This Article is shared in The Feminist Shop with Permission and it was originally published here
In the story of mankind, woman is presented through an outside perspective. She is the love interest, the dutiful daughter, the caring mother, the doting grandmother, the helpful assistant.
That is why the story of mankind is only the story of mankind. We can't possibly know the story of humankind - and what it means to be fully human - if half the characters are silenced.
The construct of gender
To begin rewriting our story, we must first understand how this one-sided narrative came to be. Gender - the label “man” or “woman” - is a social construct, i.e. completely made up. Though this fact is slowly becoming a part of the mainstream conversation, it remains unknown or misunderstood by many. So let's break it down...
According to the World Health Organisation: gender refers to the characteristics of women, men, girls and boys that are socially constructed. This includes norms, behaviours and roles associated with being a woman, man, girl or boy, as well as relationships with each other.
This is different from sex, which refers to the different biological and physiological characteristics of females, males and intersex people, like chromosomes, hormones and reproductive organs.
Gender interacts with sex, but it's different... it's the made up part. Of course that doesn’t mean it’s not important, or that it doesn’t have a role in society, or that biology has nothing to do with it - but just like money isn’t real but a collective belief and agreement we all share about its value, gender is also socially constructed.
This is why gender varies from society to society and can change over time. In some cultures today, it is expected that men wear what other cultures might label as "skirts" or "dresses". In the past, men wore long wigs and heels (whom they were originally invented for) and the colour pink was seen by some as a "boy colour” (as recently as the 1920s).
The performance of a lifetime
So, humans created this gender binary, put people in two different boxes - one labelled "man", the other "woman" - and characterised each box with certain traits, abilities and expectations. In this way, gender is essentially a performance, each designation comes with its own roles, personality traits, and costumes.
If you step outside your designated box, you are punished. Men who cry are weak, right?
It is not the characteristics or even the roles themselves that are the problem, but rather the expectation and punishment surrounding them. There is nothing innately wrong with a woman loving makeup and heels, wanting to be a stay at home mom, or being nurturing, empathetic and kind. But all 3,904,727,342 women of the world will not be this way.
By their very nature, these boxes prevent everyone from true freedom of expression because a person is only entitled to whats inside one “box”. As Katrine Marçal said in her book, The Mother of Invention, “When genders are defined by their oppositions, no one gains access to the full spectrum of what it means to be human.”
Or as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie puts it in We Should All Be Feminists, “The problem with gender is that it prescribes how we should be rather than recognising how we are. Imagine how much happier we would be, how much freer to be our true individual selves, if we didn’t have the weight of gender expectations."
Not to mention, when one box doesn’t align with the stereotypes of a certain characteristic or profession, it can be detrimental. For example, leadership. To quote Gina Rippon in her book, The Gendered Brain, “If women demonstrate dominant, directive, competitive behaviours appropriate to being a leader, then they violate expectations as to how a woman should behave. If they demonstrate the nurturing, warmth, supportiveness stereotypically associated with being woman, then they are seen as incompetent leaders.”
Is it then a coincidence that, as of September 2021, just 10 countries have a woman Head of State and only 25% of all national parliamentarians are women?
To top it off, humans created this division, split everyone up, and then went on to exclude one half from fully participating in the creation and running of our world.
Up until this point in history, men have been the "box" tasked with shaping our nations, our governments, our laws, our banks, our religious orders, our healthcare systems, and our educational institutions. They have controlled the media, the arts, and language itself. They designed the streets, transportation, and buildings of our cities. And of course, they are also the ones who have been writing our history… our story.
Man even represents all of us grammatically!
What is the point of making up these labels only to call us all one of them?? Also... it matters.
But women have made progress!
Women have absolutely made progress, especially in the last century, for example:
more women than ever before are getting an education, participating in the workforce and holding leadership positions that were unavailable to them just a few decades ago
we are bringing women back from the dead who made revolutionary contributions to our world but were either relegated to the footnotes or forgotten about entirely after a man made the same contribution
in part thanks to technology, innumerable and diverse sets of people are creating organisations, speaking out and writing about the unequal world we still find ourselves living in, with concrete ways to continue the progress
But that progress is drastically unequal among different populations of people.
And no matter where we are today, in terms of equality, this history of “man” making decisions and writing the story for all of us – and “woman” being an afterthought, if thought about at all – has had ripple effects down into every aspect of our world. Effects that are so deeply embedded we can’t even see them because they are “just the way it is”.
So, yes, compared to past centuries, we have made progress. But progress is just that – a forward movement. It is not the end. Women have been making progress for thousands of years, which means we are now further along than we have ever been simply because its present day.
(Some) laws have changed, but culture is lagging and the residual damage runs deep. To make real, lasting change, we need to address the root cause, understand the missing perspective and write a new story.
It’s not a zero sum game
The idea that women’s rights are gained at the expense of men’s is not just inaccurate, but diametrically opposed to reality. Just because one side progresses, does not mean the other regresses. Quite the opposite - when one “side” is held back, we all are held back.
Gender equality is not about shaming men, getting rid of them or relegating their story to the footnotes to make space for woman’s. It’s about adding the story of woman to our current narrative in order to free everyone from their suffocating gender box.
Women are not a niche part of the population, they are half of it, which means gender equality isn’t only a fundamental human right, it’s also a necessary foundation for a more prosperous, peaceful and sustainable world.
The only way men and society can progress to the full potential, is if women can.
The double ripple
Woman doesn’t have only one story, she comes in all different colours, religions, classes, abilities, sexual identities and so forth.
And just as man is the dominant gender - white, straight, able-bodied people are the dominant “boxes” within their respective groups. For each one, there are deeply embedded consequences that can be traced back centuries, if not millennia. More ripple effects caused by the same factor: exclusion.
This means that there are multiple layers of discrimination for people who are “members” of more than one of the non-dominant groups. Though the experience of each person will vary, the current system (or world) is constructed so that bias is layered on top of bias.
So while arguments about who is more oppressed are harmful (they leave the oppressed fighting with each other instead of the system and those who hold power), it’s crucial for everyone to acknowledge their own position in the social order.
The story of white “woman” is very different than that of Black, Indigenous, or women of colour. The story of straight, cisgender “woman” is very different than that of LGBTQI+ people. And so on.
Without acknowledgement of this, the ripple effects - for all groups - are perpetuated.
Humans are complex, and so is our hierarchy.
Time to build a new stage
To build on that performance analogy - if being a man or a woman is an act, we know that each role is as equally important to society, and that the show cannot go one without both parts. But as noted, the stage we are on has been imagined, created and defined by men. They have written and directed the show; they have assigned themselves the most meaningful, and heroic parts, all while giving women the supporting roles.
But just giving women equal parts will not make them equal, so long as the script, the props, the stage and direction are still held by men. The basic inequality between us lies within the framework, which is why we need to rebuild the framework… and we need to rewrite the story.
The good news, this is already being done, albeit very slowly. Because just as there are centuries-long ripple effects from woman’s exclusion, there are ripple effects forged by all those that have historically fought for her inclusion in our world. Every time a law was passed, every time a protest was held, and even every time a feminist conversation was had or book was read, progress was made.
We are now just down the stream, making our own waves to improve the lives of future generations. Every person has the power to drive change, and no action is too small. Even pebbles cause motion, and every little ripple matters.
Thanks for being here and holding space for woman’s story!