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Society Disables Women

hope's picture
It has often been the goal of feminist organizations to protect and defend women. Recently, the “stop violence against women” movement gained popular attention. Such a movement is, taken at face value, hard to oppose. However, while any attempt to reduce violence is to be applauded, does this campaign not in some ways reinforce the notion that being female is somehow a disability? Does it not imply that women are weaker and therefore in need of special protection? Is stopping violence against men not an equally worthy cause? Rosemarie Garland-Thompson writes that “Indeed, equating femaleness with disability is common, sometimes to denigrate women and sometimes to defend them.” Efforts to classify women as disabled in order to denigrate them have long been fought against, but efforts to do so in the name of protecting women have been more commonly accepted as cultural norms. Sons are taught never to hit a girl; daughters are warned against walking alone at night. Is it wise to condition children in this way, or do these childhood lessons impress upon young minds the notion that women are fragile and weak, fundamentally different from and inferior to men? And if so, could this notion shape the perception of women in society as a whole and limit the ways in which women are expected to function within it? In other words, could this notion disable women?


But what really does it mean to be disabled? The word has often connoted inferiority or a lacking of some kind within an individual. Today, however, scholars of disability studies, such as Garland-Thompson, argue that a disabled individual is not lacking in abilities but rather is at a disadvantage only within cultures which extol characteristics different from those of the "disabled" individuals. This is nicely illustrated by the story of the sighted man who is severely disabled in the land of the blind. He enters the land thinking his sight will give him an advantage over the blind, but soon realizes that the blind society is structured for the blind, and his dependence on sight puts him at a disadvantage. Garland-Thomson describes women's bodies as the "supposedly ungovernable, helpless, dependent, weak, vulnerable, and incapable" ones. Jane Flax (quoted by Garland-Thomson, my italics) says that women are "'mutilated and deformed' by sexist ideology and practices." The supposition of weakness Garland-Thomson speaks of may in fact lead to the disabling sexism Flax describes. Society can disable therefore, not only by valuing certain traits over other, but also by imagining great differences between the traits of different groups when the differences in reality may be very small. Using this broader understanding of the word it is possible to consider how women might be disabled by society.

Women for a long time were perceived as having less intellect than did men and were consequently barred from educational institutions that would have allowed them to prove their actual abilities. An imagining of differences thus disabled them. In 1851 women were for the most part considered fragile and delicate and were treated in that way. Their roles were therefore limited. They were allowed no means of gaining physical strength or independence. Again, the perception men had of them disabled them. This disability lied not within the women's bodies but within the society of the time. Sojourner Truth offered dramatic proof of the physical and mental strength women could achieve when not limited by society's expectations in her famous speech to the women's Convention in Ohio, "Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain't I a woman?" Sojourner Truth was not perceived as fragile or weak by society and was thus not disabled into behaving as such (though I certainly do not mean to discount the ways in which society did disable her through its blatant racism and the institution of slavery).

If we accept that societies do disable certain groups either by the characteristics it chooses to venerate or through limiting certain groups based on the perception of inferiority, and we admit that women have often been thus disabled, then we may have a new lens through which to look at the value of women's institutions. Groups such as the blind are disabled by the value most of society places on sight. By creating institutions such as schools for the blind, they can create communities that do not emphasize sight and within which they are therefore not disabled. Women's institutions could perhaps be considered similarly. If society disables women by perceiving them as unintelligent or overly emotional or in other ways unfit to pursue certain areas of study, then they may require women's institutions such as Bryn Mawr in order to acquire skills and knowledge in an environment in which they are not disabled by misperceptions. Perhaps then these institutions should not be limited to women only but instead open to all people who have been disabled by society because of their gender, including transgender and intersex individuals. These people are often misunderstood and discriminated against because they do not neatly fit into the gender dichotomy to which society clings.

Though valuable to women and other similarly disabled groups trying to escape the limitations society has placed upon them, remaining within these institutions does not offer a permanent solution to the problem of society’s disabling attitude. Eventually people must leave institutions such as women’s colleges or schools for the blind and return to the society which disabled them. So what lasting effects do such institutions have? Does the time a woman spends and a women’s college, for example, negate the disability that society has placed on her? Presumably by being educated in an environment that perceived her as capable and intelligent (rather than intellectually inferior) she was able to become so. Women’s colleges and similar institutions can be described as empowering, helping women to overcome society’s sometimes bad impressions of them and even previously held impressions of themselves. Maybe through this empowerment those who attend these institutions can help inspire others to reevaluate the gender hierarchy and other disability-creating hierarchies of values. Society may still prevent her from obtaining the same jobs or salary as men might, perhaps disabling her financially, but through the women’s institution she has denied society the chance to disable her mind.

Perhaps it seems ironic to argue that efforts to protect women label them as weak and that this perception disables them while at the same time arguing in favor of women’s institutions that do in a way seem to offer this very protection. The protection these institutions offer, however, is entirely different. It is a protection from society’s disabling misperceptions, not from any physical weakness or vulnerability in women, and implies that the flaw lies within cultural expectations rather than within women’s abilities. Perhaps when society stops forcing upon us this other, this condescending and disabling “protection” the protection of women’s institutions will no longer be needed. So don’t walk me home. Don’t carry my books. And if I hit you, hit me back. Sojourner Truth could “work as hard and eat as much as a man,” and so can the rest of us.


kovinder's picture

womenf capable of leading in the society in the right direction

I want a article on this for my debate compitition.

skumar's picture

conditioning children


You brought up a really important issue in the introduction of your paper--you posed a question, one about whether our culture's tendency to "condition" children, little girls especially, contributes to the disabilities we impose on them in the future. I think this is a critical concern, one that is often overlooked. By telling a young girl that she has to go outside in the dark with her older brother or her dad (simply because she is a girl) contributes to incessant psychological disability that pursues later on in the girl's life. Then, when a girl reaches high school she experiences restraints from her parents to go out with a group of friends, friends that may include guys. Even still, women encounter gender-related issues upon entering the workforce. It seems like there has been a cultural disability imposed on a woman at all stages of her life. I know this is something that I experienced growing up and I must admit, it has made me a little insecure in certain contexts, a litte disabled in society. The disability stayed with me for a while, merging into my academic/intellectually life, social life, and personal life. All of this is to make the point that what may seem like a slight, cultural inclination to condition girls to think of themselves as inferior to boys has a large, impacting effect for a girl's future.


Anne Dalke's picture

Disabling Perception

I'm glad to have you think through the suggestion Alex made in class this week, that Bryn Mawr's admissions policy might be altered so that the College would welcome "all people who have been disabled because of their gender" (would the policy, as you imagine it, be inclusive of gay men?). You've walked carefully through the minefield of of "protectionism"--and its attendant implications of weakness--to arrive @ a rationale for the continued existence (and eventual dissolution?) of women's colleges. You draw on Garland-Thompson's work (as well, implicitly, on that of McDermott and Varenne); you could incorporate as well into this project some of Virginia Woolf's thinking about "The Outsider's Society," as well as some of the contemporary research that has been done about the accomplishments of the graduates of women's colleges.

I'd also invite you--if you are interested--to go on thinking in some alternative directions about the rationale for segregated schools such as this one. How (for example) would you counter the concern for providing an educational experience that is grounded in an argument for the need for diversity, rather than founded on the need for remediating historical oppression and exclusion?