To All The Women We’ve Failed to Love Before

8 03 2014

Here’s one for International Women’s Day.

If there’s one thing all human societies throughout history have in common, it is that all things being equal, you were probably worse off in them if you were a woman. Better to be rich than poor; but better to be a rich man than a rich woman. Bad to be a poor man; worse to be a poor woman. Bad to be a man in a 19th century imperial colony; worse to be his sister. That inescapable fact is to me the most powerful piece of evidence for why feminism, or women’s equality if you prefer, is the most important social movement of ever.

On my Twitter timeline this week, somebody posted an article about how so few major metropolitan museum directors were women. I’ll be honest that when I first read that, I gave a little mental eye roll. Don’t we have bigger things to worry about it?

But it doesn’t take much thought or introspection to realize something so tragic about human history that is suggested by that factoid: for essentially all of it, women were uniquely denied the opportunity to cultivate their talents and contribute openly and freely to public, civic, scientific, and artistic discourse. Of that isn’t to imply that countless individual women through history didn’t find means of expressing themselves or exerting influence (they certainly had their labor exploited, uncompensated, at an unrivaled tick); I only mean that the nature of a patriarchal society made any such expression much more difficult and often unrecognized.

That is a tragedy. We were collectively denied the voice, and talents, and genius of more than half of the human population. And it isn’t as though if we had a more egalitarian society, Leviathan would have been written by Thomasina Hobbes or the Kuomintang would have been overthrown by Maoina Zedong. It isn’t as though, in other words, there is a defined ceiling to how many great works of art or history-changing political movements there can be; one more influential woman doesn’t mean one fewer influential man. It means, plain and simple, that for no good reason–in fact, for an affirmatively bad reason–human society wasted the talents of billions–billions–of people.

That collective loss to humanity can never be recovered, and we are all so much obviously the poorer for it.

And that isn’t to mention the big point of course: the billions–again, billions–of individual instances of injustice suffered by each one of those women denied opportunities, and often denied her very humanity.

The debt owed by humanity to the women who over generations fought for a vision of equality is in essence limitless. Every single person on Earth has reaped an enormous benefit from the enriching of human civilization since the initial flowering of equality. Feminism isn’t just one among many social justice movements; it’s the ballgame. People will argue about means and ends, and where intersections with other struggles (class struggle, ahem) are the most critical; and of course the various social justice movements are similarly critical. But the unbroken chain of repression of women stretching back to the earliest human societies, its ubiquity, and the felt impact on half of humanity is unquestionably unique, and inescapably unjustifiable.

So, thanks millions of women, for all your efforts. Humankind itself is just now lurching towards it’s true potential. Here’s hoping it’s Star Trek: The Next Generation-esque.



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