Thursday, March 3, 2011

"Women and Children"

The phrase "women and children" is frequently used to highlight the severity of a disaster; for instance, the BBC's Friday article "Afghan Kunar probe accuses Nato" opens with the statement that "65 civilians, including 50 women and children, were killed in a Nato operation."

I cannot conceive of a single non-sexist reason for referring to female casualties in this manner, especially juxtaposed to juvenile casualties. I can accept the viewpoint that causing the death of civilians is more deplorable than causing the deaths of military personnel; though both are terrible, one can argue that a soldier accepts the possibility of violent death when enlisting. I can also accept (and, in fact, do share) the viewpoint that the death of children is particularly tragic, given that children often require the protection and support of adults to survive. Neither of these arguments apply to women.

It is true that, on average, women are a little smaller than men. But this is irrelevant for two reasons: first, some women are larger and stronger than some men. So, if you must single out a sub-population for being smaller, why not actually choose by size? Second, if you haven't noticed, we tend to use guns, not clubs, to kill each other these days; for better or for worse, many modern instruments of destruction may be wielded effectively by anyone.

I am a competent adult woman. I am non-violent, but this is by choice, not necessity. I greatly resent being categorized as helpless and childlike. Stop it.

For a more nuanced discussion of this topic, check out Nadia Hijab's article.


  1. Well put, that phrase has always bothered me, but never could pinpoint why.

  2. I am going to confess to using some of the same language you dislike.

    I like the expression "women and children" because I believe it is a much more complex phrase that does the opposite of what you claim it does. That is, I don't believe it suggests women are less capable or less important. Rather, I think it is designed to reflect the justifiable horror society naturally feels when women or children suffer sudden or violent injury or death.

    I think we can all agree that violence against children is of a higher degree of awfulness than regular run-of-the-mill violence. I believe that violence against women is similarly terrible, and not because I believe women are delicate flowers incapable of caring for themselves, but because I believe that women have a unique role in society that men can never fill. Violence against women undermines the social fabric in every conceivable way, and does terrible harm.

    I feel that the phrase "women and children" simply reflects the valuable place these groups hold in society.

  3. I think that one of the issues is the conflation between 'noncombatant' and 'women and children.' For example, when discussing the massacre at Wounded Knee, it is inevitable that textbooks (and teachers) will emphasize the brutality of the event by stressing the death of 'women and children.'

  4. Steve: Then I propose we just refer to noncombatants, and not women and children. Women can be combatants, too.

    Dana: "I believe that women have a unique role in society that men can never fill." This is gender essentialism, and this is something many feminists object to. It's heteronormative, for one thing: where do non-straight/trans people fit into this? And what about women who don't WANT to serve that unique role? Or men who are more comfortable in roles traditionally assigned to women? What does that role look like, and how should it be performed? Assigning different roles to different genders limits everyone.

  5. We were just talking about this phrase in one of my classes last week. I made the statement that by lumping women and children into one group, it reflects that a person sees women as the equivalent to children or interchangable with children. Otherwise, why would they need to be separated in such a way from men?

    Why not a phrase like 'adults and children' although I fail to see the usefulness of such a phrase.

    Oh, and now I've commented on your great blog. Go check out mine.