Each Women’s Day, the usual suspects go on about how terrible it is that women are victims of what they term ‘gender-based’ violence. Then they promise to ‘uplift’ women. As if women are victims who can’t achieve anything without men.
It’s become a ritual. To celebrate the brave women of all races who marched on the Union Buildings in 1956 to demand an end to pass laws – a demand which fell on deaf ears – the president makes a carefully calibrated speech in which he decries violence against women, and promises to give them preferential treatment.
The Women’s Charter, adopted by the Federation of South African Women two years prior to the march, was a great document. It made many just and necessary demands. In particular, it demanded equality in political, legal, marriage and property rights. It sought the removal of all laws and customs that denied women these rights and treated them as minor dependants of their fathers or husbands.
Most of these demands were ultimately met with the liberation of South Africa from Apartheid oppression, and the adoption of the equality clause in the new Constitution.
Inasmuch as unequal treatment of women persists, particularly in traditional law, cultural practices or religious communities, this struggle for equality must continue.
The tenor of modern Women’s Day celebrations, however, caricatures women as victims of violence at the hands of men, and patronises them as unable to achieve success on their own merits, without the help of preferential treatment or handouts from benign men in government and business.
Much of the rhetoric around women’s rights today seems designed more to reinforce the divisive ideology of identity politics. This ideology attributes value to people based not on the content of their character, but on the basis of their physical features. It attributes moral standing to people based on their membership of an oppressed class, rather than on their individual achievements.
I know many women who strongly resent this simplistic, binary, adversarial approach to women’s issues. In this, too, the struggle for equality must continue.
Domestic violence is reciprocal
Some years ago, I delved into the statistics to find out if women were really disproportionate victims of domestic violence. In South Africa, we count the number of women killed by their intimate partners (and describe it as a ‘war on women’), but we do not count the number of men who expire at the hands of their female partners.
The data we’d need for a conclusive answer in the South African context does not exist. However, extrapolating from the data we do have, and comparing it to gender violence data from other countries, we can conclude that men are victims of domestic violence at least as often as women are.
This is consistent with the findings of a review of 343 scholarly investigations, sampling an aggregate of 440 850 people worldwide, ‘demonstrating that women are as physically aggressive as men (or more) in their relationships with their spouses or opposite-sex partners’.
Male victims of domestic violence are stigmatised as weak and shamed into silence. They are met with incredulity and derision by the authorities that ought to protect them. In responding to domestic violence incidents, police routinely assume that the man is the perpetrator, even when the man called the police in the first place.
Domestic violence against women is a very serious issue. None of this diminishes the gravity of the dangers women face from crimes against them. Action to make women feel safer, such as improved policing and better prosecution of rape, is essential in a well-functioning, civilised society.
But domestic violence is a scourge that knows no gender bounds. The struggle should be against domestic violence in general, not only when it is directed at women.
Casting women merely as helpless victims of male violence, as the media so often does, does them a disservice.
Women as fragile creatures
Although I’m not an Afrikaner, I did grow up in Afrikaans society. Its culture was macho and patriarchal. It was everything a modern feminist (and liberal) would find abhorrent.
Yet we were taught never to hit a woman. Doing so was seen as profoundly unmanly. Boys or men who did beat their female partners did so secretly, because if they were exposed, even if only by the word of the victim, they’d be very harshly judged by their male peers. Wife-beaters were not much better off than kiddie fiddlers in terms of the social opprobrium directed towards them.
I can’t speak for all societies or cultures, but few men did more to guard against violence against women than traditional, conservative, patriarchal Afrikaners did in the 1970s and 1980s. Their attitude was almost identical to the modern call that men should cease violence against women and should not tolerate it in other men.
Yet those same men viewed women as fragile creatures who depended on the protection of men. They viewed women as subject to their fathers or husbands. It was a terribly patronising view, which cast women as only a male protector away from victimhood.
Women who refuse to accept the implied inferiority of perpetual victimhood are worthy of respect.
The president’s offer of preferential treatment for women in government employment, government procurement and government aid, should likewise rankle independent-minded women.
This plays into what George W. Bush once called the ‘soft bigotry of low expectations’. This bias assumes that because women, in some respect or another, do not achieve the same outcomes as men in the same numbers, they are unable to do so purely on merit.
Since women do enjoy equal rights and equal opportunities, the remedy must be that those in power – government, banks, educational institutions, corporate bosses – should give women preferential treatment to ensure equal outcomes.
This robs women of their agency. It robs them of their right to be different from men. It says that they must make the same life choices as men, and if they don’t, they should be ‘assisted’ by men to do so.
It also demeans women who do succeed on their own merit. Who can be proud of their achievements when they received preferential treatment along the way? Who can be self-confident if there’s always the niggling fear that they don’t really deserve their success?
Any free and self-respecting woman would reject such a patronising gesture on the part of the president. Women don’t need his help to succeed.
Pioneers, inventors and original thinkers
Today, women enjoy equal rights and protections under the law. That wasn’t always so. Yet even in far more patriarchal times, against far greater odds, many women were respected not because they were women, but because of their achievements.
I’ll name just a few as examples. I studied computer science, mathematics and applied mathematics at university. Several women were recognised in these fields not for being the first woman to do something that men had already done, but for work that was groundbreaking in its own right.
Ada King (1815-1852), the Countess of Lovelace and the only legitimate daughter of Lord and Lady Byron, was a 19th-century mathematician who did extensive work alongside Charles Babbage on his Analytical Engine, a general purpose mechanical computer he proposed but never completed.
She was the first to recognise that it could be used for more than just calculation, and is widely regarded as the author of the first algorithm designed to be carried out by a machine. Ada Lovelace wrote the first computer program.
Grace Hopper (1906-1992) was a computer scientist working for the US Navy. Around 1950, she recommended that computers ought to be programmed in a language consisting entirely of English words. She was told that this wasn’t possible, because computers don’t understand English. She persisted, publishing papers on how to translate comprehensible high-level programming languages to machine code, but even after creating a working compiler that performed that function, she was told that computers were only good for arithmetic.
She ended up being instrumental in the development of COBOL, a business programming language which consists entirely of English words. It became the dominant programming language for commercial use on the mainframe computers of the 1960s and 1970s, and still survives today. Against all odds, she changed the future of programming.
Katherine Johnson (1918-2020) was one of the three black female mathematicians celebrated in the film Hidden Figures. She calculated trajectories for all the early American manned space flights, including for the Mercury and Apollo projects, and on the early Space Shuttle missions. Initially, she did all the super-complex orbital mechanics work by hand. In fact, her job title was ‘computer’. She later pioneered the use of electronic computers for this purpose.
Hedy Lamarr (1914-2000) was not only a famous, rich and beautiful Hollywood star, but also an inventor. During World War II, she learnt that radio-controlled torpedo guidance systems could easily be jammed by the enemy. She came up with the idea of rapidly changing the radio frequency, or ‘frequency hopping’. Together with a partner who helped her design the device that did so, she obtained U.S. Patent No. 2,292,387 on the technique. Lamarr’s technology is still used routinely today in applications such as cellular telephony to prevent interception, avoid interference and optimise bandwidth use.
Mary Somerville (1780-1872) was a Scottish mathematician and polymath who translated and expanded the magnum opus of Pierre-Simon Laplace, Celestial Mechanics. Her book, The Mechanism of the Heavens,would for 50 years be the standard university textbook on the subject.
Somerville, whose name now graces an Oxford College dedicated to the virtues of liberalism and academic excellence, was widely respected and praised in her time, although she faced all the prejudice of a society that did not believe education to be a proper domain for women.
Joanna Baillie, a Scottish poet and dramatist, upon receiving a copy of Mechanism, wrote to Somerville: ‘I feel myself greatly honoured by receiving such a mark of regard from one who has done more to remove the light estimation in which the capacity of women is too often held than all that has been accomplished by the whole Sisterhood of Poetical Damsels & novel-writing Authors.’
The first signatory on John Stuart Mill’s failed 1866 petition to extend the right to vote to women was Mary Somerville. She was (jointly with Caroline Herschel) the first female member of the Royal Astronomical Society. Her obituary read, in part: ‘Whatever difficulty we might experience in the middle of the nineteenth century in choosing a king of science, there could be no question whatever as to the queen of science.’
There are hundreds of other women who are recognised in their fields as pioneers, inventors or original thinkers. I started to make a list of notable names in the sciences and business, but it became too long to include here.
A feminist icon
In politics, Margaret Thatcher (1925-2013) comes to mind. She is recognised not merely because she was the first female prime minister of Great Britain, but because she was a great prime minister, and became the longest-serving prime-minister of the 20th century. Her enemies, the Soviets, dubbed her the ‘Iron Lady’, a moniker which she wore proudly.
After years of stagnation, unemployment, and recession under the socialist policies of the Labour Party in the 1970s, Thatcher was determined to pull Britain by the scruff of its neck from the brink of bankruptcy, into the modern era of free enterprise. She succeeded admirably.
She should be a feminist icon, but because she does not share feminism’s left-wing ideology, she is often scorned and maligned. Yet despite the controversy of some of her policies, in public surveys she is routinely among the highest-ranked British prime ministers of all time. Members of Parliament ranked her as the most successful of all.
Thatcher, of course, wasn’t the only powerful woman in politics. From Hatshepsut in Egypt (1507-1458 BCE) and Wu Zetian in China (624-705) to Catherine the Great in Russia (1729-1796), and Indira Gandhi in India (1917-1984), there were hundreds. Again, listing them all would take too long.
Women in political leadership have been liberal and authoritarian, kind and cruel, effective and ineffective, honest and corrupt, peaceful and violent. They are no better than men. They are no worse than men. They stand or fall on their own merits.
My Lady with the Lamp
Florence Nightingale (1820-1910) was not only a kind and fearless nurse during the Crimean War in the mid-19th century, but she raised the alarm about hygiene practices in the war’s squalid field hospitals.
Her appeals convinced the British government to commission the renowned engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel to design a better hospital. His prefabricated design, with its focus on good ventilation, cut the death rate among war wounded by 90%.
Nightingale also played an important role in modernising and professionalising nursing as a vocation, and ensuring that they were provided with adequate training and resources to do their jobs.
Her legacy lives on today in all the nurses that risk their own lives and their families’ health in the campaign to test and treat victims of the Covid-19 pandemic. I’m proud to say my wife is one of these nurses. Like Nightingale, she is disciplined about infection control. She is my very own Lady with the Lamp.
From the mathematicians to the nurses, these are all women whose respect and reputation depend not on their gender, but on the merit of their work. These are all women that rightly demanded (and still expect) equality in law, but neither needed nor wanted preferential treatment from a doting husband, a benevolent businessman, or a patronising president.
Women are not fragile creatures that need the protection of men. Women can be, and should be, free, independent and equal. If Women’s Day is to have meaning beyond mere left-wing identity politics, it should celebrate women’s freedom and achievements, without perpetually preaching that women are the helpless victims of evil men.
The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR