Are Women Human?

Feminism is having a moment. It’s a year since Beyoncé performed her song Flawless in front of the word “FEMINIST” inscribed on a colossal screen; domestic violence survivor and campaigner Rosie Batty is Australian of the Year; and feminist comedian Amy Schumer’s stereotype-busting movie Trainwreck has sparked an international conversation. Whilst we can debate the feminist merits of, or “progress” indicated by, each of these, I think we can agree there is a growing international conversation about women’s issues.

As feminism gains visibility and ground, both politically and culturally, questions inevitably arise around strategy and progress. Great, so feminism is getting airtime; how do we translate this momentum into material gains? Although there exist many ethical and ideological dimensions to this question, often debates revolve around two principal approaches: pragmatism versus revolution.

The pragmatic approach is strategic — the first step towards effecting change is to engage people in the conversation. If you can’t get people through the door, how can you hope to change their minds? If you can’t demonstrate, particularly to men, that they have a stake in improving gender equality, how can you hope to include them in bringing about change? If this involves compromise, taking a gentle approach, or appealing to individuals’ self-interest, so be it.

Alternatively, the revolutionary approach sees compromise as problematic, potentially reifying harmful categories and serving to prop up the status quo. In effect, this approach urges nothing less than a complete restructuring of the institutions, practices, relationships, and beliefs that underpin women’s inequality, arguing that without tackling problems at their origins, progress will be patchy, short-term or even illusionary. Arguably, both camps make valid points.

A key obstacle to ending gender oppression can be identified as men’s perceptions of, and relationships with, women. Misogyny and sexism, which underlie all forms of women’s inequality, ultimately boil down to questions of conscious or unconscious beliefs about women, their worth and status. In recent weeks I have been reminded, by both current affairs/popular culture and through anecdotal evidence, of how central the issue of men’s belief in their right to women’s bodies is to questions of women’s safety and equality.

Recently, a friend of mine experienced the expression of men’s assumed right to women’s bodies in a very personal way. Stretching after a workout at the gym, she became aware of a man visually appraising her body. Feeling uncomfortable, she tried to ignore him and complete her stretches efficiently in order to exit the situation. However, she was unable to do so before he began to verbally abuse her and make obscene gestures, commenting on her body and telling her that she was “too fat” to workout at the gym. A quick glance at online movements such as The Everyday Sexism Project and Hollaback! suggest this sort of harassment is not uncommon.

In the same week, another friend told me of her childhood experience of sexual abuse perpetrated by her father. Another expression of a man who exercised what he saw as his right to use his daughter’s body for his own sexual gratification, regardless of her consent, her vulnerability, and the damage he was inflicting. This is not the first time a friend has told me of childhood sexual abuse by a male family member. Given that research suggests one in five girls under 18 experience sexual violence, perhaps these confessions are unsurprising. The notorious underreporting of sexual violence and family violence in particular further suggests that these rates may underestimate the problem. Hearing about my friend’s experience came in the same month as reports emerged of an Australian man who, along with seven co-accused, allegedly sexually enslaved, abused and made child pornography of his 13-year-old daughter over a two-year period. Another reminder of men who thought they had the right to sexual access to a girl’s body.

This confluence of events reinforced, for me, the feminist argument that this perceived male right to women’s bodies — to use them for sex, to judge and appraise them — lies at the heart of many issues of misogyny and violence that affect women. The underlying thought processes that connect these incidents of harassment and assault seem to revolve around a sense of ownership or entitlement.

Hence my mixed reaction a couple of weeks ago when Cosmopolitan released a video of men watching footage of their girlfriends being harassed. The two-minute clip is set up as a way to open men’s eyes to the routine harassment women experience by showing them its impact on women they love. This is a typical tool of the pragmatic approach outlined above; help men to understand their stake in feminist issues by making it personal.

Catcalling CosmoYet arguably, the video revolves around similar problematic concepts of masculinity, femininity and men’s ownership of women that are root causes of violence against women. Towards the end of the video, one man turns to his girlfriend saying “you’re somebody’s daughter… somebody’s sister… I’m sure if somebody did that to … their mother or their cousin, they wouldn’t appreciate it”. Here, women are defined by their relationships to men and men are exercised to act by igniting stereotypes of masculine protection.

In 2006, feminist lawyer Catharine MacKinnon published a collection of essays entitled Are Women Human? in which she asserts that, internationally, women are treated as “things” rather than people. She argues it is this dehumanization of women, their treatment as objects, which underpins various forms of oppression from domestic violence to trafficking to rape in war.

Cosmopolitan’s video, though well-intentioned and potentially effective, prompts me to ask the very same question: Are women human, when the only way to incite men to treat them humanely is to define them as mothers and lovers — as an adjunct to men? Are women human, when one of the strongest tools for asserting their humanity is presenting them as objects that belong to a man — somebody’s daughter, somebody’s sister? Are the victims of the sexual harassment and violence detailed above best served by a rhetoric that is arguably underpinned, in part, by the same patriarchal concepts of ownership and entitlement that perpetuate the problem? Should we strive for a revolutionary feminist politics based on women’s worth as human beings, or is it enough to get men through the door by appealing to their sense of masculine protectiveness; do the material gains justify the approach? Moreover, when we know that women are most likely to experience violence from a former or current partner in their own home, does appealing to men’s love and respect for women who are close to them even work?

It is for reasons like these that pragmatic feminist campaigns sometimes sit uncomfortably with me. Campaigns, for example, based on the concept of “real men,” such as the Real Man campaign against domestic violence by Women’s Aid in the UK, or the Real Men Don’t Buy Girls viral celebrity campaign against trafficking (read a useful critique here). The concept of the “real man” is exclusionary, antiquated, and draws on heteropatriarchal concepts of masculinity, including those of men as protectors and chaperones. Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s June speech on domestic violence draws together these problematic threads of the pragmatic approach to feminism. Asserting that “real men don’t” commit violence against women, Abbott positioned himself as “a husband, as the brother of three sisters and father of three daughters,” citing this as the reason he views violence against women and children as “abhorrent.”

Ultimately, a woman shouldn’t have to be a man’s wife, sister, or daughter to make him realize that she deserves to be free from violence and that she is worthy of respect as a human being. Men should be encouraged to fight women’s oppression not because that is what “real men” do, or because they may have some personal stake in greater equality between the sexes, but because women are human. Yet revolution is notoriously difficult, and radical social change both rare and often glacial in its progress. Perhaps, for now, we should be content with bringing men into the feminist conversation, however that is achieved. But if we adopt this approach we also need ask, where to next?

Kate Farhall Kate Farhall is a PhD candidate in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Melbourne. Her current PhD research investigates the changing representation of sex, relationships, and same-sex attraction in women’s magazines. Kate is a contributor to Freedom Fallacy.

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  • Lucia Lolita


    • polina


      Sorry if I come across as nitpicking but it’s a female version of the word and it is curiously rarely used.

      • Lucia Lolita

        Being Italian, I agree with you and am properly chastised. 🙂 Brava.

  • rips into labels

    I have not ‘read’ the attempt to remind men of their sisters, wives and mothers in quite the same way you have. I have read it as an attempt to remind men of women whom they know as human. Men know their sisters, for example, as human. I agree that any attempt to put men in “protective mode” will backfire, as people tend to think they own what they protect, and also do tend to want gratitude from those they protect. Women don’t gain from male protection, which comes with so many strings attached.

    • Marion Wallace

      that’s the point. women’s intrinsic humanity doesn’t occur to men unless framed in the context of a SPECIFIC woman who they do care about.

  • I can’t stand the “real men” idea or the idea that women are valuable, because of their relationships to men, but I don’t think rejecting such rhetoric is particularly revolutionary or even radical. Any liberal can argue against such rhetoric and then go to promote pornography, sadomasochism, extreme beauty practices and the like. At best, rhetoric is a symptom of whether someone is radical or liberal. While liberals do tend to use more wimpy compromising rhetoric (when trying to appeal to reactionaries, other leftists and feminist receive no such mercy), we should not be fooled by empty talk of revolution, but instead try to figure out what people actually believe. In my view, revolutionaries are those who favour the overthrow of the current ruling class and radicals are those who favour abolishing completely oppressive social systems, such as capitalism and gender. I will not settle for anything less. Even if someone’s language conforms perfectly to the unstated rules of radical rhetoric.

  • therealcie

    I agree 100% with your closing paragraph. Should women be treated with basic human dignity, regardless of our relationship to anyone else? Absolutely. However, some people still need it spelled out for them in terms that they can understand: what if someone you cared about was being treated poorly, i.e. being sexually harassed. If this approach makes a few people who didn’t get it see the light, I’m all for it.

    • LuckPushedMeFirst

      I’ve seen this phenomenon at work in both sexes, tbh. Conservative parents learning they have a gay child and gradually becoming supporters of gay rights. Racists getting to know members of an ethnic minority and letting go of their preconceptions and hatred. Upper middle class Republicans learning that a family in their church/community, that they have a personal relationship with, is struggling financially and seeing up close how difficult life really is for the vast majority of Americans.

      Humanizing a concept, forcing an emotional connection, oftentimes does help people better understand social injustices. It helps them cultivate compassion and empathy for the marginalized. That’s never a bad thing. All roads lead to Rome, as they say.

      • Marion Wallace

        are those who don’t intrinsically have compassion for other human beings ever going to be on board with overthrowing power? Or will they be the kind of male “ally” who hangs out on fun fem Facebook pages, accruing women’s likes for declaring that they “used to be” anti-feminist, with the obligatory dis of radical feminists, who they make it clear they would never join with, and would disavow feminism altogether if we made up the mainstream movement?

    • Marion Wallace

      I don’t think people are going to “see the light” when women’s intrinsic humanity doesn’t occur to them unless explicitly framed in terms of a specific woman they do care about.

  • ihaveacat

    This is so spot on in so many ways. Men think they get to define everything–after all, in the Bible Adam named all the animals, didn’t he? When women try to name something–rape, abuse, harassment, sexism, infantilization, or just plain inconsideration, they are often contradicted, undermined, invalidated, but mostly just not believed. It’s insanity inducing to be unable to define your reality and not have it be supported.

  • northernTNT

    I don’t understand why women have not given up on “changing males” they aren’t going to change, the system favours their ways. I think we need to stop being polite, moderate, nice, and fight back, physically, verbally, and boycott reproduction. Males will not change til we hit them in the nuts.

    • polina

      That means, males will change if we change the system? Or will they always be hopeless?

      I think that the separatist strategy is not so bad. Women uniting and connecting in groups without men could change society. Female solidarity could influence the power structure without trying to bribe men with politeness.

  • LuckPushedMeFirst

    I like that you’ve categorized the two major ideologies in feminism today as “pragmatic” and “revolutionary”. I think it’s about time we get away from pejorative labels like “sex positive” and “fun fems”. Liberal and Radical work just fine, but Pragmatic and Revolutionary are more descriptive of the movements’ actual aims.

    My heart is on board with revolutionary feminism, but my head wonders if pragmatic isn’t a necessary first step for most people. What would happen if every self-described feminist embraced the revolutionary mindset? I think it would cause a catastrophic rift between feminists and male allies, fuel the MRA movement and you know the antifeminist propaganda would increase exponentially. Men, still being the wielders of institutional power, would double-down, sexism would be weaponized against the feminist uprising. I can’t imagine it would turn out well for women.

    Maybe where we’re at right now, culturally, is where we need to be. Pragmatic feminists wooing men with their soft feminism and revolutionaries lurking in the shadows, wooing the pragmatists who are ready to evolve, stoically building their case and reminding the rest of society that, like it or not, we still have a long way left to go.

    Can pragmatic and revolutionary feminism coexist harmoniously? That is the question. I think the Nordic model is a perfect example of the two blending seamlessly- pro-sex worker and anti-pimp/john- but good luck convincing the less revolutionary minded of that!

    • Marion Wallace

      If males aren’t on board with overthrowing the male power structure, how are they “allies”?

      Contrary to your assertions, the MRA movement has exploded in recent years after half a century of do-nothing choosy-choice feminism. While women’s liberation obviously invites a patriarchal backlash, it is not true that cowering prevents it.

      Women are losing rights left and right, I don’t understand how you can assess our current situation as “where we need to be”. It’s 2015 and BIRTH CONTROL is controversial.

      • LuckPushedMeFirst

        MRA groups first formed as a response to second wave feminism, so they’ve been congregating and bitterly plotting the downfall of “the matriarchy” for half a century. The internet has given them more and greater opportunities to strategically attack feminist gathering places and high profile feminists is all.

        Birth control is only controversial among extreme religious conservatives and the anti-BC battle is waged exclusively by religious conservatives. That there’s a conspicuous overlap between religion and misogyny is no secret. These issues are more a by-product of Fundamental Christianity infiltrating government than a targeted attack on women. (Yes, it is technically an attack on women, but only because these beliefs are upheld by small group of religious zealots with disproportionate political control.)

        Not to mention, the health insurance cartel uses the pro-corporate Right as a shield against the big bad socialists that want them to fork over cash for gyno issues. (Not saying the Left isn’t pro-corporate as well, just not to the same extent.)

        And maybe I’m wrong and a feminist revolution would kick things into high gear. Sadly, I think the US is far too bass ackwards socially and politically for that to occur at any point in the near future. The spin is something of a psychological balm.

  • Helen Pringle

    Great article, Kate, thank you for posting.