The Belle Jar blog posted a great piece this week on the rhetoric of defining women as someone’s “wife, sister or daughter” in order to garner empathy for violations and discrimination against women. The author is referencing the Steubenville Ohio rape case, in which commentators have tried to counter victim-blaming by reminding us that victims of crimes like this could be your wife, your sister or your daughter, and thus using women’s relationships with men as the measure by which we value them and can empathize with them – rather than just saying because they are independently valuable people and therefore should be free from violation and discrimination. She writes,
“The truth is that I am someone’s wife. I am also someone’s mother. I am someone’s daughter, and someone’s sister. But those are not the things that define me, or make me valuable in this world. Those are not the reasons that I should be able to live a life free from rape, sexual assault or any kind of violent crime.
I have value because I am a person. Full stop. End of argument. This isn’t even a discussion that we should be having.”
The author brings up that Obama used this argument in his State of the Union address when he said, “We know our economy is stronger when our wives, mothers, and daughters can live their lives free from discrimination in the workplace, and free from the fear of domestic violence.”
This points also reminds me of Senator Rob Portman’s reversal on gay marriage after his son came out to him. Marginalized people are valued in as much as we can relate to them or care for them, rather than just because they are people. On the one hand, developing personal connections between groups that have some sort of conflict or differing experience is how people change their mind – contact theory in the psychology terminology. On the other hand, forget that, just learn how to empathize with other humans because they are other humans.
So what do we do? How can women be valued as people, independent of the men and the families that love them, so that they can be treated as such in the media, in policy and in the economy? I don’t propose that I know exactly how we can move our rhetoric on women’s issues forward to realize that they are just people’s issues (side note, there has been success in the development world in recognizing women’s rights as human rights), but I think acknowledging faulty rhetoric as the Belle Jar blog does is a good start.