Fairer sex? Yeah, sure

Abstract: There is nothing fair about the so-called fairer sex…

Now that we’re into the final week of Womens’ Month, perhaps we can finally say goodbye to that phrase that has everything, and nothing, to do with women: the wholly inaccurate, grossly outdated and altogether condescending epithet: ‘the fairer sex’.

I can imagine you’ve gathered by now that I find the phrase ‘the fairer sex’ more than a little jarring. Every time I hear it being used it has the effect of someone tapping me very firmly on my forehead. It’s not hurtful, but it is highly irritating and completely out of place in polite social discourse.

Yet, it’s somehow still hanging around, resolutely hooked into popular discussion; and it seems to be used, often a little too casually, to somehow encapsulate everything that is ‘woman’. It worms its way into sentences such as, “We need to realise that the fairer sex is…” And it’s not only the sole preserve of men trying to be dismissively witty. The other day in a TV debate on the role of women in sport management, I heard a female guest say, “It’s time for the fairer sex to step up and take their rightful position…”

So what makes it wrong? Well, firstly, on a lighter note, it’s a little off target in that it suggests women have been imbued with characteristics that make them even-handed in their day-to-day dealings with men. This is of course not the case. Women have the capacity to remember seemingly innocuous, yet emotionally loaded, minutiae that can be recalled at will, and at just the right time to be used as leverage.

Forget to record your wife’s favourite programme on TV, just once, and she will find the opportunity to remind you, forever, “Oh, I see you remembered to record the golf. That’s handy.” Women can store and recall such powerful putdowns, men can’t; and that’s not fair.

Women are also allowed, nay, expected, to cry. When (spoiler alert!) Meg Ryan’s character dies in the film City of Angels, it’s OK for a woman watching to burst into tears at the immensity of the loss. A man is not allowed to – because, after all, cowboys don’t cry. That doesn’t mean the death of a female lead in a romantic drama doesn’t tear to shreds the heart of any man watching it. It just means he’s not allowed to show it. His wife can, and that’s not fair.

Men are also expected to play aggressive contact sports that expose them to all types of physical risk of injury, and yet it’s women who have been designed to deal with pain. Although science has yet to secure a single scale to measure pain, and labour pains have been described to researchers on the topic as everything from “a little discomfort” to “sheer living hell”; I doubt you’ll find many men who’d agree to step into the wives’ stirrups if they were given the option.

The reason being is that during childbirth women’s bodies have the amazing ability to release great swathes of endorphins – opiate-like hormones, that can help relieve some of the pain, and even engender feelings of euphoria. Without them, childbirth would possibly be intolerable. So men get injured, but it’s women who get the natural pain medication. And that’s not fair.

And then there’s the issue of sex. I once joking taunted a good friend of mind – and a regular sparring partner on issues of women’s rights – as having ‘penis envy’. She parried back, “I don’t miss having a penis”; then patted her husband on the knee and smiled, “I can have a penis whenever I want; can’t I darling?” As if on cue he nodded his head excitedly, like an expectant puppy. The gist of this is that whereas a man generally has to beg for sex, a woman can simply turn to her husband at anytime and find a willing performer; and that’s not fair.

But on a serious and far more important note, in reality, the term ‘fairer sex’ is grossly outdated. Socially and politically, it is rooted in a time of repressive colonialism, when European women shunned the ravages of the elements, and were expected to remain cloistered indoors where they could protect and nurture their fair complexion – hence the term ‘the fairer sex’. Furthermore, they were considered somewhat delicate and needing of shielding from the complexities of industrious labour.

In a modern, and proper, South Africa where women have toiled amid the elements for centuries, and where they are rightfully interwoven into the country’s socio-economic fabric, the very notion that they should remain ‘protected’ from any semblance of ‘the real world’, is not only condescending, it borders on the bizarre.

So that’s why we should step back, pause and reflect on the subtle – and not so subtle – implications of the term ‘the fairer sex’. We should see it for what it is: inaccurate, archaic, patronising and redolent of patriarchy.

If we still feel it necessary to use any epithet to represent women, then perhaps we should choose one that embodies not only their ongoing struggle against discrimination and oppression, but also their resoluteness and inherent strengths. It would need to be a word that conjures up the sentiment of both prudent respect and a deep appreciation for the immensity of the challenges they have faced, and still face, to find legal and socially hierarchical equity with men.

I would suggest: ‘the formidable sex’.

Originally published in the Sunday Tribune, 26 August 2012