John Edale warns that those of us who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
Earlier this year, the BBC decided to celebrate International Women’s Day in a rather unusual way. It featured, on the home page of its news site, an essay by Dee Dee Smith, political analyst and former White House press secretary, entitled What if Women Ruled the World?
The essay starts by giving examples of ways in which the increased empowerment of women has made the world a better place:
‘Business is more profitable. Governments are more representative. Families are stronger, and communities are healthier.’
However, instead of using these examples to support an argument in favour of greater equality, Smith uses them to make the case for women being inherently better suited to holding positions of power.
Amongst the claims made in the essay are that women are more collaborative, inclusive and team-oriented, they are less driven to conflict, they are more likely to take a long term perspective when making decisions and they are better at listening, encouraging dialogue, and building consensus.
Sometimes we are told that studies have proven these things, and sometimes Smith backs up her claims with quotes from prominent female leaders such as Janet Napolitano, the US Secretary of Homeland Security.
Although these kinds of gender stereotypes are not exactly uncommon in some parts of the media, they are usually accompanied by a fig leaf of humour, or a token acknowledgement of the occasional merits of masculinity. But both are entirely lacking from this piece, which concludes with the statement:
‘Empowering women isn’t just the right thing, it’s the necessary thing. And because women are increasingly ruling, the world is changing for the better.’
It’s hard not to wonder what the BBC’s rationale was for publishing such a divisive and simplistic analysis when there really are much more positive, inclusive interpretations that can be placed upon many of the ways in which society is changing.
The growing empowerment of women and the slow erosion of old stereotypes about femininity are creating unprecedented opportunities for men as well, to explore and expand the definition of masculinity in ways which could be liberating for everyone.
Surely the last thing anybody needs is the establishment of a whole new set of stereotypes, just as laden with fundamental value judgments as the previous ones?
It could be argued that giving space to viewpoints like Smith’s is all part of freedom of speech or that it helps encourage a wider debate, but that logic needs to be applied evenly. It’s very difficult to envisage the BBC ever publishing an equivalent essay by a male political analyst, or by anyone arguing that their own race or religion was uniquely fit to govern.
Anyone who believes in the dictionary definition of equality is entitled to feel angry and upset that this essay was uncritically reproduced on one of the most popular and respected news sites on the planet.
Within a day of it being published the article had received over one thousand comments. A typical, despairing example simply stated:
‘Please think about the effect of the decades of painting a halo onto women, and painting devil horns onto men. How will that affect boys and girls growing up in this society? We’re all human, so please treat us all that way.’
The question raised in this comment is worth asking.
There is a serious problem with educational underachievement by boys throughout the Western world. Research carried out by Bonnie Hartley, a postgraduate researcher at the University of Kent, suggests that all that is needed for boys to perform worse than girls in exams is for them to believe that girls are cleverer.
What effect does it have on the self-esteem, self-image and ambitions of boys who grow up in societies where ideas like those in Smith’s essay have crept into mainstream political thought?
Conversely, what effect might this mindset ultimately have on the struggle for equality in the many areas in which women are still disadvantaged? Could there be a more sure-fire way to discredit these struggles than for them to be perceived to be led by women for whom equality is only a staging post?
Smith writes as if she is blazing a trail for a new and more progressive form of politics, but is she really saying anything that has not been said before?
History is littered with political movements, leaders and thinkers who claimed to have proven the natural superiority of their own particular section of the population over another. Men have done it to women. Whites have done it to non-whites. The rich have done it to the poor.
It has been going on since the phrenologists of the nineteenth century began studying the shapes of skulls in order to ‘prove’ racial superiority. This brand of politics has never once made the world a better place. Do we really need to learn that same old lesson one more time?
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