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September 19, 2011 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

“Frailty, Thy Name is Woman.”

Women were once the subject of vast denigration and domination, a situation justified by restrictive notions of how ‘society’ should be.

For that reason an important part of the ongoing liberation of women and of all individuals who defy traditional categorisation has been the overthrow of obstructive ideas.
The cry of the young prince has resounded across theatres and up the ages from Shakespeare’s pen in 1600. The insults of Prince Hamlet are echoed by the equally timeless Samuel Butler (circa 1660), who rhymed that “the souls of women are so small, that some believe they’ve none at all.” While this is merely a matter of denigrating women, denigration presupposes a societal expectation and a moral justification for doing so. It is in this vein that Schopenhauer gave us the judgment that “women exist in the main solely for the propagation of the species.” Schopenhauer here represents a tradition of thinking as old as Western philosophy. It justifies the separation of roles and differences between the sexes as a means to the reproduction of the species. Couched in academic jargon later borrowed by biology, socio-biology and evolutionary psychology it is lent a seemingly scientific objectivity. The scientific discourse is and always has been heavily intertwined with (you might well say complicit in) restriction and categorisation of the sexes. Aristotle, who might be considered the first scientist, had this to say about woman in On the Generation of Animals, Book V: “The front part of the head goes bald because the brain is there, and man is the only animal to go bald because his brain is much the largest and the moistest. Women do not go bald because their nature is like that of children.” Lovely.

Equally so, from the social sciences there has always been a strong tendency to appeal to ideas which would widely be considered sexist in today. Rousseau, for example, said (Emile, Book V) that the success of society depended upon subordinating women in the private sphere and disallowing their participation in public and political society. As a justification for discriminating against women, the general goal of ‘ensuring the success of society’, of sacrificing a full half of humanity for the ‘greater good’, runs as a very common theme throughout the social sciences, from political science to anthropology to psychology, up until the middle of the twentieth century. Some of Western civilisation’s most cherished thinkers have even gone so far as to blame women for their own disadvantage, and resent them for it. Nietzsche said that women somehow connived their way into the role of child-carer, and thereby escaped from ‘real work’. In such a lowly way, “women have known how to secure for themselves by their subordination the greatest advantage, in fact, the upper hand” (Human, All Too Human, Part I, 7thD). In our position as students the sexism of our intellectual forbears is nigh on limitless (and we should always reflect on how our own discourses might impinge on others). So how did we come to challenge the old ways of thinking? It isn’t simply a case of society having ‘progressed’ past an awkward period, as though we grew out of puberty and stopped thinking that girls were yuck and boys were mean.

In June of this year the quite-forgettable Alasdair Thompson, CEO of the Employers and Manufacturers Association, claimed, without at all backing himself up, that female menstruation affects their work productivity. In the face of media criticism Thompson maintained that monthly “sick problems” largely accounts for the gender pay gap. It is possible—female “sick problems” might contribute as much as 11.8 per cent to the wage gap. But this whole furore underscores how far we have come in our aversion to expressions of sexism, as well as showing that latent sexism still exists. What happened in the years between 1600 and 2011 that meant Shakespeare and ilk received the laurels of genius and Thompson was sacked?

Well, as late as the early twentieth century, such language was still being used against woman without complete controversy. The suffrage, labour and contraception campaigns in New Zealand, driven by changing political economies in Australia, the USA, UK etcetera, involves a lot of sexist rhetoric based upon ideas of the proper social structure, as well as biological misconceptions. All in all, it was a threat to the established order of things which had so far defined how civilised we thought we were.
This sentiment probably peaked in the sophistication, of expression and of self-delusion, with which the functionalist anthropologists and sociologists of the early twentieth centuries. They justified gender as a necessary fiction in the proper function of society. So who or what crashed the party, burst the bubble and killed the joy of latent sexists everywhere?

Simply by questioning knowledge itself, the work of new disciplines such as post-modernism, feminism and deconstructionism weakened the hold of collectively held ideas on our thinking. By seeing inherent power in any discourse, any area of expert, any privileged knowledge, the likes of Michel Foucault and Sherry Ortner overturned more than two millennia of truisms. These thinkers had identified the danger of oppressive discourses, discourses that leave the individual powerless to define themselves. Even simply questioning the meaning of a word, like ‘gender’ or ‘sex’, uncovered rich avenues for investigation. The contemporary meaning of ‘gender’, for example, became mainstream in 1955 with the work of New Zealand sexologist John Money. Feminists in the ‘70s took up the new meaning of the term to question the construct ‘gender,’ as distinct from biological ‘sex’.

There is a beauty in the way the writers of post-modern fields ask questions rather than make claims to fact. Questions like: is gender merely a cultural category? Is a coherent category of gender possible from the individual point of view? Not only is such a category of gender no longer assumed to be a help to the success of a community, but it has been suggested by scholars such as Virginia Goldner that ideals of single, pure gender categories give rise to a “universal pathogenic situation.” Basically, it spoils identity. One prospective future is an alternative paradigm which tolerates ambiguity and flux. It is easy to see how this might be healthier for the individual regarding their gender identity, but further removal of social demarcations might have consequences for society and for the individual in respects other than gender identity. If we reconsider the old thinking of our community as primarily a structure, a structure that requires a few essentials for success, it seems that without needs there are no categories of people to fulfil them. Therefore, do we as individuals approach meaninglessness?


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  1. Ian Anderson says:

    Out of curiosity, are you familiar with The Origins of The Family Private Property and the State, and if so what are your thoughts on it?

    I think there are problematic aspects to Engels’ arguments, but he decidedly wasn’t arguing from an essentialist view. This isn’t an anomaly either, after all the social upheavals of the 19th and early 20th century were connected both to the suffrage movement and the early struggle for abortion rights.

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