Does female oppression exist? (Or are we just useless?)

In How To Be A Woman, Caitlin Moran offers the following explanation for women’s absence from historical records: “women have basically done fuck all for the past 100,000 years”:

Come on – let’s admit it. Let’s stop exhaustingly pretending that there is a parallel history of women being victorious […] I don’t think that women being seen as inferior is a prejudice based on male hatred of women. When you look at history, it’s a prejudice based on simple fact.

These lines really pissed me off, as I imagine they pissed off many women reading the book. At the time I thought they pissed me off because it was such utter nonsense. It’s only looking back, having spoken to other women about feminism and theories of oppression, that I realise that what really pissed me off was worrying that maybe Moran was right.

It’s a thought that’s always been in the back of my head ever since I noticed women and girls were treated unfairly. Maybe, just maybe, it’s because we really are a bit shit. From an early age I’ve known that we come second. Boys and men need more time, more space, more resources, more praise, more money. We, on the other hand, exist to offer up the time, the space, the resources, the praise, the unpaid labour. That is our role and regardless of the vastly different experiences of women on a global scale (due to race, wealth, culture, religious belief, location etc.), it’s remarkable how similar the overall pattern is. Man does and is, woman reflects, absorbs and supports. That’s what we’re for.

But why?

My early beliefs as a feminist (as a child, as a teenager) stemmed from the knowledge that I was “not that person” – not the carer, not the helpmeet, not the cheerleader. I had my own story and I would tell it. Quite why other women hadn’t bothered to tell theirs – why, for instance, my mother seemed to fully embrace the subservient carer role – was not something I considered to any great extent. I simply assumed my mother was “that person”. After all, some women had to be, right? Otherwise where would all these ideas about women come from? Thus my initial understanding of feminism was individualistic and self-contained; it was a project aimed at liberating people like me, those of us who were not “just the women”. If I were seventeen again I don’t know which gender I’d be selecting from our current “spectrum” but I know it would be exotic, one that would say loud and clear “I am not brainless unquestioning mummy-helpmeet-cheerleader-carer-cleaner” (I didn’t literally think of my mother like that – I’d have called her “cis” and claimed I was just “stating the facts” – but I know now that this was the concept of womanhood I was fleeing, wilfully imposing it on others while I ran).

I was a feminist because I thought I wasn’t a woman, or rather, that I was not what everyone saw a woman to be.

Twenty years on, I am a feminist because I am a woman. I am still not what everyone sees a woman to be. I am a human being, like my mother, like my grandmother, like all women of all ages and cultures. We are each of us more than we are seen to be.

So why have we – half the human race – put up with so much crap for so long?

The idea that the oppression of women is rooted in our reproductive function was something I used to reject. Because a woman isn’t just a mummy; because not all women do, can or want to have children; because bearing children should not mean one has to raise them; because caring for children should not mean one has to care for everyone else. All of these things are true and yet here are some other things that are true: the vast majority of unpaid caring work is done by women. It is assumed that women do not need paying for their caring work because it is “natural” or a “labour of love”. Women’s economic subordination – and concomitant lack of safety and choice – is tied to the fact that they are not paid for domestic labour and are assumed, when working outside the home, not to be the person who supports the family financially. Our social and economic structures – how the world works – depend on women not being rewarded for what they do and being told, from the day they are born, that this is how it should be. The secondary, subordinate role is not based on what we are, but on what we are required to do. You don’t have to have children to become a mummy-helpmeet-cheerleader-carer-cleaner. You already are one. If you can gestate and breastfeed so much the better but it’s not essential. Just being marked out as someone who could possibly, potentially do these things will suffice (real mummy, metaphorical mummy, same difference, just as long as you’re on hand to serve everyone else).

It’s about being female. Not feminine, not womanly, not femme. Female. We need females to do stuff and by and large it’s the shit stuff. Hence gender as a means of ritualising and codifying. This, to me, is the only thing that makes sense (other than a return to my childish “super-special me against the mummies” feminism of yore).

I only started to notice this when I became a mother, not because motherhood brings enlightenment (it doesn’t) or because non-mothers cannot have a theory of patriarchy (they can), but because I’m a self-absorbed sod who only notices things when they’re right up in front of their nose. Children are lovely but they are not always very nice. It takes them a very long time to see Mummy as a person in her own right (at least, I hope that’s not just true for my kids). The expectations they place on Mummy (or Daddy or any other carer) are not a million miles away from the expectations patriarchy places on females as a subordinate sex class. One day your kid is yelling at you for being useless then you turn on the news – about men, always about men – and suddenly something clicks into place. Ah, that’s how you think of me! That’s what you’ve always thought I was for! That’s what all this conditioning was about! And, shortly afterwards, you start to see how the broader structure works. Men are like children. Big, overgrown children (bear with me, male readers!). They can be intelligent, they can be kind, they can be brilliant, they can love women, but a part of them still see us the way children see Mummy. We must not overstep the mark. We cannot assert our own personhood too much or they will feel crushed. When Mummies show too much self-interest, children cry. When women do the same, men hate them. Sometimes men even kill them.

The problem is not that women are not people. The problem is that, contrary to all expectations and demands, we are. All of us.

This is where “a woman is whoever identifies as a woman” fails. Plenty of women do not identify as women. It does not change how they are treated. It does not mean that they do not belong to the brainless unquestioning mummy-helpmeet-cheerleader-carer-cleaner club. They don’t get to choose whether or not they are placed there. Patriarchy decides for them. And yet, when some women dare to say, “I don’t like this”, they are told the first rule of the brainless unquestioning mummy-helpmeet-cheerleader-carer-cleaner club: no one talks about it. Because to talk about it erases other women, those who aren’t in it. Because it’s exclusive. Because we have gone so far down this shitty road that it seems we’ve convinced ourselves that the brainless unquestioning mummy-helpmeet-cheerleader-carer-cleaner club was our idea all along and that it’s some privileged cis feminist version of the Garrick. Female socialisation, female oppression, the unmitigated joy of not even noticing you are oppressed because you have been told, again and again, that this is all you are: we mustn’t mention these things. They are out of bounds.

The point here is not whether trans women are women. It’s whether all women are people, even the ones shoved into the shitty club that no one is allowed to discuss (“don’t worry, just say you’re genderqueer, betcha the jailer’ll let you out, at least for a short walk round the yard!”). This is why it is not okay to say feminists who focus on the needs of females are exclusive and privileged: they did not set up the club. They do not want to be part of the club. Pretending the club does not exist only makes things worse. Pretending you yourself can walk away from the club – “bye, bye, Mummies!” – might work if you are highly privileged, perhaps for a little while, but it will not last.

I want to name this club. I want to talk about who I am and what I am and where I want to be.

I am a woman and I am female. My needs matter and I don’t want to hide behind circumlocutions and double-speak in order to “prove” that the discrimination I experience is real (“look, it’s such authentic discrimination, even someone male could experience it!” No. This is not what is happening. This is not my truth).

So I don’t accept cis privilege. I don’t accept cis woman tears. I don’t accept anything which says “shut up, silly woman, you cannot possibly know the context of what you experience”.

I do know. I own my story. I wish I had realised all women – even those I saw as the brainless unquestioning mummy-helpmeet-cheerleader-carer-cleaner women – had their stories, too. Back then, no one spoke but if they had, I know I wouldn’t have listened. I’d have stood on the sidelines screaming “TERF!” I thought I was better; I didn’t realise I’m only human but so is everyone else.