womenandchildren

August 29, 2013

It’s August, it’s hot, and I’m pissed. Regrettably, only the first two are seasonal.

Once again I am incensed at the treatment of women in this country. My area of contention this time is language. As any Witch worth her salt will tell you, language is power. One of the oldest ideas in magic is that to know a thing’s name is to have power over it. And “power-over” is exactly what’s at work in our everyday language.

Think of the phrase, “men, women, and children.” It is always in that order. From most important to last. Why else would it always be in that order? We inherited the phrase and we continue to use it blindly, conditioning ourselves in the process. If you want to shake up your mind, try changing the order of the words.

But my main topic today is the phrase “womenandchildren.” I know that typically there are spaces between the words but really, why bother? That would indicate we think of them differently.

This is a long-standing beef of mine but it’s come to the fore in the wake of the despicable chemical weapons attack in Syria. As in every attack against civilians, the phrase “womenandchildren” is used incessantly, as if that demonstrates the depth of the depravity of the incident.

In the last week I’ve heard the president, the PBS Newshour crew, and many others use the phrase just like John Kerry did, when he referred to “womenandchildren, and innocent bystanders.” What?? Are women and children not also innocent bystanders? Listen. Listen and you will hear how womenandchildren are always separated out from the rest of humanity. Blindly. Dully. Inexorably.

A similar problem happens with the phrase “women and people of color.” That implies “women” only refers to Caucasian women. What would be accurate is “men of color and women.” Women of color have long felt marginalized in feminist movements, as they have repeatedly had to choose between their ethnicity and their gender.

I am a student of Western European history. From the ancient Egyptians to WWII (with a gap from James I to Queen Victoria), I’ve studied history from both inside and outside academia. And what I’ve seen is that women have always been, on the whole, scrappy. People think of medieval women as wilting flowers in the age of chivalry or drudges under the thumbs of their oppressive husbands. Those things did exist, of course, but women owned businesses in the Middle Ages, particularly breweries. Noblewomen were responsible for and led the defense of their castles when the lord was away. This is hardly wallflower stuff. They participated in every peasant revolt and appear (often in disguise) in almost every major war we know of.

But something happened in the Victorian era. (Other eras had their own issues, but I choose the Victorians because there’s a direct line between them and us.) Women were corseted—tortured—in order to keep them in their place. They lost legal rights. They became the property of their fathers and husbands, who had the right to institutionalize them if they showed signs of “deviant” (read “independent”) thoughts or actions.

In exchange, men put them on a pedastal. The Victorian woman became the “angel in the house.” She was the seat of civilization whose presence in the sacred home converted brutish men into somewhat well-behaved human beings. If they got their freedom, society would crumble. Who would hold men back from their inherent brutality? So women were portrayed as angels, as better than men, even though they were controlled by men. Their job was to manage the household and to create a safe haven for their toiling men (by the way, this applies to middle class and upper class families; the poor have long lived under different rules). Men and women operated in separate spheres, where men dominated the outside world and women wafted through domestic scenes. Women were the seat of men’s honor. They were men’s possessions. They were men’s chattel. That’s why rape is so endemic in warfare—rape a women, ruin a man’s possession.

A typical example of this attitude is the old “women and children first, lads!” In 1852 a British ship hit a rock and began to sink. The captain gave the order for women and children to head to the lifeboats first—this is “chivalrous” behavior. I am all for children being saved first, but why women? Why should their lives count more than men’s? What makes them so different? Some argue that it’s evolutionary, that women can only bear children for twenty years or so while men can sire children for most of their lives. In order to preserve the race, womenandchildren first! This is ridiculous. It’s not evolutionary (biology is destiny), it’s societal conditioning. (And as a side note, Wikipedia says that historically men are far more likely to survive shipwrecks than women, so maybe all that “chivalry” goes out the window when the rubber meets the road.)

The idea of womenandchildren first is that they are more vulnerable than men. Though I hardly think that matters when a ship is sinking.

Anyway, where were we? Ah yes, in the Victorian/Edwardian age. Well, along came the 1920s. And the flapper totally blew the angel in the house out of the water. The flapper was sexually liberated. She drank, she smoked, she petted, she drove fast cars, and she had an independent income. She is the first modern woman. That persona we would today characterize as a “strong woman” more or less survived into the 1940s when women were in the thick of WWII on the battlefields and in the factories. Rosie the Riveter would have shocked the Victorians out of their priggish little minds.

But then came the 1950s. Men returned from the war and, since they were obviously more important, women returned to the home so the men could have the factory jobs. Families moved to the suburbs where women were once again saddled with the maintenance of household and not much else. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the hourglass figure of the Victorians was exactly the ideal for the 1950s woman. Women were stuffed into suffocating costumes and suffocating lives. Of course some women cherished their roles as keepers of the house and primary (sole?) caregivers, but the overall effect was to relegate them to the backseat again. Womenandchildren. Out of sight, out of mind. Back on the pedestal.

Of course women’s roles have changed since then, most dramatically since the widespread availability of birth control. Since then we’ve been able to define ourselves in fits and starts but the majority of Americans today believe in equal pay and equal rights and even equal parenting (though we suck at implementation). Women are finally allowed to serve officially as combatants in our military. Are we really so delicate today that we must continue to be classified with children? I don’t think so.

I do think the vulnerable should receive special attention. But that would mean reporting like, “the weapons struck civilian populations, which included children and the infirm.” I was going to write “the elderly” but then I thought of all the seniors I know who are still kicking ass, so let’s not write them off just yet.

I think we can all agree that attacking civilian populations is not cool. Attacking children is not good. Attacking people in wheelchairs, regardless of age, gender, ethnicity, or religion, is not good. Attacking women is not good, but neither is attacking men. That’s one of the weirdest things about “womenandchildren” to me. Why should women’s lives count more than men’s?

If you’re a soldier, regardless of gender, you’re fair game. You signed up, you wear the uniform, you kill on command. The Israelis and the Russians and others who have a long history of women combatants don’t ask for pink uniforms or special treatment for women. A soldier is a soldier.

But everyone else, in an ideal world, should be off-limits. Now that’s a ridiculously idealistic thing to say, especially considering that no war has occurred without civilian devastation, but I’m drawing a general line so that we can reconsider our terminology. Changing our language changes our minds. It’s why people resist the term “Ms.” so vehemently (or embrace it so vehemently, as I do). That’s a topic for another time, but it’s a good example of how even the smallest words reflect whole worldviews. Calling my mother “Ms.” would be deeply offensive to her. It would contradict her identity. Calling me “Miss” or “Mrs.” is deeply offensive to me. It contradicts my identity. Words matter.

So the next time you hear something sorrowfully intoning the sacred phrase “womenandchildren,” consider how it insults women by implying they’re weak, and men by implying their expendable. Surely it’s time to do better.

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