Gender justice 1: Are women human yet?

Professor Heather Widdows

Three_women_Surrealist_Graffiti_in_Zagreb HW Blog 13 Jan

Welcome back to the Saving Humans blog – the first of 2014, and to the beginning of the new year. This week’s blog posts will be on the broad topic of gender justice, a topic which spans all three themes of Saving Humans. In every theme of saving humans – health threats, environmental threats and security threats – women are more likely to fair worse than men, and a few statistics show this better than anything I could write:

Gender-based violence takes more of a toll on women’s health than that of traffic accidents and malaria combined.

Woman living in poverty (less than $1.22/day) represent the majority of the world’s poor. Women make up 70% of the world’s one billion poorest people. Global Poverty Info Bank

“It is estimated that close to 90 per cent of current war casualties are civilians, the majority of whom are women and children, compared to a century ago when 90 per cent of those who lost their lives were military personnel.” UN,

“As a rule of thumb, more than 75 per cent of displaced people are women and children, and in some refugee populations they constitute 90 per cent” (UN,

The title of this blog – are women human yet? – is taken from a famous paper and then book by Catharine MacKinnon (Are women human? Harvard University Press, 2006). If you haven’t read this – or think that feminist battles are over and done and women are now equal to men I would advise you to take a look at this (and of course other feminist work). Gender justice, in some areas, is vastly improved, in others it is not. To my mind it remains a real question whether women really are treated as persons yet – or whether women are always first women, and only second as ‘persons’. You might think why would this matter?

It matters, because it means that women are judged differently than men, and behaviour which is the same is seen and understood differently. This limits what women can in fact do. It means effectively that women cannot do what men do, or if they do they suffer consequences. For instance, when they speak up they are ‘aggressive’ and ‘hysterical’ – whereas when men do the same it is ‘assertive’ and ‘strong leadership’. This is of course a caricature, but caricatures become caricatures for a reason, they usually have some truth in them. In many ways then being seen first as ‘woman’ means that it is harder to be a ‘full’ person in the way that men are – and that this is true for most, perhaps all women.

MacKinnon’s work book highlights some of the ways in which women are not yet persons. She begins by tracking rape and violence against women in conflicts from 1981 to 2006. She shows the ‘double jeopardy’ of women: women suffer from whatever injustice their community suffers from, whether poverty, ill health or conflict; and also women suffer from being women. To quote simply the last sentences from MacKinnon’s discussion she asks, if women were human:

“Would we be raped in genocide to terrorize and eject and destroy our ethnic communities, and raped again in that undeclared war that goes on every day in every country in the world in what is called peacetime? If women were human, would our violation be enjoyed by our violators? And, if we were human, when these things happened, would virtually nothing be done about it?’” (McKinnon, 2006)

You only have to look at the recent National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles where nearly 10% (9.8%) of women report having ‘non-volitional sex’ to think that there may be something in this. Would nearly 10% of persons be subject to ‘non-volitional’ sex in the UK if women were human?

This week the next two blogs will be done by two of my wonderful PhD students: Sarah Johnson and Herj Marway . Both of these students work on issues of gender justice, and they will blog about their own research. Thursday’s post will be about a project which Herj and I are doing together on Women and Violence and the final post will be my current book project on beauty.

Details of all PhD students in Global Ethics

Further useful links:

Rape, Genocide and Women’s Rights- McKinnon

Female Subjects and Public International Law- Engle

WHO Gender Based Violence

UNFPA Gender Equality

Women’s refugee commission report, ‘If not now, when?’

A Global Over view of Gender Based Violence- Heise, Ellsberg & Gottmoller

Addressing Gender Based Violence in an International Context- Etienne

Image Source: Three women surrealist: By Goran Zec (Flickr: p4063299a.jpg) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons


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