By Dr. A.C. Beyer
Why there has never been a revolution of women? Why have women, as a group of people who are habitually oppressed, never as a collective rebelled against their oppressors? This remains a mystery to me. It cannot all be explained by ideology and culture and norms, which restrict us. Because these same norms have been applied to other oppressed peoples, such as Afro-Americans and others. Maybe there is a certain kind of disability in women, something that makes us less apt to rebel. Or, the rebellion lies in the future. Or, the ties that bind us to the other half are just too strong. Or, we are not as oppressed to justify this kind of outrage. I am not sure which is the answer. I tend to believe in the less optimistic explanations, that there is something that ties us too strongly, something that just cannot be overcome.
But I am aware of other explanations, such as Jim Sidanius explanation in Social Dominance, where he describes that women in their totality show less social dominance orientation than men. What he leaves out, though, is the question why that is. He seems to leave it to biology. This is a short explanation that is not sufficient for me. I don’t subscribe to the explanation that women are less socially dominant as orientated by nature, or in other ways inferior. I see it as an outcome of nuture not nature, of culture and education and societal norms.
Women, from birth onwards, are trained to be submissive and caring and less violent then men. In all respects, society teaches us these values and punishes their violation. This won’t go without having effects on our behavior and thinking and personality in later life. It starts with the choice of toys and colors for infants. It goes on with literature for young girls and the games we are supposes to play, as well as education in school. It gets even more intense when girls become teenagers, when they are bombarded with cultural images on what it means to be a woman. It only lessens a bit when the child-bearing age is over. Women are pressed by society, from family to workplace and school, to the wider public, into feminine roles. But many women don’t feel comfortable in these roles.
What is particularly interesting is the emerging public presence of the gay and lesbian, as well as transgender community (LGBT). These communities openly challenge not only sexual but also gender roles. Women can be men, men can be women. And they openly show that our gender stereotypes do not fit all individuals. Stories of women wanting to be men (and becoming men often enough) are inspiring. Sexual identification and desire is only part of the picture. In addition, gender identification plays a strong role. Not all women feel comfortable in taking on the roles and playing to the stereotypes that are assigned to them by society. Values such as aggression, ambition and other traditionally male characteristics are experienced by many women, who feel punished for living what they feel is their nature. Society inhibits the exhibition of this part of their nature, while the other gender is encouraged, sometimes even against their experienced personal inclinations, to express them strongly. Gender stereotypes do not serve all people.
It is difficult to see alternatives. It is difficult to imagine a different society in the first place. For this, we need original thinkers, both men and women, who provide the capacity to imagine alterative futures. Science fiction very often serves as a guidepost to some imagined, desirable or to be avoided path into what is to come. It would be valuable if we would have more science fiction authors in particular from the feminist and transgender communities who write about alternate futures for both men and women and dream about other gender systems, with more freedoms and power for women and men alike. Marge Piercy’s Woman at the Edge of Time is one such example. A couple of others exist in the literature. I hope, that with an increasing popularity of the LGBT movement, more of this literature will develop and inspire us to seek out alternatives.
As the recent Nobel Prize in Peace and other developments have shown, our societies still show the way for many other societies in terms of gender equality and societal norms. Malala Yousafzai’s success is an example that freedom from traditional gender roles is a desire that is shared by many women, not only in the West. It is an integral part of development. But we should not be complacent. In our Western cultures, much is still to be achieved and much left to be desired. This applies not only to the gender pay gap in the workplace, it relates to many other areas too in which women are still disadvantaged and discriminated against.
I applaud the Nobel for Malala. It shows that maybe some sort of women’s revolution is underway after all, even if much less radical than the historical revolutions in history. Maybe we will make further progress with steps such as a female US President, and more women in power positions, as well all sorts of more empowerment for women in areas of their daily lives. Maybe when more powers and freedoms will be achieved, women will increasingly start to think differently and feel more comfortable in taking and using their freedoms and powers. And maybe sometime in the future we won’t need fixed gender stereotypes anymore and people can chose not only their professions, but also their way of life and their personality more freely.
Dr. AC Beyer is Senior Lecturer at the University of Hull. Her main publications include: Inequality and Violence (2014 Ashgate) and Violent Globalisms (2010 Ashgate). More information at www.corneliabeyer.net.