On Female Emancipation

Note: this is (obviously) not a book review, and to those people who read my blog for book reviews please do not worry: I will continue reviewing books and of course you do not have to read this post. This is a piece of writing about equality, a subject that I am very passionate about. The rest is self explanatory. It is quite a lengthy piece, and for those who prefer there is a link to a spoken word version at the bottom of the page.

I was recently pointed in the direction of Matt Forney’s ‘The Case Against Female Self-Esteem’, and I was pretty disgusted by the opinions aired there, as well as being a little surprised; I wonder if Mr. Forney has skipped the last two hundred years of history? Quite a few of my friends told me not to bother dignifying Mr. Forney with a response, a point of view that I certainly understand. I in no way wish to legitimise Mr. Forney’s views.

However, his writing got me thinking about men and women and gender identity and freedom, and I find that I do want to say my piece in the hope that perhaps someone will identify with my words.

It is only comparatively recently that western women have achieved legal equality, and I say legal equality because being equal on paper and being equal in practice are very different things. For the vast majority of recorded history (several thousand years) women have been oppressed using both subtle and not so subtle means.

We have been treated as property, denied basic rights, denied autonomy over our own bodies, prevented from taking part in government, prevented from holding jobs, owning property, having bank accounts. In many instances we have been taught that our sole value lies in our worth as an ornament, and our bodies have been broken in pursuit of an ideal of beauty. We have been denied intellectual stimulation, and attempts have been made to control every aspect of our sexuality. This list goes on and on, and in many countries the things on it are still the norm. Anyone who looks at this and denies that it is oppression needs to sit down and seriously re-think their worldview.

So overall we’ve had a pretty shit time of it, and the thing about oppression is that it is insidious; it becomes internalised, familiar, comfortable even. As a wise man once said: “The greatest weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.”

Several thousand years of oppression has a way of getting inside everyone’s thoughts. It is not enough to be finally handed a piece of paper that declares us free, though that is a good start; we have to create a freedom of thought in people’s minds so that we are no longer constrained by ideas of what ‘male’ and ‘female’ should be. We need to redefine all our ideas about gender identity, because if we don’t then we will just fall back into our familiar, comfortable notions of what men and women are, and that path leads us only backwards.

We need to learn to celebrate our differences without being separated by them. We need to stop thinking of people as female or male or trans and start thinking of everyone as humans, because as humans we have so much in common.

As humans we love, we hate, we forgive, we are enraged, we fight, we laugh, we cry, we despair, we hope. We feel joy and pain and lust. We are logical and emotive. We believe in things. We have a vast range of potential capabilities from selfless kindness through to absolute sadism. Any system, society, government, religion or person that tells us we can only be these few things because we are female, or these few things because we are male, or these few things because we are both or maybe neither, is inhuman because it is trying to make us less than whole. Unless we are able to engage fully both our intellect and our emotions, we can only be damaged. We can only be partly human.

Changing this is not an easy endeavour. We need to decide if we are strong enough to demand better than what we have had, and if we are prepared to fight for it. If we are willing to try building something new and to keep on building if we fail the first few times. To understand that we will be opposed because change is always frightening.

I want to be part of creating a future where the only requirement for being afforded human rights is that you are alive, where women are more than ornaments and men are more than protectors and no-one will raise an eyebrow if you are neither. I want to be part of creating a future where no-one has expectations of people based on their sex. I want to be part of creating a future where we move beyond our binary concept of gender and accept that humans are fantastic, complicated creatures that cannot be kept in neat categories. I want people to understand that just because someone does something one way, it doesn’t mean that that thing cannot be done in another.

We need to change minds. We need to help people understand that freeing women is not about oppressing men – it is about finding ways to meet as equals and with compassion and respect for each other. It is about opening an honest discussion that concerns moving onward rather than shifting blame.

We need to create a dialogue in which we can express the pain that we are feeling so that all the women out there who are waging war on their bodies and struggling to know how to be, and all the men who feel that they no longer know what their roles are and aren’t sure how to contribute, and all the people who don’t know if they are men or women, can express those thoughts and feelings without fear of ridicule or rejection. And if people are scared by these ideas then that should also be part of the discussion.

I want to be part of creating a future where our biological differences can be openly acknowledged without them having anything to do with status, where the only forms that require you to fill out your sex are medical forms, where discrimination based on sex, gender identity or sexuality are completely alien concepts.

I hope others will join me in this.

   And as a final rejoinder to Mr. Forney, I would like to point out that even if he and others like him did succeed in collectively leading all women back into the kitchen, we would still be in the room where all the sharp implements live. Something for him to mull over.

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