The word gender has never been more popular.
Yet, many people struggle to understand the concept of gender within the field of social justice. No, gender is not just about women. But yes, understanding the plight of women is essential for anyone looking to understand the concept of gender.
The “What is gender?” article series come as an attempt to demystify gender and all associated jargon for humanereflections.com readers.
In the first article of the “What is gender?” series we explored the concept of Gender Binary and the Social Construction of Gender. In this second article we will explore the theory of the “otherness of women” and patriarchy.
The thought that women are and exist in comparison to men permeates many religious and philosophical writings.
The Bible, in the Genesis, states that the creation of Woman, from one of Man’s bones, was fashioned by the necessity of keeping him company. Aristoteles famously states “For females are weaker & colder in nature, and we must look upon the female character as being a sort of natural deficiency” therefore characterizing women as deformed men. Confucius believed that law of nature established that women should be held under the dominance of men.
In social imagination, women are commonly categorized as being less rational, aggressive, ambitious and intelligent than men. Thus, leading women to be more emotional, docile, dependent and subservient in comparison with men. These gender expectations carry the assumption that women have a higher ethics of care and are therefore better inclined to uphold caretaking roles within family and professional life.
Undoubtedly, comparison is a valuable tool in remarking the particularities of an object or subject. Part of the definition of ‘that’ is actually ‘that in contrast to the other’. But, the qualities that define women must surely be more than the lack of male qualities or the opposite qualities to those of a man. So what are women?
The otherness of women
Beauvoir’s work regarding the theory of the other seems unescapable when proposing to define what are woman. The theory of the other suggests that women are placed in a position of inferiority as they are defined as the otherness that we can extract from the subject men. “He is the Subject, he is the Absolute- she is the Other”.
The theory of the other, also known as the otherness of women translates the sentiment of definition by opposition. Meaning that the concept of women, as women themselves, are only understood when juxtaposed against our understanding of men
Accepting, the notion that a woman is by force of not being man undoubtedly places men in a position of dominance relegating women to a place of submission and obedience.
In fact, the consolidation of gender norms, within most societies, entails the establishment of a power relation of men over women. This power relation is reproduced and maintained by various societal institutions including in marriage.
Some authors such as Stuart Mill, hold controversial and provocative views on the matter of marriage. Mill argues that the power of a man over his wife in marriage is comparable and somehow worse than the relation between a master and its slave. While a slave is only a slave in the hours he is working for his master through the bond of marriage the woman is a slave to her husband at all hours.
Women’s entire past and affiliations, whether geographical, cultural, social, and religious are intimately intertwined with the oppressor with whom she shares the bed at night. Perhaps that is the reason, that unlike other oppressed/oppressor relations women have not rebelled against men. The history of women is intertwined with the history of men.
Beauvoir wrote “Proletariat says WE. Negroes also… But women do not say we except at some congress of feminist or similar demonstration” So why don’t women say WE?
Well, women are not a homogenous group.
Women are not a homogenous group with factors like race, economic class, sexual orientation, cultural and educational background varying greatly amongst each other.
However, all women share the commonality of oppression by men. Likewise, men also do not share a commonality amongst the entire gender, except for the fact they hold a position of dominance upon the women of their cast. Without further commonalities women and men don’t have a “We” beyond the role they play the power dynamics.
Patriarchy and the disenfranchisement of women
As we saw in the previous “What is gender?” article: Gender is performative. However, there are also a variety of processes that are established to maintain the status quo of women’s disenfranchisement.
The patriarchal culture is a direct consequence of the binary gender and women’s otherness. Patriarchism encompasses and defines other phenomena such as the male model of politics and male corporate model. These processes co-exist, inter-shape and solidify each other.
The notion of patriarchy which etymologically emanates from the expression “head of the tribe” denotes the power play that is so characteristic of gender relations. The affirmation of patriarchy entails the vision of women as the nurturers, the sex objects and the help. Men are in the first instance the entity, which must be nurtured, sexually attended and aided in its pursuits.
Patriarchy in family is evident by the disparaging comparison between women and man’s unpaid labour in the household. Women tend to assume the role of primary care giver to infants, and assume most of the domestic labour.
Household labour is often considered to be women’s primary labour, because it is the one that seems immutable to their condition. Women’s second labour, the one they perform in their places of employment, where they are underpaid in contrast to their male comrades, undoubtedly suffers from the dual burden. The vertical move in employment is also further complicated by societal expectation of women as the helpers which may be also one of the reasons why women are so often stuck in secretarial and administrative jobs.
Since societal gender expectations also entail a collective societal imagination women are relegated to the backburner causing the political and corporate fields to be men’s playground.
Traditional social expectations and imagination do not encompass the vision of women leaders; what men do in the political and corporate field herald as good and women’s way of doing as wrong, this situation creates a male model of politics and business and contributes to the marginalization of women.