Frye's 'Oppression': An Inadequate Definition


In Marilyn Frye’s piece, ‘Oppression,’ the author seeks to define ‘oppression’ in such a way that entails that women are oppressed as women, but men are not oppressed as men. While she succeeds in placing women tidily within her parameters, loose ends within the substance of her theory present significant flaws in terms of its applicability to other social groups. This essay will examine shortcomings of the definition Frye used; it will explain precisely why legitimately oppressed groups fall outside of Frye’s parameters, while non-oppressed groups are included, and recommend adjustments to her definition.

Frye’s Definition of ‘Oppression’

Women face restrictions which, on-balance, are harmful to them; they are imposed by social structures and expectations, and even within the law; women face them because of their status as women; and men both impose these barriers and benefit from them.

In Frye’s definition of ‘oppression,’ she details a particular image of the character of the barriers that a person must face to be oppressed (Frye 84). Frye identifies five necessary conditions that make up oppression. First, the person must be restricted; that is, there must be barriers or limitations on his freedom (Frye 85). In the case of women, they are restricted in not being permitted to go out at night, and making less at jobs. Second, the person must suffer harm from these restrictions; moreover, this harm must outweigh any potential benefits incurred as a result of those same restrictions (Frye 85). Women suffer harms as a result of their restrictions; they lose personal freedom and have less economic freedom. Third, the restrictions must have been imposed by a social structure or institution (Frye 85). The harms experienced by women are not isolated incidents; they are pervasive societal harms. Fourth, the person’s restrictions must have been incurred as a result of membership in a particular ‘social group’; that is to say, they occur on a systematic basis, rather than on an individual or random basis (Frye 87). Women suffer these harms as women. Fifth, and finally, there must be a separate social group that both benefits from the restrictions faced by a social group, and coercively imposes the social structures which restrict the freedom of the social group (Frye 89). Simply put, oppressive barriers must not only benefit another group, but the oppressed group cannot be the primary enforcers. In the case of women’s oppression, men both coercively impose these harms, and benefit from them; in particular, by diverting pay disproportionately, they themselves take a greater share.

It is notable that Frye does not expressly define what constitutes a ‘social group’; presumably, Frye refers to a group that shares a common characteristic which has some political or social relevancy. For example, while people who wear size nine shoes make up a group, there tend not to be social consequences to this membership. It would follow, then, that the sexes, races, socioeconomic classes, sexual orientations, religions, professions, and other such classifications would logically constitute ‘social groups’ because they share common characteristics that affect their social status. A good measure of this could be whether or not the law could refer to this group as an identifiable group with a shared relevant characteristic. It is under this assumption that this argument shall proceed.

Objections to Frye: Narrowness

Frye’s definition of oppression serves her purpose very well; that is, it makes clear that women are oppressed and men are not. Women face restrictions which, on-balance, are harmful to them; they are imposed by social structures and expectations, and even within the law; women face them because of their status as women; and men both impose these barriers and benefit from them. However, the fifth condition, or condition of another benefiting social group which imposes the restrictive barriers upon the harmed group, is problematic. While it functions perfectly in Frye’s context, its applicability to other situations is imperfect.

One such problem is its inapplicability to legitimate situations of oppression. For example, it is reasonable to conclude that gay persons are oppressed. They are prevented from sharing work benefits with long-term partners, such as health insurance and the federal stipulations for the Family Medical Leave Act (which provides for employees to take time off of work to care for ill family members). While heterosexual partners are able to gain United States citizenship through the marriage of a non-citizen to a citizen, gay partnerships lack this option. Until mere months ago, in lieu of filing power of attorney documentation, gay persons not only could not visit an ill partner in the hospital, but they would not even be informed of their care in the hospital unless the biological family deigned to let the partner know. Certain states do not have laws on the books that prevent gay persons from being discriminated against in housing and employment matters, and only recently have hate crimes based on sexuality become punishable by federal law. Sexual acts with a person of the same sex have been illegal within the past decade in various portions of the United States. Gay persons and partnerships are often barred from the adoption of children. Despite shakeups in the United States military’s ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy on sexual orientation, the military culture remains unfriendly to non-heterosexual servicemen and women. It continues to deny equal benefits to same-sex couples as married heterosexual couples. Finally, gay persons risk verbal attacks and physical violence upon admission of their sexuality to others. They may be regarded with suspicion, or have their ‘lifestyle’ criticized by people across the spectrum.

In light of all of this, it seems evident that gay persons are oppressed. However, Frye’s definition would not agree. Gay persons do, in fact, fulfill many of her requisites; they suffer restrictions on their freedom, restrictions which, on-balance, are harmful to them. The barriers that they face are imposed by social structures and institutions, from religious organizations to the federal government. They constitute a ‘social group’ as defined above, as saying that someone is gay does identify a group of persons who share a particular socially relevant characteristic. However, the oppressor condition does not apply to gay persons in its entirety. In the fifth condition, while there is a group that imposes these barriers (heterosexual persons), this group does not benefit from them.

Some may disagree, arguing instead that gay persons do, in fact, meet Frye’s criteria for oppression. It may be argued that heterosexual persons do benefit from the barriers imposed upon gay persons. They may point to things like the inability of gay persons to access work benefits for their partners as being of economic advantage to heterosexual persons, on-balance. However, the equal distribution of these benefits would make a very small change overall, and what employers may lose in offering fair benefits to gay employees’ partners would presumably be made up in retention of that talent.. Further, in the instance of things like restrictions on adoption, there is simply no benefit to the heterosexual population to deny this simple privilege to a group on the basis of sexual orientation. Therefore, it is evident that while gay persons are oppressed, Frye’s definition is not inclusive of their situation.

Examples abound of legitimately oppressed people who simply do not fit the bill under Frye’s definition. Another situation is that of people of Arabic descent who live in the United States. Every day, they must face discrimination and suspicion in their work, schooling, and personal lives. The hijab (head scarf) has become a political lightning rod, with bans proposed across the United States that associate this religious garb with terrorist acts suffered at the hands of extremists. In the post-9/11 world, Arabic people have faced overt discriminatory practices and even random violence, all in the name of ‘patriotism.’ Arabic people do not have the same freedom as average citizens to even pursue the careers of their choosing; not only would it be more difficult for such an individual to be hired as a pilot or elected to public office, but those who succeeded would face an undue level of scrutiny on a daily basis under the guise of ‘national security.’ In fact, one of the most aggressive political slights of today is the accusation that an official is a ‘secret Muslim’; this label is often placed upon politicians who have an Arabic-sounding name, Muslim relatives, or take political actions in opposition to the treatment that persons of Arabic descent receive in America. It is regarded as acceptable to many for a presidential candidate to flatly refuse the prospect of hiring a Muslim into his administration, citing the planned imposition of Sharia law upon the United States by Muslims (Herman). Further, the assumption is made by many that to be of Arabic decent is synonymous with being Muslim, a situation which flipped around (i.e. Arabic people assuming that all Americans are Christian) would be highly offensive to the perpetrators of the mistaken assumption.

People of Arabic decent, again, seem unarguably to face oppression. They do fit tidily into most of Frye’s criteria; they face restrictions that, on-balance, harm them; these barriers, particularly employment discrimination, are institutional in nature; people of Arabic decent do make up a social group, and there is another social group which oppresses them, that being Americans of non-Arabic decent. However, the flaw again comes in with the lack on benefit conferred upon the oppressor group. Simply put, America at large does not benefit from the oppression of this group.

Some may argue that American does, indeed, benefit from the oppression of people of Arabic descent, in its national security interests. It is suggested that the treatment that Arabic people receive is imposed only to ensure the safety of the nation’s other citizens. However, this behavior does not legitimately make a difference; one must look no further than the internment of Japanese persons during World War II to see that profiling people based upon their ethnicity not only does nothing to help national security interests, but it may be counter-productive. That is, the poor treatment assigned to these oppressed groups may foster animosity towards the United States that had never existed before and, in effect, ‘create’ enemies of the nation. Further, the Arabic population at large is not made up of terrorists; the notion that people of Arabic descent are more likely to be terrorists than members of any other ethnic, racial, or national group is not based in evidence but is rather an oppressive stereotype. A further argument comes in the form of social benefits supposedly gained by the dominant group as a result of the oppression of Arabic people. It could be supposed that the dominant group (non-Arabic Americans) benefit in terms of greater employment opportunities and higher social status. However, it could be similarly argued that by keeping these individuals out of the job market, their households will make and spend less, and lesser economic activity will result. This could be felt from lower job creation to less profit for local businesses- where people immediately feel the pressures of struggling business in the area.

It could also be argued that non-Arabic Americans could benefit via their higher relative social status. However, this effect seems only to manifest itself in terms of the harm that it does to the oppressed group. For example, while an employer may hire someone because he looks Arabic, it is not as though he hires an African-American man instead because he is not. So while the lower social status of Arabic persons is harmful to them, it does not yield distinct benefits to the oppressor group in everyday life. This said, Frye’s image of five requisite aspects of oppression has a glaring error. It omits legitimately oppressed groups, such as gay and Arabic persons.

Another example lies in the history of slavery in the United States. Even after the development of labor-saving machines, like the cotton gin, slavery continued for decades on a large scale. This is notable for the fact that these machines were not only accessible to the plantation owners, but they were less costly than sustaining a human life to do the same work. As slaves, these individuals fit tidily within most of Frye’s criteria; they face barriers which, on-balance, harm them. These barriers are protected by social institutions, and are imposed as a result of their membership in the social group of owned persons of African descent. There is a oppressor group, that being wealthy white plantation owners; however, at this particular point in history, they were not benefiting by keeping their slaves, rather than simply setting them free to fend for themselves. Although it could be argued that the concept of owning other persons was satisfying to the plantation owners, it could similarly be argued that the cost savings, paired with the novelty of owning a worker-machine, would balance this small satisfaction out. So, then, under Frye’s definition, slaves are not oppressed at this point in history, because their owners were not benefiting from their labors as much as they could from an alternative, that being a machine.

Objections to Frye: Broadness

While Frye’s definition of ‘oppression’ leaves out these and several more legitimately oppressed groups, it also lets in a good many persons who do not appear to be oppressed. One such example is that of convicts. They are comprised of robbers, rapists, murderers, and other unsavory individuals who have harmed society and have been sent to a prison term as a result. Clearly, they are not oppressed persons because they have come to be in their position (in principle) as a result of harmful, immoral decisions. However, Frye’s definition begs to differ; they face harmful barriers in their incarceration, from the basic loss of the freedom to move about at their leisure, to the inability to vote. They are incarcerated as a result of institutional laws, they suffer as a result of their membership in a social group (convicts), and there is another social group that both imposes these restrictions and benefits from them, that being non-criminal Americans. The benefit comes in where non-convicts suffer lower rates of crime and feel more secure as a result. Since Frye’ definition does not contain moral criteria, convicts are not excluded simply because their punishment is in principle deserved. In sum, Frye’s image of oppression lets in a group which is clearly not oppressed.

A criticism of this idea is that convicts do not constitute a social group. This is a difficult point to argue for or against due to Frye’s neglect of defining her use of this term. A critic may say that convicts are not a social group because their membership in this group was the result of a conscious choice. However, so is one’s choice of profession and religion, and in fact, most typical ‘social group’ categories aside from race and gender. Thus, it seems unreasonable to say that a person cannot be oppressed except as a result of their race or gender; people face oppression for a range of reasons, not all of which are ascribed personal characteristics. Further, convicts are commonly referred to in the law, which identifies them as a relevant social category. Therefore, since convicts are a group which has socially relevant consequences, like earning potential and voting privilege, they do constitute a social group.

Adjustments to Frye’s Definition

Bearing all of this in mind, it seems as though the primary problems with Frye’s definition of ‘oppression’ lie in the simplicity of the benefiting group condition and lack of a morality condition. As it lies in Frye’s piece, there must be an oppressor group which enforces the restrictions suffered by the oppressed group- but the oppressor group must benefit from these restrictions. As noted in the cases of gay persons, Arabic people, and slaves, these are significantly restricted groups, and while they meet all of Frye’s other criteria, the lack of a beneficiary group entails, by her definition, that they are not oppressed. Therefore, it seems as though it would be most beneficial to drop this condition altogether. There will still be the condition that an external oppressor group is imposing these boundaries upon the oppressed, but this way it is possible to include legitimately oppressed groups in Frye’s definition of oppression.

A second correction which would benefit Frye’s definition of oppression would be to include some stipulation as to the moral justifiability of the restrictions faced. A group should not be considered ‘oppressed’ unless the restrictions faced as a result of social group membership are morally unjustified. Arguably, convicts are justifiably restricted because their crimes caused harm to an individual or society at large; thus, this new condition would remove them from the ranks of the ‘oppressed.’


In conclusion, Frye’s definition of ‘oppression’ is imperfect. There are several examples, explored here, in which legitimately oppressed people do not fit the bill, or people who are clearly not oppressed do. There are two simple fixes, those being the removal of the benefiting group requirement, and the addition of a morality stipulation, would ensure that these problems are corrected. While Frye’s definition of ‘oppression’ can be useful in identifying persons who are oppressed, her criteria need revision to be truly applicable to all situations, not just that of women.

Works Cited

Cudd, Ann E., and Robin O. Andreasen. Feminist Theory: a Philosophical Anthology. Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 2005. Print.

"Herman Cain Assailed as ‘bigoted’ over Muslim Remarks - CNN Political Ticker - Blogs." CNN Political Ticker - Blogs. Web. 21 June 2011.

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