Women: the weaker sex.
Ever since I was a child, this phrase rankled me. First of all, are not, I know you are but what am I, I’m rubber and you’re glue, etc. Second of all, why say “weaker” instead of something else, like “gentler” or “peacefuller” or something. Third of all, are not.
Anyway, I’ve been thinking about this a little bit lately, in relation to the whole power in language thing I’ve been talking about. What is “strong”? What is “weak”? Who gets to decide and define these words/concepts? To what advantage? To whose advantage?
Those who like to point out the biological differences between men and women (as if that’s justification for thewidespread social oppression women experience) usually like to point this one out, like it’s a given. Men are stronger than women. Period. Full Stop. Some are a bit more generous and at least point out that men have better upper body strength and women have better lower body strength. But of course, we know what’s valued more highly, even when it’s not said explicitly. Because everything to do with men is valued more highly.
But what is “strong” anyway? It obviously has nothing to do with childbirth (but that wouldn’t be fair to use as a point of comparison, of course, since men can’t do it and we’ll never really know, so they say). And of course there are women out there who are plenty strong, stronger than most men, women who bodybuild and are athletes and things like that. There are women who could kick the ass of just about anyone reading this, male or female. And there are men who are far “weaker” than the “average” woman. But of course, these cases are atypical, so shouldn’t be considered to be counter-examples. We’re talking about the general “truth”, so they say.
Now, regular readers will know that I am obsessed somewhat with social construction theory. So consider this: perhaps women are “weaker” than men because women are socialized to be weaker than men from a very young age. Girls are taught that things like dance and gymnastics are proper ways to express one’s girl-self. Girls are taught that they must keep their movements restricted to avoid opening their legs too far and exposing their private-but-covered-with-underwear va-jay-jays, because girls are dressed quite often in frilly and impractical clothing that they mustn’t ruin. Girls are taught to settle down, don’t be so loud, don’t be so raucous, just sit there quietly, knees together, ankles crossed, hands folded, be demure. Girls are taught that sports are a bit “butchy” and unfeminine. Girls have few female role models to look up to who are professional athletes because not every sport has professional leagues for women or even allow women to participate. Almost all the professional sports teams and leagues are male only, and when women do become wonderful athletes, they don’t get support, they are called derogatory names before a national audience to shame them. Girls are taught not to eat too much, and in families, usually see their fathers and brothers getting larger portions (particularly of meat) than their mothers and sisters. Girls are in a double bind, because they are taught to be concerned about their weight, but also to be restricted in their physical activities, which leaves girls to dieting and eating disorders to keep their weight down – which results in undernourished girls who are, indeed, physically weak.
Then, of course, there’s the whole legacy of ovarian determinism women have to deal with: our wacky hormones make us unpredictable and hysterical and prone to fainting, and our menstrual cycles are controlled by the moon, and what could be crazier than that? Don’t laugh, this was one of the dominant medical discourses that came about around the time of industrialization and caused women to be relegated to the private sphere and not be permitted to participate in public life, after a couple hundred years of agrarian living during which women were pretty heavy labourers and despite the fact that all domestic work fell to women (and we’re not talking about setting up the Roomba and doing some light Swiffer-dusting, we’re talking about carrying huge pots of water for the laundry and scrubbing it by hand, and dragging all the carpets outside to beat them and then dragging them back in again).
So again, what is “strong”? what is “weak”? and how much of it is really biologically driven?
Besides that, if women are really weaker and that is a matter of pure unadulterated biology (although, of course, nothing is unadulterated biology because we always have an interaction of biology and society that transforms the biological through social practice), why should that be a negative thing? Why should (male) strength be more highly valued? Why should it be that “men are strong and women are weak,” instead of “women are not quite as strong”? Why does everything to do with men get higher value, and why does everything have to be “men as a class” compared to “women as a class”?
This is the stuff that drives me: around the bend, as well as to keep on discussing and breaking these false binaries apart. (Sage, how about this as a lesson for your gender and women’s studies class?)