Understandably, feminist literature is abundant and widespread. From Buzzfeed to online trolls, I would not dare attempt to out-slur the young, sexually frustrated basement delinquents who assert that feminism is anti-agency, or victimising.

What I will attempt to do, however, is explore the conundrum of feminist thought using a Hegelian lens, explaining why the philosophy is not as bulletproof as many of its proponents would have you ardently believe.

Hegel is well known for his master-slave dialectic which he outlined in his seminal book, “Phenomenology of Spirit”. 

This dynamic arises when there is an interaction between two groups, namely the master and the slave, and so they have different standpoints and world views, owing to their necessarily alternative perspectives.

The slave mentality is characterised by existential fear for one’s own existence and servitude. The existential fear present if the slave does not obey the master, being implicit, is necessary for the second characteristic; servitude.

But Hegel claims that if you accept that fear is an imperative not to act, while service is imperative to act, this poses a lived contradiction for the slave.

This parallels the same difference between an object (which has things happen to them) and an agent (which makes things happen), which are also contradictions.

The master-slave dialectic is an interesting lens with which to view the feminist worldview which dictates that women are still inferior to men.

The dialectic involves a thesis and antithesis which results in a synthesis by realising the contradiction. So it is up to the slave to become self-conscious of the fact that there is an agency within subordination.

This synthesis would allow women to realise that they have agency. With its necessarily inherent view that women are oppressed by men, feminism keeps women in that slave mentality.

In propagating this belief, feminists are negating the power of their own agency in claiming that someone other than themselves is capable of changing their position and working towards their own betterment.

There is a general consensus that women have played, or at least appear to have played, a secondary role throughout history. Childbearing restricts freedoms further than breadwinning, to put things simply.

Clearly, from an evolutionary and biological perspective, it is obvious why women took on the role they did throughout most of human history.

It was the Industrial Revolution that allowed women the freedom, in both the positive and negative sense, to take on additional responsibility and exercise greater agency.

Naturally, this allowed the first wave of feminism to advocate for allowing women to partake in the same roles as men such that they were equal under the law.

All fine and dandy indeed; you’d be hard pressed to find someone who disagrees with women and men being equally free and unrestricted.

Nonetheless, that’s not the feminist philosophy today. The view that women are and have always been inferior to men is overly simplistic and incorrect.

What’s more, to claim that women are agents now and should be “empowered” but not to attribute agency to them and their choices throughout history is inconsistent.

Let me explain. Boy scouts out there will know that if you’re lost in a group you must stay as you are, so as to not waste calories or stray further away from the rest of the group by mistake.

In other words, behaving like an object is the safest thing to do to survive. The alternative is encompassing full agency and wandering: a stupid thing to do.

However, becoming an object is ludicrous if you are by yourself, where you take agency or you starve to death. This is a type of agency by proxy: you choose to become like an object. But this is only prudent if you’re with a group.

Throughout history agency by proxy was largely a woman’s role. It can be understood in the sense that the benefit of acting in such a way is greater than acting otherwise.

Men, on the other hand, were likely to find themselves in the second situation, especially in early times when life was nastier, more brutish, and shorter.

Where women were clearly endowed unequally by nature by not having as much upper body strength as a man, such natural discrepancies were exacerbated.

It is only because of the vast material prosperity today which affords us, especially women, the increase in choice of livelihoods and hobbies.

The boy scouts analogy is neither original nor surprising. In femjargon this is called hypoagency, the cultural tendency promoted by feminism to deny women agency. Some may even consciously accept this.

It works out quite conveniently in some cases. If society believes that women have less agency they are able to escape blame, regardless of whether women actually have equal or greater agency than men in society.

Take the pay gap for example. When convinced that the supposed “gap” is as a result of choices women make, often it is insisted that these choices are guided by social norms or guided by institutional sexism.

Solidarity with Hegel and similar object and agent analyses have been expressed by many feminists, theorising the relationship between men and women.

But gender relations, and indeed life itself, are often about tradeoffs; costs and benefits which can only be made if we recognise women as having full agency. It is with this in mind we should approach the fight for women’s rights.

Written by Ananya Chowdhury

Ananya Chowdhury is an intern at the Adam Smith Institute.