Since the dawn of the Internet in the public sphere, people have always poked fun at angry feminists. They’re easy targets for public ridicule because a large base of the Internet users are men and women who did not have to face misogyny and sexism on a frequent basis, and are largely unaware of the extreme discriminations women had faced over the course of history. I haven’t thought of myself as a feminist for a long time, and personally had never properly understood the root of the feminist anger until I read in depth into the history of women’s rights.
This essay is a continuation of a three-part article looking into the validity of empowerment in consumerism. What started out as a noble idea to equip minorities and the oppressed with opportunities to help themselves became an oversold marketing buzzword, mainly targeted towards women. While it is easy to denounce all 'empowering' marketing exercise as a neoliberal pseudo-feminist by-product, at the heart of these empty messages is a history overwrought with gender discrimination and women's oppression. By looking in-depth into historical evidence, we can then make a more nuanced conclusion regarding various consumerist activities and avoid getting swept-up in self-righteous indignation that has become the go-to reaction in order to generate clicks. Read the first instalment here.
All throughout history, women weren’t allowed to do many things that men could. The extent of women’s rights waxed and waned, depending on historical periods and places, but they were almost always beneath their male peers. The Greek, Roman, and Byzantine men held the steadfast opinion that a woman’s place was at home. Women were not allowed to have a public voice or a public life. In some blips in history, women were allowed to inherit properties and own land. In extreme cases, women were not even allowed to exist, such as the preference for male heirs in China which led to the abortion of female foetuses until very recently. Even the wise Confucius himself thought that a woman's role in middle and upper class society was simply to be a human oven, as they were thought to have no capacity for education.
One doesn’t have to go as far back as the Roman times to find injustices inflicted upon women. The Victorian era (1837-1901) was the perfect example of sexism gone mad. I have decided to zoom in on this period for its vast trove of evidence, and its widespread practices that have permeated a large part of the world until today, thanks to British colonialism.
The Victorians loved to write about the rights and roles of every individual in society. For every man and every woman, from the rich to the poor, rest assured that every person had specific duties to fulfil. And they were very clear about what a Victorian woman was entitled to. She had every right to take care of the family, to be the caregiver in times of need, to be the comforter for all who was weary, and it was her right to ignore her own needs as a human being with desires and emotions that her male peers possessed and had the liberty to pursue.
Sexual desires wasn’t a thing that women harboured. They were supposed to be pure and chaste until they were married, after which they became objects that men had sex with. Bachelors were allowed to have sex with prostitutes; single women couldn’t even be in a room alone with a man. For married men, it was okay to have affairs, a social norm that wasn’t extended to their wives. During the dating period, you could only flirt with your fan, but none of those touching his shoulders or thigh business. It was blasphemous for women to crave for sexual interactions purely out of feelings and desires like men had the luxury of.
And speaking of sex, prostitution was the go-to profession for poor Victorian women. Due to their lack of education and prevailing gender discrimination, jobs were difficult to come by for women, let alone one that provided some semblance of a living wage. They could either be a housekeeper or a seamstress, but those were often insufficient to support their families. Many resorted to selling their bodies just to survive, falling prey to syphilis and the loss of social standing from their more privileged peers. Ironically, women were vilified for selling their bodies when they had to do it out of survival, while the act of buying sex by men were seen as a normal practice before and after marriage. Such notion continues until this very day, when the broader general public still maligns female prostitutes instead of addressing the underlying issues of human trafficking, poverty and the archaic idea of sexual puritanism.
"What would you do if your son was at home
Crying all alone
On the bedroom floor,
Cause he's hungry and the only way to feed him is to
Sleep with a man for a little bit of money?
And his daddy's gone in and out of lock down,
I ain't got a job now,
He's just smokin' rock now,
So for you this is just a good time
But for me this is what I call life
Girl, you ain't the only one to have a baby,- What Would You Do?
That's no excuse to be living all crazy
So she stared me right square in the eye
And said, "Everyday I wake up, hoping to die"
She said, "They're gonna know about pain
'Cause me and my sister ran away,
So our daddy couldn't rape us,
Before I was a teenager
I done been through more shit
You can't even relate to"
Education for Victorian women consisted of knitting, embroidery and learning to play coy in order to attract suitors. No respectable women wanted to be seen doing intellectual pursuits. Tut tut. You’d be called a blue-stocking if you understand calculus, and no men would want you because you’re usurping their intellectual superiority. Yegads! Victorian masculinity was so strong it couldn’t even face competition from feminine, graceful women. Some doctors went so far as to claim that too much studying could damage the ovaries, turning beautiful women into dried up prunes. I knew I shouldn’t have gone to university!
"If we help an educated man's daughter to go to Cambridge are we not forcing her to think not about education but about war? Not how she can learn, but how she can fight in order that she might win the same advantages as her brothers?" - Virginia Woolf
Bound by societal pressures, young women grew up to be the ideal Victorian wives and snagged herself proper husbands. Whether or not they'd had their fill in brothels prior to marriage was none of the wives' business. Lads will always be lads eh. Sooner or later the marital bliss became less rosy. Husbands gave their wives syphilis from their various affairs (and let me reiterate, which was a-ok for men by Victorian standards), sucked away their wives' hard-earned income and abused them and their children. Physical abuse and marital rape were very much tolerated so long as noone died and the ruckus didn't bother the neighbours. If women wanted to get out of this mess, well tough luck for them. While men could get out of marriages on grounds of adultery, women didn’t have those rights unless there were other life-threatening reasons. Even if by some miracle they managed to obtain a divorce, they could forget about being accepted as a normal member of society. The stigma of being a divorced woman was so strong that its remnants still persist in modern times.
While the Romans allowed women to inherit properties and own land, all of these rights were rescinded by the dawn of the Victorian era. For women of the working class, they had no right to financial independence. Their husbands would automatically control the income they earned. They weren’t even allowed to open their own bank accounts. If their husbands were no good, deadbeat losers, they didn’t have the liberty of leaving the marriage because the women would be left penniless. For women of the upper classes, they were left utterly dependent on the husbands for finances as no respectable ladies were allowed to take up employment. Monetary generosity on the husband’s part was often a matter of showing off to fellow neighbours, because this money was to be used for the running of a Victorian household, from paying cooks, gardeners, butlers and coachmen, to paying for clothes that Victorian wives had to wear for various occasions and times of the day. It was ironic that Victorian men made fun of the frivolity of fashion and banished it to the realm of femininity when they needed their wives to take up the roles of status symbols to boost their own pride.
All of these societal norms, with minor variations throughout history, was based upon the pre-historic days when men and women indeed had different roles to fill in the hunter-gatherer tribes. But as civilisations started to form, this outdated notion persisted well past its sell-by date and seeped into religions and other prevailing human doctrines of the respective times, the major pillars that shaped societies throughout the world. Social theories about gender were based on biological determinism. Essentially, men were stronger in all aspects of human nature except for care-taking and everything to do with gentleness, which was considered a feminine trait, because they were born that way.
The theory of biological determinism proved problematic on many levels for both men and women, especially when it reached its peak in the Victorian era. Even though women faced various forms of oppression due to a misguided sense of reality stemming out of patriarchy, men fell victim to societal pressures because their peers judged them based on a strict set of rules that revolved around material success and social status, as well as fixation on masculine ideals of the day such as finding a chaste wife. Not being able to build and support a family financially was seen as a failure for men, yet they would feel emasculated if their wives were to find work. Biological determinism postulates that masculine and feminine traits are inborn, and not surprisingly, the qualities embodied by the male species are tied into the ability in being the provider in a tribe/group/family unit, namely strength and intelligence. Victorian books proclaimed that men were the fighter, protector, the doer and the thinker, while women are the caregiver and provider of gentle respite for the wounded bodies and souls. These ideals, though not inherently harmful nor completely inaccurate in reality, were stretched beyond measure, so much so that it dismissed the overlapping characteristics which men and women do share. It implied that women had little faculty for intellectual pursuits and physical prowess, while men are insensitive robotic clots that absolve them from being an emotionally mature partner and parental figure. Modern reality has shown that men are capable of being caring fathers and women have as much capabilities to be pilots as men, but even these ideas still have to be fiercely fought for by feminists and academics (both not mutually exclusive).
Although women in most regions are no longer barred from chasing after their dreams, modernity sweeps many of these existing biases under the rug, such as implicitly making it difficult for women to hold high-ranking positions, whether in the public or private sector. In many ways these invisible forces and biases make it harder for women to point out covert discriminations.
Just about a hundred years ago I wouldn't even be allowed to wear trousers
Having explored the recent history of women's rights, I began to think twice about the validity of empowerment claims in consumerist activities, or rather not dismiss them outright. While I maintain that some remain preposterous, such as the Dior campaign I mentioned previously, there are others that we have now taken for granted. In the last segment of the article I will attempt to separate empty pitch-speak from genuinely empowering commercial pursuits. You can read part one here.
Wearing: Balenciaga shearling coat; Alexander Wang x H&M bra; Taobao shirt; Ann Demeulemeester trousers and boots (available here)