Men and Children First

Can women ever achieve parity with men when deep seated views of their physical weakness still remain? Ealasaid Gilfillan argues that linking 'women and children' together is a symptom of the sort of ingrained attitudes that must be challenged if women are to move forwards.

Ealasaid Gilfillan, 1 February 2007

In Britain, women have made great advances towards equality with men over the last century. Yet it is still the case that women suffer, for example, from a pay gap and from poor representation in powerful jobs. One way to look at this is to say full equality is simply a matter of time and attrition. So over the years with the help of anti-discrimination legislation, women will attain social equality and the pay gap will dwindle away. Another common way to view ongoing inequality is to attribute women's difficulty in catching up to their greater burden of childcare. Only with reform of maternity and paternity leave, and a radically egalitarian childcare system, can women hope for proper equality.

There is a lot to be said for each of these arguments. However, I want to suggest a different possibility: that women cannot achieve complete equality because there are confused, competing ideas of what women actually are. What women are might seem stunningly obvious, but I think it is far from obvious, at least in terms of social categories. Certain fundamental habits of thought stop women being recognised as full citizens.

Two related issues lie at the heart of the question. The first is the extremely problematic way of describing women by lumping them together with children. This 'women and children' tag is thoroughly commonplace in news reports, for example. Reporters generally use it where as civilians, women and children have been sucked into the atrocities of war, perhaps bombed by accident or targeted in cruel reprisals.

fundamental habits of thought stop women being recognised as full citizens

The usage is unevenly applied. It is less likely to be used of a British terrorist incident than of violence abroad, although it has been used in Britain in past wars and would probably appear here again during a prolonged conflict. It is a moot point whether women end up in the same category as children because they are non-combatants doing most of the childcare, or whether women are non-combatants doing most of the childcare because people lump them in the same category as children. So what does the 'women and children tag' actually tell us? How natural it is to place women in the same category as children.

This carries with it a raft of troubling implications. Children are really only half-citizens, dependent and disenfranchised. The term damagingly links women with their status, suggesting that both women and children are vulnerable and in need of special protection; that they are victims rather than perpetrators of violence; and that they have fallen into the social margins, because they are not soldiers, militia, peacekeepers or a member of any group controlling the social agenda.

But women are mentally and physically capable of defending their homes, becoming terrorists or negotiating political settlements at the heart of government. So the phrase 'women and children' might seem perfectly natural, but it is really a distorted social construction which we do not have to accept. Why in fact should it be used at all? Wouldn't the term 'citizens' or 'civilians' be far better for both women and children? At least that implies some participation in a social contract, and includes other, often invisible, groups like the old or ill or conscientious objectors.

women still face resistance in 'physical' roles

A second issue at the heart of how women are perceived also mixes physical and social judgements: whether women can and should take on overtly physical roles. British women have made a lot of progress in that regard, becoming soldiers, police officers, firefighters, going to the gym and playing contact sports. But there is a curious dynamic here. Women still face resistance in being accepted in this sort of role, yet this is not because they have tried and shown that they fail, but because opponents argue that it is a bad idea. Opposition to female soldiers in front line combat roles is the obvious example. It persists even though women make up front line troops in the Canadian, Dutch and Norwegian armies, and although the distinction between support and combat roles must break down in practice: any soldier under fire is on the front line.

There is marked resistance too to women competing alongside men in sport. Again, this is not because there has been a series of embarrassing matches where all the women team members have been trounced, but because opponents argue that for all sorts of reasons, it just will not work. Mixed doubles in tennis make an exception but do not expect to see a professional mixed cricket or rugby match at all soon. There is something disturbing about the way that some men refuse even to attempt such a thing.

Female boxers are rare and often considered 'unnatural', while women who decide that they want to make their body shape more muscular can still face hostility or derision. Perhaps oddest and most telling is the patchy persistence of that antiquated custom where men shake hands with other men but not with the women present. Clearly here the biological argument of women as the weaker sex breaks down completely: there can be no possibility of a woman's hand crumbling in a manly grasp. So some lingering prejudice must be at work, insisting that women are not to be treated physically like men. This means that women are not treated as full social beings either.

Both the 'women and children' tag and the resistance to women in certain physical roles therefore suggest that basic perceptions of physical weakness are bound up with social inequality. These are warning signs that for all the undoubted reforms women have won, there is still a deep-seated resistance to women's parity. On this view, it seems unlikely that the pay gap will ever close completely unless deep, underlying attitudes are addressed and changed.

some lingering prejudice must be at work

One way forward is to keep urging reform on all these physical issues, be it women's right to form front line combat regiments, to play football alongside men, or just to become a bit more muscular at the gym. This is certainly very important, as it is both pragmatic and intrinsically worthwhile. It is only a partial solution, however, for it accepts what seems to be the masculine priority of physical fitness. After all, we could turn the argument on its head and suggest that anyone lacking in social skills or who does not carry out a caring role is not a proper citizen.

Above all, it is morally troubling to accept that full social status must be linked to physical ability. A social contract that excludes people who are very young or old or disabled or frail or who simply do not like sports, is no social contract at all. We must challenge prejudiced ideas on what physical roles women can and should do, while pressing forward with socially constructed rights.

About the author

Ealasaid Gilfillan

Ealasaid Gilfillan likes literature, history, and cooking. www.ealasaidgilfillan.net

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