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Back You are here: Home Feminism Body Politics A woman is a ‘who’, not a ‘what’

A woman is a ‘who’, not a ‘what’

Robot-woman-200Women continue to be objectified and viewed in terms of their roles or functions in life. It’s time to challenge this dehumanisation, writes Tessa Barratt.

9 May 2014

I am at that age when many friends and acquaintances are having children. As such, I have been privy to many of the discussions that typically follow the announcement of a birth. 

After several such conversations, I started to notice something troubling in the way people discussed the subject: having performed her role as incubator and deliverer, the woman was suddenly no longer of interest. In fact, sometimes the new mother wasn’t even brought up at all – the focus was entirely on the baby.

It got me thinking.

There is a tendency in our culture to speak of women as objects or performers. Men objectify women by referring to them as animals (bitch, fox, chick – itself a sad reflection on the low status afforded to animals), or in sordid acronyms such as MILF, or even by uttering such charming statements as, “I’d hit that!” 

The media regularly turn women into sexual objects, and we have become so accustomed to the female body selling products that few of us feel outraged enough to complain or take action.

That women are routinely objectified in popular media is nothing new. However, this tendency to think of women either as things or as role players (mothers, wives, princesses, and so on) has become so ingrained in our way of thinking that we rarely question why they are treated this way.

Woman as Function

The reduction of a woman to her role continues after she has her first child. In the recent finale of the Australian TV show My Kitchen Rules, I noted that the winners referred to themselves as “The SA Mums”.  It seemed that their defining feature was that they were mothers. 

But would two male competitors in such a show go by the title of “The SA Fathers”? 

Men don’t seem to reduce themselves to only one aspect of who they are, at least not in this way. But society likes to confine women to such roles or titles as it makes them more “relatable”.

The feminist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir developed the theory that women are seen as “other” or secondary to the male, who is the default for the human race.  In this way, a woman tends to think of herself in terms of how she functions in the private sphere, rather than who she is as a whole person.

Women in prominent positions by proxy of a man, such as “The First Lady” or Princess Kate, are idolised or criticised depending on how well they perform their supporting roles in their husband’ life. 

Indeed, the media often employ a very 1950s take on how well a woman is doing as a counterpart to her man (to see this in action, one only needs to reflect on the innumerable magazine articles focusing on what Kate Middleton was wearing, or how much Michelle Obama was smiling next to her husband).

The personal achievements of these women seem to diminish once they become associated with a man perceived as more important and powerful than they are.

Women as Wives, Mothers and Daughters

When we appeal to men to take a stand against violence against women, we have to make it personal to them by asking them to imagine a violent act happening to their sister, or their daughter, or their partner. It’s not enough to simply ask that women be treated as human beings. 

Women are often viewed, not as human beings in their own right, but through their relationship to men. This is why this strategy of imploring men to help end one of the worst epidemics of our times is so often used. 

Men who treat women poorly or as sex objects suddenly become feminists when they become fathers to girls but their “feminism” begins and ends with their own daughter.

As an extension of themselves, they want her to receive the best treatment from society.  The rest of womankind are there to serve different purposes, and are not important.

In the 21st century, we are still fighting for women’s reproductive choices. Abortion is still listed as a crime in New South Wales law and with the introduction of a foetal personhood bill to the upper house of Parliament looming on the horizon, it looks as if women will still be relegated to the role of incubator. 

The fact that a woman’s choice is even up for debate is testament to how dehumanised women are in society. An unborn foetus, with no personality, thoughts and ambitions, could take precedent over the life of a fully developed, adult human being. This has happened in other countries, to devastating effect.

And then, tragically, we have the ultimate diminishment of women when they become sex objects, sold and trafficked in Australia and abroad. 

In the West, we are appalled at fathers literally bartering their daughters in Pakistan and other places, but given the worldwide treatment of women as mere objects that exist solely to perform a function, is it any wonder that this practice continues unabated?

Remember who, not what she is

The next time you hear a woman being talked about, pay attention to how. If you notice that she is being spoken of only in terms of her role, make an effort to restore her humanity by asking after her wellbeing, personal accomplishments, goals and hopes. 

We all need to start challenging the way society routinely objectifies and reduces women; and we can do this simply by remembering the person before the function. 

Changing the way we think of, and talk about, women is the most important step we can make towards true gender equality.

Tessa Barratt is the co-founder and president of the Sydney Feminists. Originally from South Africa, she moved to the UK at the age of 18 to study creative writing.  

As she was finishing her degree, she developed fibromyalgia and all her career aspirations were put on hold. Upon doctors’ advice to move to a warmer climate, she moved to Australia to stay with her friend (now partner) in Sydney.

Since its inception in January 2012, the Sydney Feminists has grown into a large group of activists. Tessa had dedicated all her energy to this endeavour and, having learned to cope with her disability, has started writing again. You can find Tessa's other handiwork at

This article was originally published in Discordia. It is re-published here with permission.

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