International Women’s Day – it’s not a gender war, it’s not a sex war

(Happy) International Women’s Day!

As much as Facebook’s “On This Day” function gives me anxiety with flashes of mistakes from yesteryears, what popped up on 8 March was but heart-warming and reassuring. 2 years ago in 2016 was my first encounter with Gender History academically; and essentially one of the few reasons I extended my undergraduate stint. (Yes, history courses in NUS could be rather stagnant.) I was then grappling with my first assignment from this module, “Do we still need Women’s History?[1]

Since, I have strongly argued (and advocated) for “gender acceptance”. Unsettling they are, the loose definitions of “gender equality” and the binary nature of it – men VS women, masculinity VS femininity. “Gender equality” when heavily used as a lingua franca, or an ideal benchmark is short-sighted; further silences groups in the society, the personal expressions and liberations.

While a celebration women’s advancement in history, and the academic world’s advancement of women, is not to be overlooked, Women’s History and Gender History are pastures of the same field. Women history has allowed women to be seen and hence at times reinventing the narrative of histories or giving a new narrative of history. This reminds us historians that there is always another side to history and allows us to see certain historical events more holistically; from the perspective of a new subject.

Yet, with the bulk of information on women generated, it is impossible to generalise them or put them into general categories. The problem of mainstreaming women’s history as Alice Kessler Harris (https://www.chronicle.com/article/Do-We-Still-Need-Womens/4897) has pointed out – our ignorance of black women’s lives – and elaborated by Joan Scott – some of the women’s history are looking at the economic value, the political participation, the women’s autonomy in their reproductive rights, contraceptive, etc.

The broader question we should ask is how these two should be used together in this field. As explained by Joan Scott, gender history is too integrationist (without looking specifically at women’s roles in the historical context that they are exploring) while women’s history is too separatist where it does not theorise about how gender operates historically. Hence if we stop seeing gender and women history as substitutes and we use them complementarily, we could fill the gaps of their own limitations and perhaps look at the same historical situation more comprehensively and holistically. By using them concurrently, women’s history could perhaps be less descriptive and more analytic too. In the sense that we do not see women in absolute terms but relative terms, since history is often about changes and progress in relation to contemporary times.

// TLDR //

With the flood of International Women’s Day content online, I cam across a concept that could express a lingering thought linguistically – if at all. Unconscious bias. To defy the notions, standards and mystique of women; it’s not a fight against the men, neither a fight against and among women. But to understand that we are firstly and foremostly beings in an episteme with multiple labels, identities and associations. On #InternationalWomensDay2018, I channel my efforts to take a closer, scrutinised and careful look at my own unconscious biases and prejudices – whether I am discriminating against women. Afterall, it’s a battle against deep-seated principles and structures; it’s not a gender war, it’s not a sex war.

PS: still ploughing through The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan, which gives insights to the stirrings of second wave feminism.

[1] Alice Kessler-Harris, The Chronicle of Higher Education. 54.15 (Dec. 7, 2007)

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