Dear Mrs Amartya Sen, men will never understand us

(Washington DC) The great economist and political theorist Amartya Sen spoke on Friday at Tufts. Sen has, among other things, contributed to feminism by showing that economic development requires investments in girls and women and by identifying new evidence of gender bias. In a famous 1990 article, Sen argued that 100 million more women should be alive on the planet. Their absence is attributable to “remarkably large” disparities in “health, medicine, and nutrition.” Sen is not just a theorist but has been a leader of organizations that promote women’s rights and human rights.

He is, of course, a man. The Nobel Prize-winning writer Rabindranath Tagore chose his name for him; it means “immortal.” Because Amartya ends with “a,” speakers of many languages assume he is female. On Friday, he said that he frequently receives mail addressed to “Ms. Sen.” His favorite such letter began, “Dear Mrs. Sen, Men will never understand us …”

I share this anecdote because it may amuse people who know his work, but also because it raises an important question about demographic identity and how we understand injustice. Sen mentioned the story in criticizing the kind of communitarianism that takes people’s social identities to be┬áconstitutive or determinative. Sen said: I identify as a feminist, yet I am male. That shows that we can be free of our ascribed identities.

It is true that one can observe and attack injustices suffered by a group to which one does not belong. In fact, Sen was the original discoverer of specific injustices against a different group from his own, namely, women. In that sense, our reason is different from our ascribed identity. We have more mental and moral freedom then the communitarian view assumes.

It could still be the case that men will never fully understand women’s situations, and likewise for other advantaged and disadvantaged groups. Sen used his own observations and government statistics to quantify certain forms of injustice against women. But he (and I) still may not fully grasp what it means to suffer sexual violence inside a family and to have that sanctioned by the whole society. We may know that it happens and yet not really “get” it. This is why actual representation is so important.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.