Notes on”the Weaker Sex”

“This inferiority is so obvious that no one can contest it for a moment; only its degree is worth discussion. …Without a doubt there exist some distinguished women … but they are as exceptional as the birth of any monstrosity, as, for example, of a gorilla with two heads; consequently, we may neglect them entirely.”

– Gustave Le Bon, French thinker and Social Darwinist on women’s intellectual inferiority  to men (Gould, 1981:104,105).

As most know, the notion that men are physically superior to women exists only insofar as it has served (and continues to serve) as the supposed explanation for why women came to be oppressed by men. From here, some women may argue that whilst women are weaker than men, this by no means justifies male violence against women, or sets into stone a system of oppression. They go on to say that of course we can be free – physical strength differences be damned.

For me, this will not do. One of my main issues is that it takes the S-E-X out of SEXism. Physical strength differences are irrelevant – no doubt – and it is beyond absurd and childish to insist otherwise. But I have never been declared inferior to or been targeted by other women who are stronger than me [1], nor is strength in women celebrated [2][3][4]. I want to know why females are oppressed by males, and subscribing to this ideology prevents any sort of true comprehension of a system of male supremacy, instead presenting men as sort of ‘natural bullies’ whose sex has been completely erased under a paradigm of “strength superiority”. But it is not a system of strength superiority that we have to worry about – if that were the case, there would have been no such thing as sexism.

“Nothing so unfailingly tickles the world as the woman being taller.”

Zoe Williams writing for the Guardian recently gave her take on the media’s longstanding fascination with Sophie Dahl & Jamie Cullum’s relationship (pictured above). As Williams astutely wrote, the real issue “is not about height,” but “Who can overpower whom?” What women who are taller make salient is the sex difference: that sexism does not revolve around women’s physical limitations but that women are hated and targeted by men due to what (only) we can do physically. [5]

Difference vs Dominance 

I think what changed with my thinking on this subject, was learning about the two approaches to the problem of sex inequality [6]. The first approach begins with Difference, the second with Dominance.

The Difference approach goes like this:

We are the same as men, underneath it all, but we are not allowed to be.

Or sometimes it changes into:

We are different from men, by design, but we are not valued equally.

In either case, men remain the standard (for what it is to be human) from which women are measured [7]. Starting with Difference means sexism is then either a problem of mistaken differentiation (we are both men, but not treated as such) or one of “imbalance” (our differences should be equally valued). But what this latter argument fails to explain is how and why men’s differences came to be overvalued (and femaleness disparaged) in the first place. Inevitably, the only answer is to restate the dominant group’s own ideology: they are ‘superior’ in some way shape or form, and we are left to throw up our hands and argue against nature.

“…power is not a mistake, it’s not a misunderstanding…” 

– Lierre Keith

And that’s how we ended up with trans activism and queer theory. If difference is the problem, then destroying difference is the solution. If biology or nature is wrong, then we have to change our biology and fight / conquer nature in order to save ourselves.

“The underlying sociobiological text of naturalist explanations for unequal social status is that the characteristic that members of the dominant group share is the inherent cause of and continuing justification for their dominance, and the characteristics shared by the subordinate groups cause and justify their subordination. In this way, social conditions become universal givens. The same problem arises with Beauvoir’s analysis of woman as “other” or the “second sex” to man. It is one thing as a description, another as explanation. Why isn’t man “other” to woman? Social power is not explained, it is only restated, depriving the critique of any basis other than a moral one.”

– Catharine MacKinnon, Toward a Feminist Theory of the State (1989), pp. 54-55.

Enter the Dominance Approach

The dominance approach says that the problem isn’t difference – since difference actually doesn’t tell us much about political inequality – but male dominance. It takes women’s humanity for granted (we aren’t hurt because we are inferior; of course we are equal; we are not the problem). It doesn’t detach from reality, but confronts it head on – how could wanting to dominate the other sex, tormenting and hurting them, possibly be evidence of ‘superiority’? This situation is, on the contrary, wrong, an embarrassment, a joke.

Dominance recognizes relationships based on exploitation (whereby one group lives at the other’s expense and expands as the other retracts). That in order for us to be truly treated as equals to men in society, women need our own ‘women’ – which means another group of human beings to terrorize, appropriate their labour and live off of as parasites. It also recognizes a way out: those on top cannot exist without those on the bottom producing them (as their own labour is not creating themselves). Collective non-violent resistance is threatening because it comes from this realization; if you kill me, you kill yourself too. It says: If you want to live at all, then change, because I will not create you anymore.

So: dominance comes first, then differences are established accordingly [8]. This explains why what it means to be a real woman is frail and petite, while size and strength are valued in real men. And why men who murder their partners are sentenced to two years on average, while women are threatened with sixty years for firing a warning shot in the air [9]. But the other main reason I hate the weaker sex argument (and started my blog as a result) is not because – since I reject it outright – I am suggesting that we all should just start working out, learn to fight and basically Rambo our way out of Patriarchy, but because it subtly implies that this is all women’s fault: that if only we were stronger, we would never have been oppressed. That if we were strong, we could stop them. [10]

What rubbish.

Men harm women because they want to. Not because ‘they can’. Women don’t buy guns and shoot at people, hide behind walls and throw battery acid at boy’s faces, drug people’s drinks, run people over in cars and trucks, or specifically target kids not because we can’t do those things – but because we don’t want to. And you can check this by realizing that we don’t even treat each other like that. We don’t physically fight another to solve problems. We don’t have those issues of wanting to be the biggest in our group of friends. If we are tall, we actively avoid dating men much shorter than ourselves (while even very short men make sure to date shorter than themselves). We don’t date men significantly younger than ourselves, or have men starve themselves, or be generally incompetent in order to be found ‘attractive’. We have no interest in dominating men and declaring ourselves, bizarrely, the “superior sex”.

So, it is absolutely ridiculous to insist that a male is somehow superior to a female in any way; it just doesn’t make sense. Men are not just really, really, ‘butch’ women – the same, only stronger. And women are not ‘effeminate’ or ‘disabled’ males (disabled by our reproductive ability); the same – only weaker. Our bodies are different: we have relatively greater lower body strength, longer legs in proportion to our bodies, we are more likely to survive during starvation situations, have stronger immune systems, are less likely to suffer from a host of X-linked diseases and disorders, have a lower mortality rate from birth through till old age and we make human beings [11], etc. The meaning of “difference” under male supremacy does not correlate to reality, where women’s differences from men are equal to men’s differences from women, “difference” is deployed as an excuse by men to justify the material inequality that underlies their parasitic system of male supremacy.

“There came a time in Black people’s movement for equality in this country when slavery stopped being a question of how it could be justified and became a question of how it could be ended. Racial disparities surely existed or racism would have been harmless, but at that point – a point not yet reached for issues of sex – no amount of group difference mattered any more. This is the same point at which a group’s characteristics, including empirical attributes, become constitutive of the fully human, rather than being defined, as before, as exceptions to or by distinction from the fully human. It incarnates partial standards to one-sidedly measure one group’s differences against a standard set by the other. The point at which one’s particular qualities become part of the standard by which humanity is measured is a millennial moment.”

– Catharine A. MacKinnon, “Difference and Dominance: On Sex Discrimination” in Feminism Unmodified: Discourses on Life and Law (1987), p.44

So it is not female biology that is the problem, but the social meaning ascribed to female biology by men under a system of male dominance that is at issue.

“…in a world of kicking and getting kicked, I want to say: there is another way.”

– Catharine MacKinnon, “On Exceptionality” in Feminism Unmodified, p77.

If you don’t believe me then ask why, if women are simply smaller males, we still struggle to be represented even in sports where a lighter body is advantageous (such as horse riding, motor sports, etc.)? Or why don’t we play sports that celebrate female bodies and strengths, instead of sports that are supposed to be “Womens” only serving to shortchange our physicality (like gymnastics, ballet [12], etc.)? Why do we live in a world where Curling, Bridge, Olympic Shooting and Badminton are segregated by sex due to immutable biological differences between the sexes, while men become obstetrician’s & gynaecologist’s and Bruce Jender is declared Woman of the Year? Why was Lindsey Van dismissed from competing against men (because there was no women’s division) despite holding the overall record in the Ski Jump?

Maybe there is discomfort in this argument because some radical feminists think that taken to its logical conclusion, it argues for the end of sex segregation in sports. It doesn’t. Women, being a historically marginalized group, have the right to self-segregated environments regardless of how we measure up against an apparent gold standard of male athleticism. But abstracting organized sports from male-dominant culture is a dead-end – there is nothing “natural” about this institution. Which is why trying to turn men’s own words against them to defend ourselves (i.e. arguing that women are inferior athletes) won’t work: men never cared about hurting us because we were ‘weaker’ before. [13]

You will instead be used to carry out their dirty work, breathing life back into pre-feminist conceptions of sex difference, reifying the dying concept of a “real woman”, and making it harder for female athletes to perform at their best under the paradigm of female athletic inferiority for fear that they will be accused of being men in disguise, which was the logic behind the abominable sex testing that plagued the 80’s and 90’s. And it was mostly racially marginalized women and / or lesbian athletes who were targeted by this insidious form of ‘femininity policing’, currently making a comeback under the guise of progress. Men who identified as women, however, had no problem competing even then despite a lifetime of male privilege, including access to all the sports teams, facilities, encouragement and opportunities their male heart’s could desire (i.e. ‘Renee’ Richards) [15]. Because difference has never been the problem – male dominance has.

[Man can attain] a higher eminence, in whatever he takes up, than can women—whether requiring deep thought, reason, or imagination, or merely the use of the senses and hands. If two lists were made of the most eminent men and women in poetry, painting, sculpture, music (inclusive of both composition and performance), history, science, and philosophy, with half-a-dozen names under each subject, the two lists would not bear comparison. We may also infer, from the law of the deviation from averages, so well illustrated by Mr. Galton, in his work on “Hereditary Genius” that . . . the average of mental power in man must be above that of women. 

– Charles Darwin (1896:564).

[1] or weaker than me, for that matter.

[2] Imagine living in a world where men had to routinely apologize for developing musculature. Conversely, the reverse is true under Patriarchy: men are socially sanctioned for not exhibiting a muscular ideal (however, this is not to be confused with the confines and restraints of sex-based oppression).

[3] And for women who experience racial and sexual discrimination, in particular Black women and Indigenous women, this holds even greater significance.

[4] “Holding Back”: Negotiating a Glass Ceiling on Women’s Muscular Strength by Shari L. Dworkin, (2001) [x]

[5]“If we do not talk of exploitation when we talk of the man-woman relationship, our talk about oppression, or subordination hangs somewhere in the air, for why should men be oppressive towards women if they had nothing to gain from it?”

– Exploitation or Oppression/Subordination? An excerpt from Maria Mies’s wonderful  book entitled Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale: Women in the International Division of Labour (1986)

[6] Catharine A. MacKinnon, “Difference and Dominance: On Sex Discrimination” in Feminism Unmodified: Discourses on Life and Law (1987) [x]

[7] ibid. p.34. See also: [x]

[8] “From this perspective, considering gender a matter of sameness and difference covers up the reality of gender as a system of social hierarchy, as an inequality. The differences attributed to sex become lines that inequality draws, not any kind of basis for it. Social and political inequality begins indifferent to sameness and difference. Differences are inequality’s post hoc excuse…Inequality comes first; difference comes after.”

– Catharine A MacKinnon, “Sex Equality: On Difference and Dominance” in Towards a Feminist Theory of the State (1989), p. 218-19.

[9] “The average prison sentence for men who kill their intimate partners is 2 to 6 years. Women who kill their partners are sentenced, on average, 15 to 17 years. […] According to Sir William Blackstone, when a husband kills his wife, it is comparable to killing a stranger; but when a wife kills her husband, it is comparable to treason by killing the king.”

– The Michigan Women’s Justice & Clemency Project [x]

[10] If force is the problem (how women came to be oppressed), then the use of force is the solution (the way out). Women will have to construct even greater weapons than men to free ourselves from a world where the threat of nuclear annihilation looms over us all. But “…force is only the means, and that the aim, on the contrary, is economic advantage [in the broadest sense possible]. And “the more fundamental” the aim is than the means used to secure it, the more fundamental in history is the economic side of the relationship than the political side.” 

– Frederick Engels, Anti-Dühring , Part II: Political Economy – Theory of Force (1877)

[11] “It’s important to note: it’s not just that men cannot biologically carry a child to term and survive the birth, but if they did with their current make-up, they would die. So, you may call it the miracle of childbirth, but a woman’s body is gifted with a much greater level of resilience than their male counterparts.”How To Fight Write

[12] “The girls, maybe six to eight years old, creep across the stage in these horrible mincing, stilted steps on their toes towards the boys. The boys take long, striding steps, looking like they enjoy the movement of their own bodies, towards the girls. I felt physically sick. These little girls moved like they were cobbled, magnified by the freedom of the boys stride. For no reason, except the choreographer (ABT Artist in Residence Alexei Ratmansky) thought it looked beautiful.”

– No, I Can’t Stop Thinking about Gender Roles and Sexism, Even When I go to See The Nutcracker | Reading, Writing and the ‘Rhythmatic of Life by Nicole Lisa (December 17, 2012)

[13] Treating men’s sports as reflecting their ‘natural’ difference, deprives us of any critique of the institution of sports that doesn’t attack what men ‘naturally’ are.

[14] Mariah Burton Nelson, “Unfair play: Sex Testing of Women in Sport” in Trouble and Strife, Issue 29/30, published Winter 1994/95 [x]


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