“The Five Faces of Oppression”
Iris Marion Young

(check eclass for the link to the reading)

Your first assigned resource is Iris Marion Young’s (1990), “The Five Faces of Oppression”. Introductory Women’s and Gender Studies courses continue to feature this text, which explains that oppression, power, and domination are structural.  This means that power and domination are not the fault of a few individuals, but systems of oppression. Because power and oppression are structural, Young demonstrates that conversations about justice cannot focus simply on individuals — instead, thinking about justice requires thinking about social and relational patterns of injustice and inequality.  

Iris Marion Young (1949-2006) is a world-renowned feminist philosopher, who wrote about social justice, gender inequality, oppression, and democracy. Iris Marion Young is an example of a feminist scholar who connected theory with practice — in addition to writing about social justice, she was active in challenging disciplinary and political norms, and encouraged her students to put their ideas into action.

As we are doing in this course, Young connected the local context with a sense of global citizenship. Young thought about gender equality and social justice at the local, national, and international levels.  Young understood that individuals live in communities, and as such share a responsibility to one another.  Her former colleague writes:

“Iris Marion Young was perhaps one of American feminist philosophers’ most prestigious public intellectuals: always a little ahead of the rest in grasping the implications of the political events and movements of the day”

Ann Ferguson and Mechthild Nagel in Dancing With Iris: The Philosophy of Iris Marion Young

In “The Five Faces of Oppression”, Young begins by defining justice.  This is helpful for our purposes, because in order to talk about “social justice”, we need to think about how we understand this concept.  Young writes that “Justice should refer not only to distribution, but also the institutional conditions necessary for the development and exercise of individual capacities and collective communication and cooperation” (39).  When Young asks us to think about justice beyond “distribution”, she means we need to go beyond thinking about who gets what. Thinking about how systems allocate resources and power unevenly is part of justice, but justice requires more than that: it requires dismantling or reforming the very institutions that allocate power and resources (39).  Because we live in political systems structured by classical liberal thought, which emphasizes individuals bearing rights, it can be difficult to think about power and oppression at a structural level, impacting not just individuals, but communities and groups.  Yet, thinking about structural oppression requires that we move from thinking about the individual to the social (Young 1990, 39). 

Before you start reading Young, here is some more general advice on active reading. As you read each article in this and subsequent lessons, ask yourself these questions:

  • What is the author’s main claim?
  • How does the author develop and support this main claim?
  • What do you take to be the author’s purpose in writing the piece?
  • What kind of relationship does the author establish with their audience or reader?

To practice active reading skills, it’s recommended that you define key terms and also pay attention to how the authors define them. Consult this guide for academic reading before you begin.

CONTENT WARNING (CW): This chapter features discussions of sexual violence.

As you read:

  • Take notes explaining each section’s argument in your own words. Write down 2-3 sentences explaining her argument in each section.
  • In your own words, try to write a few sentences explaining each of the five faces of oppression.
  • Pay attention to how Young explains that a person can be both privileged and oppressed. How is this possible? 
  • Pay attention to how Young explains gender differences.  She does not say that gender inequality is the result of biology, but of an unequal division of labour and socialization (43; 50). 
  • Pay attention to how Young defines ‘race’.  Young explains that ‘race’ is a social concept — people are racialized in relation to other groups.  Race is not about superficial physical differences, but social categorizations, shared histories, and belonging within a group (44).  We will come back to definitions of ‘race’, racism, and racialization in Module 3.