Man endures pain as an undeserved punishment; woman accepts it as a natural heritage. – Anonymous
The history of women is that of a romance and horror: albeit highly coveted and upheld as the bearer of life and all that is gentle and kind, her history is comprised of systematic oppression, degradation and continuous abuse on both a micro and macro level. The history of woman cannot be told without accounting for centuries of pain and suffrage at the hands of her male counterpart who assumed the role of superior.
In order to understand how, despite significant strides, women’s equality has yet to be achieved, one must understand the constructs that have cemented the divide between men and women, the systems that have placed men above women. In this body of work I set out to explore primitive concepts of male/female relationships in order to shed light on how such concepts have survived within society, despite being archaic, and how it has impeded the feminist goal of equality.
I will call upon Frederich Nietzsche’s On Truth and Lies in Nonmoral Sense to make sense of how men perceive women. In his essay, Nietzsche says that the way people sustain and protect their perceptions is all based on the truth and lies that language creates. According to Nietzsche, truths are subjective to the point of view of the people who have power. Keeping this in mind, I will explore how, historically, those who have power have laid out the rules that till this day perpetuate the idea of how women ought to act and be.
More specifically, I will focus on who are the historians and that have documented the development of mankind and hold them accountable for the ongoing mistreatment of women.
I will also call upon Michel Foucault’s Nietzsche, Genealogy, History to show how the practice of genealogy can help expose the historical restraints imposed on women. Genealogy can shed light on what Sylvia Wynter refers to as the “overrepresentation of Man” in her essay Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, After Man, Its Overrepresentation – An Argument Pt. 1. The first step towards male/female equality begins with recognizing the trickling effect of the overrepresentation of man. By calling for the redescription of human, Wynter points out how the Western man has created a sense of self by creating the notion of “other.” It is in juxtaposition to the other that power dynamics are created; more specifically, man is powerful at the expense of others. It is my aim to show that if gender roles were to be deconstructed, equality could be achieved.
I. What it Means to be a Woman.
Contrary to the current divide between men and women, it is believed that early human societies were founded on egalitarian principles. According to an article written by Hannah Devlin titled Early Men and Women Were Equal, early hunter-gatherer human societies that were based on the principle of equality demonstrated that it was possible for beings of an opposite sex to work alongside as equals. Although oftentimes early human societies were patriarchal, those that employed egalitarian principles were far more successful at surviving.
Devlin notes that study of early Philippine tribes revealed that “women [were] involved in hunting and honey collecting” and that “men [were] active in childcare.” If sex equality worked in early hunter-gatherer human tribes one cannot help but wonder what warranted the divide of the sexes. At some point between the shift of hunter-gatherer human tribes into civil society the notion of male/female differences became prevalent.
Perhaps the division of labor led to the sexes taking on natural roles. Perhaps because women are the bearers of life they were deemed fit to play the role of nurturers. Perhaps because of physical build the men assumed the role of protector and provider. At some point in human history, each sex was assigned particular strengths, weaknesses and responsibilities. The divide, for the most part, can be attributed to conceptions of gender and gender roles.
Western societies utilized ancient religious texts to create order in a world without form. Besides obvious physiological differences, religious texts established a “natural” hierarchy for men and women. King James version of Genesis positions man superior to woman – a hierarchy that dominates male/female structures till this day. In Genesis, the glorious creation of man is explained as follows: “And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion… over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.” Genesis established that above all things on earth was man. That translated into man being above women, animals, natural life, etc.
The Western world, for the most part, adapted many principles from the Bible, especially the conception of women being subservient to men. In her work, Joan Scott suggested that “gender not only illuminates meanings around masculinity/femininity, sexuality, and the differences between the sexes but signifies “relationships of power” (Scott 67). The identity of woman was created to supplement man, which is why to be woman is to be nurturing and sensitive to the needs of man. On the other hand, male identity is based on being dominant of his surroundings and ambitious. Masculinity and femininity, in the Western sense, are based on traits that are opposite of one another yet upholds one gender above the other. With this in mind, it is important to note that human history is one that reiterates the tale of male greatness and female obedience/subjugation.
The egalitarian principles that the hunter-gatherer human tribes once employed were out of the question in terms of structure. Rather instead rose the patriarchy, an order in which men hold power and the women are excluded from it. Within the patriarchy there are constant reminders of how great men are and how women ought to subject themselves to men therefore it is no surprise that gender roles have been accepted as truths.
In his essay, Nietzsche touches upon the idea that when an image, thought, or idea is constantly being repeated, it will be accepted by mankind as the truth or reality. He says that “when the same image has been generated millions of times and has been handed down for many generations and finally appears on the same occasion every time for mankind… it acquires at last the same meaning for men” (Nietzsche 457). It was his understandind that when an image undergoes repetition, it eventually becomes an image recognizable by all. An example of this is the significance of what it means to be a woman in Western culture. Women were constantly reminded of their subservient position to men by the limitations imposed upon them by society; limited to no access to education, free speech, public spaces, etc. History plays a major role in the significance of this generated image of woman. Because history tends to repeat itself, one acquires a personal significance to images that have become redundant in one’s culture.
The image of the subjugated woman is one that has been perpetuated since the beginning of mankind. It had become a “truth” that women were less than men. Rather, this truth is simply the expressed point of view of the men who have the power to enforce their point of view. In order to achieve equality for both sexes, however, one must deconstruct the truths that have been established by generations of empowered men since for generations women have been left out of the process of historical input. All that is known of mankind is based on the male perspective. History, being the recounting of events as told by man, is one that must be revised and edited to include the narratives of women.
II. His Story
Men, with an inflated sense of self-importance, took upon themselves the role of historian. Much of what we know about the world has been documented, recorded and retold by the Western man. With men being in charge of history, and history being our point of reference and guide as to how life was and how life ought to be, it is important to point out and rectify discrepancies, especially the ones that concern the humanity of women.
It is important to note that the Western man was able to retell and enforce his version of truth through colonization. Through the processes of colonization, Western ideas and structures were imposed on groups that did not view the world through the same male-dominated lens. In his essay, Nietzsche discusses the metamorphic change truths undergo before they reach a person’s mind. He says, “truths are illusions which we have forgotten are illusions; they are metaphors that have become worn out and have been drained of sensuous force, coins which have lost their embossing and are now considered as metal and no longer as coins” (Nietzsche 455). By this logic, a mistold truth can go from being an illusion to being a reality which consequently becomes a truth different from it’s original state of being. In terms of history, differentiating between the truth and lies is a necessary task. More specifically, we must understand the truths that were utilized to construct human social relationships.
The legacy of Western colonization has been racialized and gendered social control. White male settlers enforced their own social order upon the populated lands they conquered. Assuming power and control, white male colonizers defined what it meant to be human, who could be human, and created different genres of humanity. In her work, Wynter describes how race, as a construct, became instrumental in the subjugation of people of color:
Race… was this construct that would enable the now globally expanding West to replace the earlier mortal/immortal. natural/supernatural, human/the ancestors, the gods/God distinction as the one on whose basis all human groups had millennially ‘grounded” their descriptive statement/prescriptive statements of what it is to be human, and to reground its secularizing own on a newly projected human/subhuman distinction (Wynter 264).
Below white males were white women, men of color and, at the very bottom, women of color. The treatment of white women and black women, albeit both oppressed, differed greatly, however, since black women were viewed as subhuman.
Within the plantation system, white women were upheld at the expense of black women. White women gained humanity and status closer to white men as black women were introduced into the mix. In A Historical Study of Women in Jamaica, Lucille Mathurin Mair explores the impact the arrival of black women had on the established Jamaican plantation society. Prior to black presence, the white women in Jamaica played out both positive and negative female stereotypes on the island, especially in juxtaposition to the white male counterparts. White women began experiencing economic prosperity by receiving land grants and marrying pioneer domestic farmers, ultimately shedding their vices. According to Mair, the “discarded vices of the white woman, like her other hand-me-downs, had fallen to the lot of the black woman” (Mair 40). Black women were central to redefining white female identities. The arrival of the black woman allowed white women to hand down their vices and thus prosper on top of the plight of black women. As white women became more peripheral to the economy, now considered respectable and domestic on the island, they became “peripheral to society’s consciousness” (Mair 38). White women were perceived as “pure” and chaste, completely incapable of doing wrong, and thus worthy of all white male respect. On the other hand, black women’s identity further deteriorated; their sexuality became a point of interest for white males. Rape and sexual abuse became the norm in white male and black female interactions.
III. Deconstructing and Rebuilding the Woman
At the root of the negative perception of women, especially women of color, is the Western white man.
Colonizers set the stage for women’s identities. As white women were able to prove their humanity and worthiness, the identity of women of color was reduced to what she was good for rather than who she was: domestic laborer, reproducer, sex object. Unfortunately, these are stigmas that have been attached to women of color to present day.
Despite outdated, the modes of thinking of colonizers are ingrained in present society. The same tactic and practice of “othering” that colonizers employed is used in present society to oppress women, especially women of color. According to Wynter, the Western man was able to define his identity through the subjugation of other races. Wynter calls for a revolutionary project of struggling against the overrepresentation of man. She argues that “one cannot ‘unsettle’ the ‘coloniality of power’ without a redescription of the human outside the terms of our present descriptive state of the human, Man, and its over-representation” (Wynter 268). Necessary to the “description of the human” is the practice of Foucault’s genealogy. The goal of genealogy, essentially, is to grasp the present and transform that reality – very similar to what Wynter calls for. Genealogical inquiry helps reveal what conditions led to our current reality. More specifically, for my purpose, genealogy helps reveal what conditions led to the formation of woman’s identity and what conditions keep women and men divided.
Thus far, the following has been established:
- As studies of human tribes have shown us, an egalitarian society is possible so long as there are no patriarchs.
- Patriarchies subject women to subservient roles.
- Colonizers provided the blueprint for how women, especially women of color, are to be treated. They are to be held responsible for the ill treatment of women.
With this in mind, we must stop thinking of the white man as the almighty powerful one. We must disregard all texts that have ever positioned men above women. We must establish, right here, right now, that men and women are equals with equal capacities. Men are not the only ones capable of hard labor, strength and leadership. We must look at how, historically, women have shown that they are as great, or even greater than, man. Biological differences shall not dictate treatment.
Man must be stripped of his powers; woman must become visible. This can be achieved if we change the adjectives/words we associate with men and women. In his essay, Nietzsche says that “we believe we know something about the things themselves when we speak of trees, colors, snow, and flowers; and yet we possess nothing but metaphors for things” (pg 454). The words that one uses are “metaphors for things” just like the perception that men and women have of one another is based on metaphors. Since gender roles are constructed by adjectives, they can be deconstructed.
As desirable as equality between men and women is, we must first attain equality for women of all races. In order for black women to be regarded as equals to white women, we must remove the negative stereotypes. Historically speaking, black women have been associated with negative attributes such as being naturally promiscuous, overly fertile, and welfare queens. In present day, when discussing the necessity of a welfare state, people often refer to Black women as the main ones suckling from the system. They are seen as needy yet people neglect the conditions that lead to black women requiring government assistance. People neglect the fact that white people mostly benefit from a welfare state, not impoverished women of color.
Women of all colors, shapes and sizes must be valued for who they are rather than what they are. Women must be able to define themselves, as individuals, rather than be labeled.
It is when women of color and white women are regarded as equals that we can begin to discuss how to make women and men truly equals. In Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book, Hortense Spillers claims that gendering is a domestic process and that ungendering is tied to the loss of names, of bloodlines, of access to one’s own sense of body, of “engender[ing] future” (Spiller 73). Spillers believed that ethnicities and cultures took away what it meant to be a woman since each culture regards women differently. Being a woman in Western culture may not be the same as being a woman elsewhere in the world.
The issue is that one cannot completely obliterate culture. What one can do, however, is change the truths that are coveted within different cultures. This can be achieved so long as women are not considered the weaker sex, so long as both men and women are regarded as capable equals. Perhaps recalling how hunter-gatherer tribes lacked gender roles may help the process. It is important to note that gender roles can be harmful to survival. Men who believe they have to be aggressive or risk takers might engage in dangerous behavior. Men that are taught “boys don’t cry” might find themselves unable to deal with stress or psychological trauma. Since physical appearance is emphasized as necessary for women, the pressure can result in eating disorders or low self-esteem if they do not fit the norm.
Given how ingrained gender roles are into our society, it is difficult to imagine a mass change in thought processes. Given our history, equality will not be achieved overnight. Fact is that history cannot be changed, we can simply learn from it. Human history has taught us that at the hand of men women have suffered a great deal. Analysis of history has taught us that women have been denied access and visibility in important areas of human advancement. History, itself, the creation and writing of it, has been a predominantly male space with limited female involvement.
Strides towards equality would mean women have access to the tools that once empowered men: education, political processes, law making, etc. We must get rid of all that continues to oppress women – racist/sexist laws, thinking, and culturally imposed roles. Change requires introspection and realization that as individuals we can slowly begin the process. As we begin to liberate ourselves from the “truths” that stunt our potential, we can begin making true strides towards equality.
Devlin, Hannah. “Early Men and Women Were Equal, Say Scientist.” The Guardian. 18 May
2015. Web. 16 Dec. 2015. <http://www.theguardian.com/science/2015/may/14/early-men-women-equal-scientists>.
Foucault, Michel. “Nietzsche, la genealogie, l’histoire,” In S. Bachelard, et al., Hommage à Jean Hyppolite. Paris: Presses Universitaire de France, 1971, 145-72; trans. “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History,” In Donald F. Bouchard (ed.), Language, Counter-memory, Practice,Trans. D. F. Bouchard, Sherry Simon (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1977) 139-64.
“Genesis 1, New King James Version (NKJV).” Genesis 1, New King James Version (NKJV) Web. 22 Dec. 2015.
Mair, Lucille Mathurin, Hilary Beckles, and Barbados Hill. A historical study of women in Jamaica 1655-1844. Kingston, Jamaica: University of the West Indies Press :, 2006. Print.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense. 1873. Print.
Spillers, Hortense J. “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammary Book.” Diacritics, Vol. 17, No. 2, Culture and Countermemory: The “American” Connection. (Summer, 1987), pp. 64-81.
Wynter, Sylvia. “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, After Man, Its Overrepresentation–An Argument.” New Centennial Review 2003: 257-337. Print.