Who is harmed when women are uncritically grouped with children?
Hint: It’s not just women.
Feminists have often noted how the grouping of women with children is infantilizing, as it presumes that women and children are interchangeable, but they often ignored how “Womenandchildren" erases the experiences of children, which are unique and separate from those of their mothers, and most importantly, they ignored how “Womenandchildren” conceals the fact that women have much more power than children, and that relations between women and children are hierarchical: Women are the oppressors, children are the oppressed class. A disproportionate amount of child abuse is enacted by women when compared with other forms of violence in society, which are mostly enacted by men. Female perpetrated child abuse is the result of the powerlessness of women in society and the family (Dougherty, 1993), taking this powerlessness into account helps us understand but doesn’t excuse the vastness of the problem. Female perpetrated child abuse also dispels many essentialist myths: Women aren’t naturally less violent than men, many of our mothers prove that, they just have less power, less opportunity to abuse. Men historically confined women to the domain of child care, where despite their status as an oppressed gender they wielded their adult power over children, the frustration caused by having to perform this difficult task without any help from men only exacerbated any hatred that they could have felt for children, as adults who have been socialized into believing that children are less and can be abused with impunity. Children are often used as scapegoats, because it’s a harrowing experience for a woman to take full consciousness of how much misogyny permeates society. If it’s so exhausting to be a mother (or mother figure), she tells herself, it’s not the patriarchy’s fault, it’s children’s: they are so entitled, so needy, so stupid. They’re “just like their father” (and daughters are told this as much as sons are, I was). Being a mother in a patriarchal society is bad, but being a daughter/son is much worse, being a woman in a patriarchal society is bad, but being a child is much worse, we must not forget this, when we talk about relations between women and children.
When it’s appropriate to use “Womenandchildren”?
It’s a fact that men have historically infantilized women. It’s also a fact that men have historically “feminized” children. It’s also a fact that violent men often target both women and children, like in domestic abuse. In some situations, it is therefore appropriate to mention both women and children as vulnerable groups, but before saying it, ask yourself: “Does this issue actually affect both women and children in a relatively similar way?”. One must reflect a lot on this question, and not answer simplistically.
Do not be afraid of saying “women and girls”.
If what you mean is that both women and female children are affected by an issue, do not say “women and children”, and consider saying “women and girls”. Why? Because “women and girls” conveys the message that female children are affected by an issue because they are female, not because of their child status. If a girl’s status as a child worsens her situation (and it most often does), that can be elaborated on without saying “women and children”. This avoids conflating uncritically female oppression with the oppression of children; despite the obvious similarities, adult women’s privileged status as adults and their active oppression of children should never be erased.
Can a male version of “women and girls” ever exist?
No, or at least in the vast majority of cases where it would be appropriate to say “women and girls” it is not appropriate to say “men and boys”. Why? Because children are oppressed by men in a more gendered way, and the identity of “boy” is more different in a gendered sense to the identity of “man” than the identity of “girl” is to that of “woman”. Masculinity is an adult-defined concept in a way femininity is not. This is what is at the roots of the conflation “Womenandchildren” itself. Think of the features more commonly associated with the concept of “Masculinity”, even the banalest: Are they required of children, or are children even allowed to exhibit them? Even when we do attribute masculine features to boys, we emphasize that they contradict their child status, that they make a boy “like a man”. On the contrary, hyper-feminine women are approximated to young girls, reminding us of the fact that childishness in women is fetishized, and in men, ridiculed.
Let’s make an example:
“Men are excepted to be independent” = True.
“Men and boys are expected to be independent” = Not true. Boys are forced to be fully dependent on their parents, and any transgression is duly punished.
Implying men and boys hold similar status in a patriarchal society, and implying society expects the exact same things of both, is simply incorrect, while despite the amount of privilege women hold over girls, the gendered experiences can be approximated.
Feminism and children.
Feminism’s understanding of the oppression of children has been seriously undermined by two incorrect approaches: Women vs. children (adversarial) and Womenandchildren (equivalent). Moreover, feminism’s understanding of the oppression of girls as females and not as children too has been seriously undermined by adultism, which categorically refuses to think of children as oppressed, which makes it impossible to examine how the oppressions might intercept with girls. Feminism and child rights should be neither adversarial nor equivalent: They should be allied. The oppression of women and that of children is built on the same foundation, patriarchy, a world where children are oppressed but women aren’t (or vice versa) is a mere illusion. That doesn’t mean women don’t benefit from their adult privilege and from their capacity to oppress children. The oppression of children by women needs to be recognized by feminism, it’s recognition is crucial if we really hope to dismantle the patriarchy.