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The Myth of Women's Weakness
I stumbled upon this on another web site. I have reprinted it with a few
changes for spelling and grammar. To review the original, click here.
"It is the weakness of men that forces women to be strong."
In Farinelli, 1994
I don't know how people have been able to transmit this old myth of feminine fragility
and weakness for so long, when it is obvious that women are, have always been and will
always be strong. This Western myth, for me, seems to be even older than the story of Adam
and Eve, which has been one of the foundations supporting women's slavery for all these
centuries. Indeed, Greeks already confined their women in gynecees and Romans, although
they allowed them a bit more freedom, did not always treat them much better.
Although a lot of people will claim that this myth has been based on the differences in
physical strength and ability between men and women, this, for me, does not account for
the fact that women have always been doing hard physical work, whether in the fields or at
home, since maintaining a household, during these times, was anything but easy physical
work. For me this myth has been maintained because men always built their identity
relative to women and because strength and physical domination appeared to them to be the
most obvious way to survive against others. Indeed, in such a mindset, men will want to
appear strong relative to women or have their personal strength reflected in the perceived
negative weakness of women.
In this view, behaviors such as compassion, tenderness, gentleness,
altruism, self-sacrifice, passionate love, disinterested friendship and so on are
considered submissive. All these behavioral characteristics are rooted in the emotional
domain, which is separated from and is of a different level than intellectual or physical
characteristics. This interpretation, that somehow having these characteristics makes a
woman "weak", supports the separation between women and men and so called
natural domination of men over women. The real issue here, finally, is not only the
relationship between men and women, but mostly the fact that men have been attracted to
the very ephemeral taste of power and the addiction to domination it causes to those who
have tried it. Indeed, power represents a safe haven, the illusion that one is secure from
all threats by dominating them and at the same time, enjoy some sadistic feelings when
seeing others exhibiting submissive behaviors. For these very short, but
moments, men have decided to sacrifice their harmonious relationships with women to find
themselves all alone in front of the world as a whole.
In a way, brutality and physical strength represent the most straightforward way to
power and the one that requires or seems to require the least efforts of comprehension,
tolerance and humility toward others. Reason, that gathers all the
characteristics---coldness, objectivity, distance, individualism, strength and even
sometimes brutality---that drives somebody to this state of power, whether physical or
intellectual and spiritual has been elevated at the same level as God, and even the Church
recognizes it as its master.
Now, most people would tell you that Rationalism was born in around the 15-16th century
and the Scientific Method, which it supports, the last century, so what was before this
rationalism? Most people have this view of the Middle Ages to be a dark period when
superstitions and barbarianism prevailed. However, one forgets that this period was born out of
the Roman Empire, which was built on a rational basis similar to those we understand
today, since it was rooted in Greek culture, which has been carried on, underground, to
the Renaissance time when it resurged. The church was never really superstitious, but it
had to fight against the peasant culture of paganism and magic. Since the peasants
represented about 90% of the population for a long time (until almost the 20th century),
it is true that often the countryside clergy was very influenced by this mentality.
From this long opposition between the hierarchy of the church and the people, was born
the Virgin Mary, a kind of compromise between the bible and the pagan belief in Mother
Earth which was twisted to the advantage of the church interpretation of the Scriptures.
So, one can see how this Reason, which one today praises as being THE solution to all the
problems, including women, never really died through the Medieval time, but was only
hidden under other forms of knowledge, mostly the ecclesiastic knowledge. But because the
church had such an influence on people's life (they had to go to mass several times a
week, had many religious celebrations and the church liturgical and iconographical arts
talked a lot to people who saw it in churches) that it transmitted this rationality to all
the layers of the populations through its morality.
Flesh versus the spiritual mind was the big motto of the church until very recently in
this century and was one of the foundations of the separation between men and women.
Reason is by definition independent of the body and by this characteristic can dominate
it. The key criterion of rationality is independence and so objectivity. Since rationality
is the instrument to reach and keep power, it always had to be kept away from women and to
a certain extent from the people in the lower level of the patriarchal hierarchy. This
latter was done by restricting access to intellectual knowledge to the people of the
However, women were kept away from this intellectual control by all means, even if they
had any access to knowledge, as was the case in some noble families after the 15-16th
century. Their learning had to be kept within the limit of their role as slaves of the
society. They were taught to be ashamed of their body and sexuality. Good morality was
built on the idea of women's weakness and fragility. Never was men's sexuality and body a
taboo, but as a negative reflection of this, women's bodies and sexuality were. From this,
a woman's seduction was suspect, while men supposed to have as many conquests as possible.
In the same way, women could not be independent and always had to be checked by a male,
whether he is her father, her brother or her husband. Thus, while men were supposed to be
objective, in reflection, women were, by nature subjective to all the surrounding factors,
such as male domination, but also the influence of the devil. One can see here, that men
have created a duality that prevails in every domains of life: social, cultural,
religious, intellectual, mental, psychological, sexual, physical and all these aspects are
tightly linked together and divided in two camps: men and women.
A good way to picture this situation, is the image of the mirror, with the men looking
at themselves within the mirror, this latter image representing the women themselves. All
this time, men have been relying on this image that women reflect to them and all their
behaviors, manners, mentalities have been built on the images that men have affected to
women. In a way, men could never be living the way they live without us, because their
whole life relies on our identities and roles that are assigned to it. Without these
references, men would be lost.
Women have learned to survive in a very restricted world, with few rights and few
liberties, while men have relied on us to survive in their wild world that they have built
for themselves. What they really fear today, is the fact that women are shaking those
traditional models and refuse to fit themselves into these specific and well-defined roles
that have been created by men all these centuries. They are afraid that if we can win the
freedom to choose our life, controlling all aspects of it, they will lose all their
references for building their personae and also all the support they need in order to
survive in this society. What they have to confront is that women, with all the training
they have had during those centuries of slavery, don't need them to survive in this world
that was not supposed to be made for us. And they, for the most part, refuse to recognize
it and to challenge their own selves. They rather want to see women changing a bit to
adapt to their world, but so that they become like men, so as to continue to reflect a
model for them. This model, instead of being the negative of what they should be, would be
a complementary model.