Entitled: How Male Privilege Hurts Women, by Kate Manne (Crown/Allen Lane), $27/£20
Reviewed by Serene Khader
In 1869, John Stuart Mill observed that men did not merely desire women’s obedience but rather wanted their sentiments. Mill meant that men wanted women to love them, not just to grudgingly obey them. Feminists have spent generations discussing how this phenomenon is part of a larger set of material and symbolic practices, like militarism and the devaluation of care work, that transfer the benefits of women’s labour to men. Kate Manne’s Entitled: How Male Privilege Hurts Women zeroes in on the role moral practices play in this ongoing process of extraction.
The book offers a brilliant analysis of how practices in the distinctively moral register – like obligating, blaming, and attributing praise – work to ensure women’s subordination. Feminists know that emotional labour in our society flows toward white men, especially elite ones, but part of Manne’s contribution is to expose the way these labour flows are operative in interactions that are seemingly not about care at all. We know that women are expected to do more housework and nurture children, but we may not know how the demand for care structures rape apologia (Brett Kavanaugh was put “through hell” by being accused of sexual assault) and mansplaining and gaslighting (when Rebecca Solnit dared confess that she was the author of the book being explained to her, her interlocutor’s face was “ashen”).
Running through the book is a highly plausible set of critiques of the way the literature on what has come to be known as “epistemic injustice” misses the way that demands for care structure knowledge interactions. For example, Manne asks whether stereotypes are really as centrally to blame for the fact that women are less likely to be listened to as is often thought. Is the issue that women are thought not to know at all, or that knowledge interactions only allow them to know what is consistent with them remaining in their place? Anyone who has been asked to do the housework in a business meeting knows that our colleagues think we know perfectly well how to make the coffee; or, in Manne’s example, hospital staff may be happy to see us as knowledgeable about the pain of others but not our own.
But Manne is a moral philosopher, and where the book really shines is in its dissection of what we might call the “moral economy” of misogyny. Economies determine who deserves which goods, and Manne incisively reveals the work that a broken morality is doing to make sure that men are the winners. The book’s title notwithstanding, entitlement is not the same thing as privilege. Entitlement is not just the presence of unjust prerogatives, but the practices of owing and obligating that make the perpetuation of these prerogatives seem just, even morally required. For example, Manne exposes the gendered function of the virtue of stoicism as the opposite of what it appears to be. Manne argues – partly through a discussion of a fascinating study where adults rate crying male infants as more distressed than girls – that the presumption of male stoicism works to make us believe that men’s pain is always worse than they are letting on.
Similarly, Manne shows how attributions of innocence seem to be post hoc rationalisations of the view that certain classes of people ought to be punished. To make this point, Manne develops an interesting parallel between attempts to exclude trans women from using women’s bathrooms and attempts to restrict abortion. In both cases, a hyperbolically innocent victim, the foetus or the cis woman about to be preyed upon in a bathroom – trans people are actually far more vulnerable to violence in bathrooms – is invoked as a post hoc rationalisation of the need to control reproduction, or to perform what Talia Bettcher would call “reality enforcement” upon trans women.
Economies also include practices of extracting labour, and Manne offers a precise and chilling explanation of how misogyny works by turning women’s moral agency against them. Against those who would say that gender inequality works through objectification, Manne shows that its success often depends on seeing woman as moral persons. Manne sees much violence against women as working through a type of interpellation into moral roles. Women’s (and men’s) self-understandings are filtered through a set of scripts that cause praise and blame to flow in predictable, dangerous ways. Incels and domestic abusers cannot justify “punishing” women who do not give them the sex or loyalty they feel they deserve without seeing them as wilful. Gaslighting is not just persistently treating someone like their judgements are unreliable; it is an attempt to instil an obligation not to humiliate the gaslighter.
Though Manne does not quite put it in these terms, benefits to men are also extracted through the expectation that women be morally superior. Mothers, she says, including the presumptive mothers into which we transform pregnant women, are expected to be caregivers, not just handmaids. But this example about handmaids is also an instance of what I take to be the book’s most significant shortcoming: its lack of discussion of the racialisation of the moral concepts it discusses. Manne includes examples that are centrally about women of colour, including examples about the denial of Black women’s pain, to great effect. But in a book that is largely about the social workings of concepts like innocence and punishment, a world and political moment where it is so clear that these concepts are racialised, the lack of discussion of the distinct ways race colours these concepts sometimes strains the plausibility of Manne’s analysis.
To return to the example of handmaids, it is far from clear that reproductive rights restrictions in the U.S. aim to turn women of colour into angelic givers. Instead, as thinkers like Dorothy Roberts, Loretta Ross, and Ricky Sollinger have argued, the trend has been to view women of colour as unworthy of motherhood. It is, after all, women of colour, and women with disabilities, who have been the primary targets of coercive sterilisation, and the dominant cultural criticism of the Handmaid’s Tale has been that it ignores how the series represents women of colour’s historical reality as the stuff of science fiction. Manne employs examples about women of colour when their oppression illustrates a heightening of the form of oppression that white women face. Manne says that Black women might be especially likely to be believed when they are speaking on behalf of children as “mammies,” but I find this highly dubious.
I have argued elsewhere that terms like “mammy” and “anchor baby” instead reflect a vision of women of colour as giving a form of inferior, instrumentalised care. When women of colour do speak on behalf of their children, it is claims that women of colour are selfish, and not claims that they should be more giving, that surface; the debate over welfare reform in the U.S. in the 1990s, and the frequency with which children of colour are taken into the foster care system are cases in point. And this is all to leave to the side that much of the role of the mammy is actually to care for the adult white woman who “employs” her. These cases where women of colour are expected to care for white women, or are thought to be inferior at caring, are not just omissions; they are counterexamples. The questions they raise are thorny, and though we clearly need an account that acknowledges that transferring care to men is a large-scale cross-racial phenomenon, one wonders if looking at the ways women of colour experience sexism through dynamics that are qualitatively different from those facing white women would have changed the analysis at the theoretical level. To the extent that the book’s novel contribution is about the social workings of morality, its contribution is at least parochialised by its lack of attention to race. Still, Manne’s book is an excellent example of how moral philosophy can do more than render judgements about our existing social practices; it can reveal how our everyday morality works to constitute a terribly unequal social world.