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The position of women in society has emerged as a major theme in the study of society and its operations. Whereas their place in society was not a topic of consideration before the turn into the twentieth century, women have become more assertive and remarkable women such as Eleanor Roosevelt, Margaret Thatcher, Condi Rice and Hillary Clinton, among others have emerged to occupy positions that Victorian women could not claim, lest they were seen as an affront to social order, which was often misconstrued for the natural order.
In examine the struggles women have had to contend with, we come across the writings of many social commentators and philosophers, chief among them- John Stuart Mill. Mills contribution to in gender discourse is best captured in his essay "On the Subjection of Women". This was a passionate argument in favor of gender parity .according to him inequality of women was a barrier to development because, he argues,"... [T]he legal subordination of one sex to another - is wrong in itself, and now one of the chief hindrances to human improvement; and that it ought to be replaced by a system of perfect equality, admitting no power and privilege on the one side, nor disability on the other."
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In addition, Mills vehemently denies the notion that women are inherently docile and weak, and views this as prejudice where upon he says that "The anxiety of mankind to intervene on behalf of nature...is an altogether unnecessary solicitude. What women by nature cannot do, is quite superfluous to forbid them from doing." The hallmark of Mills departure from the traditional prejudice against women was his call for women voting rights. Aware of the outrage it would cause in a patriarchal society he sill argued that "Under whatever conditions, and within whatever limits, men are admitted to the suffrage, there is not a shadow of justification for not admitting women under the same."
Virginia Wood is one remarkable woman who seeks to dismantle the myths justifying subjugation of women. She paints a picture of a woman living in the Elizabethan times and explores her challenges. Using the character of Shakespeare's sister, she laments that women had little worth in society and is bitter of the fact that, "She [women] was locked up, beaten and flung about the room" (802). She is also critical of the fact that in the literary realm "No woman wrote a word of that extraordinary literature when every other man, it seemed, was capable of song or sonnet" (801).
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This gives her the feeling that had Shakespeare had a sister who could create literary work she would not be recognized by any literary enthusiasts. Woolf clearly shares Mills' sentiments that "there remain no legal slaves, save the mistress of every house". She is saddened by the fact that the Elizabethan woman "could get no training in her craft" (806) therefore it would have been impossible, completely and entirely, for any woman to have written the plays of Shakespeare in the age of Shakespeare" (804).
Another vocal voice for the plight of women is Mary Wollstonecraft. Writing as early as 1792, her vindication, she blames both men and women for the women's inequalities. She says that "...women are more debased and cramped, if possible, by them than men..." She laments that social constructs I terms of gender roles are usually mistaken for natural distinctions. Wollstonecraft borrows from the proverb 'an idle mind is the devil's workshop to assert that morality cannot be attained unless there is gender equality. She believes that virtue is only realized when human beings discharge their duties and that "virtuous equality will not rest firmly even when founded on a rock, if one half of mankind are chained to its bottom by fate, for they will be continually undermining it through ignorance or pride.
It is vain to expect virtue from women till they are, in some degree, independent of men...." There is condemnation of women who expend much of their energy to looking attractive to men rather than to making herself useful. Such a woman "sins against herself by neglecting to cultivate an affection that would equally tend to make her useful and happy." Such women are weakened and enslaved 'to their persons'. Marriage laws and the institution itself is attacked as making "an absurd unit of a man and his wife; and then, by the easy transition of only considering him as responsible, she is reduced to a mere cipher."
Finally we can also find similar sentiments expressed by Margaret Mead in her study of the three tribes from New Guinea. She held the opinion that "masculine and feminine characteristics are based mostly on cultural conditioning." This can be understood as a refusal of the misconception that gender roles are natural. Like the other theorists discussed, Mead feels that gender roles are social constructs. To illustrate this, she uses three cultures, which displayed similarities between men and women; in as far as gender roles are concerned. She noted that in the Arapesh culture, both men and women showed traits commonly seen as maternal or feminine, such as timidity, sensitiveness towards each other and being passive.
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Among the Mundugumor, both sexes displayed what is commonly referred to as masculinity. These people did not express emotions, and neither were they sensitive to one another, yet both sexes were equally assertive, violent and aggressive. These were traits they must have acquired to enable them sustain their cannibalistic culture. The Tchambuli on their part distinguished traits between the two sexes but their gender roles were the opposite of those we hold conventional today. While women were assertive and shrewd, their men were submissive emotional, often seen as delicate.
Mead's studies serve to prove that the men and women roles as they are in patriarchal societies are not inherently natural. the theorists discussed here are just but a few who were sober enough to realize gender divisions are a crack that weakens the society by causing conflicts and tensions that are often fruitless.