"Woman as victim" is one of the Great Lies of our time. Those who care about women's welfare should correct the damage done by this lie because, today more than ever, women need to acknowledge their power and take control of their lives.
Nothing has felt secure since Sept. 11.
Global tensions have spun out of control, terrorism means that no civilians are safe, the news is filled with photos of Iraqi children who break your heart and leave you feeling powerless to affect anything. You can click off the TV for time-out but another uncertainty is more difficult to escape: the economy.
Everyone I know seems to be worried about job security and rising prices. A neighbor has returned to work because her retirement relied on company stock that now sells for less than 5 percent of its peak value. A friend has survived the latest round of employee cuts at a high-tech job. An acquaintance who has been laid off for two weeks — again! — is grabbing odd shifts as a cook at a local bar and grill.
Women today need to take control of their lives. But believing in their own power is made more difficult by the type of feminism that celebrates "the victim" as a symbol of womanhood. Victims of men, of the class structure, technology, government, the free market, the family, the church, Western values ... everywhere and always women are painted as victims. This Great Lie stands as a barrier to women realizing their power in at least three ways.
First, the "solutions" proposed and pursued by most feminists have made women more dependent, not less. It may be true that women now abound in arenas like academia. But such advances are firmly tied to laws and mandated policies, such as affirmative action, which impose quotas. The clear message of these laws and policies is that women cannot compete with men in the free market. Women require governmental assistance to be successful.
And, so, women's prosperity becomes dependent upon government privilege and a system of social control, which transfers power from the hands of individuals into those of politicians and government. This is a relinquishment of control on the part of every human being, including women.
Second, the Great Lie leads many women to believe in their lack of control and to blame their circumstances on everything or anyone but themselves. In reality, there are always alternatives and people constantly make choices. Sometimes all the alternatives are undesirable but that does not negate the one sure source of power every individual has: the ability to choose. That's how you gain some control over a situation and eventually improve it.
The improvement can be a long, arduous process, I know. I ran away from home at 16 and worked minimum wage jobs in order to eat. Although I felt absolutely powerless, I wasn't. And, by taking control of every opportunity I encountered, I managed slowly to expand my range of choices.
The third and, perhaps, most damaging effect of the Great Lie is that many women invest their emotions and energy in rage rather than remedy. This is true even of women who have never been homeless, hungry, or victimized by violence. Instead of attacking their problems, they attack people who have caused them no harm — men as a class, men they've never met. And, so, the women swing between celebrating victimhood and venting their rage, neither of which is likely to change circumstances for the better.
It is sometimes difficult not to feel anger. For example, when a woman is beaten by her husband, it is natural to feel rage toward him. But being angry at him doesn't mean ignoring her power. The first question to ask a battered woman is, "Why do you stay?" In many cases, the women have come to believe in their own victimhood. What they need to believe in is the power of their own choices.
Crime and violence tend to increase during times of unemployment and social turmoil. And, unfortunately, our society seems to be heading toward such turmoil. The economy will not recover quickly, the fear of terrorism will not fade, the controversy surrounding the war in Iraq will continue. Most us will see friends out of work, a reduction of real income, and an increase in the incivility with which conflicting factions address each other. These are times that require self-control and self-reliance.
Women need to abandon the Great Lie and claim responsibility for and control over their lives. Perhaps a good way to start is to study how women in less developed nations live. Without a free market and technology, they live in misery, near starvation. Without Western ideals of property rights and equality under the law, they have no protection from violence.
The Great Truth is that women in our society constitute one of the most privileged and powerful classes of human beings on earth. The challenge is to make women believe in their power. "Woman as victim" is an idea whose time has passed. The idea of woman as a survivor and a success must take its place.
Wendy McElroy is the editor of ifeminists.com and a research fellow for The Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif. She is the author and editor of many books and articles, including the new book, Liberty for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century (Ivan R. Dee/Independent Institute, 2002). She lives with her husband in Canada.