Carol Lee Bacchi
Same Difference: Feminism and sexual difference
Allen & Unwin, 1990

Reviewed Australian Book Review, December/January 1990, pp. 5-6.

Should feminists argue that pregnancy is a disease? Should feminists oppose birth control because it accepts that women are different? If the assumptions behind those questions sound wacky, one reason is that you are living in Australia in 1990. Both views had been advanced by earlier feminists, especially in the United States.

Carol Lee Bacchi begins her interrogation of the debate over “sameness” and “difference” with a two-part history lesson, First, building on her pervious book about British and Canadian feminists around the turn of the 20th century, she rejects the claim that views about women as same or different had been part of nineteenth-century feminism,. Contemporary advocates have fallen for the historical fallacy of seeking a past with which to support their current stance.

Secondly, she stresses over an again that positions adopted by reformers make sense only if reinserted into the historical circumstances that spawned the. Reform proposals have no validity for all times and places. This approach separates Bacchi from femioticians fixated on texts and despising empirical research required to write “history” which they see as contributing to yet another fiction awaiting them to deconstruct.

In Same Difference, Bacchi is not concerned with whether men and women are the same or different:

The title of this volume is intended to suggest that, if society catered appropriately for al human needs, men and women included, discussions about women’s sameness to or difference from men would be of little significance.

Bacchi is concerned with the practical consequences that this debate has had for the white women’s movement in Anglo-Saxon nations. She is a pragmatist in the sense that if it works, then she likes it. She is not committed to absolute rules for equality but is happy to be logically – that is, legalistically – inconsistent if compromises help to alleviate suffering. Although her material mostly concerns while middle-class women, her reconsideration of the conditions needed for social equality has relevance for racial and class injustices suffered by both sexes.

Bacchi reminds Australian readers that, even before women’s struggles had forced the ACTU leadership to recognise women’s demands, working women here had been advantaged more than held back by the male chauvinist trade union movement. Those benefits are clearest when the Australian situation is compared with that in the United States where protection for all workers has been abysmal. As a result, US feminists have been more likely to argue that women are the same as men and therefore to reject special benefits and protections, especially those pertaining to pregnancy.

Similar ideas were advanced in Britain and Australia by a handful of rabid “individualists” whose factories championed the equality for the sexes by promoting, in the bitter words of Beatrice Webb, “The Right of Woman to work at all hours of the day and night with the minium space and sanitation”.

From such experiences, Bacchi draws her most important proposal for the contemporary women’s movement. Rather than highlight differences that need special conditions, or emphasise a sameness which drives women to the bottom on the workheap, she argues that the women’s movement should support changes that make all work humanly tolerable.

Bacchi goes much further than she needs by asserting that “if a workplace is not safe for pregnant women, it is not safe”. That is true for chemical and radiation poisoning, but forgets the physiology of pregnancy. A woman who works aloft a sixty0strey building as a builders labourer faces no more danger than a man, providing neither suffers from a fear of heights. But morning sickness can make that same woman a danger to herself and her workmates.

In an attempt to move intellectual disputes beyond the sterile tussle between “sameness” and “difference”, Bacchi proposes that “sex specific” replace “difference”. Pregnancy then would be sex specific issue. Much as I agree that we need to think our way past historically generated categories, I cannot believe that this name change will do much good. Even if widely accepted on both sides of the class struggle, the opponents of reform would see to it that “sex specific” soon acquired the pejorative connotations of “difference”. The “sameness/difference” dichotomy will become meaningless as the real life conditions are transformed.

Bacchi would have a much firmer starting point for reshaping the discussion were she to pivot her case on the observation that eh same/difference question exists only because men are accepted as an unquestioned norm. Intellectual and practical progress on this issue requires more attention from men and women to maleness as a cultural construction.

Bacchi’s solution to the problem is as noble as it is unsatisfying. Like a great many feminists, she substitutes ethical assertion for economic analysis by proclaiming that “the system must acknowledge that people have children”. Which system? If her answer is capitalism, there is plenty of evidence that capitalists have always made a place for children as a source of cheap labour and more recently as consumers. Entrepreneurs will sell babies as commodities to infertile parents; the market has long supplied child care to those rich enough to pay for boarding schools and nannies. For the system to acknowledge that all children and parents have equal rights, it would have to cease to be capitalism.

Capitalism cheerfully meets effective demands, but shuns unprofitable human needs. If the social alternative is not acceptable, we need to think harder about what can be screwed out of capitalism, and how to do so. Although moral imperatives are essential in maintaining political impetus, over-reliance on ethical demands confuses the issue.

Bacchi’s desire for comprehensiveness when documenting her sources gets in the way of our comprehending the strengths of her argument. Providing four or five named references within the space of five lines is far from uncommon. At times, her effort produces no more than pedestrian potted surveys of only partly relevant materials, Dependence on other people’s words creates doubt as to whose voice we are reading – Bacchi’s or the author she cites? When Bacchi escapes from the weight of her research debts, she sometimes becomes so liberated that her prose breaks into a run of disjoined slogans rather than the coherent summations for which we had hoped.

What is most annoying about these barriers to understanding is that they are unnecessary. Bacchi has more than enough of her own to say. By all means let her indicate her scholarship and identify her quotations, but not at the expense of muddying the significant arguments she has to advance.

Hitherto I had welcome the more away from footnotes and towards the method of producing used in the natural sciences, for example (Wiliams, 1982: 134). Its impediment to an easy reading of Bacchi’s text is not an argument against its employment. The problem arose here from other causes. Firstly, sociologists are fond of surveying the literature instead of giving us sharp and original analyses. Secondly, the barriers result from Bacchi’s wish to share the platform with her feminist colleagues. Thirdly, and going on the evidence that she has compiled, there may also be a sex specific difference towards asserting one’s opinions; whereas male academics tend to expropriate the labor of others, do women prefer a more cooperative style? That possibility is another of the many sparks from the fire of Same Difference.

Bacchi’s insightful views on the vital questions of difference and equality deserve to be presented in a 3,000 word essay in which she gives no sources and uses only her own words.