I am abashed by the title of this essay. I do not intend to diminish the uniqueness of the slaughter of the Jews of Europe by the Nazis, nor would it be possible if I did. One-third of the then-existing Jewish population was systematically and deliberately destroyed. Despite our efforts, we have not yet managed to comprehend that. Those efforts may be misplaced; it may be no more possible to retain our humanity after comprehending that slaughter than it was for the Nazis to do so after perpetrating it.
That slaughter, as historians have documented, drew both its rationale and many of its tactics from earlier persecutions of the Jews by the mediaeval church. But now the Holocaust is part of the history of all human culture, and available as a model to both prospective murderers and prospective victims. In that context, we are only beginning to explore what it means to say, with all our minds and hearts and strength, “Never again.” I believe that that understanding requires us to look at the universals of the Holocaust as well as the particulars, at the murderous potential that lies at the root of all human history, as well as the designation of a particular people as its victims.
What I have in mind as the most universal exemplar of that potential is a slaughter that has lasted far longer than the slaughter of Jews by non-Jews (and has on occasion been part of it), that has extended over all the earth, in virtually all human cultures, and destroyed immensely larger numbers of human beings (though probably never so large a proportion of existing populations within a given time-span)–the slaughter of female human beings, as such. I am not engaging in historical speculation. I am a lawyer, not a statistician, and I am looking to indictment and mitigation of damages, not to cerebral number games. Moreover, I believe that the patterns of discrimination, persecution, and murder of Jews and women run parallel, and sometimes intersect, so that understanding of either can contribute to control and prevention of the other.
But mostly I am trying to comprehend at an intellectual level what I have been aware of for practical purposes most of my conscious life–the paradox of knowing that I am human and conscious and capable of thought and feeling and moral decision, while also knowing that I and persons like me (i.e., female) are perceived by the culture we live in and by large numbers of people I see and deal with every day, as marginal, or even superfluous appliances/conveniences/ ornaments in the lives of “real” people. The implications of that, carried to their ultimate extension, are murder and the ever-present potential for murder. Obviously, it is easy to brand that perception as paranoid. Like most women and most decent men, I would vastly prefer to think of it that way myself. But I think the numbers are inescapable. The numbers tell us that what, for the purposes of political discourse, we rather innocuously call “sexism”, is not merely a source of inconvenience and unhappiness to its victims; for the majority of female human beings who have ever lived on this earth, it is literally a matter of life and death.
That fact is perhaps obscured by the more recently discovered fact that, when allowed to live out her naturally- allotted lifespan, the average woman lives several years longer than the average man. We do not yet know whether the male in this equation is being allowed his naturally-allotted lifespan; we certainly do not know the source of the female advantage. But we do know that the luxury of living out that natural female lifespan has been granted to only a minuscule fraction of the female human beings who have ever inhabited the earth, and perhaps less than one-fifth of those now alive.
“Sexism” may be too general a word for the set of facts we have to deal with. More specifically, I think we must begin with what the religious scholar Rita Gross calls the “androcentric view of humanity”–the presumption that the average human being, made to standard specifications, is male, and that the female is the exceptional, whose existence has meaning only because of the functions she performs for males. Simone de Beauvoir elaborates this outlook brilliantly, on a philosophical-existential level, in The Second Sex.
It has consequences on the bread-and-butter, life-and-death, statistical level, which are rarely given serious consideration by historians or demographers. Those consequences may be most recognizable today in the mass media, where, for instance, on prime-time television, between two-thirds and three-fourths of the characters are male, and almost all the female characters are young, sexually attractive, and unmarried. The ratio of 1 woman to 2, 3, or 4 men is a fairly popular one, and turns up in some surprising places. Until civil rights legislation finally took hold, it was the accepted ratio, set by the admissions office, between male and female students at Harvard, for instance, and between men and women at many other institutions of higher education.
Even such a humane thinker as Paul Goodman uses it, unconsciously (I assume) in his description of the ideal community for raising a (presumably male) child:
“1 nursing mother: matrix of affection and elementary satisfaction.
“1 rival bad-mother (aunt type), for the attachment of rage and nausea.
“1 rival good-mother (big-sister type), desire without tangible satisfaction.
“1 neutral older woman, to bridge the gap to apathy.
“3 or 4 fathers (uncle type): manly identification, threats of maiming; gain of security by learning to play off one against the other. (Teacher, policeman, mother’s mate, mother’s lover.)
“1 older brother: the model to be avoided.
“1 younger brother, the favorite (Abel type): a convenient object for murder.
“1 male sexual friend: projection of narcissism.
“1 male nonsexual friend: the rival.
“1 other friend, either sex: object of selfless devotion.
“2 or 3 other males, roughly contemporary: the gang.
“1 outsider: the scapegoat.
“1 older girl friend, sexually active, to force him to overcome the Oedipus situation.
“1 younger girl friend, for fearless exploration, for playing the father role.
“1 maniac, all is not what it seems.
“1 old person dying.
“1 stranger to the society: infinity of mystery.”
(Empire City, p. 308.) Note that, of the 22 persons total, 11 of those whose gender is specified are male, and 6 are female. Of the others, Goodman almost certainly intends all but the “other friend, either sex” to be male.
What are the bread-and-butter implications of this view? Let us begin at the beginning, that is to say, with infanticide. Certainly the widespread practice of female infanticide among the ancient and otherwise civilized Greeks, Romans, and Chinese is too well-documented to be disputed. (Perhaps our experience with Nazi Germany has finally given us a new perspective on what constitutes “civilization.”) The practice of burying unwanted female infants alive was endemic among pre-Islamic Arabs, and the Koran inveighs against it. [To speak of this as the “beginning” may in fact be somewhat inaccurate; recent developments in prenatal technology have given us the ability to abort fetuses of the “wrong” sex before birth, a discovery of which both the “civilized” Americans and the “less developed” Chinese have taken advantage.]
Surviving birth and infancy is only the first hurdle in what has historically been an obstacle course for the human female.In situations where food is chronically or acutely scarce, in almost all human cultures, it is the adult males who eat first, then women of childbearing age, then boys and old men, and lastly old women and young girls. Those fed last, obviously, starve first, if anyone does. And even if they survive, they are rendered more vulnerable, by malnutrition, to premature death from disease, disability, or accident.
We may note also that improvements in health care in developing countries are likely to affect women somewhat later than men, since many such cultures frown on women being seen, spoken to, examined, and treated by male health workers.
Then there is the routine violence directed by adult males against other members–especially females–of “their” households. Even in relatively advanced cultures like our own, murder of women by their husbands or lovers is commonplace– indeed, most female murder victims in the U.S. and Western Europe die at the hands of husbands or lovers. In more traditional cultures, where the extended family is stronger, fathers and brothers may also be involved (viz., in southern Italy and the Arab countries). Analysts of these facts generally believe that, at least in industrial societies, the current figures represent a decrease from earlier statistics.
Next come the historical massacres. There are no reliable statistics on the number of women executed for witchcraft in western Europe in the 16th-18th centuries. Estimates run in the millions. Likewise, we will never know precisely how many women died of “childbed fever” transmitted by the unsanitary practices of male obstetricians in 18th- and 19th-century Europe, though we may assume that here too we are talking about millions. There are the deaths of un-numbered women worn out by childbearing, and denied access to contraception by family, or poverty, or religion. There are the victims of back-alley abortionists, desperate enough to risk death rather than motherhood in a society that taxes motherhood so heavily, while purporting to revere it so deeply. There are the rape-murder victims and the mostly poor, mostly non-white women murdered in casual street crime. The victims of most “serial killers” are also female.
But the bias of our (mostly male) historians obscures the differential effect of many other historical phenomena on the sexes. For instance, we assume that because men start wars, they are also the majority of war casualties. In fact, war and war- related famine and disease have probably killed far more women and children than adult males in every military conflict in history, with the possible exception of World War I (and even that may underestimate the effects of the Influenza Epidemic) and, in Russia, World War II. Official and religious pronouncements about abstaining from the killing of noncombatants have attracted little serious attention from practicing military leaders, in any war from the Crusades onward. Pre-Christian Rome and Greece never even honored it as a nominal goal. Where one side views the other as “barbarian” or “non-human”, the barbarian women are fair game for almost anything, and their fate will go virtually unnoticed–viz., Native American and Vietnamese women in their respective encounters with GI Joe, and Muslim and Jewish women during the Crusades. The Vietnam War was probably untypical only because it involved some serious attempt to keep accurate statistics on civilian as well as military casualties, in the course of keeping “body counts”–revealing a probably typical ratio of 10 civilian casualties to every military casualty. Obviously, a disproportionate number of civilians in a mobilized society will be female–roughly half of the children and old people, plus all the adult women except the small number who bear arms.
During deliberate genocides, women and girls are disproportionately likely to be victims. Where starvation is one of the tools of genocide, those who routinely eat last die first. Where armed force is used in out-and-out massacres, it is those unarmed and untrained in combat who are most vulnerable. Where forced labor on short rations is a thinly veiled extermination technique, women are likely to succumb first.
So far as can be ascertained, a disproportionate number of the victims of the Nazi Holocaust were women and girls, primarily because: (1) they were less likely to be found fit for labor, and (2) pregnant women and those with small children were virtually automatically gassed.
All of these numbers and ratios probably impress most readers as not very important, as mere background information, unconnected to major historical events, and no more indicative of systematic slaughter than the H1N1 flu. These are not, most people would say, the facts of which a holocaust is made. (Murder of babies before they are named? Millions of women tortured and burned as witches?) And they are the dead past. Civilized, advanced nations don’t do things like that. (Humanitarians may write checks for the needy all day and go home to beat their wives at night, just as the officers at Dachau used to run the ovens all day and listen to Bach and Beethoven at night.) Without even including the slow deaths of poverty and illiteracy, we are talking about millions of human beings, made in the divine image, in every generation.
And, unlike the dangers of combat and the hunt, to which males as such are regularly exposed, the hazards which threaten the lives of women carry with them no glory or honor. Nobody gives medals to the women who have risked death in childbirth to preserve the family and the human race. There is no tomb of the Unknown Civilian. Stalingrad is a staple of Soviet fiction, and Custer’s Last Stand has been the subject of innumerable books, movies and plays praising the heroism of either Custer or the Dakota who defeated him (depending on the author’s point of view.) But nobody writes ballads of the heroism of the women who starved in the siege of Leningrad, or the Native American women who were raped and murdered at Sand Creek.
What can we do with this awareness? How can we deal with the fact that the most crucial task of feminism is not equal pay, maybe not even making the streets of American cities safe for middle-class white women, but making people everywhere aware that female human beings have the same right to life as their brothers, fathers, husbands, lovers, and sons? Until we are seen as full-fledged human beings whose lives and deaths are as significant as those of men, and whose struggles for life are as heroic as any man-to-man battles, nothing else we demand–or win–will mean much.
And, as long as 53% of the human race is seen as “incidental” to real humanity, it is that much easier to consign other “lower orders” to the same expendability–non-whites; poor people; people with deformities, disabilities, and chronic diseases; old people; people with the “wrong” religion, or the “wrong” sexual practices. The distance between our easy and unconscious acceptance of a four-to-one male-to-female ratio, and the Nazi vision of a tall, well-built, blond, blue-eyed warrior race is shorter than we like to think–and all too easily bridged.