I told him that when examining patterns of oppression, advantage, disadvantage and privilege, one cannot look only at the top. One must look downward as well (to the needless deaths, the incarcerated, the homeless, the suicides, the impoverished, etc), and frankly, men dominate the numbers there, too. They always have, and their domination of these areas has become even more lopsided relative to women as women break through the glass ceiling without concurrently breaking through the glass basement.
He replied that looking to those in power has always been a good indicator of privilege and oppression, citing apartheid South Africa and Jim Crow America as examples. Whites at the top, therefore whites are privileged. When I asked him if he did indeed feel that the experience of women throughout history was remotely comparable to the experiences of blacks during slavery, he replied "Absolutely."
I was shocked. And a little sick to my stomach. And I began to realize one of the reasons why I've been seeing more and more women of color throw up their hands and disavow mainstream feminism.
Anyone who has read my piece on Patriarchy will know that in my view, patriarchy was not a system of oppression, but a collective strategy for dealing with a world that was very different from what the world looks like now. Differences in biology that go just a little deeper than the color of one's skin, and a history of public sphere labor that more closely resembled the work portrayed on "Dirty Jobs" (only without the machinery) than "The Office" made it essentially impossible throughout most of humanity's time on this planet for women to collectively put their hands to "men's work".
The most effective team strategy humans ever stumbled on for perpetuation of the species, one that has been seen in some form or other throughout most of human history, was the pairing of a resource-gathering unit with a child-caring unit. Given the fact that until very recently, any sexually active woman was, or could have been, pregnant at any given time, that she was the sole member of the team who had the necessary equipment to provide food to a child in its infancy, and that the vast majority of public sphere work was either beyond her physical capabilities or more ably performed by the larger, stronger, faster man, it should really come as no surprise that the vast majority of societies have always arranged themselves this way. It was, up until recently, virtually impossible for men and women to swap roles on the team.
Then the nature of public sphere work began to shift dramatically with the Industrial Revolution, assembly lines, and automation, allowing women entry into jobs outside the home and giving them the tools to be able to compete with men. But even so, it wasn't until women got control over their fertility (the pill) and were provided with realistic options that eliminated their children's physical dependence on them and only them (bottles, formula, disposable diapers, regulated daycare providers), AND the workplace became dominated by service jobs rather than resource ones, that women gained some serious equality in the working world and became 50% of the workforce.
To say that this means men and women are equal is...disingenuous. Women and men are not equal and can never be, because men are still larger and stronger than women, and women are still the ones who gestate and lactate. What it does mean is that both public and private sphere work have changed in such as way as to make the biological differences between the sexes largely irrelevant. A father cannot lactate, but he can bottle-feed a baby as well as any woman can, and so can a daycare provider. A woman could never have been reasonably be expected to cut down trees with a handsaw for a living or harvest grain with a scythe, but she *can* file documents, run an office, diagnose an illness, operate a forklift, drive a taxi, enter data on a computer or work a cash register as ably as any man.
The biological differences between men and women are not even remotely the same as the skin-deep differences between black people and white people. Women's unique gendered disadvantages throughout history can ALL be traced back to those very real and significant biological differences between the sexes. Women were forced into their roles not by men, but by reality. And men's options were, realistically, not much more varied than women's.
The disadvantages blacks faced under slavery, and the ones they still struggle to overcome even now? Those disadvantages owed to nothing more than the color of their skin, and what that signified with respect to their status as persons to those in power. How on earth can the two be considered even remotely comparable?
Moreover, when we examine oppression with respect to men and women and their relative places in society through history, we see men at the top and men at the bottom. If we looked only at the top, as feminists have been, and are still, wont to do, we could say men were the privileged class and women oppressed. But if we look only at the bottom, and the expectations and obligations required of men that were not required of women, we could just as accurately and justifiably say that women were the privileged class and men the oppressed.
While there were downsides to being a woman, there were upsides to being one as well.
- She might have less freedom of movement, but she had a greater expectation of safety and protection than a man did.
- She might not be able to own property, but she had an often legally codified entitlement to financial support from men.
- She might not be able to work outside the home, but at the same time, she wasn't expected to risk life, health and limb earning money.
- She may have been "stuck" at home with the kids, but she wasn't "stuck" for 12 hours a day in a coal mine, either.
- She may have been under her husband's authority, but if she committed a crime, she wouldn't be held fully accountable for her actions.
- The upper echelons of power and influence were mostly (not completely) barred to her, but she couldn't be ordered against her will to die for her country, either.
When we examine the pattern of oppression, disadvantage and privilege with respect to black people and white people during slavery, things are rather more...uh...black and white. You looked up, and you saw all whites. You looked down to the very bottom and you saw mostly blacks. And things still very much look that way even now--the higher up you go in the strata of society, the whiter things look. And blacks still disproportionately dominate the areas of greatest disenfranchisement--the poor, the incarcerated, the uneducated. All based on a difference that is no more relevant than eye color or the size of one's nose.
And what, pray tell, were the "upsides" to being black in America during slavery? Can anyone here name a single white slave owner who ever died to save the lives of his black slaves? Who ever gave up a space in a lifeboat to his black slave and chose himself to go down with a ship? Who ever stood with a rifle between his black slaves and an enemy to defend their lives, rather than his right to own them?
Can anyone even imagine a white slave owner working 16 hours in a field while his black slaves stayed inside and kept his house tidy, then coming home and sharing the fruits of his labors with his black slaves?
Did a black woman who was the sexual partner of a white man have any expectation of respect, lifelong provision or shelter, or of sharing the benefits of his quality of life and his social status? Or was she just an object of the moment, free to be used and cast aside at will? Did a black man who was obligated to obey his owner's wife have any legal right or recourse when she turned around and pointed a finger and claimed he raped her? Or was he swinging from a tree within hours?
Can anyone imagine a reality where a white slave owner would perform physically gruelling or dangerous work his black slave was incapable of? Or would he simply set more slaves to the task, or work his slave to his death, or discard his used-up slave and buy a better one? If women were truly oppressed by men, would they have been spared the most onerous and dangerous work because they were less physically capable of it, or would men have simply assigned more women to the task?
Can anyone here name a single black person, man or woman, who rose to a state-sanctioned position of serious political power during slavery? Off the top of my head, I can name a fuck-ton of women who have been heads of state, going as far back as Ancient Egypt. The greatest and most notable black leaders emerging from Jim Crow America and apartheid South Africa rose to influence by opposing the government, not being elected to it, because they had no avenue to power within a system that oppressed them.
Women have always been less likely to be punished than men for the crimes they commit, and less severely punished. When, under slavery or Jim Crow laws, did black people enjoy this advantage? While women historically had to defer to men, in return for this disadvantage they have always been held less accountable for their actions. Black slaves, on the other hand, were under the total authority of their owners, and could be (and often were) brutally punished or executed--without trial--for crimes not their own.
Even now in these "enlightened" times, blacks are not only more likely to be convicted of crimes than whites, but their sentences are disproportionately long compared to whites. At the same time, while women no longer have to defer to men in any aspect of life in the west, they are STILL not held as accountable for their crimes as men are.
While a woman had less freedom of movement than a man, she had a socially and legally enforced expectation of safety and protection from the harshness of the world. Black slaves, on the other hand, had NO freedom of movement, and no right to any expectation of protection from those in authority over them, or from greater society.
Women had no money of "their own" (once they were married, anyway), but the most difficult, dirty, nasty, smelly, dangerous, physically arduous jobs (other than childbirth) belonged to someone else. And slaves? Do I really need to outline how it was downside all around for them in this area too?
When one wishes to identify groups which oppress and those which are oppressed, one simply cannot look only at the top of society and draw all your conclusions from who occupies those positions. In order to be oppressors, a group doesn't just have to occupy positions of power, but they have to, you know, do some oppressing. And while the biological differences between men and women could be said to be oppressive to both parties with respect to the expectations, obligations, choices, freedoms and rights afforded to each group, the oppressor responsible for patriarchy was not men, but nature.
The nature of human sex differences and the nature of the world we lived in, wherein some choices were simply not realistically open to either gender. Roles were rigidly enforced because rigid enforcement was beneficial to the stability of society. Was a man "oppressed" by women because his inability to lactate forced him into the role of provider rather than a possibly preferred role of nurturer? How then can we characterize a woman as oppressed by men because her inability to control her fertility and the limitations of her physical size and strength kept her from earning her own money working in a foundery?
The only quantifiable, material, functional and practical difference between black people and white people? Skin color. That's it. And yet it is black people, who won the right to vote before women did, who are facing a more difficult and arduous struggle for equality with whites than the women who have breezed to equal, near equal, or better than equal status with men in the space of a century. It is black people--not women--who even now inhabit an average position of lower social, educational, legal and economic status than white people in America, who are still disproportionately represented among the incarcerated, the poor, and a dozen other areas of real disenfranchisement.
And that's because the oppression of black people in America was--and is--really-and-for-true, one-way, genuine oppression that looked NOTHING like the experience of women relative to men at any point in human history.
Patriarchy was a cost/benefit partnership where men and women each bore some of the costs and reaped some of the benefits. Slavery was a cost/benefit system of oppression where all the benefits were reaped by one party and all the costs borne by the other.
To compare the experience of women--a valued, protected and provided-for class--throughout history with that of black people under slavery and apartheid is a slap in the face to every single black man who died wrongfully imprisoned in South Africa, to every single black woman who was forced onto her back by her white owner, to every single black man who was ever executed by a mob without trial, to every single black person who lived and died in bondage or in a concentration camp, and every single black person who still struggles to overcome the lingering and devastating effects of the utterly baseless, unjustifiable and man-made oppression of slavery and segregation.
So I just wanted to repeat, so we're all clear on this:
Women and Black are NOT the same thing.