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Is it the fault of women?

By Kellie Tranter - posted Monday, 9 March 2009

Another International Women’s Day has rolled around on March 8, 2009, and women are still asking, "Why aren't we there yet?" But to question we need to first to ask is, “Where is ‘there’?” Is it equal pay for equal work? Is it equal numbers of women and men at senior levels in business and government? Or is it something more fundamental? And we probably should also look at where we are trying to advance from.

An historical perspective might be useful.

In her 1792 book Vindication of the Rights of Women Mary Wollstonecraft analysed the effects on women of an educational system where women learn accomplishments only to please men. She argued - as was explained by Moira Ferguson in 1975:


… that women should have an education commensurate with their position in society, women being essential to the nation because they educate its children and because they could be "companions" to their husbands rather than mere wives. Instead of women being seen as ornaments to society or property to be traded in marriage, Wollstonecraft maintained that they are human beings deserving of the same fundamental rights as men. And because human rights apply equally to men and women, so women should have an education that would enable them to achieve financial and intellectual freedom.

Fast forward a century and a quarter, and even though women had been given the right to vote, nothing much had changed. In 1928 Virginia Woolf wrote in A Room of One’s Own:

The most transient visitor to this planet, I thought, who picked up this paper could not fail to be aware, even from this scattered testimony, that England is under the rule of a patriarchy. Nobody in their senses could fail to detect the dominance of the professor. His was the power and the money and the influence. He was the proprietor of the paper and its sub-editor. He was the Foreign Secretary and the Judge. He was the cricketer; he owned the racehorses and the yachts. He was the director of the company that pays two hundred per cent to its shareholders. He left millions to charities and colleges that were ruled by himself. He suspended the film actress in mid-air. He will decide if the hair on the meat axe is human; he it is who will acquit or convict the murderer, and hang him, or let him go free. With the exception of the fog he seemed to control everything.

The problem was not and is not limited to the English-speaking world. In 1949 Simone de Beauvoir noted in the Nature of the Second Sex that:

… the women’s effort has never been anything more than symbolic agitation. They have gained only what men have been willing to grant; they have taken nothing, they have only received.

The reason for this is that women lack concrete means for organising themselves into a unit which can stand face to face with the correlative unit. They have no past, no history, no religion of their own; and they have no such solidarity, no work and interest as that of the proletariat. They are not even promiscuously herded together in the way that creates community feeling among the American Negroes, the ghetto Jews, the workers of Saint-Denis, or the factory hands of Renault. They live dispersed among the males, attached through residence, housework, economic condition, and social standing to certain men - fathers or husbands - more firmly than they are to other women. If they belong to the bourgeoisie, they feel solidarity with men of that class, not with the proletarian women; if they are white, their allegiance is to white men, not to Negro women ...

Now fast forward another 60 years to our own, allegedly more enlightened, times and what do we see? Fifty-five per cent of women in Australia experience some sort of violence during their lifetime. There is still a gender pay gap. And the just released EOWA 2008 Australian Census of Women in Leadership reveals that the number of women on boards and in executive management positions has actually declined since 2006.


Unfortunately it is still necessary to ask, as Woolfe did, why is one sex more prosperous and the other so poor?

Perhaps it is the fault of women. Who can say? But Woolfe also made an astute and perhaps still apposite observation when she said:

Whatever may be their use in civilised societies, mirrors are essential to all violent and heroic action. That is why Napoleon and Mussolini both insist so emphatically upon the inferiority of women, for if they were not inferior, they would cease to enlarge. That serves to explain in part the necessity that women so often are to men. And it serves to explain how restless they are under her criticism; how impossible it is for her to say to them this book is bad, this picture is feeble, or whatever it may be, without giving far more pain and rousing far more anger than a man would do who gave the same criticism. For if she begins to tell the truth, the figure in the looking glass shrinks; his fitness for life is diminished. How is he to go on giving judgment, civilising natives, making laws, writing books, dressing up and speechifying at banquet, unless he can see himself at breakfast and at dinner as least twice the size he really is?

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About the Author

Kellie Tranter is a lawyer and human rights activist. You can follow her on Twitter @KellieTranter

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