The power of a woman

pregnacy,reproductive health, maternal morbidity
A mother should not have to give up her life to create one
Photo credit: Shutterstock

At birth, more boys than girls are born on our planet. Even though men have a lower life expectancy than women, the gender ratio in the world has hovered around 102 males to 100 females.

Of course, these statistics vary from one country to another. But what stuns me as someone who studies gender, culture, law and society is the resilience of girls and women in a very tough world for the female gender.

What are the consequentialist bases for this outcome? Are women simply stronger – in the broader usage of that term – than men? Are men, in reverse, simply weaklings who rely on economic, social and political power to keep women subordinated? If so, why hasn’t that changed?

Any man who has been in the presence of childbirth can attest to the power of a woman. I have been several times and I can report that the experience was awesome. But there was one important takeaway for me – I think I would simply die there and then if I had to give birth.

The effort was so herculean and utterly stupefying that I still marvel at how women do it, and often crack a smile when the baby takes its first breath on the planet. The ability to carry the child to term and then bear the excruciating pain of childbirth is a testament to a woman’s superior strength. Those two things alone should make every boy and man kiss the ground on which women walk.

On top of it all, there are the challenges that come in the aftermath of giving birth. Nursing the child, often in solitude without help. In some cases, the dangerous onset of post-partum depression has led some women to suicide, or even infanticide. This phenomenon in particular is not well understood and women often find themselves struggling with it alone.

In many societies, post-partum depression is stigmatised, making it even harder for women to talk about it, or seek help. And yet women fight through these debilitating conditions to bear and nurture more species of the male gender than the female one. But do boys and men recognise these enormous sacrifices, or are they simply taken for granted?

Then there’s the cultural piece. We teach girls and women – in all religions and cultures around the world – that they are lesser beings. We in fact tell them to “submit” to the male gender. 

Wedding vows 

In Christian wedding vows – echoing Ephesians 5:22-25 – Paul directs wives to “submit” to their husbands and for husbands to “love” their wives. There’s no doubt here that the husband (man) is being cast as the head of the family, and that the wife (woman) must accept the direction and the leadership of the man. Mind you this edict is given without regard to the task or the ability of either the husband or the wife. A brilliant wife must, perforce, submit and obey a stupid man.

Even if we as humankind are so dimwitted, there’s no reason we should accept such an obviously morally indefensible and undemocratic concept. It’s an idea that goes against all logic because it gives all power to the husband (man) simply because of his gender, which really is only about his anatomy and genitalia.

I don’t want to be crude, but male genitalia has never been known to possess any brilliant brain cells. If anything, male genitalia often corrupts a man’s better sense of judgement and morality, warping his thinking. We should not run households based on the hereditary leadership of male genitalia. I know many girls and women who are far superior beings to many if not most, men.

This problem goes to the way we socialise male and female children in the home, at school and in society at large. We teach girls to serve and to tend to house chores while we let boys play outside. We even give different gendered holiday gifts to children. We will often give a toy gun to a boy but a sewing kit to a girl.

We are socialising them for gendered roles – the gun is the symbol of a violent conqueror but the sewing kit is the indelible image of a stay-at-home homemaker. One is a master, the other a servant. It’s out of these roles that boys and men culturally expect to have dominion over girls and women, and even to “correct”, that is, beat them. 

This breeding of misogyny and the naturalisation of hetero-patriarchy is by far the biggest reason for excluding girls and women from the public square and confining them to the private sphere. It’s the cultural justification for domestic and gender-based violence and for the rape of girls and women by strangers and even their husbands in marriage.

In fact, it’s one of the cardinal reasons some cultures believe a husband can never rape his wife. And yet with all these limitations and the treatment of women as chattel, our mothers, sisters, wives, and aunts are the reason boys and men are here. It’s a wonder they live longer than men. More power to all girls and women!

Makau Mutua is SUNY Distinguished Professor and Margaret W. Wong Professor at Buffalo Law School, The State University of New York. @makaumutua.