Tag Archives: Gender

Happiness hinges on Gender Roles? That old Chestnut

 

The anti-feminist and self-proclaimed marriage guru, Suzanne Venker wrote a column for Fox News regarding the status of marriage.  She asserts in the title that marriage is not a relationship of equals: “To Be Happy, We Must Admit Women and Men are not ‘Equal.'”

Nor should it be, according to Venker. Thus, one might gather, marriage ought to be an inherently asymmetrical relation…for the sake of “happy.” Venker miserably attempts to avoid that asymmetrical inference with: “Being equal in worth, or value, is not the same as being identical or interchangeable.”

The problem according to the author? Feminism destroys marriage. She writes: “Today, men and women have no idea who’s supposed to do what.”

Like what, pray tell me. Should I announce at the beginning of my next university lecture: “Ladies, I know you are equal, but you are not equal here. I realize you wanted to become an engineer, a philosopher, a historian; however, this confuses things. Your value is of a different sort. This endeavor will ruin your potential for happiness and marital bliss. University is for men since their role is to…um…do anything other than your role.”

And if a female student quips: “But I’m happy here.” Shall I reply: “Shhh, dear.  See a doctor and get a prescription for a tranquilizer. You needn’t fret about a career.”

And if another female student says: “But I want to earn money.”  Shall I reply: “Oh, sweet fragile being, your role is not to earn money.  Ladies marry money.”

Then once they exit, I too must collect my things and say: “I’ve misappropriated my talent by earning a PhD and daring to stand before you fine male students with knowledge to dispense.  I thought I was happy but apparently I would be happier if I acted natural, and I’ll research how to be natural right away.  So, I will go now.  I’m not sure if anyone else is available to teach you at the moment, but that can’t be my concern.  Bye!”

Let me be blunt. This shit (excuse me) thinking needs to stop. It is not tradition. It is not a “natural” condition.

The notion that woman is not man’s equal is the underscoring reason perpetuating abuse, violence, gendercide, the attempt on Malala Yousafzai’s life, “mansplaining,” and the non-violent yet serious issue of less pay for women, to name a few.

Venker enthusiasts might chant: But that’s not what is meant here! Women should be cared for and put on a pedestal!

And, I ask, what happens when they don’t do as they are told?

To claim that marriage is not among equals is to also claim that women are less than men. There is no circumventing that connection. Venker tried as much by stating that women need to appreciate their “role,” but that simply fails to diffuse the essence of the claim.  I suspect the topic of same-sex marriage renders her completely perplexed.

She hearkens back to the mythical time when men were in charge and the dynamics of marriage offered more for women. Women were the winners in that scenario, right? After all they could focus on pleasing their husband by keeping house and cooking instead of the pesky task of earning money or developing talent.

Unless you consider the massive uptick in pharmaceuticals for the “happy” housewives in the 50s.* Or the alcoholism. Or the assumption that women did not work. Are minority women included in this dreamy 1950s picture?

To buoy her position, she paints a dismal picture of the current culture treating women as equals by referencing the Costa Concordia Ship crash (2012) and contrasting it with the fatal sinking of the Titanic. On the Titanic, during a time when women were “rightly” treated as non-equals, the disaster protocol was “women and children first off the ship.” As a result only 103 of the nearly 1,400 passengers who died were women, Venker notes.

However, with the feminist agenda and a pro-equal policy, more chaos ensued on the Costa Concordia.

Aside from being completely absurd, this piece of evidence lacks a strong (or even a minor) causal connection. When the Titanic was sinking there were only about a dozen people privy to that information. In fact, few survivors reported having felt any sort of impact with the iceberg. By direct order, the ship commenced with evacuating slowly and calmly to prevent panic. Because people were not entirely aware their life faced a serious danger, they boarded the life boats without haste, leaving some nearly empty. Surely the “unsinkable” ship couldn’t sink!

In contrast, the Costa Concordia’s passengers were overwrought with panic. “The ship hit rocks, creating a huge gash in the hull and forcing the evacuation” (The Guardian). Of course, that would force a behavior resulting in a by-pass of conventional pleasantries. (Note the devastating Boston Cocoanut Grove fire of 1942.)

Venker’s evidence regarding problems with equality rest on a rather murky foundation and an awkward scare tactic. For example, other causal factors are more likely to explain the difference in evacuation. Because feminism exists, it does not follow that women died on the Costa Concordia as a result. Venker’s ability to thread a causal connection is about as strong as me announcing: “Every time I wash my car it rains the next day.” While that has unfortunately been true, I couldn’t conclude that the act of washing my car caused the rain.

Venker clings to the notion of gender roles and disputes the concept of social construction. Her evidence? “We know little girls love their dolls and boys just want to kick that ball.”

This does not prove a “natural tendency.” Who provides these toys?  What happens when a boy plays with a doll?  When a girl kicks a ball?  Are they encouraged? In fact, her example lends itself to the exact position she wishes to strike down, namely the possibility of learned behavior. What one “likes” or gravitates towards can be attributed to environment and condition. Don’t believe me? Pull out your seventh grade school picture, take a look at your stylish outfit and do, and reminisce on what was “cool” at the time (or rad or groovy). Still think environment has nothing to do with what you are drawn to?

For the record, let’s review what is “natural,” shall we?

Thinking, creativity, and the desire to play (be it music, sports, or logic puzzles). These are aspects of the human condition, and to dismiss, stifle, or infringe one’s expression of these is wrong.

To tell any human being they are less than another human being based on the body into which they were born is wrong.

To tell any human being they are destined to serve another human being based on the body into which they were born is wrong.

 

 

* From ‘Mother’s Little Helper’: The Crisis of Psychoanalysis and the Milton Resolution by Jonathan Metzl. “Emphasis on the Valium craze of the 1970s, however, has caused many scholars to overlook the 1950s as a decade in which key links were forged between ‘mothers’ and psychopharmacological medications….Thanks to psychopharmacology, ‘emotional’ problems could be cured simply by visiting a doctor, obtaining a prescription and taking a pill. Invariably, these problems ranged from a woman’s frigidity, to a bride’s uncertainty, to a wife’s infidelity. The predominance of such conditions suggest how psychopharmaceuticals came of age in a post-war consumer culture intimately concerned with the role of mothers in maintaining individual and communal peace of mind. As a result, the 1950s set precedents connecting women and psychopharmaceuticals that lay the foundation for Mother’s Little Helpers in the decades to come.”


Feminist? But but but!

 

Confused Individual: Come on. Feminist? You?

Me: Yep. Feminist. Me

CI: But you’re not (whispers) a lesbian?

Me: (whispers) Nope.

CI: But you don’t hate men?

Me: Nope.

CI: But you shave your legs.

Me: Yep.

CI: But you clean your home. Confess! I’ve seen you with a Swiffer.

Me: Yep. I have a thing against dust.

CI: But you respect your friends who have chosen to be stay at home moms.

Me: Yep. They’re awesome, loving, and wonderful women who work hard.

CI: But you don’t keep a copy of The Feminine Mystique by your bed to read and highlight every night.

Me: Nope. Actually, I’m partial to detective stories. There are other books on feminism, by the way. Mary Wollstonecraft, John Stuart Mill, Carol Gilligan…

CI: Huh?

Me: Never mind.

CI: But I know you sometimes watch FOX.

Me: Yep. I have a sense of humor.

CI: But you’re not angry all the time.

Me: Nope.

CI: But you wear make-up!

Me: Yep.

CI: But you wear uncomfortable shoes!

Me: Unfortunately.

CI: But you teach Aristotle, and he thought women were underdeveloped men.

Me: Yep. Even Aristotle made mistakes.

CI: But then how can you be a feminist? You obviously don’t share any of the characteristics of Feminists.

Me: Feminism is the advocacy of equality, of treating people as human beings first and foremost, and that one’s potential for flourishing ought not to be stifled by prejudice based on the body into which one was born.

CI: But, when you put it that way…um…well, that makes sense.

Me: Yep.

 

Your misconceptions displease me.

 


Heavy Thoughts: Women’s Issues Are Human Issues

“We are governed not by armies and police but by ideas.”  Mona Caird, 1892.

Catherine Mackinnon, professor of law, wrote a provocative essay “Rape, Genocide, and Women’s Human Rights” examining the nature of what is legally deemed a human rights violation.  In time of war it is well documented that rape becomes a method of terror.  The perpetrators of this systematic terror are not held accountable for this because rape is not classified as a crime against humanity.  Mackinnon points out that if soldiers were to march from village to village and cut off the arms of civilians then that would be a crime against humanity–and rightfully so.  She writes:

“What is done to women is either too specific to women to be seen as human or too generic to human beings to be seen as specific to women.  Atrocities committed against women are either too human to fit the notion of female or too female to fit the notion of human.”

What is the reason for leaving rape out of a legal discourse as a human rights violation?  Is it because the act of cutting off arms is identified as impacting all people whereas the raping of women during wartime as a method for attacking the “enemy” only physically impacts one gender?  How much do women count?  She continues:

“This problem is particularly severe for women’s human rights because women are typically raped not by governments but by what are called individual men.  The government just does nothing about it.  This may be tantamount to being raped by the state, but it is legally seen as ‘private,’ therefore not as a human rights violation….When men sit in rooms, being states, they are largely being men.  They protect each other; they identify with each other; they try not to limit each other in ways they themselves do not want to be limited.  In other words, they do not represent women.”

At the heart of the matter I am wondering if the recent Supreme Court ruling in favor of Hobby Lobby didn’t succumb to some of the same problematic thinking.  I realize the issue is not of the same magnitude as rape during wartime, but I’m not looking to the actualization of the actions; rather, I am questioning the underscoring point of view that may contain a similarity.

The Supreme Court carefully stated that while Hobby Lobby was exempt from providing coverage for four types of birth control due to “belief,” this could not translate into a company opting to withhold blood transfusions based on belief.  What is the difference?  First, let’s examine the essence of the belief.

Those opposing blood transfusions are basing this on the belief that it is a means of consuming another’s body (or one’s own in the case of receiving one’s own blood).  This hinges on an interpretation of the Bible stating that one must not consume another.  That is, people abiding by this interpretation believe the taking of a person’s blood falls into that category. This belief, and I’m not advocating for it, is not something that can be “proven” false, which is primarily what makes it a belief and not a fact.  Yet, it is a serious and deeply held belief, but not serious enough for the Supreme Court to consider as protected.  Why not exactly?  (I’m being rhetorical, please note.)

On the other hand, birth control acting as an abortion is not a belief, even though it is characterized as such in the ruling.  It is, rather, a false claim.  One can prove it is untrue.  Please read this insightful blog post for a thorough understanding by Defeating the Dragons.  Abortion by definition ends a pregnancy, but the contraceptions in question prevent a pregnancy.  That little tidbit is apparently unimportant, as the ruling made the effort to acknowledge that Hobby Lobby’s and thereby the court’s decision was not based on medical facts.

Is there a parallel here between Mackinnon’s concern for how crimes against humanity come to “count” as crimes?  Notice the act of cutting off arms impacts both genders as would the withholding of a blood transfusion.  Men, the ones making the laws, can identify with that.  They “get it.”

The desire to not be pregnant (one of the health issues) only physically impacts women, and it has been decided is not worthy of being protected legally.

But “Belief” should be protected!  Well, then, why not the belief about blood transfusions?  Although, as previously stated there is a stark difference here, for that does qualify as a belief whereas the other, contraceptions as abortions, amounts to a false claim.  Note the quote below that demonstrates what is called a straw-man fallacy; namely, the position is reframed from its original claim and then argued against.

Nonsense with an audience is dangerous.

Nonsense with an audience is dangerous.

In this case, keep in mind that Americans never argued for abortion inducing medications; moreover, the “medication” is misnamed here (as abortion inducing), and its actual functions are not mentioned.  This also mistakes a company’s role with respect to insurance, but that topic can be for another day.

 Click here for more information on the medical reality of contraception.

The quality of an action or law hinges on the quality of the idea initiating said action or law.  For example, if I wave to someone who is far away (the wave being the action), and then the person approaching turns out to be a stranger instead of my friend, I realize my wave is silly because the idea (that I knew the person) supporting it was erroneous .

To put another way, a boat may have the best navigation plan, but I don’t want to be on it if the captain believes the world is flat.  In both instances, the hand wave and a navigation plan cannot hold much weight because the foundational ideas are shaky.  Something of this nature actually happened with the Titanic.  A series of bizarre decisions were made (not enough life boats, going faster, a nearby ship could have responded to the Titanic’s distress signal and saved everyone but decided not to, the look-out was without binoculars), and they teetered on the idea or false belief that the Titanic was unsinkable.  We know how that turned out.

To be clear, I’m not opposed to belief as such or religious practice.  My concern is twofold: issues pertaining specifically to women are not held in the same esteem as issues relating to men, and that we now find it acceptable to create a law based on a false claim, which thereby threatens the value of the law.

 

 


A Simple Claim, A Major Assumption

My ears perked up and I set my coffee mug down when I heard the following claim thrown into a discussion  over the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare):

Young people don’t need insurance.  Barring an accident like skiing or being attacked by a panda, they don’t get sick.

Normally, my coffee and I are inseparable especially in the morning.  This means the comment not only alarmed me intellectually but also got in the way of me enjoying my coffee and that is just annoying.

I don’t wish to indulge in the debate itself; however I would like to bracket this claim.  I’ve heard the comment about three times now and it forces my eyebrows to knit my forehead into premature wrinkling.  Rather than reach for the anti-aging moisturizer I’ve decided to blog.

There is something missing and assumed in the claim.  Do you see it?

In the 1940’s, philosopher Simone de Beauvoir rocked the establishment with her publication The Second Sex.  The central thread to this work evolved around the notion that normal and human were equated with man.  Woman, in contrast, was “other.”  I dare not delve into a lengthy thesis here, but I would be remiss to not mention that her writings delighted me and forged an impression that underscores some of my views.  She is my “Spidey-sense,” if you will: my “Beauvoirian-sense.”

Back to the claim that elicited my Beauvoirian-sense: Who are these “young people” not needing insurance?  Who are the youth involved in dangerous activity that might rush them to hospital?  Close your eyes and try to envision the “young” person of which the naysayers speak?

Do you picture a young man?

Again, my intention is not to debate the pros and cons of Obamacare, but only to examine the implication of this claim, for I believe it thoughtlessly casts aside the realities of women’s health.  The unsaid assumption is that the “young” are men, and it reeks of the very sort of thinking Beauvoir tackled in the 1940’s.  Women are not part of the equation in the claim.  They are “other.”  The “norm” is the young man who never gets sick.

It is quite possible that women’s health, upkeep, exams, and everything that has to do with her “parts” is simply unfamiliar.  Women themselves don’t exactly share stories about doctor visits.  It’s all hush hush.  One doesn’t announce, “I need the afternoon off because I’m going for my pap” quite the same way one freely says “I’m going to the dentist for a cleaning.”

Women do go to the doctor and not necessarily because they are sick.  From the age of 21 to 30, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommend a woman sees a doctor every year for an exam (pap smear and pelvic).  These exams detect the early stages of cervical cancer.

Aside from these exams, do you notice anything else about young women with respect to seeing a doctor?

If women are pregnant then they usually seek medical attention.  If women do not want to get pregnant then they visit a doctor for birth control which requires a prescription and regular examinations.  In addition, birth control is sometimes prescribed for other health reasons such as Polycystic Ovary Syndrome.

Gentlemen, maybe you did not see a doctor in your youth but that cannot be the standard of measurement for all people.  If we view “youth” to include young women, then the answer is a resounding “Yes” to the question of whether or not they see a doctor.

Where are women’s voices in this debate?  The medical community?  The Gynecologists? Please feel free to comment and share below.


Philosophy Profs, What Does Your Syllabus Look Like?

Philosophy.  My love.  My work.  My on-time with coffee.  My off-time with wine.  Sometimes I stop to eat.

Yet, this love of mine is plagued by a reputation of exclusion.  For example, the very existence of the question: Is Feminist Philosophy Philosophy? I find both perplexing and telling.  Allow me to digress with a little tale.

My mother, years ago pre-Gwennie, felt ill and stayed home from work.  On that day she was watching television and perked up when a list of symptoms described an ailment pertaining specifically to women’s health were discussed on a talk show.  That’s what I have, she thought.  According to the show, research discovered something called P.M.S.  Yep, folks.  No joke.

Mom immediately scheduled an appointment to see her doctor. Upon visiting the doctor she relayed what she learned and explained that it fit her illness.  Nonsense, the doctor replied.  There’s no such thing.  He prescribed her tranquilizers and sent her home.  Mom took one dose, but never any more because she said they made her feel even worse.

Today, with the advancement of medicine and knowledge regarding women’s bodies, it is difficult to picture a doctor unfamiliar with something so incredibly basic.  However, women’s issues could not be identified medically if they were not studied in the first place.

And now back to my original puzzlement.  Is philosophy, the pursuit of wisdom, closed in a similar fashion?  Does it neglect new avenues of thought simply because it hasn’t been traditionally thought before, as the case with the doctor?

Ah..hmmm… Feminist Philosophy?

But Feminism should be in Gender Studies, I hear some cry.

Can one imagine telling the Political Philosopher that his/her study doesn’t exist because there is a Political Science Department?  Or, forget Philosophy of Mind and take a walk over to the Psychology Department?

Despite this question of Feminist Philosophy and its proper academic place, for I only use it as an example of exclusion, I believe the majority of philosophers were gobsmacked at Salon’s damning headline Philosophy has a Sexual Harassment Problem and that it is not only the oldest of the humanities but “the malest and whitest.”

As a female student in undergraduate, I sensed this truth, but at the same time I found the literature so completely enthralling that gender hierarchy took a back seat in my mind.  The only glaringly obvious moments were in my Philosophy of Mind course where I was the one woman in class out of about forty students, and graduation day when I was the only woman in the department to walk.  Other than those moments I  happily threw myself into my studies.  Socrates awesome.  Descartes awesome.  Spinoza awesome.  You get the point.

Not until midway into my Master’s Degree did I think to ask “Are there any women philosophers?”  My thesis supervisor handed me the book On Violence by Hannah Arendt.  I dropped everything, read all of her books, and anything about her I could get my hands on.  She became my obsession.  Arendt was not a feminist thinker, but that was not really what I was looking for.  Quite simply, I just wanted to know that there was such a thing as a woman philosopher.

Two years later during the summer holiday I planted myself at a cafe and read the novel All Men Are Mortal by Simone de Beauvoir.  Stop the presses!  I ensconced myself in Beauvoir’s works, existentialism in general, and completely reoriented my Ph.D. dissertation.  Even in the midst of my giddiness over this new found love, I knew that this came about because I sought it, and not because women thinkers appeared on any of my course syllabi.  There I was, approximately 5 years into my study of philosophy and I had never been to a university lecture on a woman philosopher.

photo-29

I’d like to suggest a meaningful way to make philosophy a more inclusive pursuit, namely, professors should examine their syllabi and required course reading material.

How are we, in higher education, presenting philosophy to the next generation?  Are we, through the syllabus, implying to women and minority students, albeit by omission, that the only contributors to theory are white men?  Are philosophers perpetuating the disgraceful status of “malest and whitest”?  Are we challenging ourselves to read and research outside of our academic comfort zone?


Men Against Violence

The term “feminism” can evoke strong reactions.  Its basic premise is the assertion that women are equal human beings.  One of the most unfortunate assumptions is that feminism is strictly a woman’s issue and/or that men cannot be feminists.

This past weekend I attended a conference  on Gender and Violence organized by a student group Men Against Violence.  I am currently on the heels of completing lectures for my Philosophy courses on Wollstonecraft and Aristotle, and I couldn’t help but think of their theories in relation to the conference topic.  One of the speakers at the conference, Dr. Thomas Keith, focused on what he calls “Bro Culture.” This “bro-code” socialization of young men, he explained, encourages behavior that manifests risky, life-threatening ways of being and void of empathy.  Moreover, in the matter of violence against women, young men are numb to the seriousness of the violence in part through the media’s perpetuation of viewing women as objects.  Keith noted comedians who have made rape jokes yet retain their popularity.  Quite rightly, he said “No woman ever finds a rape joke funny.”

photo-23 copy

Another problem, especially with college life, is that when there is violence done to women, the “bro-code” enforces a silence among the young men who are privy to information of a crime.  Part of the problem is that crimes against women are not seen as actual crimes by young men because they have been socialized to think harassment and rape are funny.

How do we address this?  Keith stresses that men must get involved in the education of men.  His angle in the feminism discussion centers around the detriment to young men’s lives when they actively pursue harming and degrading women.  That is, the character traits emphasized for the “Bro” are exaggerated and cartoonish concepts of being a man which leave out essential qualities of what it means to be human such as empathy and nurture.  Violence against women is the horrific result of this “education.”

To drive home his point that violence against women is not simply a woman’s issue he gave an account of an interview with a young male college student.  The student’s sister had been raped at a college party, and because of the trauma she committed suicide.  Keith said he has heard so many versions of this story on college campuses.  “It affects all of us” he said.

Keith encouraged the audience to not participate in sexist culture that marginalizes women.  Media and the like are interested in profits, so do not allow companies that market by using images of women as objects to profit from you.  The role of culture resides in our hands!  It need not be dictated by offensive stereotypes and corporations’ bottom lines.

Another speaker, Dr. Jackson Katz, author of The Macho Paradox, also emphasized gender training as a central factor in violence.  When news breaks of school shootings, for instance, the media poses all sorts of inquiries but leaves out the obvious, namely boys and men are committing these crimes.  Adding to the discussion of rape, he pointed to a shift in language by the media to report cases.  Normally, he explained, a defendant is referred to as the victim; however, in rape cases the term “accuser” is used instead.  He argued this different term highlights a change in the way rape is reported and viewed.  Empathy for the victim wanes with this label and attaches a negative-active perspective to the victim.  She (although the victim can be male) becomes the aggressor and the “suspect” is the victim or the “accused.” This  shift in language does not occur when reporting on other crimes.  One such case, The Steubenville rape case, where boys video taped the rape of a sixteen year old girl, he called an “indictment on our society.”

As I mentioned, I wrapped up my last week of teaching with lectures on Wollstonecraft and Aristotle.  With Wollstonecraft, she articulated the bold (obvious) assertion that women are human beings with souls (A Vindication of the Rights of Women, 1792).  She demonstrated the illogical and immoral position against educating women.  By declaring that women are in fact human beings she insisted that their capacity for reason must be developed (since reason is the defining characteristic of human beings).  To deny education is to deny the development of reason, which in turn prevents the ability to be a moral agent (virtuous).  But, a couple lines in particular from her work scream out to me now in light of this conference:

“I may be accused of arrogance; still I must declare what I firmly believe, that all the writers who have written on the subject of female education and manners from Rousseau to Dr. Gregory, have contributed to render women more artificial, weak characters, than they would otherwise have been; and, consequently, more useless members of society” (my emphasis).

And

“…but it is first necessary to observe, that my objection extends to the whole purport of those books, which tend, in my opinion, to degrade one half of the human species, and render women pleasing at the expense of every solid virtue.”

Wollstonecraft here points out the glaring effect of not only training women to focus on being pleasing, but that this creates a sub-human species that negatively impacts the society in its entirety.  It is astonishing to me that centuries later we are still discussing the very real and dark unfolding of her warning.  Underscoring the lack of understanding among “bro-culture,” to borrow from Keith, is that women are meant to be pleasing.  That is why it is difficult for some (but certainly not all!) young men absorbed in such a socialization to fathom violence as wrong or criminal.

How to live well is overlooked as part and parcel to education.  I’m reminded of this when I teach Aristotle’s The Nicomachaen Ethics, and I thought of it when listening to Keith and Katz at the conference.  Happiness, excellence, flourishing are essential means for enjoying one’s life.  Why is that not the focus for young men?  Why bombard boys and girls with restrictive gender roles?  Aristotle tells us that Happiness is acquired not by chance but by habit, learning, and cultivation.  Why do we spend time enforcing hyper-masculinity especially when such a disposition lends itself to the disturbing statistics of higher suicide rates, death rates, incarceration rates, and fatalities in car accidents of young men?

I appreciate the aims of this conference and the project to unearth gender and feminism as more than a woman’s issue but as something that belongs in dialogue about culture overall.  How does gender training impact men?  In turn, how does that impact women?  Violence against women is clearly a serious harm to women, but it is also an attack on families and society.  Investigating causes of violence involves strengthening women and teaching young men that violence does not demonstrate power but actually reveals a lack of power and excellence.


A Meditation on Women’s Education

She was shot in the head.  Malala Yousafzai, a fourteen year old girl desiring an education in Pakistan’s north-west, was shot in the head.  She survived.  My heart sank as I read “The World This Week” in The Economist.

Last week I presented a lecture on Mary Wollstonecraft’s argument for the education of women.  In her book A Vindication of the Rights of Women, she outlines the reasons blocking equality and dismantles them.  Among the reasons preventing equal education is tradition: “Women are told from their infancy, and taught by the example of their mothers, that a little knowledge of human weakness, justly termed cunning, softness of temper, outward obedience, and a scrupulous attention to a puerile kind of propriety, will obtain for them the protection of man; and should they be beautiful, every thing else is needless, for, at least, twenty years of their lives.”  She argues that this type of “education” fosters a character of weakness and ignorance.  Women are taught to observe effects and to not think about causes.

Another premise undercutting the possibility for equal education stems from the story of Adam and Eve.  She writes: “Probably the prevailing opinion, that woman was created for man, may have taken its rise from Moses’s poetical story; yet, as very few, it is presumed, who have bestowed any serious thought on the subject, ever supposed that Eve as, literally speaking, one of Adam’s ribs, the deduction must be allowed to fall to the ground; or, only be so far admitted as it proves that man, from the remotest antiquity, found it convenient to exert his strength to subjugate his companion, and his invention to shew that she ought to have her neck bent under the yoke, because the whole creation was only created for his convenience or pleasure.” The reason for the assault on Malala, secularism by way of education, echoes Wollstonecraft’s problem with pitting fundamentalism against teaching women.

Championing the notion of Virtue Ethics, Wollstonecraft challenges the notion that, due to physical differences between men and women, women cannot develop reason.  But the soul, home to reason and thought, is by defintion gender-less. Therefore, one could not point to the body as a foundation for hindering the cultivation of reason in women. To be virtuous, one must choose to be so, and such choices garner the promise for excellence.  To deny education, then, is to deny the possibility of virtue.

This theoretical presentation engenders some head nods in the classroom.  Driving home after lecture I hope that the arguments sink in for my students.   “She’s so hard to read,” a few chant.  Sometimes I suspect that the derogatory way in which the term “feminism” has leaked into culture makes teaching this argument an uphill battle.  Wollstonecraft’s work is over a century old, after all.  And to some, what are women fussing about anyway?  Isn’t everything equal? However, given the recent news of Malala we can see that train of thought is terribly impoverished and narrow.

The incredibly disturbing story of Malala’s “crime” reinforced for me the importance of visiting arguments for equality.  I brought the news to the class and read out loud what I had read from The Economist.  The students were stunned.  I delayed the following lecture to allow for discussion, and this time I got more than head nods out of my students.


%d bloggers like this: