Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Defining Women, Inviting Violence

(November 25 is International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women and kicks off 16 days of activism to end violence against women. This post was written especially for the Bloggers Unite event in support of the UN initiative. )

It's no coincidence that second wave feminism and the civil rights movement of the sixties and seventies developed at a time when the nuture side of the nature/nuture equation was predominant. Both movements fostered the development of people according to their abilities, strengths, and dreams, rather than according to a rigidly essentialist view. Although the road was not without setbacks, both from within and from without, in the West we are in a place now where gender and race are somewhat less restrictive.

But it is no done deal, either. In the last several years - nearly two decades, now - there has been a backlash against the gains women have made. Susan Faludi was one of the first to write about the trend in her 1991 book Backlash: the Undeclared War Against American Women.

For the last few years, the nature side of the equation has made quite a comeback, with researchers from both science and humanities disciplines insisting that we are "hard-wired" for almost everything, including gender roles - the old, ongoing, reactionary, stifling, male-privileging gender roles.

And it's not surprising, considering that even women's modest gains undermine a centuries-old power structure bent on recapturing the little bit it has lost and shoring up its sagging infrastructure.

When Plato declared the world of forms more real than the material, when the Bishops of Christendom decided on the true nature of  Christ's relationship to God and the method of his incarnation, when the Roman church claimed apostolic succession from Peter for its bishop, the Vicar of Christ, women were excluded from the seat of power. 

The great abyss between male and female was effected and male privilege (sexual and otherwise) was entrenched in politics, religion, philosophy, and ideology.

The gender coup of classical Greece and its offspring Christianity led to definitions of women that control them and keep them subject to male power. The definitions are too, too familiar: women are defined as weak; emotional; caregiving; sexually depraved; fertile; enmeshed in nature, rather than reason; provided for man's succour, service, and sex.

 Woman is the chaste virgin queen or modest wife, valiantly eschewing her depraved nature and deserving of male protection, or the debauched woman, unwilling to renounce her evil ways, thereby making herself deserving only of male anger and abuse.

History is full of cases of violence against women perpetrated because they did not, would not, or could not live up (or down) to society's definitions of them.

Recent times are no exception. This year, on December 6th, is the twentieth anniversary of the Montreal Massacre in which gunman Marc Lepine shot and killed 14 female engineering students and 13 other students at Montreal's Ecole Polytechnique. To the female engineering students he said, "You're women, you're going to be engineers. You're all a bunch of feminists. I hate feminists."  Then he systematically gunned them down. Women do not become engineers, according to Lepine's definition - and not according to the definition of many who deplore women taking "men's jobs," a common complaint at the time.

Some of the most contested issues in society revolve around women, marriage, and reproductive rights. It's no coincidence that some of the most vocal, dangerous, and charged rhetoric centres on abortion, gay marriage (and the nature of marriage), family planning and birth control. For centuries, marriage, pregnancy, and the fetishization of motherhood have defined women and kept them in their place.

We see enormous concern about boys in a supposedly too-feminine world; we see the likes of the American group of male politicians who call themselves The Family and grant each other the right to subservient wives, sex with whomever they choose, and a will to power that would make Nietschze quake.

And we see sexual slavery, sexual abuse, domestic violence, and honour killings - all because our human societies define women in ways that invite it all. And we say it is in their nature.

We must have as many voices as possible saying that this must stop, but we must realize that it will never stop as long as we don't fight the battle where it starts - with definition, with words.


Hels said...

The most bizarre element is here "women are defined as weak; emotional; caregiving; sexually depraved; fertile; enmeshed in nature, rather than reason..".

I know the "sexually depraved" element was thought to be quite true, and have seen the visual and ritual evidence of this rampant female sexuality e.g millions of little girls were brutally circumcised to control any future sexual urges.

Yet it is a criticism diametrically opposed to the most common belief: that men have rampant sexual feelings and that women need to to tolerate their partners' urges as best they can.

Holding two diametrically opposed opinions at the same time is an interesting male tactic. It is logically impossible, of course, but it is politically expedient. Women lose if they do and they lose if they don't.

Samantha said...

What a powerful post! I'm speechless, honestly, and find myself thinking how lucky we are to have our voices with at least the freedom to bring this issue those around us. I didn't realize how important my voice was to me until I took it back when I left a horrible, controlling abuser who felt very much the same way that the gunman you describe did - that women aren't good enough to be on the same level as men or even suggest that they might be standing for their rights. Thank you for adding your powerful voice to this issue!

ChrisJ said...

You're right; it's a catch 22 for women.

None of it makes sense, unless one sees it all as protection of male (especially sexual) privilege.

ChrisJ said...


It does really hit home having experienced it yourself. I'm happy you survived, and survived to blog and say your words to the world.

Al said...

Bigotry of any kind is beneath contempt.
I find it a continuing source of bewilderment that people still wish to cling to ideas that categorise people as being a "lesser form of human".
When will we realise that the differences conferred by "race", religion, social class, disadvantage, disability, sexuality or for that matter gender, are trivial in comparison to what unite us as human.

ChrisJ said...

Al, thank you for commenting.

You are so right, and yet we continue as a species to do all of what you note. Is it ego? fear?

I also wonder if, overall, we are better or worse than centuries ago. Better, I hope.

* said...

Great post. I found you on Blggers Unites, I am just amazed every time I see the result of women's work, and our capacity to care for others. We, women create and support our families more than human capacity allows, however, we are still the weaker sex.


ChrisJ said...


Thank you for commenting.

Yes, we are still considered to be the weaker sex by many, but I think that's part of the definition.

Anonymous said...

nice post. thanks.

ChrisJ said...


Thanks for commenting.

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