by Joyce Arthur (choice joyce)
Reprinted with permission from the author (originally published on the Blogger’s Paradise on Daily Kos)
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
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
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 children in 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 behavior. 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
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
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