The real reasons that women are oppressed by patriarchy

Dr Jessica Taylor

I’m starting to realise that women are oppressed because they are more powerful than men.

I know that sounds like an oxymoron, but consider that all oppression has a reason or a motivation. It all starts somewhere. Oppressors would not seek to control, denigrate and silence people who had no power in the first place, would they?

Men don’t oppress women because they think they are stupid, incompetent, weak or incapable – they oppress women because they know that we aren’t any of those things. They know that given the chance, we will change the world in several ways which will permanently dismantle male supremacy. And they don’t want that.

I am writing this blog post deliberately to spark conversation and thought about the systemic oppression of women and girls – and how this is only required because of the potential power of women and girls.

Women make up 51% of the population and yet, are disproportionately oppressed, abused, killed, trafficked, mutilated and raped by men in every country of the world. As scholars have pointed out before me, there are no rape-free societies. There are no areas of the world where women are not being raped by men. There are no areas of the world where women are not being abused and controlled by male partners. There are no areas of the world where girls and women are better off than men and boys, and in proportionate control of their lives, finances, education and governments.

We must consider why this is. Misogynists try to convince us that it is because we are weak, incapable, poor leaders, stupid or emotional.

I am here to argue that women have more potential and power than men in several important areas of human life, and that the patriarchy seeks to oppress and control us because rather than actually believing that we are weak, they recognise that we are strong.

Further, they are aware how much stronger we would be if we understood and utilised our power, so much of society is designed to keep women and girls from ever realising their own skill, knowledge or power.

The control of female sexuality

The patriarchy seeks to control female sexuality, sexual preferences, sexual acts and sexual consent for several reasons. In a majority heterosexual society (and one which forces compulsory heterosexuality on even those who are gay or bi) women are sought out for men’s sexual desires, sexual exploitation and sexual pleasure. This means that women and girls are required to conform to male-accepted beauty standards, submit to sex when requested, enjoy sex acts which harm or abuse them and believe that their sexual prowess is their most important quality.

Patriarchal control has achieved this by ensuring that women and girls self-sexualise from 7 years old (according to APA, 2007), that women and girls believe and employ rape myths towards themselves and other women, blame themselves (and blame other women and girls) for the sexual and domestic violence of men (Taylor, 2020).

Further, patriarchal norms mean that globally, millions of women are expected to give (or abstain from) sex, whenever men tell them to. This could be their fathers, brothers, husbands or men in their wider support networks. Millions of women and girls are subjected to FGM to remove parts of their sexual organs, including the clitoris, so that men can control their sexual activity, and so that female sexual pleasure is never experienced.

Women’s sexuality is powerful not because we are walking sex objects, but because it is something intensely private, personal and intimate to us all. We own our sexuality. We choose how to use our sexuality, if at all. We should have total control over who we are intimate with, when and why. Our pleasure and our sexual organs belong to us. If we really had full control of our sexuality, and were not manipulated to believe that being ‘sexy’ is important to our role in the world, men would not have control over our bodies, images, laws, lives, relationships and our sexual pleasure.

It should be so telling that female sexuality is directed, shaped and twisted to fit whatever men want from us at that time. Smaller waist? Thicker waist? No ass? Round ass? Big boobs? Small boobs? Showing your skin? Not showing your skin? Lots of make-up? The ‘natural’ look? We are simply tricked into believing that we have power over our sexuality and our appearance. It’s a facade.

It is important that the patriarchy continues to control women’s sexuality, in order for women and girls to never understand the power they have in a world where men desire control of their sexuality. It is equally important to patriarchy that the manipulation of women and girls continues, to hypersexualise them further and further, so they believe that being a sex object is empowering and glamourous – which plays right into men’s hands.

No one has to work very hard to control or manipulate women and girls who already view themselves as sex objects to be used, abused, controlled or enjoyed by men.

The control of female fertility

The patriarchy has long sought to control the reproductive power of women. They understand that they are not capable of the reproductive process without female bodies, hence why there is more and more experimental medical research exploring how to create wombs to gestate human babies in. And more and more fetishisation of female reproductive systems, periods, pregnancy, birth and motherhood.

Before men ever achieved scientific and ideological advances such as this, they were controlling the fertility of women in other ways. Rape has long been used to impregnate women and girls, and features in thousands of years of history, art and literature. Some evolutionary theorists even suggest that rape is the act of ensuring men’s genes continue (although this is highly contested, and I do not personally agree with that theory, as it ignores social and cultural reasons for rape).

Fast forward centuries as we have both forced pregnancies and forced abortions, men putting holes in condoms on purpose, patriarchal organisations protesting birth control and constant arguments about women’s right to choose what they do with their own fertility.

Women frequently tell stories of doctors refusing to sterilise them ‘in case their husband wants more children in the future’.

Further, society seems obsessed with women’s ability to create life and give birth – leading not only to the fascination and fetishisation of women’s bodies but also to hatred towards women who make a choice not to have children, and slurs towards menopausal women and women who cannot have children which mock them for being ‘barren’ and ‘dried up’. Lesbians will have heard these slurs too when they are mocked for not wanting or being able to have children via heterosexual sexual intercourse.

If that wasn’t enough, we have an entire industry of surrogacy which literally sells access to wombs for wealthy people – in which the majority of surrogates are women in less economically developed countries, being exploited for very little in poor conditions, to have babies for someone else who cannot or does not want to. Women’s fertility is not only controlled, but it has been commodified to the point that women are being used as paid-for containers, gestators and womb-havers.

The patriarchy seeks to control women’s fertility and reproduction because it is so powerful for the continuation of life. Oppressors are not interested in whether that is in the best interests of the babies or women, but will go to great lengths to debate and control fertility at every step. Whether it is men arguing whether women should be allowed to abort a foetus, or whether it is men arguing whether we should be allowed to sell wombs for surrogacy – notice again, that it is women’s unique power that they seek to exploit and oppress here. They cannot do these things for themselves, so they must control the power of women, instead.

Imagine how many industries, narratives and structures would collapse if women were able to take full control over their fertility without the pressure, obligation, expectation or oppression of patriarchy.

The control of women in government

Globally, women are not well represented in government or leadership. No matter how many men say that we have reached equality because of women like Margaret Thatcher, Hilary Clinton and Nicola Sturgeon being in senior leadership of governments and parties – these exceptions only prove the rule. The fact that men can name a handful of female leaders means that they are rare enough exceptions to be noticed in the first place. They are abnormal. They are different to the default setting: wealthy man.

In general, women are not in control of the world at any significant level, despite making up 51% of the global population. At least, we should expect to be half of all world power. The reality is much less equal. Women make up 8% of national leaders, and within that, 2% of world presidents. Women only make up around 4% of the Fortune 500 CEOs. In the UK in 2020, women make up 5% of the FTSE 100. That’s 5 female CEOs.

Depressingly, the country with the most female CEOs in the world only has 30% female CEOs (according to global stats, 30% of CEOs in Thailand are female, the highest representation in the world). That’s not even a third.

Often, when we discuss why this trend continues into 2020, we will be met with comments about women being poor leaders, not being interested in power and being busy with motherhood and childcare (another thing you could add to the previous section). Some people also suggest that female led countries and companies would be chaos, or incompetent. This is despite significant academic research which shows that there is less corruption and bribery in female led governments, as women are less likely to take bribes and allow corruption within their governments and institutions (Swamy et al. 2003).

During COVID-19, it has been repeatedly pointed out by academics and journalists that the countries responding to and recovering from the pandemic in the safest, most ethical and most effective ways are all ran by women. Jacinda Ardern, Angela Merkel, Sanna Marin and Tsai Ing Wen have all led their countries through COVID-19 with much lower infection and death rates than countries led by men. Some have pointed out that men were often seen to create narratives around COVID that positioned the virus as ‘the enemy’ and the pandemic as a ‘war’ or ‘battle’ to ‘win’ or ‘defeat’. In contrast, female leaders have been shown to take scientific evidence and medical advice, explore responses from other countries (including South Korea) and tried to reassure and support their populations.

This only presents more questions. If women are so competent, why don’t they feature in leadership more often? Why are they so discriminated against in the workplace? Why are there so many myths and stereotypes that women are hysterical, emotional wrecks who cannot lead a company or country?

Well, having thought about this more and more, I think it’s because women hold much more power, potential and capability than they realise. Interestingly, rather than the patriarchy believing women to be weak, stupid and incapable – the opposite must be true. They know that women are smart, honest, capable and strong leaders. And so, it is of vital importance to a patriarchy to continue to reframe women as poor thinkers and leaders, to keep them away from power.

The stereotypes and myths about female leaders are not there because the patriarchy believe them to be true, but because they need everyone else to believe them to be true, so they can maintain total power. They also need women and girls to believe that they would be poor leaders, and induce imposter syndrome as early as possible – so they never attempt to buck the trend and fight for power.

The control of women in justice and justice for women

In addition to the lack of women in government, we have a similar issue in justice. Whether that is criminal or civil law, legislation, investigations or independent inquiries – women are not equally represented and in some cases, are actively oppressed.

In a world in which 97% of crime is committed by men (according to international statistics collected by the FBI in 2017), it seems odd that men also make up the majority of lawmakers, judges, police chiefs, police commissioners, legislators and senators.

Women are hugely underrepresented in crime. Women make up just over half of the world population but commit 3% of the crime. When women are imprisoned, it is largely due to non-violent offences such as possession of drugs, non-payment of council tax and financial fraud.

However, more and more data is showing that crimes committed against women are going unpunished. We know that the current conviction rate of rape is just 0.2% in the UK, leading to the current inquiries lobbied for by the Centre for Women’s Justice. We know that the femicide rate is increasing. Women killed by males has increased significantly in 2020  (33%) but murders in which males kill other males have been dropping year on year.

In power, women make up 29% of court judges. Out of 41 police and crime commissioners, 6 are female. In law firms in the UK, only 17% of them have female partners.

So why the disparity here? What would happen if women were more in control of the justice systems? The pattern should be becoming clear by now, that keeping women out of power and influence is important for the upkeep of the patriarchy. Women are significantly underrepresented in the control of justice, despite being excellent when appointed to powerful roles. Female led prisons are some of the safest and well kept facilities in the UK, for example. This year, Pia Sinha was appointed to ‘Britain’s worst prison’ and has already transformed it, hitting national headlines for her work.

As part of the mission for sex equality and female liberation from patriarchy, women should be equal in all matters of governance, justice, politics and society. Women play such a small role in justice, and certainly don’t receive justice when they require it, either. Only 13% of women even bother reporting crimes to the UK police anymore (CSEW, 2017), and when research explores why that it, it is usually because women are scared of how they will be treated or the ways in which they will be blamed (Taylor, 2020).

What would happen if women were given half of the control of the justice systems? Maybe our approaches and procedures would change? Maybe women would get more justice? Maybe less women would die after calling the police 17 times and being ignored? Maybe girls would stop being blamed by judges, lawyers and police officers when they are being sexually abused and trafficked? There is a reason that women are being kept from positions of power in the justice systems, and it is not because the patriarchy deem us to be weak or incapable.

It is because they know that more women in the system would change that system. And why would the patriarchy want that? At present, men have a 0.2% conviction rate for rape and a 8% conviction rate for domestic violence (ONS, 2019). For perpetrators of male violence, those are pretty good odds, wouldn’t you say?

The control of women’s language and spaces

For anyone keeping their eye on the current issues engulfing the mission for women’s rights and female liberation, it will have become clear that the flavour of the month in misogyny is to control the language and spaces of women. This is nothing new. Dale Spender wrote about it in the 1980s in her book ‘Man Made Language’.

However, more and more women are noticing the way governments, institutions, law enforcement and media are changing, redefining and seeking to control the free speech of women, in particular. Whether it’s the pressure to redefine women, misspell it entirely – or erase ‘woman’ completely from professional and public discourse

One of the most effective ways of stopping women and girls from taking control of their lives is to limit their language and spaces to do so. If women cannot talk about female oppression anymore, they cannot challenge it or protest. If women cannot define themselves as class of humans that need rights, support and protection, then they will not be able to secure these things. This movement is deliberate. If the word ‘woman’ begins to mean nothing (anyone can define themselves into and out of it) then the laws, legislation and policies pertaining to the advancement and equality of women will mean nothing.

Oppression intersects. We understand this fairly well. But what we don’t seem to grasp is that oppressions all tend to work and and impact in fairly similar ways. Methods of control tend to be similar (dehumanisation, dementalisation, abuse, pathologisation, criminalisation, isolation, and stigmatisation).

How is it then, that we can see this happen to one oppressed group and totally understand that they need their own movements, their own language, their own leaders and their own spaces away from and separate from the oppressor – but we cannot apply this to females as a protected group as a sex? It’s as if we do not believe this applies to women.

How come we understand and are outraged when an oppressor attempts to co-opt or exploit the oppression of one group, but cannot or will not see it when it is happening to women and girls?

Controlling women’s language and the ways in which they can meet, organise and discuss issues which affect them should be seen as a serious red flag. I mean this in two ways. The first is that this is a red flag for an extremely misogynistic and patriarchal society that does not want women and girls to be able to organise alone.

But to return to the theme of female power, the second way this is a red flag is that it should signal to us about how powerful our organisation is.

If women meeting, organising and forming groups was so powerless, futile and pathetic – why is it an issue if we choose to do so? If the oppressor does not believe that those who he oppressed have any power at all, why would it matter if lots of them joined together to relate with each other and be in each other’s company? 

The only real answer here, is that the act of women and girls meeting, teaching, debating, learning, supporting and organising in female only spaces is considered dangerous – and you are only considered dangerous if you have power. Removing our language and spaces is an attack on women everywhere, but also a sure sign that they know how powerful we are when we work together and form alliances with other women.

Final thoughts

Take this writing and think about it. We are much more powerful than we think. As women and girls, we have had a lifetime of messages telling us that we are not clever enough, strong enough, big enough, capable enough, logical enough, rational enough… And it’s all been deliberate. It’s all been bullshit.

The entire time, women have always been smart, strong, capable, competent and influential – but we have been systematically and carefully oppressed, controlled, abused, distracted, sexualised, objectified, infantilised, silenced, threatened and mocked.

The only reason this is happening is because we hold so much power and we threaten patriarchal control.

Written by Dr Jessica Taylor

14/08/20

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