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


Jill Elaine Hasday


University of Minnesota Law School

November 10, 2009

New York University Law Review, Vol. 84, 2009
Minnesota Legal Studies Research Paper No. 09-44

Abstract:     
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.

This Article 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.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 58

Keywords: equality, inequality, antidiscrimination, equal rights, women's rights, civil rights, sex discrimination, sexism, race discrimination, racism, feminist, feminism, marital rape, abortion, affirmative action, coverture, protective labor legislation, slavery, segregation, paternalism, paternalist

JEL Classification: D63, J12, J13, J15, J16, J70, J71, J78, K10, K14, K30

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Date posted: November 11, 2009  

Suggested Citation

Hasday, Jill Elaine, Protecting Them from Themselves: The Persistence of Mutual Benefits Arguments for Sex and Race Inequality (November 10, 2009). New York University Law Review, Vol. 84, 2009; Minnesota Legal Studies Research Paper No. 09-44. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1503450

Contact Information

Jill Elaine Hasday (Contact Author)
University of Minnesota Law School ( email )
229 19th Avenue South
Minneapolis, MN 55455
United States
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