Debunking a "female privilege" list

Over on her LJ, Rachel Edidin debunks purported “female privileges” one by one:

Let’s take a closer look at some of these “female privileges”:

1. I am physically able to give birth to another human being, and then do my best to mold her or him into the kind of person I choose.

My sexual choices are more likely than a biological man’s to have life-altering consequences. As a result, the responsibility for birth control is tacitly mine. However, I am less likely to retain custody in the event of a divorce.

2. I am not automatically expected to be the family breadwinner.

If I am not contributing financially to my household, is assumed that I will be a parasite, or, at best, confined to the domestic sphere. In exchange for financial support, I will be assumed to “owe”

3. I feel free to wear a wide variety of clothes, from jeans to skimpy shorts to dresses as appropriate, without fear of ridicule.

If I am harassed or assaulted, it is likely that I will be blamed because of my choice of attire and/or adornment. My culture perceives many styles of dress as inviting extremely invasive and/or personal commentary by strangers, and the style of my dress will have a much more profound affect on my personal and professional opportunities.

Read the rest of the 25 point list here: When I Say “Check Your Privilege”…

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13 thoughts on “Debunking a "female privilege" list

  1. “I am able to give birth” is not a privilege, because privileges are cultural constructions. That would be a biological fact. “I am able to shoot sperm,” is not a privilege but, “I am able to declare dominance and ownership of another person with my bodily fluids” is.

  2. Amanda: Sure, go for the obvious why don’t you 🙂 Seriously, though, I thought it rather odd that #1 was included in the list, much less placed at the top, for the very reason you state. I suppose it just goes to show how much the person who made the original list truly doesn’t understand what privilege means.

  3. However, I am less likely to retain custody in the event of a divorce.

    Couldn’t help but notice that claim. Would it suggest that Rachel could also be unaware of what privileges women have?

  4. Beste:

    Would it suggest that Rachel could also be unaware of what privileges women have?

    I would caution against any such assumptions. I don’t know what evidence she’s basing that claim off of, but I’ve asked for her sources so we’ll see.

    Even if she’s wrong, though, I would hardly call being a single mother a “privilege” when, according to Post-divorce Custody and Family Structure:

    Compared to single fathers, single mothers are more likely to be poor and on welfare (Anderson, 1999). In a study of 22,761 adult men, researchers matched occupational status, income, and education to the family type in which the men were raised. Sons raised by working sole custody mothers did nearly as well professionally as those brought up in two-parent homes but the sons of unemployed single mothers did not fare as well. They were more likely to occupy the lowest-paying positions. This study supports the premise that financial stability has a great deal to do with successful single parenting (Robinson, 1998).

    I’m not saying that there’s not an imbalance that needs addressing — with single mothers composing the overwhelming majority of single parent households clearly there is — or a societal attitude that needs adjusting — the stereotypes that say all women are nurturers while all men are barely fit to care for their children is obviously harmful — the term “privilege” is not something I would ascribe to a non-privileged class of people without a very, very good reason. Having a (possible) advantage in court due to stereotypes does not, in my book, outweigh the harm of said stereotypes nor the problems with society, families, and the courts laying primary (and sometimes all) responsibility for the children on women.

  5. Slightly OT: I found it interesting to read the class privilege checklist that’s usually included in the privilege checklist roundup. What it is, in fact, is precisely what Rachel Edidin is objecting to wrt class. That is, the original author divides the world up into two social classes and then declares them to each have privileges, just as the female privilege checklist assumes the same.

  6. Beste – I suspect it’s simply poor wording.

    Women are more likely to be granted custody by default, owing to the fact that women tend to be the ones required to do the day to day tasks of child-rearing, and the law gives the person actually doing the day to day care of the child the day to day custody of the child – for obvious reasons. However, when men ask the court for custody, the usually get it.

    Women being considered more nurturing does not help mothers fighting for custody, because this same stereotype sets up an impossibly high standard that real mothers never measure up to. Otoh, expectations for fathers are usually so low that they are very easy to meet.

  7. Mickle said:

    However, when men ask the court for custody, the usually get it.

    Hey, is there any way you can point me in the direction of stats and other evidence to back that up? You and Rachel citing that is the first I’ve heard of it, and I must confess that y’all have piqued my curiosity.

  8. Beste said:

    The claim was originally made by Phyllis Chesler in the book “Mothers on Trial”

    Thanks! I’ve added it to my Amazon wishlist. Actually, Child Custody, Law, and Women’s Women’s Work looks promising too (see the introduction), especially in terms of its sources.

    I’ve been able to find a few other items written on the matter that look promising as well:
    Family Court Report 2002
    Gender bias in child custody decisions (requires subscription)
    Determinants of Child Custody Arrangements at Divorce (requires subscription)
    Assessment of fairness in child custody decisions (requires subscription)

  9. Check out the quotes from the Massachusetts Supreme Court’s Gender Bias Study I put in this post (at the end of the post). Here’s the shorter quote:

    We began our investigation of child custody aware of a common perception that there is a bias in favor of women in these decisions. Our research contradicted this perception. Although mothers more frequently get primary physical custody of children following divorce, this practice does not reflect bias but rather the agreement of the parties and the fact that, in most families, mothers have been the primary caretakers of children. Fathers who actively seek custody obtain either primary or joint physical custody over 70% of the time. Reports indicate, however, that in some cases perceptions of gender bias may discourage fathers from seeking custody and stereotypes about fathers may sometimes affect case outcomes. In general, our evidence suggests that the courts hold higher standards for mothers than fathers in custody determinations.

  10. Totally anecdotal, but: when my mother and I realized my father was just too crazy to be fixed and we needed to get out before he did something even more irreversible than all the emotional abuse, he made it clear that if my mom tried to leave with me, he’d charge her with kidnapping and get sole custody of me. We both really, really feared what he’d do with sole custody of me.

    We looked into it a bit, and it looked like there were a lot of cases where Mr. Well Employed “Gosh, do I look like I’d hurt my kid?” gets custody while the mother begging the judge to believe her allegations of abuse gets a restraining order.

    We stayed with him because together we could protect each other from him somewhat, but if one of us got isolated alone with him, there was no telling what he would do.

    The psychiatrist I later tricked him into seeing told me that this was not a bad call, as abusers like my dad are great at sweet-talking judges and looking respectable and making the abused mother look neurotic (which of course she is after a couple decades of abuse, but reversibly so) and the children look programmed (PTSD will do that). Which is all to do with privilege, and the man getting the benefit of the doubt.

    Whenever someone asserts that women have it better in court, I feel homicidal and have trouble responding.

  11. This list is written about white women. Many women of color have exactly the opposite experience of these “truths.”

    For example – #9 – “I am among the first to get off a sinking ship.”

    “Others do not perceive me as capable of taking care of myself or as potentially useful in a crisis,” is supposedly the answer to that. It seems like some super class privilege, white privilege, etc. to ignore the reality that poor women of color are not ever the first off the sinking ship – in fact, they are probably the last, and may never make it off. Also, the rebuttal to the point is incorrect, because women of color (‘m thinking particularly of stereotypes of black women) are often seen as strong and self-reliant, usually as an excuse to deny them aid or justify treating them badly in some other way.

    It would be nice for some people to go over and point this out to the “debunker.” [Hint. Hint.]

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