What Is A Woman?
Sunday, July 9, 2023
All women share common bonds in the fight for equal rights. In every region and every society, women are undervalued, face issues of personal insecurity because of violence in their homes and communities, and must wage a constant struggle for self-determination over their bodies and personal destinies. While some gains have been made in those battles, gender-based discrimination remains a persistent and universal problem. And although we are in the Twenty-First Century, it seems that women’s freedoms remain under attack especially, with the overturning of Roe V. Wade, which was considered by the majority of women as a historic landmark for their freedoms of choice.
The Declaration of Independence made a bold assertion about human nature and natural rights. The central claim that “all men are created equal” had profound implications for the American regime of liberty. Under the US Constitution, all citizens–including women– “supposedly” are created equal under the rule of law. However, throughout history, most societies were either monarchies, aristocracies, or despotisms. In those societies, leaders and elite social classes (or those of a certain ethnicity or religion) had certain rights and privileges that common people did not have. These societies are often characterized by inequality. It wasn’t until 1920 that the 19th Amendment was ratified, granting women the right to vote in elections throughout the country.
History is replete with examples of how the apparent “naturalness” of gender has been used to regulate political, economic, and personal relations between the sexes. Resistance to gender has been remarkably persistent and still is to this day, especially when we still have “conflicting” points of view on how to define a woman and what is a woman’s role in society. What’s defined as “women’s work”--nurturing, feeding, caring for family and home–is devalued and pays low wages or none at all. When women enter jobs traditionally held by men, they often encounter discrimination, harassment, or “glass ceilings” that limit their advancement. A 2020 survey showed, 57 percent of adults in the U.S. believe the country hasn’t gone far enough in providing equal rights to women. Among those respondents, nearly 80 percent believe sexual harassment is the most significant obstacle to achieving women’s equality.
Culture and cultural myths do shape the rules men and women play in our public and private relationships: we may be born female, male, or intersex, but we can distinguish between sex and gender— between one’s biological identity and the conventional patterns of behavior we learn to associate with each sex. While biological sex remains relatively stable, gendered behavior varies dramatically from one cultural group or historical period to the next. For example, European colonists to America adhered to a “Patriarchal Culture” — one in which men were dominant: ancestry was traced through the male line, and men were the explorers, traders, and leaders of the colonies. Women were subservient first to their fathers and then to their husbands; once married, all their property, and even their children, legally belong to their husbands. But has that reality really changed that much in our recent history?
For her part, activist Stephanie Coontz pointed out that every culture in the world knows that there is something called romantic love. However, in most cultures, this emotion is not celebrated, especially in conjunction with marriage. She gave examples of traditional India; where falling in love was considered “dangerous and anti-social; a challenge to the family.” In China, where the definition of falling in love is considered an “illness of socially disapproved relationship.” Coontz saw that the reason why people, for hundreds of years, were skeptical of love, is that marriage for thousands of years had very little to do with individual relationships between a man and a woman. She came to the realization that the more she studied marriage, the more she became convinced that marriage had nothing to do with the relationship between men and women: “Marriage was invented to get in-laws. It was a way of turning strangers into relatives; of making peace. That’s why the word of life in many languages means peace.”
"Advice to a Lady” a poem by George Lyttelton, 1731, demonstrated how colonial societies trained individuals to understand and embrace gender roles. Men are rough, women are gentle, the ancient stereotype asserts, and so each should fulfill different roles in society; women should confine themselves to the domestic sphere, whereas men handle pretty much everything else.
“Seek to be good, but aim not to be great;
A woman's noblest station is retreat;
Her fairest virtues fly from public sight,
Domestick worth, that shuns too strong a light.
To rougher man Ambition's task resign;
‘Tis ours in senates or in courts to shine,
To labor for a sunk corrupted state,
Or dare the rage of Envy, and be great.
One only care your gentle breast should move;
The important business of your life is love;
To this great point direct your constant aim,
This makes your happiness, and this your fame.”
But what about nowadays? According to Allan G. Johnson “Patriarchy” is defined as “a social order to built on male privilege: Those qualities associated with men – strength, toughness, and rationality– are more highly valued than those associated with women– cooperation, vulnerability, and empathy.”
So, does our society function under this characteristic? And if yes, to what extent? Does our society promote male privileges? Are the majority of the positions of authority; political, economic, legal, religious, educational, military, and domestic generally reserved to men? The answer is a resounding YES! All those positions, even those identified as “heads of household” tend to be male under patriarchy. When a woman finds her way into higher positions, people tend to be struck by the exception to the rule and wonder how she’ll measure up against a man. They even question how she got the position in the first place. They question her academic achievements and whether she used her “sexuality” to get into a position of power. The bottom line here is: Men are control freaks under patriarchy. But what about women’s role within this form of governance; The patriarchy?
An inevitable consequence of patriarchy is the oppression of women. Because patriarchy is male-identified and male-centered, women and the work they do tend to be devalued, if not made invisible, and women are routinely repressed in their development as human beings through neglect and discrimination in schools and in occupational hiring, development, promotion, and rewards.
Anyone who doubts that patriarchy is an oppressive system need only consult the growing literature documenting not only economic, political, and other institutionalized sexism but pervasive violence, from pornography to the everyday realities of battering, sexual harassment, and sexual assault. This is not to deny that much has changed in women’s position over the last hundred years—from the appointment of women to the US Supreme Court to assigning women to come into bad zones in Iraq and Afghanistan. To a great degree, however, such highly publicized progress supports an illusion of fundamental change. In spite of new laws, for example, violence and sexual harassment against women are still pervasive. As studies show, there are 433,648 victims of sexual assault in the US on average annually, with an estimated 17.7 million American women having been victims of sexual violence since 1998. Ninety percent of all cases of sexual assault are against women (Re-Reading America, Fast Facts pg458).
Inequality of income and wealth has not changed much from the 1980s, and women are still heavily concentrated in a small number of low-level service and pink-collar occupations. In spite of the huge influx of married women, many of them mothers, into the paid labor force, and in spite of a great deal of talk about the joys of fatherhood, there has been a substantial increase in men’s sense of responsibility for domestic labor or their willingness to actually participate. Basic features that define patriarchy as a type of society have barely budged, and the women’s movement has stalled in much the same way that the civil rights movement was stalled after the hard-won gains of the 1960s.
Thus far, mainstream women’s movements have concentrated on the liberal agenda, whose primary goal has been to allow women to do what men do in the ways that men do it, whether in science, the professions, business, government, or the military. More serious challenges to patriarchy have been silenced, maligned, and misunderstood for reasons that are not hard to fathom. As difficult as it is to change overtly sexist sensibilities and behavior, it is much harder to raise critical questions about how sexism is embedded in major institutions such as the economy, politics, religion, healthcare, and the family.
It is easier to allow women to assimilate into a patriarchal society than to question society itself. It is easier to allow a few women to occupy positions of authority and dominance than to question whether social life should be organized around principles of hierarchy, control, and dominance at all, to allow a few women to reach the heights of the corporate hierarchy rather than question whether people’s needs should depend on an economic system based on dominance, control, and competition.
The power of patriarchy is also reflected in its ability to absorb the pressures of superficial change as a defense against deeper challenges: “As a system, patriarchy encourages men to accept the male privilege and perpetuate woman’s oppression, if only through silence. And it encourages women to accept and adapt to their oppressed position even to the extent of undermining movements to bring about change. We cannot avoid participating in patriarchy. It was handed to us the moment we came into the world. But we can choose how to participate in it.” (Johnson, Allan, From “The Gender Knot: Patriarchy”, Re-Reading America, pg493).
Many of us take for granted the rules that guide our own gender display and easily adapt to cultural change. Our flexibility tends to mask the fact that the United States itself is a turbulent mixture of subcultures. Accordingly, doing gender, even in our daily lives, requires that we simultaneously know the rules of the cultural mainstream as well as those of the subcultures we visit. In other words, “we need more than one pair of gender binary glasses.” (Ferree, Myra, and Wade, Lisa, “How To Gender”, Re-Reading America, pg466)
We tend to point fingers at other cultures who treat women as property, abuse them, and dehumanize them. But in reality, are we better than those? (Matt Walsh, Jordan Peterson, Steven Crowder, etc...) Did we not in very recent history, elect a President, Donald Trump, who bragged on air, that “I can get any woman I want. Just grab them by the pu**y..” And yet millions of Americans, to this day, want to re-elect him as a President. What kind of a message are we sending to women across the country?
This narrative is emboldening and empowering many to commit aggressive behaviors towards women. And reversing Roe V. Wade falls under that criteria. The Republicans if they win the majority of votes in the Senate and the Congress, are going to “Federalize” abortion bans across America. Not only that, they are already throwing women in jail in some red states, as a punishment for having abortions. What’s next? How are we becoming a better nation? Are we that different from Saudi Arabia? Iran?
Women in this country, unfortunately, are taken hostage. They are taken hostage by those who seek control, because according to people like Tucker Carlson, having a third or fourth gender identity, is eliminating the very essence of their “superficial” manhood. We still have a long way to go, as women in this country. I’m afraid that our fight for freedom has just begun.
1- “Stephanie Coontz: On Women.” YouTube, 4 Jan. 2011, https://youtu.be/gwtb7jz8G4k. Accessed 29 Oct. 2022.
2- Johnson, Allan C., “From The Gender Knot: Patriarchy”
3- “Fast facts” Opinions throughout History: Gender: Roles & Rights
4- "FROM THE COLONIES TO THE U.S.: Women Ruled by Patriarchs (1777)." Opinions throughout History: Gender: Roles & Rights, edited by Grey House Publishing, 1st edition, 2018. Credo Reference,