“But I’m Not Oppressed” —Helping to Acknowledge Oppression

When a system of oppression has become institutionalized it is unnecessary for individuals to be oppressive. 
 Florynce Kennedy — “Institutionalized Oppression vs. The Female” (1970)

What is oppression?

Marilyn Frye, feminist philosopher, states that women are oppressed. She said that this is a fundamental claim in feminism. The system which we ascribe is not designed for our benefit, but alternatively for our loss. This is a controversial statement to many, but mainly to women who either refuse to see themselves as oppressed or don’t recognize in what ways they are. Some might argue that all are oppressed in some way, shape, or form. Don’t we all suffer? Don’t we all experience hardship or discomfort? Why do some use terms like oppressed to exaggerate this everyday, common non-phenomenon?

The problem is not that oppression is a regular thing, but that it’s treated as though it is. The term has been used as if it’s common, when in fact most of the time that people are using the term oppression it’s to express that they felt some kind of discomfort. These types of occurrences are common, but aren’t oppression. The tendency to misuse the term oppression has distorted its meaning; making it meaningless. Oppression does not encompass all human experiences of suffering or limitation. The term was never meant to do that. Although a group being oppressed may feel discomfort, those are simply the symptoms of oppression, not the disease. So, what is oppression?

Oppression means to press against, to push, to force.

That means that those who are oppressed are not simply inconvenienced or discomforted by the experience, but molded by it. Their ways of living are confined within barriers that are unavoidable and inescapable. There is a helplessness, a despair, found in being restricted at every turn and penalized for moving in any direction other than the one predestined for you. There is an expectation to be compliant and smile despite your situation. They are confined. They are controlled. They are constricted. They are caged.

Women are pressured, pushed, and forced every day to fit in this box. We are given these impossible standards, and expected to be only who we’re told to be. They are oppressed. They are caged.

The Double Bind

“Situations in which options are reduced to a very few and all of them expose one to penalty, censure or deprivation.”

One of the most popular examples of the double bind is how choosing to have sex or to not have sex is unacceptable. If a woman chooses to have sex, she is slut shamed. She gets called derogatory names like slut and whore. If she chooses to not have sex, she is seen as uptight and called other derogatory names like prude. This example of a double bind is so prevalent in our patriarchal society that it is seen in many types of media. Most women understand this and can get frustrated by the paradoxical thinking.

Alice, The Breakfast Club (1985)

So, what is one to do in this situation? Promiscuity or sexual inactivity? Slut or prude? It’s almost as if the real issue here is that women are able to choose at all.

Why are men so invested in what women do with their bodies? Isn’t it their body?

The double bind is a perfect example of oppression because it shows the illusion of choice, when really the idea is that you are not your own. As women, we can be freely mocked for any decision that we make with our bodies because our bodies are not seen as our own. We are seen as the property of men. That is the only possible explanation for the investment in our sexual activity, cosmetic use, exercise habits, and even healthcare.

Why is it so hard for some women to see themselves as oppressed?

Thus to recognize a person as oppressed, one has to see that individual as belonging to a group of a certain sort.

Women are literally all over the place. They are in different classes, economic statuses, social rankings, etc. We cannot ignore the intersectionality of women or we fail to recognize that different women experience oppression in different ways.

Maybe women who say, “I am not oppressed” don’t fully identify themselves as apart of this group; this large group of women from different backgrounds who experience institutional and systematic oppression and aggression every day of their lives. They don’t feel unified with other women. They have internalized their oppression, and therefore see any association with this group as demeaning. Meanwhile their reluctance to identify with this group in fear of losing value, dignity or respect is in itself an acknowledgement of oppression.

Being dispersed makes it difficult for women to have knowledge of each other and hence difficult to recognize the shape of our common cage.

We need to acknowledge that we’re all in this together. We share a common cage and that cage is that our function in life is perceived to be that servants to men and their interests. Women who do not see themselves as oppressed have to realize that there is a system, and that this system was not built for them as all. Even though their cage is larger and has a better view, it is still a cage and should be viewed as such. The questions they should ask are:

Who built this cage?

Who constructs and maintains it?

Whose interests are served by its existence?

Deciding not to think about this system, doesn’t make the system go away. It perpetuates it.