“Boys and girls are equals,” we tell kids, and then we send them to school to learn about presidents and emperors and generals and religious leaders and explorers and astronauts and civil rights activists and revolutionaries and judges and scientists and inventors and philosophers and composers and painters and sculptors and poets and novelists–almost all of whom were men. Of course kids can’t help but wonder how it is that men achieved so much and women so little. Did women try to accomplish great things as much as men but weren’t smart enough, talented enough, driven enough, strong enough, good enough? Or perhaps women were perfectly content to be wives and mothers because women are meant to raise sons and support husbands who do great, important things instead of doing great, important things themselves?
If we don’t teach kids the truth about our history, those are the type of conclusions they’ll draw. The truth, of course, is that for thousands of years, women were chattel. A girl was her father’s property from birth. When she reached a certain age, she was given or sold to another man in an arrangement called marriage. Her purpose in life was to serve her family (first her father’s, then her husband’s) and bear her husband’s–preferably male–children. She had no choice in the matter, and her owner/husband was socially and legally empowered to beat and rape her if she disobeyed his orders or attempted to resist his sexual advances. Even murder was often permissible, particularly if her husband could argue convincingly that she was an adulteress.
Unlike boys, girls were not raised to be individuals with interests and aspirations of their own. The goals of a woman’s father or husband became her goals. The traits valued in men–intellect, creativity, curiosity, leadership, courage, ambition, self-determination, individuality, independence, and so on–weren’t valued in women. A woman’s life revolved around serving her family–particularly its male members–and her value was in her sexual attractiveness and reproductive capacity. The “good woman” was obedient, nurturing, chaste, and above all, selfless. Women had no access to political power (including voting rights), higher education (go back far enough and most women were deprived of even an elementary education), the marketplace (outside of prostitution and a few low status, low pay positions), or the world of ideas (not only were women considered incapable of all but the most rudimentary logical and analytical reasoning, but depending on the time period, women who dared to challenge the status quo ran the risk of being shunned, killed, or institutionalized and lobotomized). A woman wasn’t able to sign contracts or own property because she was property. A crime against her was literally considered a crime against the man who owned her–her father if she was unmarried or her husband if she was married.
Until fairly recently, THAT–with minor variations for place, time, and social class–was women’s reality for most of recorded history. If a woman was very, very lucky, she had a father or husband who recognized her basic humanity and saw to it that she received an education, encouraged her interests, and nurtured her talents. Some of those women were responsible for amazing accomplishments: scientific breakthroughs, groundbreaking inventions, great art and literature. Yet they were aberrations. Not because most women were small-minded imbeciles who wanted nothing more out of life than to scrub floors, change diapers, and cater to their husband’s every whim, but because the patriarchy ensured that they never had even the remotest opportunity for self-realization or any accomplishment outside the realms of motherhood, physical attractiveness, and domestic service.
Unfortunately most people are blissfully unaware of this history. That becomes readily apparent every time a question such as “Why have all the great fill-in-the-blank throughout history been men?” or “Why have there been virtually no female fill-in-the-blank?” sparks an animated discussion in which all possibilities but the truth–the systematic oppression of women because they are female–are proposed as likely answers. Always popular as an explanation is gender essentialism. Men and women are just different, the argument goes, and most women lack(ed) the skill/intellect/desire/drive/character/strength/etc necessary to be a fill-in-the-blank. The fact that countless women have proven themselves every bit as capable as their male counterparts when given even half a chance (made possible by the women’s liberation movement, a.k.a. feminism) leaves the biological determinists cold. In their eyes, women succeeding in the traditionally masculine arena of fill-in-the-blank are forever aberrations, acting in opposition to their feminine nature.
Some, like well-known misogynist Bill Maher, argue that women can’t possibly be oppressed because they aren’t a minority group. Women are the majority of the population, so how can the male minority oppress them? Others concede that men have oppressed women, but claim that this is the natural and unalterable result of men’s greater physical size and strength.
Both arguments are wrong. It’s true that the most physically powerful man is stronger than the most physically powerful woman. It’s also true that the “average man” (whoever he is) is bigger and stronger than the “average woman.” So what? There are many women who are bigger and stronger than many men. And women could be far stronger than they usually are if it wasn’t for the patriarchal prescription that women’s bodies be as petite as possible. More important, though, is the fact that physical size and strength do not determine societal power, influence, and leadership for men, so why should they for women?
Throughout history, the most powerful men have very rarely been the biggest and strongest. Societies have generally not been led by hulking twenty-year-olds with arms the size of tree trunks. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, for thousands of years, human beings have used weapons that greatly or entirely neutralize an opponent’s size and strength advantage. But most importantly, brains–not brawn–have been key to human survival and success. Even on the battlefield, combatants were expendable and easily replaced, but the loss of a brilliant strategist or tactician could spell disaster.
Women’s oppression is not the “natural” consequence of physical or psychological inferiority but the intended result of the patriarchal system that stripped them of rights and made them the property of the men they were attached to. Once a class of people has been systematically disempowered, they can’t simply break free and assert themselves against the oppressor–not even if they’re physically stronger or intellectually superior or greater in numbers than the oppressor group. Under South Africa’s apartheid regime, black South Africans outnumbered their white oppressors almost 7-to-1, but disenfranchised and stripped of most civil rights, individuals were powerless to fight the system. Those who tried were killed or jailed. It took massive outside pressure, including economic boycotts, to topple the regime.
Even if a woman managed to run away from her family, where would she go? How would she survive? And of course it wasn’t just boys who were taught to believe in male supremacy and dominance. Girls were taught from birth that men were destined to rule and women were destined to serve and have babies. And with men’s invention of the three major patriarchal religions during the last few thousand years, it was no longer just men saying these things; it was now God the Creator (another dude of course) himself who insisted that women submit to their husbands and never be in a position of authority over men.
Fear of offending religious sensibilities probably plays a big role in our failure to teach kids about the history of patriarchy and women’s oppression. There’s also the fact that patriarchy isn’t exactly history. While feminism has succeeded in eliminating most (though not all) of the laws overtly discriminating against women, culture and attitudes are harder to change. For instance, although men in the US lost the legal right to rape their wives almost twenty years ago, marital rape prosecutions remain extremely rare. And while sex-based pay discrimination was outlawed nearly half a century ago, women working full-time still make only 78% of what men make on average. Laws no longer restrict women’s ability to move freely about the community, but the ever-present threat of male violence against women fulfills the same purpose. And while we now tell little girls that they can grow up to be anything they want to be, the message they get from our culture is that women are valued above all else (and often to the exclusion of all else) for their looks and sexuality.
Clearly we still have a long way to go, but we won’t get there if we fail to teach kids the real history of women’s oppression. If kids aren’t told why almost every great leader, explorer, inventor, thinker, and artist they learn about is a man, we can’t be surprised when they grow up to espouse male supremacist and gender essentialist views.