• 20 January 2010

Protecting Them from Themselves: The Persistence of Mutual Benefits Arguments for Sex and Race Inequality

Jill Elaine Hasday - University of Minnesota Law School

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Defenders of sex and race inequality often contend that women and people of color are better off with fewer rights and opportunities. This claim straddles substantive debates that are rarely considered together, linking such seemingly disparate disputes as the struggles over race-based affirmative action, antiabortion laws, and marital rape exemptions. The argument posits that women and people of color attempting to secure expanded rights and opportunities do not understand their own best interests and do not realize that they benefit from limits on their prerogatives and choices. Indeed, proponents of this argument insist that restricting the rights and opportunities available to women and people of color helps everyone: the people misguidedly seeking more rights and opportunities, the people opposing those claims, and society as a whole. The beguiling conclusion is that the law need not decide between conflicting demands because all parties share aligned interests. I call this effort to assert social solidarity in the face of social conflict the “mutual benefits” argument.

Protecting Them from Themselves reveals and analyzes the mutual benefits argument to make three points. First, judges, legislators, and commentators defending contemporary laws and policies frequently claim that restricting rights and opportunities protects women and people of color. The claims appear across a range of contexts, but their common structure has remained hidden from view and critical scrutiny. Second, modern mutual benefits discourse has deep historical roots in widely repudiated forms of discrimination, including slavery, racial segregation, and women’s legalized inequality. Third, the historical deployment of mutual benefits arguments to defend pernicious discrimination creates reason for caution in considering contemporary mutual benefits claims that are now accepted quickly with little evidence, investigation, or debate. Mutual benefits discourse historically operated to rationalize and reinforce discriminatory practices that the nation has since disavowed. Modern mutual benefits arguments must be evaluated carefully or they risk shielding subordination once again.

Modern Mutual Benefits Arguments for Limiting Women’s Rights

Protecting Them from Themselves begins by examining contemporary mutual benefits discourse. I first explore how arguments contending that restrictions on women’s legal rights promote women’s welfare have flourished in the modern era, building on the assumption that women’s true interests and ultimate obligations center on marriage and family life. At least twenty-four states, for instance, retain some form of a marital rape exemption. These states criminalize fewer offenses if committed within marriage, punish more leniently the marital rape they do recognize, and/or impose additional procedural barriers to marital rape prosecutions. Legislators, courts, and commentators have explained since the last quarter of the twentieth century that granting wives an unhindered right to pursue marital rape charges would allow women to shatter their marital harmony, destroy their marital privacy, and make marital reconciliation much more difficult. This argument maintains that both husbands and wives are better off if the law limits the criminality of marital rape, although the benefits to men and women differ. Marital rape exemptions protect husbands from prosecution and wives from damage to their marital relationship assertedly more harmful to them than the marital rape itself.

Similar arguments that limiting women’s rights serves women’s best interests have increasingly come to shape antiabortion legislation and the Supreme Court’s abortion jurisprudence. Roe v. Wade (1973)1 stressed the need to mediate between competing rights and interests: a woman’s right to have an abortion versus a state’s interest in protecting women’s health and the potential life of the fetus. Since Roe, however, the antiabortion movement has recognized in increasingly explicit terms that many Americans are unwilling to criminalize abortion if doing so will harm women. The movement and its government allies have turned more and more to the language of aligned interests rather than competing rights, insisting that both women seeking abortions and people opposed to abortion are better off if the law restricts or prohibits abortion. This argument contends that antiabortion laws protect women from the psychological harm that abortion would inflict upon them and the regret they would and should experience after abortion. The argument visibly influenced the Court’s plurality opinion in Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey (1992),2 which upheld mandatory waiting periods before abortion and “informed consent” laws designed to persuade women not to have abortions. The Court explicitly endorsed the assumption of regret in Gonzales v. Carhart (2007)3 with little discussion or explanation. Carhart upheld the federal prohibition of an abortion procedure—even where that procedure is the safest method of abortion—on the premise that some women will, and perhaps all women should, come to regret having abortions.

Mutual Benefits Arguments Against Affirmative Action

Protecting Them from Themselves next considers modern mutual benefits discourse in the racial context. Arguments that whites and people of color have aligned interests in defeating civil rights initiatives have become increasingly prominent in recent years. For example, the Supreme Court’s initial decisions restricting race-based government affirmative action programs and early academic criticism emphasized the conflicting interests of whites and people of color, and the burdens that affirmative action imposed on whites. But the Court and academic critics abruptly switched focus within just a few years and a few opinions. More recent opposition to affirmative action has stressed that affirmative action policies must be severely restricted in scope and duration because otherwise these policies will harm people of color. This account contends that legal decisionmakers need not choose between competing sides because the people participating in affirmative action programs and the people opposed to those programs have shared interests. People of every race and with every view on affirmative action all purportedly benefit in their own way if affirmative action is first limited and then eliminated.

A Legal History of Mutual Benefits Arguments for Sexual and Racial Inequality

Protecting Them from Themselves proceeds to uncover the genealogy of mutual benefits claims, analyzing historical manifestations of mutual benefits discourse. The mutual benefits argument is not a recent innovation devised to respond to the demands of the contemporary civil rights era. It is a long-established claim that defenders of unequal status relations have repeatedly deployed, relying on the argument’s familiarity to bolster its plausibility. The contention that more rights would harm the rights holders appeared prominently in defenses of slavery, racial segregation, married women’s subordination to their husbands at common law, and legislation restricting women’s rights to negotiate about market work. Mutual benefits arguments for sex and race inequality especially proliferated in eras, like our own, when reform movements were vigorously working to improve the status of women and people of color. The reform efforts presumably undermined claims that the law should favor men over women, or whites over people of color. Historical mutual benefits arguments were nominally committed to helping women and people of color. But they consistently and explicitly assumed that women and people of color were unusually poor decisionmakers unable to assess their own interests, that women’s true concerns were confined to domesticity, and that people of color were better off the less they challenged and disturbed white people and white-dominated institutions. Connections between the defenses of slavery, segregation, and women’s legal inequality have rarely been noticed. Highlighting them uncovers important precursors to modern civil rights discourse.

Evaluating Mutual Benefits Arguments

The extensive use of mutual benefits claims to support now-rejected forms of discrimination should affect how we assess modern mutual benefits arguments. The fact that historical versions of the mutual benefits claim are no longer convincing does not necessarily mean that current or future expressions of the claim cannot be appropriate. Mutual benefits arguments may sometimes be reasonable and cogent. But the role that mutual benefits arguments played in defending pernicious forms of inequality creates grounds for caution in considering contemporary assertions that women and people of color are better off with limited rights and opportunities. Courts, legislators, and commentators may be predisposed to endorse these assertions quickly with little support, deliberation, or debate because the assertions resonate with a long history of mutual benefits arguments and invoke shared cultural memories of prior mutual benefits claims. The antecedent life of mutual benefits discourse can give modern mutual benefits arguments an inordinate power to persuade that makes explanation and elaboration seem unnecessary. Yet mutual benefits arguments were historically employed to support practices that are now repudiated, and they drew on ways of thinking about women and people of color that are now suspect. Whatever one’s views on the merits of legal paternalism as a general matter, there is reason to be cautious about contentions that all parties benefit when the law denies rights and opportunities to women and people of color.

Protecting Them from Themselves concludes by seeking to stimulate greater conversation about mutual benefits claims that are often accepted too easily. I use the reasons why historical mutual benefits arguments are unconvincing to formulate four practical criteria that judges, legislators, and commentators should apply in evaluating contemporary mutual benefits discourse. These criteria ask whether advocates asserting that rights and opportunities will injure women or people of color are consistent in their arguments, whether they present evidence of harm, whether they rely on narrow assumptions about how women or people of color should behave, and whether they engage with counterarguments and opposing viewpoints. I employ these criteria to assess several modern mutual benefits arguments.

Contemporary claims that women or people of color benefit from limited rights and opportunities have many of the same weaknesses as their historical precursors. First, judges, legislators, and commentators have been very selective in contending that people seeking rights and opportunities can be safely ignored because they fundamentally misunderstand their own interests. The law does not usually assume that people are radically mistaken about how to improve their lives and need to be protected from themselves. But claims that women or people of color will be worse off with more rights and choices are common. Second, the evidence that rights and opportunities harm women or people of color is sometimes questionably reliable, and sometimes simply nonexistent. Third, mutual benefits claims frequently depend on and enforce rigid, historically embedded assumptions about how women and people of color should think, act, and live. Modern mutual benefits arguments, like their historical predecessors, typically take for granted that women should orient their lives toward domesticity instead of male-dominated spheres such as the market. Similarly, contemporary mutual benefits arguments track historical patterns in presuming that people of color are better off the more they accommodate and the less they demand from white society. Finally, modern arguments about mutual benefits to women and men, or to people of color and whites, often avoid acknowledging any possible costs associated with restricting the rights and opportunities open to women and people of color.

History richly documents how mutual benefits claims have long served to rationalize and perpetuate legal hierarchies based on sex and race. This history also suggests criteria that legal authorities and advocates should employ in evaluating modern manifestations of mutual benefits discourse that are now accepted too readily. Applying these criteria can help assess arguments that risk reinforcing some of the nation’s most entrenched and intransigent forms of status inequality.



Copyright © 2010 New York University Law Review.

Jill Elaine Hasday is the Julius E. Davis Professor of Law at University of Minnesota Law School.

This Legal Workshop Editorial is based on the following Article: Jill Elaine Hasday, Protecting Them from Themselves: The Persistence of Mutual Benefits Arguments for Sex and Race Inequality, 84 N.Y.U. L. REV. 1464 (2009).

  1. 410 U.S. 113 (1973).
  2. 505 U.S. 833 (1992).
  3. 550 U.S. 124 (2007).

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