The Tyranny of Biology Needs to Change

By Margie Orford
Illustration by Jess Cruickshank


Simone de Beauvoir famously said that ‘one is not born a woman, but becomes one.’ Her greatest book, The Second Sex, sets out with devastating clarity how this ‘becoming’ takes place and the toll it has taken on the economic, social, political and psychic status of women. Equally one is not born a man, one becomes one but the path towards social ‘manhood’ is very different to social ‘womanhood’. It is this unequal becoming that lies at the root of the continued ‘seconding’ of women.

We are all born the same — human and utterly dependent.

However, the tenacity of inequality between boys and girls and later between men and women seems to prove that biology remains destiny despite the feminist wars to change the laws that restrict women’s rights.

Biology is never neutral. Yes we all have a body, we exist in and through the living body, but an infant girl’s becoming a woman is a social process.

How that body is interpolated into society is complex and often punitive. Women’s bodies are not yet our own and enduring gender inequality is the result.

The most seismic shift of the twentieth century was the advent of reliable contraception and safer childbirth. It is one of the most important changes in all of human history as it put the control of women’s bodies, their sexuality and reproduction into our hands for the first time in history. This was a fundamental liberation that has altered the course of history. This freedom — this bodily liberation — has been violently contested — and it still is. This is evident in the pernicious debates around a woman’s right to choose whether to continue with a pregnancy or not. This is one aspect of what I call the tyranny of biology because if one happens to be born with a body that is biologically female, it will be controlled, restricted, censored and messed with unless you fight.

There are many parts of the world where girls are denied an education simply because they are girls. The young Nobel Prize laureate, Malala Yousafzai, brought that fact sharply into global focus. Her valiant campaign for girls’ education in the present echoes the struggles of other women at other times — think of Mary Wollstonecraft’s impassioned advocacy for women’s education in the 18th Century.

The denial of education to women results from the tyranny of biology. There is no reason that a boy should be educated and a girl should not. There is no reason that a man should be able to work how and where he wishes and a woman should not. There is no reason that men should have power and women should not. These — the broad sweeps of the inequality that blights all our societies to a lesser or greater extent — are founded on a toxic mixture of prejudice and entitlement.

If one is not born a woman, if one becomes one through a process of socialization then the same applies to men. One is not born a man, one becomes one. It is, however, on and through the bodies of women that masculine identity is written. And it is this script that shapes so much of the violence that men inflict on women. From the so-called honour killings to the wives battered to death in suburban homes we see a pattern of an entitled violence that is enabled by patriarchal societies that regard women as possessions, as repositories of male honour, identity and status.

This is the tyranny of biology in its most dangerous and intimate form. It is, however, mirrored in the public sphere, in the work place and in the media. There are places in the world where women have fought for and won more rights, more status, more money and more freedom, but these social gains are not enough and need to be defended and expanded.

Just as racism, which judges certain bodies (white ones, usually) to be superior to other bodies (darker ones) and awards economic and social privilege accordingly, is anathema, so is the gendered allocation of power and privilege according to sex. It is this tyranny of biology that needs to be overthrown and it will be.


Margie Orford is an internationally acclaimed writer and award-winning journalist who writes regularly about crime, gender violence, politics, freedom of expression, and literature. She has written a number of children’s books and several works of non-fiction on subjects ranging from climate change to rural development. Margie is President of PEN South Africa and a member of the executive board of PEN International, supporting the promotion literature and freedom of expression around the world.

Margie will be delivering a solo talk, “How to Find your Vocation” and is part of the panel discussion, “True Crime vs Real Crime” at All About Women on March 6 at the Sydney Opera House. For more information: aaw.sydneyoperahouse.com