From the earliest times, women have generally been viewed as subservient to men. They have been denied equal rights and treated as if they were property. Even today, in our so-called "modern" world, certain cultures treat women and girls as pawns in their wars, prevent them from having the same opportunities as men, and try to extinguish their voices of protest. The women who object to being servile and demand change are labeled as revolutionaries: a fitting title for those female warriors who have led the fight to make women the masters of their own fates.
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A man who takes charge and is outspoken is tagged as having leadership potential, while a woman with the same attributes is often criticized for being too pushy, and is usually demonized for it. Consider Joan of Arc as an example: despite her crucial role in France's victory over England, she was burned at the stake for holding the very beliefs that motivated her in battle! A man who returned home victorious would have been celebrated as a hero, but Joan challenged the traditional roles assigned to women, and that made people uncomfortable. Rather than adjusting their views of what a woman could be, they destroyed her.
Women who stretch the boundaries of traditional roles continue to create tension, and often resistance, within a society. The current United States presidential race is a perfect illustration of this; neither Barack Obama nor John McCain has been attacked by their opposition or the media for being male. Conversely, Hillary Clinton is frequently ridiculed as being too domineering, and the moment Sarah Palin was named as McCain's running mate, her dedication to her children was questioned, and every word she uttered became fodder for a "Saturday Night Live" skit. Granted, society is becoming more flexible in allowing women to have equal opportunities (Geraldine Ferraro was virtually dismissed as a joke from the moment her bid for the Vice Presidency was announced, and then receded into obscurity after her campaign as running mate to Walter Mondale in the mid-80's.) but women who challenge traditional roles continue to have to defend their femininity in addition to proving their capabilities as leaders.
The price of equality is high, yet women continue to purchase their freedom at the risk of being humiliated, ostracized, and even killed; Rosa Parks took a seat in the "white" section of the bus, Benazir Bhutto retreated from Pakistan in a self-imposed exile, and Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her own bodyguards. Their motivation had nothing to do with being female, but their infamous actions are considered more extraordinary because of their gender.
Many women become leaders, in spite of the fact that they are female, and have to wake up every morning prepared to prove their worthiness. For some, like Cixi, (the last Dowager Empress of China, who had once been a lesser concubine of the Emperor) power came at a terrible price; she is rumored to have caused the demise of her own son to gain position in the quest for China's throne. Others, like Elizabeth I of England, inherited the throne, but remained constantly vigilant to conspiracies to overthrow her. She acknowledged that being female was a distinct disadvantage, saying, "I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king." What male in history has had to apologize for his gender in order to establish credibility as a leader, despite having ushered his country into a "Golden Age" and maintaining the throne for forty-five years?
Women all over the world are weary of having to justify actions that stretch the boundaries of their traditional roles. In some war-torn countries of Africa, women have had no choice but to assume leadership because so many of their men have been killed. As a result, they are making decisions about how their tribes will sustain themselves, playing pivotal roles in the rebuilding of their villages, and changing practices that have long made the women subservient to men. 2004 Nobel Prize winner Wangari Maathai endured physical beatings as a result of her refusal to be silenced over social and environmental issues in Kenya, and is now internationally recognized for her work in the crucial reforestation of Kenya and other African nations, as well as for championing women's rights. Her organization, The Green Belt Movement, is responsible for planting more than thirty million trees in Africa, and works tirelessly to empower women while fighting governmental corruption.
It is unlikely that society will ever completely cease to view women as "the weaker sex." However, strong women throughout history have given all women inspiration to reject the notion that femininity is a handicap. Women should not have to apologize for their gender in order to have the same opportunities as men. It is vital to the battle for equality that women be courageous and strong in their quest to be the masters of not only their fate, but the fate of society as a whole.
Kantrowitz, Barbara. (10/15/2007) In all their glory. Newsweek Online.
Kenyan woman awarded Nobel Prize for environmental, social work. (12/10/2004) USA Today.
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