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differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 15.2 (2004) 1-31

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Tolerance and/or Equality?

The "Jewish Question" and the "Woman Question"

Tolerance is intolerant and demands assimilation.
—Herman Broch, cited in the Jewish Museum, Vienna, Austria
[T]he very being, or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband.
—Sir William Blackstone, qtd. in Pateman 91

Why is the condition of women, or relations among the sexes, so rarely framed in terms of a discourse of tolerance? Why did the "Woman Question" in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries not emerge as a question of tolerance? Certainly, there are occasions when gender inclusion engages this discourse, when, for example, women seek access to ostentatiously male homosocial venues such as exclusive social clubs, military schools, sports teams or their locker rooms. But equality, not tolerance, is our conventional rubric for speaking about gender desegregation and gender equity. Moreover, while women's "difference," whether identified as sexual, reproductive, or affective, may be an object of tolerance in workplaces, space missions, or combat zones, it is not women as such who are said to be tolerated in these instances, but rather their difference that becomes a matter for practical accommodation through separate facilities or for special arrangements related to pregnancy or the demands of early maternity. Why? Why is it that today, minority religions, minority ethnicities or races, minority sexualities are all treated as subjects for tolerance, but women are not? Is the key in the word "minority"? That is, does tolerance always signify a majoritarian response to an outlying or [End Page 1] minoritarian element in its midst? Is it simply the case that majorities can never be subjects for tolerance?

I think proportionalist demographic analyses provide the least interesting answer to this riddle. So in what follows I will explore other paths. We begin with a different take on the question: why was the "Jewish Question" often framed as a matter of tolerance in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe, while the "Woman Question," from the beginning, emerged through the language of subordination and equality? (Or the contemporary version: why was the 1988 Democratic vice-presidential candidacy of Geraldine Ferraro heralded as a victory for feminist equity struggles while, twelve years later, the nomination of an orthodox Jew, Joseph Lieberman, to that position was cast by political pundits as a "triumph of tolerance"?) It is insufficient to respond that Jews were historically ostracized while women were straightforwardly subordinated by law and by individual men, or that Jews were a religious group while women were excluded on the basis of their bodies. Such responses may open but certainly do not answer the question. For whatever the difference in the mechanisms and putative bases of disenfranchisement, both exclusions were justified by an imagined difference from the figure of universal man at the heart of the emerging European constitutional political orders. And both exclusions provoked a common desire and goal: political membership, political and civil rights, and access to public institutions, education, and a range of vocations—in a word, indeed in the word that was most often used in the nineteenth century, emancipation. Why did one emancipation movement, then, remain within the rubric of tolerance and conditional inclusion while the other took shape as a project of political equality? How and why did emancipation efforts fork in this way, and what light does this historical phenomenon shed upon the metamorphosing relationship of equality and tolerance in liberalism? More precisely, what transformation of the relationship between equality and tolerance in nineteenth-century liberalism can be discerned in the particular politicization of identity entailed in these respective emancipation efforts and in their divergence from each other? In liberal discourse, equality presumes sameness while tolerance is employed to manage difference. So why did "sex difference" become thinkable and politicizable through the terms of sameness while Jewishness did not?

The answers to these questions will be found in the imbrication of several different discourses in the nineteenth century, those constructing gender and Jewishness respectively, on the one hand, and those [End Page 2...


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pp. 1-31
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Archived 2004
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