Understanding Oppression as a Critique of Hedonism


After teaching the hedonism of Bentham and Mill in my Introduction to Ethics class, I often assign Marilyn Frye’s classic feminist essay “Oppression.” (I got this idea from the late, great Claudia Card). This serves two pedagogical purposes for me. First, it exposes my intro students to excellent feminist philosophy without relegating it to its own “feminist ethics” unit at the end of the semester. Second, it offers a fascinating critique of hedonism (even though that is not the main point of the essay). The essay is clear, accessible, and engaging. Although it is over 30 years old, many of its examples still seem to resonate with students (especially the double bind of sexual activity for young women). Because it is not presented as a critique of hedonism, the students enjoy trying to figure how Frye’s argument could be applied to Mill’s and Bentham’s views.

Basically, Frye gives an analysis of what oppression is (and isn’t), focusing on classic ethical and feminist concepts, such as the double bind. She argues (among other things) that oppression cannot be reduced to suffering (or liberation to pleasure, for that matter). She presents the example of rich, white, 1 percenter who breaks his leg in a skiing accident and is tremendous pain as he waits in the freezing cold for someone to rescue him. Obviously, he suffers. Just as obviously, he is not oppressed. As an inverse of this example, I often add my own example of a women who cannot vote or legally work (say, a married woman in the 19th century US) but has a kind and benevolent husband who gives her everything she wants and even promises to vote the way she wants him to. Such a person is not obviously suffering, yet they are oppressed. This invites the big question(s): If pleasure is the only thing intrinsically good, and pain the only thing intrinsically bad, then how can we account for oppression? How can we say, as we want to say, that oppression is a particularly egregious wrong, if one can be oppressed with being harmed (the rich, sheltered, Victorian woman) and harmed without being oppressed (the rich skier)? Doesn’t an ethical theory need to be able to account for oppression?


The relevant reading is Marilyn Fryes “Oppression” in Politics of Reality (1980).


Introduction to Ethics


Below are my own lecture notes, in case they are helpful:

“Oppression and Hedonism” Marilyn Frye, “Oppression”

  1. What is Oppression? 4 Characteristics
  2. What is not Oppression? 3 cases
  3. Men crying vs. Women’s cramped body language
  4. The upshot for hedonism

Frye wants to clarify the meaning of “oppression.” The claim that “all women are oppressed” is a central claim in feminist philosophy, and often a controversial one (several of you took issue with it on the first day of class, bell hooks also took issue with it). Frye argues that not any harm or injury can be called oppressive, to do so would reduce the term to meaninglessness (p. 1). To claim that some one or group is not oppressed is not to say that that group doesn’t suffer. “Human beings can be miserable without being oppressed” (2).

I.  What is oppression? To press down, mold, immobilize, reduce (from the root “press”)

Common features of oppression:

  1. Systematic, mutually reinforcing set of restrictions: living life shaped by barriers which are not accidental or occasion or avoidable but “are systematically related to each other in such a way as to catch one between and among them and restrict or penalize motion in any direction” (4). Frye uses the analogy of the bird cage to make this point. To look myopically at one wire in a birdcage it is hard to see why the bird doesn’t fly around it. You have to see the whole cage to understand. (e.g. door opening ritual)

NOTE: This explains why oppression can be hard to see.

  1. the “double bind”: “situations in which options are reduced to very few and all of them expose one to penalty, censure or deprivation. Examples: the expectation that oppressed people act cheerful and smile a lot; sexual activity in young women. Many of the choices women face are like this: work outside the home or not, get married or not, have children or not

OBJECTION: Isn’t this just life? “Damned if you do, damned it you don’t” “You can’t please everyone” (If I become a doctor, my dad will be pleased but my mom won’t be, for example). Whatever anyone does, there is going to be someone who is unhappy/critical of that decision. Are all, always in a “double bind”?

RESPONSE: double bind is not about your particular circumstances (e.g. what your parents want), but about your group membership; the punishments are at the societal level and there are no real rewards.

  1. Does not depend on the individual’s conscious intentions or the perception of the event in the moment. Example: door opening ritual (example of (2) above): a symbolic gesture only, says that women are incapable and that “women’s actual needs and interests are unimportant or irrelevant” (6).

Note: This explains why institutions/rituals/social practices can be oppressive (or at least experienced as oppressive) without some prejudiced/sexist individual/master mind behind them.

(4) Groups and not individual are oppressed. You are not oppressed as an individual, but as a member of a group. “If an individual is oppressed, it is in virtue of being a member of a group or category of people that is systematically reduced, molded, immobilized” (8).

  • Need not be a physically segregated group. Some people think that women are not the right sort of group to say are oppressed because they don’t form physically segregated group, but rather are integrated with men along different racial, ethnic and economic lines. Frye disagrees because all women share a least one common characteristic that is relevant to talking about them as an oppressed group: they are service men and men’s interests. Men do not serve women as women serve men. [A possible response to bell hooks’ skepticism about what could possibly unite all women]

II. Three Cases: These are not examples of oppression. Why not?

  1. Rich, white playboy skiing accident example: show that oppression is not just suffering, requires a broader social structure
  2. driving regulation example: oppression is not just the presence of social structures that occasionally harm; they systematically harm
  3. white person blocked from racially segregated, poor neighborhood; or non-criminal blocked from prisons: oppression not just a pervasive social structure that blocks one’s desires; it requires that that social structure be maintained to your disadvantage
  • For example, men who want to be nursery school teachers, stay-at-home dads, etc.: Frye claims that, in some sense, women make up a social “class” of sorts: the “service sector” of wives/mommas/assistants/girls, etc. The men who want to enter this “service sector” – for instance men who want to be nurses, stay-at-home dads, nursery school teachers, etc. – often face barriers to being accepted in that sector. Are these men oppressed? Why or why not? What would Frye say? What do you think?

So, what have we learned about oppression?

To be oppressed is to be systemically and regularly limited and immobilized by social, political, and economic structures (broadly defined) because of one’s membership in a group. Oppression causes suffering but is not reducible to suffering.

  1. Men crying vs.Women’s cramped body language.
    1. Men require (and reward) that other men cannot cry – men can cry in front of women
    2. Men also require women’s body language (it is relaxed around other women)
    3. Men generally benefit (socially) from this arrangement, since steely demeanors are rewarded
    4. Women do not benefit (socially) since it makes us look “silly, incompetent, weak” (15)
  2. What does this have to do with hedonism?: If pleasure is the only thing intrinsically good, and pain the only thing intrinsically bad, then how can we account morally for oppression? How can we say, as we want to say, that oppression is a particularly egregious wrong, if one can be oppressed with being harmed (the rich, sheltered, Victorian woman) and harmed without being oppressed (skier)? Shouldn’t an ethical theory be able to account for oppression?

Author Information

Emily McRae (University of New Mexico)