Are Women Human? Do We Want To Be?

This essay is written from the radical or ecofeminist point of view.

As has been pointed out since feminism stepped forth onto the cultural stage, Western civilization is fundamentally patriarchal. A patriarchal society is founded on the idea that the male of the species represents the standard –the ideal–for what it means to be human. Women, being by definition different from men, have been considered to be substandard, as any difference from the standard implies inferiority. Women have therefore been constructed — both physically and mentally– as inferior to male humans, their brains and their bodies, like the brains and bodies of other female mammals, understood as serving one purpose only – reproduction. Women have been viewed as less well developed, less evolved, than men, with the logical consequence that to be a woman in Western civilization has been to be something less than fully human.

This outdated cultural assumption has been lodged so deeply in the collective unconscious of western civilization, that most of us don’t even know that it is still there until a political campaign like the one we are currently experiencing comes along, where both parties have put forth candidates for high office who are not male – unleashing a shocking level of sexism in a society which thought it had said “goodbye to all that.” It is to be hoped that the psychological meltdown exhibited specifically in the liberal visceral rage which has met the candidacies of both Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin will bring to consciousness the original sin of misogyny on which our culture is based. We really need to move on.

The “Western” definition of what it means to be human originated approximately 2500-3000 years ago. It arose from a weaving together of ideas from Greek philosophy and Hebrew religion. According to the Hebraic/Hellenic narrative, Man is possessed of free will and the reason to exercise it. Man’s transcendent reason frees him from the biological constraints of lesser creatures. Man identifies with mind – rather than the lowly physical body. Where non-human animals depend on “instinct” for survival and are ruled by these instincts, Man’s key to survival is his reason, which lifts him out of nature’s prison and puts him in control of himself and his environment. For Man, alone, biology is not destiny. Nobly exercising his free will, Man can chart his own course, determine his own fate. As Shakespeare put it (with some irony) –

What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how
infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and
admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like
a god! the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals…

Admittedly, this is an attractive and seductive cultural construct – even godlike (In fact, one might say that the JudeoChristian idea of God is a symbolic projection of this ideal). It has served Western humanity (especially the white male part of it) well, providing us with the collective self-esteem to go forth and conquer the world – and the earth — militarily, economically, culturally, and technologically. But, today, the world and the earth are fighting back. This cultural construct is “out of joint,” causing a world of pain and demonstrating that it has outlived its usefulness. And, it is precisely this overrated, inaccurate, and inflated definition of male humanity which has made life in patriarchy so difficult for women – especially women in their reproductive capacity. And this is why –

Since the beginning of human history up until the past 50 years or so when the pill came on the market, women’s lives have been heavily involved with childbearing and childrearing, often from the onset of puberty until death or menopause – whichever came first, and all too often it was death. Spending so many years either pregnant or lactating, women were seen as hostage to their bodies – making it difficult to argue that they were free from biological determinism. For most women without outside help, these overwhelming maternal duties left them little time to prove their mental abilities in the male world – even if they wanted to.

Furthermore, well into the late 19th century, the best medical authorities even believed that for a woman to attempt to develop her intellect would damage her reproductive capacity – and since her reproductive work was her raison d’etre, education was severely discouraged. In short, women were looked on as little more than breeding stock – incapable of entering or understanding the male world.
Of course, this less than flattering view of women was constructed by men for men, just as was the idea of what it means to be human. And it completely ignores the fact that women have used their minds as well as their bodies over the millennia in the care and feeding and healing of countless generations. As if the challenging task of keeping the species alive has no value.

Over the centuries, women have not been unaware that their reproductive role is what comes between them and being valued as fully human, and, pre-pill, women with a strong intellectual bent either remained unmarried, if they had the wherewithal, or entered a convent, if they didn’t. Either way, they escaped the rigors of motherhood – and unintentionally established the parameters for generations of intellectual women to follow. Instead of questioning the system which has been responsible for women’s devaluation, the strategy of independent and intellectual women has been to distance themselves from their womanly bodies and focus on developing their (male) minds, hoping to achieve the status and value of the fully human.

In spite of its negative implications for women, especially in their reproductive mode, the traditional image of what it means to be human is so mesmerizing, so beautiful, and so noble and has such a powerful hold on the human imagination that feminists have not even wanted or attempted to take down the standard. Instead they have striven to have this definition also apply to them; they have chosen the path of aspiring to belong, by proving to the men of this world that they, too, are rational creatures who, thanks to the pill, are also free from biological determinism.

Until the pill came along, women’s intellectual abilities as measured by worldly success had remained largely in the realm of theory. But, today, the pill has put women in charge of their reproductive lives, enabling them to put the lie to the idea that women are biologically determined – at least women who are not mothers. Liberal feminists, therefore, have seized on birth control as the primary means of opening the way for women to gain admission to the “fully human” class. The liberal feminist argument is that, with the pill, women are now able to finesse the whole idea of male/female differences, proving that beyond all that bodily reproductive claptrap we all – male and female alike – possess that uniquely human characteristic, the transcendent, un-gendered, human mind. Except for mothers, of course.

However, if we buy into the argument that there are no “real” differences between men and women because we are all human, we must not forget that the definitive human – even the definitive human mind — is still male. Women are asking to be folded into the male model; men are not asking to be included in the female one. The result is that for a woman to be defined as fully human, before society achieves a more woman-friendly and inclusive definition of what it means to be human, it means that she has broken out of one prison, only to be incarcerated in another: our culture’s model of maleness.

For many women, this campaign to prove women’s equality, based on the underlying claim that there are no differences, has backfired. For, although those women who assume the roles of ersatz males while operating in the male world may be able to convince themselves that there are no differences, back in the domestic sphere, little has changed. There is still nothing more real in the daily lives of women with children than the not insignificant differences in reproductive roles; and patriarchy is never more oppressive than when it is dealing with women’s reproductive lives – from actively working to deny women the freedom to choose whether or not to have a baby to making it all but impossible for single mothers to have the time to properly care for their children or to earn enough money to give them a good home and access to life’s advantages.

In the reproductive sphere, the liberal feminist denial of differences has the unintended consequence of assisting in patriarchal oppression. It puts some feminist women in conflict with their own reproductive desires and in conflict with other women who have chosen to reproduce. For the logical result of denying differences means that feminists cannot allow themselves to recognize – or realistically deal with — what women are up against when they have children, as is the fate of the majority of women at one time or another in their lives. For to recognize that a mother’s experiences of parenthood might be different from a father’s (a 20-year commitment vs. a one-night stand, to put it in the starkest/darkest light) – or that the female reproductive role, within patriarchy, is more onerous than the male’s — is to open the door to the slippery- slope idea of differences which would be traitorous to the liberal feminist cause.

The only way the liberal feminist can maintain the position that women are just like men is to eschew any participation in the female reproductive process, for once a woman assumes her reproductive role, no one can deny that there are differences between men and women – if it hasn’t been obvious already. The result has been the rather harsh feminist position that if women find themselves mired down in the reproductive morass (which is only a reproductive morass because patriarchy makes it so), it has nothing to do with innate differences, but is the result of choice, and is no fault but their own. Getting pregnant is a matter of choice or should be if a woman is responsible. If one chooses to have children, one must suffer the consequences.

But why should women have to suffer the consequences? And why should the consequences be so dire – single motherhood seeming to be a one-way ticket to poverty and married mothers always one divorce away from single motherhood? Why should human females be punished for completing their life cycle? No such stricture is put on human males – or females of any other animal species, for that matter. The severe consequences attendant upon the human female’s choice(?) to reproduce is not “natural” but a direct result of the way patriarchal society is structured – which is to say around male lives and male needs. And, why should feminists, who should be working to promote the best interests of women, choose to support patriarchy in this way?

In spite of all the negativity and devaluation associated with childbearing and childrearing, however, women do continue to choose to have children – even when they have the choice not to. Some women spend thousands of dollars and go through quite unpleasant medical procedures to have a child. And why shouldn’t they? Although this may be a very unpopular concept in some circles, having a child is one of the most joyful and deeply satisfying things a woman can do – right up there with making partner. And it’s something only women can do. For women to deny themselves one of life’s richest, most significant and satisfying experiences in their quest for equality means that the patriarchs win.

Not being able to bear children themselves, patriarchal males have made a virtue out of necessity and doomed women to a second-class status, based on their reproductive role-– which, up until the pill – pretty much defined what it meant to be female. For women to buy into and assist in this devaluation of womanhood, to the point that some women deny themselves the joys of motherhood, while others feel demeaned or defensive if they have children, means a complete capitulation to patriarchal values. But, having bought into the definition of a human being as one who has free will and the reason to exercise it (when any critical look at the real lives of most men would quickly disabuse any thoughtful person of this ridiculous notion), liberal feminists have painted themselves into a corner.

But there is a way to paint ourselves back out of it. We don’t have to accept the delusional patriarchal definition of humanity which privileges men to the detriment of women. I argue that it would be far smarter to reject the patriarchal definition of humanity on the grounds that it doesn’t accurately describe the human species – male or female – and that it is especially pernicious for women. We should then construct a new definition which at least appears to be more realistic and which includes both men and women – making room for differences rather than trying to shoehorn everyone into the same “male” mold. That would be a pretty radical step, I agree, because it would strike a major blow to the foundations of patriarchal culture. But isn’t that what feminists want? And given the totally corrupt state of patriarchal culture today, isn’t it what everyone should want?

All things considered (George Bush, the Iraq war, global warming, hurricanes, etc.), I think the time is ripe to take a critical look at our cherished self image and the culture it has generated. Do humans, even powerful, white, male humans, really exist out side of nature? Are we really transcendent non-gendered, asexual minds floating above our lowly bodies? Based on my own experience as a human, I maintain that the human species resides squarely within nature, regardless of how thick our bank accounts, how powerful our military, how innovative our technology, how many floors or levels of concrete we put between ourselves and the earth – or how high our private jets fly. And we forget this to our peril.

Like all other mammals, we are born, we mature, we spend our lives playing the game of survival, and we die. Survival and the needs for food, shelter, and the continuation of the species drive us in much the same way they drive other animals. We are no more free from our biological demands than any other animal. As to reason, it is merely a tool – and a very good tool at that – which humans use to satisfy emotions, which are manifestations of the drive to survive. And that’s OK. Emotions and appetites are good things. They keep us alive.

As a woman, I am not afraid of the idea that my intellect arises from the workings of a female brain and not some liberal feminist idea of a genderless (but really male) mind. I like being a woman, and I like differences. I am depending on women being different from men. Our lives depend on the injection of some fresh, new values and approaches to structuring society and interacting with each other and nature. I think women have a lot to offer – but we won’t if we continue to waste our energies trying to be men. But let me be clear, I am not arguing that women should not participate in the full range of human activities; I am arguing that women should do it unashamedly as fully female. Instead of accepting the ridiculous constraints placed on women’s lives when they dare to reproduce, women should demand a complete restructuring of the male world, workplace, etc. to accommodate the exigencies of women’s lives.

We should never buy into the patriarchal idea that biological determinism is somehow a bad thing – it is a natural thing. Nor should we ever believe that men are somehow free from biological determinism, while women are not. Neither men nor women are free from biological determinism. And, it’s OK. To continue down this delusional path of belief in human transcendence is the surest road to the extinction of the human species. Revisioning human beings as a part of nature is an idea to be celebrated, not reviled as reductionist. And I am depending on women, especially ecofeminist women, to lead the way. Human beings should be proud to take our places– among the beauty and infinite variety and power of nature – from the delicate structure of a butterfly’s wings to the explosive grandeur of a supernova. We need to “get over ourselves.”

The significant difference between the human animal and the non-human animal is not that one resides within nature and one without, but that non-human animals are biologically determined to be genetically constructed, while human animals are biologically determined to be culturally constructed. Human infants arrive on the scene without the inborn survival programs that guide other animals, therefore we must rely on culture to give us the information and strategies we need to survive. We are no more free from cultural constructs – of one kind or another — than non-human animals are free from their genetic programs. For culture constructs human consciousness in the same way that genetics structure the consciousness of non-human animals. The difference is that when one set of cultural constructs is threatening our survival, humans can construct an alternative cultural value system. But, just as human beings and human consciousness are part of nature’s creation, so culture, too, is as natural a construct as a beaver dam.

In order to survive, humans must be able to function collectively, and must have a shared perception of reality, and they get this shared perception of reality from their cultural institutions. Where other animals are born with their genetic programs already installed, our brains and our thought processes are programmed by our culture and these cultural programs make up the “collective unconscious” of a society. What a culture takes as “reality,” such as the patriarchal definition of humanity as a “male humanity which has free will and the reason to exercise it,” is nothing more or less than a cultural construct which means that it is subject to change. And a cultural construct must change when it is threatening the survival of the culture which created it – at which point it emerges from the shadows of the unconscious into the light of consciousness – so we can see it for what it really is. It is hoped that this essay will assist in that process.

So, are women human and do we want to be. If by human you are referring to the patriarchal definition, my answer is “No.” For this is a definition which is responsible for a whole host of patriarchal evils – from the oppression of women to the destruction of the earth. But, if by human you mean the species which is biologically determined to be culturally constructed – with all the biologically determined freedom of radical rethinking which that implies, well, count me in.

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