Society Disables Women
what really does it mean to be disabled? The word has often connoted
inferiority or a lacking of some kind within an individual. Today, however, scholars of disability studies, such as
Garland-Thompson, argue that a disabled individual is not lacking in abilities
but rather is at a disadvantage only within cultures which extol characteristics
different from those of the "disabled" individuals. This is nicely
illustrated by the story of the sighted man who is severely disabled in the
land of the blind. He enters the land thinking his sight will give him an
advantage over the blind, but soon realizes that the blind society is
structured for the blind, and his dependence on sight puts him at a
disadvantage. Garland-Thomson describes
women's bodies as the "supposedly
ungovernable, helpless, dependent, weak, vulnerable, and incapable" ones.
Jane Flax (quoted by Garland-Thomson, my italics) says that women are
"'mutilated and deformed' by sexist ideology and practices." The
supposition of weakness Garland-Thomson speaks of may in fact lead to the
disabling sexism Flax describes. Society can disable therefore, not only by
valuing certain traits over other, but also by imagining great differences
between the traits of different groups when the differences in reality may be
very small. Using this broader understanding of the word it is possible to
consider how women might be disabled by society.
for a long time were perceived as having less intellect than did men and were
consequently barred from educational institutions that would have allowed them
to prove their actual abilities. An
imagining of differences thus disabled them. In 1851 women were for the
most part considered fragile and delicate and were treated in that way.
Their roles were therefore limited. They were allowed no means of
gaining physical strength or independence. Again, the perception men had
of them disabled them. This disability lied not within the women's bodies
but within the society of the time. Sojourner Truth offered dramatic
proof of the physical and mental strength women could achieve when not limited
by society's expectations in her famous speech to the women's Convention in
Ohio, "Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and
planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain't I a
woman?" Sojourner Truth was not perceived as fragile or weak by
society and was thus not disabled into behaving as such (though I certainly do
not mean to discount the ways in which society did disable her through its
blatant racism and the institution of slavery).
If we accept that societies do disable certain groups either by the characteristics it chooses to venerate or through limiting certain groups based on the perception of inferiority, and we admit that women have often been thus disabled, then we may have a new lens through which to look at the value of women's institutions. Groups such as the blind are disabled by the value most of society places on sight. By creating institutions such as schools for the blind, they can create communities that do not emphasize sight and within which they are therefore not disabled. Women's institutions could perhaps be considered similarly. If society disables women by perceiving them as unintelligent or overly emotional or in other ways unfit to pursue certain areas of study, then they may require women's institutions such as Bryn Mawr in order to acquire skills and knowledge in an environment in which they are not disabled by misperceptions. Perhaps then these institutions should not be limited to women only but instead open to all people who have been disabled by society because of their gender, including transgender and intersex individuals. These people are often misunderstood and discriminated against because they do not neatly fit into the gender dichotomy to which society clings.
Though valuable to women and other similarly disabled groups trying to escape the limitations society has placed upon them, remaining within these institutions does not offer a permanent solution to the problem of society’s disabling attitude. Eventually people must leave institutions such as women’s colleges or schools for the blind and return to the society which disabled them. So what lasting effects do such institutions have? Does the time a woman spends and a women’s college, for example, negate the disability that society has placed on her? Presumably by being educated in an environment that perceived her as capable and intelligent (rather than intellectually inferior) she was able to become so. Women’s colleges and similar institutions can be described as empowering, helping women to overcome society’s sometimes bad impressions of them and even previously held impressions of themselves. Maybe through this empowerment those who attend these institutions can help inspire others to reevaluate the gender hierarchy and other disability-creating hierarchies of values. Society may still prevent her from obtaining the same jobs or salary as men might, perhaps disabling her financially, but through the women’s institution she has denied society the chance to disable her mind.
Perhaps it seems ironic to argue that efforts to protect women label them as weak and that this perception disables them while at the same time arguing in favor of women’s institutions that do in a way seem to offer this very protection. The protection these institutions offer, however, is entirely different. It is a protection from society’s disabling misperceptions, not from any physical weakness or vulnerability in women, and implies that the flaw lies within cultural expectations rather than within women’s abilities. Perhaps when society stops forcing upon us this other, this condescending and disabling “protection” the protection of women’s institutions will no longer be needed. So don’t walk me home. Don’t carry my books. And if I hit you, hit me back. Sojourner Truth could “work as hard and eat as much as a man,” and so can the rest of us.