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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, generosity, 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 exalting 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 dominant class.

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.