorities into TV’ group which gives ethnic minority people special training/advice etc in breaking into the media. It seems reasonable to me that they could decide to exclude white women from the programme, even though they are also discriminated against. (Alternatively, a ‘Women in the Media’ group could exclude black men). Similarly, a mixed-sex ‘gay parent support group’ could say that they did not want straight fathers to join, because that would distract from the aims of their particular group. A group for battered men might want to exclude battered women, because it would discourage men from attending and vice-versa. I think, in such circumstances, it would be right to ensure that excluded groups also suffering discrimination were getting support as well. One of the things I’ve been arguing for is that there ought to be better provision of fathers’ groups as well.

What depresses me is that a number of men on the thread, who were the main carers of their children, and who I thus presumed would be reasonably liberal minded, rejected women-only playgroups absolutely. (None of them specifically objected to fathers-only groups, which would have been consistent). The response of some men and women to ethnic minority women who might not come to mixed-sex playgroups tended to be unsympathetic, if not actually hostile. Such women were told to ‘get over it’, as if changing their cultural norms was as simple as changing their TV channel. There were relatively few people making the obvious point that the women in these cases were largely those without power in their own cultures. Implicitly, the disadvantages of fathers (which are real disadvantages) are made out to be the only problems in these cases. There were also some of the old arguments trotted out about feminism just benefiting women.

I don’t know what, if anything, could be done to change attitudes. I think there were some good posts on the topic and I was certainly trying to be constructive (though possibly not successfully). Maybe this hostility reflects a combination of current anti-Muslim feeling and a lot of angry fathers. I did ask whether if fathers were made more welcome at supposedly mixed-sex playgroups, (which in practice are usually women-dominated), they would feel less hostile towards the existence of a few women-only playgroups. But overall what the discussion suggests is that even if feminism is getting somewhere in practice, its liberal principles are still not getting through.


2 thoughts on “Liberalism and segregation

  1. I think the points you make are valid, and the criteria proposed for deciding on the value of same-sex institutions are reasonable. (I may be influenced in this by the fact that my wife attended a women’s college, as did some other women I dated Back In The Day, and she/they always claimed that this was a Good Thing. IIRC the argument was that there was greater opportunity for personal and intellectual growth than in a mixed-gender university environment.)

    Having said this, one problem – at least from a US perspective – is that implementation of your guidelines would require judgment, not the mere implementation of mechanical rules. And We Don’t Do Judgment. At least the government doesn’t, any more than it absolutely has to. In as litigious a society as ours has become, it’s almost impossible to make any kind of a decision based on “balancing” pros and cons without those disfavored by the outcome suing, and often winning. I see this most clearly in the debates over university admissions, but I think it’s reflected in other areas as well, so any state-run day care center would have to be extremely cautious in this regard.

    (Of course here in the land of free enterprise, We Don’t Do Day Care either, so perhaps the point is moot.) ;}

    I was going to incorporate in this post some kind of apology for, or explanation of, those men who were so hostile to this idea on the CT thread. Then I realized that I’ve got no particularly privileged insight into why they said what they did. I could guess, but there’s no reason to suppose my guess would be much better than anyone else’s. I suspect that part of it may be that we men are hypersensitive to being discriminated against (it’s not so much a part of our heritage). I know that in other arenas – not this one – I can lapse into a “But it’s not f-a-i-i-r-r!!” mentality on fairly slight provocation. But maybe that’s just me.


  2. My guidelines were about moral judgements, not legal ones. But any government who has legislation against sex/race discrimination will also have a list of exemptions to such rules, which I suspect will cover some of the same ground.

    Thinking about the hostility of men on Crooked Timber in this topic, there seemed to be me to be three main reasons visible for this:

    1) one is that fathers are already (informally) discriminated against at playgroups. I suspect this is quite a serious problem. And in that case this proposal is going to seem like kicking them when they’re down.

    2) I’ve outlined the reasons why I think segregated groups might be justified in a larger process of ending discrimination. But these segregated groups do always have the problem of potentially alienating supporters, precisely because they treat those excluded as a group, not individuals. If you have black or women-only support groups, some progressive whites/men are going to say ‘why am I being excluded when I want to contribute? I’m not the problem. Why am I being punished for the offences of other people?’ Similarly, I read recently about a plan to have sessions in one particular gym which were for amputees only. They had found in practice that this group of disabled people were reluctant to go to the gym in normal hours because they felt self-conscious. I can understand this intellectually, but if it was my gym and this session stopped me attending at a convenient time, I might well at a gut level feel that I shouldn’t be excluded, because I wouldn’t be so ill-mannered as to stare. (As a historical point, was there this same controversy about women-only/black-only/gay-only groups back in the 1960s/1970s and the era of consciousness raising?)

    3) Some Western men also a problem about Islam (or rather the culturally specific forms of Islam that say that women may have only minimal contact with strange men). Some of the same arguments came up in the recent British discussions of Muslim women who wear the veil (=face-covering, not hair-covering), whether of their own accord or pressured into by their menfolk. I’ve seen several arguments by non-Muslim men that these attempts at separation are offensive to men, because they imply that all men are potential beasts/threats.

    What seems to be happening here is that for the first time these men are encountering a religious practice that is demeaning/offensive to men. Here they do seem to me to be need to told ‘welcome to the real world’.


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