Women Shouldn’t Need to be Seen in Relation to Men

She's Someone

Last night I saw and shared the above photo on my Facebook, commenting that women should be respected in their own right, not because of their relationship to a man.

This started a bit of a discussion with a friend, who posited that the relation could be to a woman as well, that some traditional beliefs are good, that talking about discrimination and differences between men and women is (unknowingly) promoting discrimination, and that posts such as the above does more harm than good.

I tried to address some of the first points in the thread, but it got late and I went to bed. Looking at it today I realized I have too much to say for a FB comment, so here’s a blog post instead.

Women’s Relationship to Men

It is absolutely true that the picture doesn’t specify that the relation has to be a man, it could be to a woman as well. However, these campaigns that use the tagline “think about it, she could be your mother/daughter/sister/wife” are targeting men. They are asking men to see women in relation to them

In the short run, it might help some men to realize that they wouldn’t want someone related to them to be treated in that manner, but it doesn’t change the deeper problem, that they believe women, who are not related to them, do deserve to be treated poorly. It also reinforces that women are only worth something in-as-far as they are related to, i.e., the property of a man.

Traditional Beliefs

I am, by no means, saying that all “traditional” beliefs are bad (this would also have to be qualified by specifying which traditions and beliefs we are talking about, and from what culture). However, I am not going to refrain from pointing out that something is not okay, just because it is traditional, or culturally accepted.

And this is a traditional/cultural belief, that women are only worth something because of their relation to a man. You are your father’s daughter, your brother’s sister, then you become your husband’s wife and maybe one day your son’s mother. Always, you are seen in relation to a man, and that is your only value. You are not valued in your own right, just for being you. And I will always speak against patriarchal beliefs like these.

Talking About Discrimination Against Women

Similarly to the above point, I will always speak up when women are being discriminated against. I believe that not speaking up, and hiding things, lead to much more discrimination. Yes, it is scary when you realize that discrimination is everywhere. I think many men are shocked, when they begin to understand just how frequently women face sexual harassment, assault and other forms of discrimination. And they should be shocked! It is a scary thing, but that doesn’t mean we should stop talking about it. Nothing changes until people start speaking up about it, until they refuse to be silenced.

As for the differences between men and women, I am not quite sure how it relates to this post (aside from the fact that women are socialized to have more empathy towards people in general, and to identify with both male and female protagonists, whereas men are socialized to only identify with male protagonists). I think the differences between men and women are more often than not the result of our socialization and what is deemed acceptable within our culture, rather than innate physical differences. That, however, would be the topic of another blog post.

Does talking about these things promote discrimination against women? I sure don’t hope so. I think the picture before it was corrected would be promoting discrimination. It would be promoting the patriarchal view that women are only worth something when they are seen as belonging to a man, and that they are not worthy of being treated like people in their own right. That is promoting discrimination. The post above? Promotes the radical notion that women are worthy of being treated decently in their own right.

Men, You Are Better Than This

The thing is, I truly believe that men are better than this. I believe that men don’t need to imagine that a woman is their sister/mother/daughter/wife in order for them to treat her like a person. I believe that men are capable of empathy, and of recognizing me, as a person, and not just as an extension of another man.

And I believe that we should demand nothing less.

 

Further Readings:

I Am Not Your Wife, Sister or Daughter. I Am A Person. – The Belle Jar

Stop calling us wives and moms – Salon

Gender and empathy: Men shouldn’t need to “imagine if it were your wife/daughter/mother” – Feministing

5 Comments

  1. Well in general I don’t have much problems with relational definitions, particularly not in the social sciences where we deal with social constructions so much, and since those by definition don’t comprise some kind of “natural”, ontological core of entity, they only make sense when put into context and interpreted from there. Moreover, you know I’m a friend of a systemic view, so I think to get a better understanding of phenomena necessitates to regard for other elements that affect them and are affected by them (and those affections may very well be sematical relations).

    However, I’m very uncomfortable with the current state of affairs that “male” is the default category to start with. There are a range of very interesting psychological experiments on framing effects (and also a lot of discourse in the gender-focused social sciences) showing that without further information, “male” is considered to be the standard, and “female” has to be explained – and construed – in contrast to that. This of course translates into a defintion of “female” in terms of relationships, making it contingent on the elements it’s related to, and affords linguistic female “markers” to make clear what one’s talking about, whereas “male” doesn’t afford such markers, or the standard (neutral) markers are readily accepted to reflect “male” already. Again, the relational thing per se is not a problem I think, but in my opinion it *is* a problem that this obviously doesn’t apply to the concept “male” equivalently. Also, when we talk about human beings, of course ethics come into play, so that in order to state a universal, fundamental value of human existence we have to introduce a kind of meaning and value that origins *within* a person, not just from the relations a person has to other things and persons around.

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    • I do think that relational definitions, and seeing things from a relational perspective can help us in social sciences. However, as you also pointed out, when we talk about human beings, I do believe that we need to see each individual as just that, an individual, and regardless of their relations to other people, each individual is worthy of being treated with respect (like you also said).

      To be honest, it really frustrates me that male is the default category (and I even catch myself thinking it at times). It has been shown amongst kids that girls find it easy to identify with both male and female characters, while boys can only identify with male characters. I find this really worrying, although not surprising as even to this day there are 3 male characters for every female in mainstream entertainment.

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  2. I want to add that I very much believe in the social construction of gender. There are (small) biological differences, but all the meaning in those differences comes from social construction (imo).

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