Aristotle believed that women were incomplete men. His understanding of biology, recovered in the medieval period and circulated for centuries afterwards, dictated that some individuals did not produce enough internal heat to press their genitals out of their body, and that these people became women. Evidently, this is a belief now relegated to the category ‘bizarre things people believed in the past’. However, its essential principle endures: women are to be defined against the norm of masculinity, as a kind of satellite ‘other’.
Aristotle is not the only source from which this perspective, often unconsciously, has pervaded European culture: in Genesis, woman is created from man, as a companion for him. A related phenomenon is that of the ‘male gaze’, by which society is viewed through male eyes, with all the inherent prejudices this entails. In academia, until recently, ‘women’s history’ was separated from history at large, presumed by implication to be the realm of men. Of course, women are not the only victims of this treatment. The norm in our society is considered to be the white heterosexual man, and all others are defined as deviating from that norm.
The problem with national awareness days and months relating to oppressed and disenfranchised groups is that they contribute to the entrenchment of straight white male-orientated attitudes. The USA’s Black History Month does not only elicit specious casual references to Martin Luther King from people with no understanding of his life and work; it also implies that black history is separate from the main – white – strand of American history. Anti-feminists often demand to know why there is no International Men’s Day; as everyone else knows, there is, but it is little-observed because every other day is already men’s day, in terms of perception.
Most awareness days, incidentally, are charitable and usually medical in nature, and so unrelated to this issue. And, of course, it is far better that we should have these dates than to revert to the silencing of the groups they represent that previously prevailed. But it is time to make the next step, which must be the integration of women’s experiences, black people’s experiences, gay people’s experiences, into society’s default gaze. Awareness dates reinforce the notion that the perceptions of marginalised groups are merely a vaguely interesting or amusing footnote to the male gaze, separated from its self-proclaimed norm.