The biggest difference by far between men and women, the only one that’s really important – is that women can bear children and men cannot. I believe that difference, in one way or another, directly or indirectly, accounts for virtually all the oppression against women we see in the world today.
What it all comes down to is sexuality. We need to have sex to have children (unless you can afford to do it in a petri dish.) How we express ourselves sexually, or more accurately, how we’re expected to express ourselves sexually, is closely tied to our cultural notions about procreation and motherhood – which in turn has everything to do with oppression against women.
Let’s go back to our patriarchal history for a moment. The origin of patriarchy can be traced to the male need to establish paternity of their children, especially in a propertied society where ownership is heritable.
Standard socio-biological theory points to a biological need for people to invest in their own children rather than someone else’s. In the animal world for instance, animals do not normally look after the offspring of others unless they’ve been tricked into it. Males will even kill another male’s offspring so the female will be free to mate with them instead. Now, women always know that the children they bear are related to them, but men can never know for sure who their genetic offspring are. This male dilemma doesn’t matter much to women, because women are more interested in finding someone reliable to help provide for their children – and that someone does not have to be the biological father. In fact, female deception in this regard has always been common — it’s been estimated that about nine percent of childrenin the world are being raised by men who only think they are the fathers.
In ancient human societies, the obvious and most practical way for men to ensure that they invested only in their own children was to dictate and restrict women’s sexual behaviour. Throughout patriarchal history, society has guaranteed men’s paternity by controlling women’s reproductive capacity. Here’s a list of some common ways this happened, and still happens today in various countries:
• mutilating girl’s genitals to reduce sexual desire and ability later in life
• imposing premarital virginity
• expecting women to be chaste, modest, submissive, and asexual (while men can be adventurous - the classic double standard)
• covering up women with veils and burkas so they won't tempt men
• arranging marriages
• implementing dowry systems (which incidentally, leads to sex selection of boy babies over girl babies)
• requiring absolute fidelity from wives
• punishing female adultery harshly
• committing "honor killings" of women (e.g., if they marry without permission)
• raping women to dishonor their families
• mass rape in war as a way to humiliate the enemy
• forcing women to marry their rapists (or whoever gets them pregnant)
• confining women in their houses and chaperoning them in public
• teaching abstinence-only education
• making contraception hard to access
• making abortion illegal and unsafe
• treating women as chattel, the property of men (with harems the ultimate example)
• keeping women disadvantaged and powerless, by denying them education, preventing them from working outside the home or participating in politics, paying them lower wages, and denying them equality
Let me elaborate a bit on a couple of these examples.
The idea of rape as a crime against women is relatively new. It was only in 1993 that the United Nations finally designated rape as a war crime. That’s because under patriarchy, rape in war is used as a way to dishonor and vanquish the (male) enemy. Marital rape only recently became a crime in western countries, because it was a wife's duty to submit to her husband and bear his children. Rape in general is an opportunity for the rapist to father a child and thereby establish his right to paternity by out-competing other men.
According to patriarchy, a woman's consent to sex or pregnancy is irrelevant, because the overriding concern is that men need to reproduce and ensure it's their children being produced. That’s why it’s acceptable to rape your enemy's women, or any woman that doesn’t "belong" to you, and of course your own wife, but it's never OK for the enemy to rape your wife (or daughter). The fact that rape victims are often treated with contempt and disgrace, sometimes even charged with adultery, or murdered or exiled by their own families, is further proof that women's consent (or lack of) is irrelevant. Under patriarchy, rape cannot be a crime against women, who are chattel - instead, rape is a crime against family honour, male ownership, and the male assurance of paternity.
In the abortion debate, most anti-abortionists allow exceptions for rape and incest. This makes no sense if all life is sacred, but it fits the male paternity theory perfectly because these pregnancies represent unauthorized paternity. Likewise, an important justification for allowing abortions to protect the life or health of the woman is to preserve her ability to bear future babies and look after her existing ones. Anti-abortion laws are patriarchal and have more to do with promoting rightful paternity than with protecting the woman, or fetuses in general.
The traditional patriarchal systems that control women’s sexuality and reproduction are still widely protected today by laws, policies, customs, cultures, religions, and even by most individual men and women. By definition, those who enforce these right-wing, restrictive norms are opposed to a woman’s right to autonomy – the right to control her own body and her fertility.
It’s only in the last 50 years or so that women, at least in the western world, have really achieved the means to control their own fertility with legal and accessible contraception and abortion. Although women have always taken the initiative to control their reproduction, it's largely been clandestine, with often tragic results. Today, for the first time in history, it’s official and it’s public that women no longer need to be slaves to their biology.
Unfortunately, the very idea of allowing women to control their own fertility is a frightening development for a lot of people. Because it really gives women true power over paternity – they can decide, on their own, which man should father their child, and which won’t. They can decide when to have children, or whether they want any at all. And they can decide to abort any particular pregnancy. Men have lost control over women because they’ve lost control over paternity.
That’s why we see such a backlash by right-wing governments and groups today against pre-marital sex by women, contraception, and especially abortion. Abortion is the flashpoint in this war, because the patriarchal right-wing can’t stand the thought of women having the power to abort men’s babies – the ones put there by men’s actions, by men’s seed. A woman deciding to have an abortion is the ultimate insult to male authority.