we end up arguing ... whether children, the only life form lower than we, are human.
It strikes the conservative mind as odd to debate whether children are human, or which rung on the human scale people are. That's because conservatives see our status as humans as being already invested in us. It's not something which can be added to or taken away. Individuals can be unequal in their talents or attainments, but not in their human status.
So why would feminists assume that there are variations in our status as humans? It's because liberal autonomy theory, on which feminism is ultimately based, doesn't begin with the concept of an "invested humanity". Instead, a starting point for autonomy theory is that our humanity is contingent. We are made human, according to this theory, by the fact that we are self-determining agents. Therefore, the more we are self-created, as autonomous, independent beings, the more human we are.
Feminists see women as being less autonomous than men (because it's easier to think of a male career path as being a unique, self-created, independent role than motherhood); children are obviously less autonomous than men, being dependent on their parents. Therefore, feminists logically conclude that men are, in a "patriarchy," more human than women and children.
The Italian beach
The feminist debate about children was sparked by the decision of an Italian businessman to set up a women-only beach, from which not only men but also children were excluded.
This led to a controversy at I blame the patriarchy, a popular radical feminist site. On one side of the dispute were feminists who supported the removal of children from the beach. Some adopted this stance because they didn't want women to be assumed to be the natural carers of children. Many, though, professed a dislike of children in general, finding them too noisy, boisterous and annoying.
Those in favour of children on the beach argued that mothers shouldn't miss out on women-only beach time and that children are an oppressed minority group just like women and that it is therefore wrong to discriminate against them.
The debate was finally closed after about 450 comments on two different threads.
Wanting to become human
There are countless references in the comments to women and children being relegated to a non-human status. As I mentioned earlier, this complaint only makes sense if you think that individuals can be more or less human, depending on their degree of autonomy.
Here's a selection of references in the comments to the idea of a contingent humanity:
Sean: it simply sounds like what feminists are pushing for in the 'real' world, that is, basic structures allowing women to participate in the world as humans.
Zora: I have tried time and time again to explain to folks that children are, in fact, people and deserve to be treated thusly.
Cafe Siren: What if they [women] took this new knowledge of themselves as fully human back into the wider world, and demanded changes.
Catherine: The comparison that is being made is not, therefore, between women's struggle to be seen as human ...
Dairon: The story in question encapsulates so many horrific underlying ideas about social hierarchy and what can and can't be human ...
Dr Sue: I don't think the choice is between "permissiveness" and repression, but between treating children as fully human ...
Blandina: ... father who told me I was a valueless thing and not a human being ...
Physio Prof: it treats children as an oppressed class without bodily or mental autonomy ...
Tigs: ... radical education that values children as human beings is a revolutionary act in and of itself ... Treating children like human beings is part of a revolutionary program ... it might be about the same amount of hard as is treating women like human beings!
Crys T: The whole idea that so many see children as some sort of separate group (often not even a human one) ... is the problem here.
Kiki: Wow, I am always amazed when people act as if children are somehow not fully human.
Gayle: Children, like women, are "othered" and treated as a sub-human species.
Such ideas lead to further complications. For example, feminist women are not going to happily accept a non-human status. Therefore, they must explain their lack of human status as being a product of the way society is organised, rather than as a reflection of the real nature of women.
The first task, that of blaming social organisation, gives them their catchcry of "I blame the patriarchy" (they blame it for everything). It also turns them into self-described utopian revolutionaries, waiting for the day that the whole system is overthrown.
The second task, of denying that women or children are naturally lacking in autonomy, is more perverse. For instance, it leads many commenters to claim that childhood is a sentimentalised fiction and that it's not desirable for children to be raised by their biological parents. In order to present children as independent, autonomous mini-adults, and therefore as fully human, the reality of both childhood and parenthood is denied.
Similarly, the operator of the site argues that children currently are unruly, as many feminists on her site complain, but that this is not an expression of their true nature, but a neurosis brought on by their non-status under patriarchy:
I have stated on numerous occasions ... children are an oppressed class. Their universal and legitimately reviled unruliness is not natural. It is a product of neurosis generated by patriarchy's two main replicatory units ..
What this means is that we are to consider children to be neurotic when they behave childishly. It also means that children aren't to be considered fully human until they stop acting boisterously.
Things are equally bad when attention turns to women. As I have already mentioned, women are thought to be less autonomous than men because they are more likely to be mothers rather than careerists. This means that a number of commenters seriously ask whether it is politically correct for a woman to become a mother. One commenter complains:
Patriarchy wants us to love babies.
There is apparently to be no oppressive mother love under the matriarchy.
One feminist mother doesn't give up without a fight. She asks those suggesting that motherhood is a patriarchal trap: "Well, what's the alternative in your opinion? Just Don't Breed?" The answer comes back:
For those of us who do have this choice, I would suggest that you strongly consider it.
It's also thought a good thing at I blame the patriarchy for women to be selfish, as this involves a pursuit of one's own autonomous wants. There's one comment I'll use to illustrate this point, though I'm not exactly sure if it's meant to be taken in earnest or if it's a clever, tongue-in-cheek send-up of the feminist ideal of selfishness:
Dawn Coyote: Speaking only for myself, I'm lazy and selfish, and the idea that I might not at any moment through my day have a space that is perfectly adjusted to my needs is vexing for me. It's all about me and what I want, after all.
I think the problem is one of entitlement, certainly, but also of independence as a worthy goal, because it's my independence, my autonomy, my right to the free enjoyment of my own pursuits in any space I occupy that has given me the idea that children are a nuisance. If I had more of a sense of responsibility to my fellow humans, be they big or little, I would not so cavalierly wish them into the cornfield.
A misanthropic humanism?
You would think that people who devoted themselves to achieving a full human status would hold humanity in high esteem. In fact, many of those feminists complaining about their lack of human status dislike humanity and wish it would be destroyed. Another selection:
Marcy: yes, I know that humans will go extinct, and I'm OK with that.
Crys T: Like you, I don't think it'd be any great tragedy for the human race to die out.
Silence: Do we need the next generation? I mean, do we really expect the human race to go on and on forever? Because I sure as sh.. don't.
It seems odd for a person to declare that "I want to be human but I don't want humanity to exist." Perhaps, though, this attitude is not such a contradiction. The demand that people have a completely free and equal autonomy is impossible to meet. As the feminists themselves admit it requires a utopian revolution.
Therefore, humanity is being set up to fail a basic test of decency. If it's impossible to achieve "free and equal wills", then humanity won't deliver to every person a full human status. There will forever be a serious breach of "human equality".
This is how "Marcy" seems to see things. In response to a commenter who thought that it was unethical to look forward to the extinction of human beings she wrote:
Ethical? It depends on whose point of view you're working from. If you're working from the planet's and the ecosystem's point of view, then it becomes very much ethical to talk about getting humans out of the picture altogether. As far as I know, it's not birds who are polluting the rivers with toxic waste. Cheetahs don't oppress other cheetahs. Elephants don't find a cure for syphilis and then withold it from some other elephants who have darker skin. I could go on. I'm sure you get the point.
Oppression and inequality have tainted humanity in Marcy's view, so humanity doesn't deserve to survive.
All of this stems, at least in part, from the logic of making human status contingent. It's an aspect of liberal autonomy theory which deserves to be challenged.