Ever heard the phrase “as happy as a clam”? It’s kind of a weird simile, if you think about it. Clams don’t strike me as having much in the way of emotions, and even if they do, they are so unexpressive that they hardly seem like the ideal illustration of cheerful contentedness. But there is an explanation for the oddity. It seems to have its origins in 19th century New England, and come from the longer saying “happy as a clam at high water”—high tide being when clams are protected from the notice of seagulls and other predators. While this image might not be familiar to most Americans, the expression has become so entrenched in our language that we use it without even thinking about where it comes from.
here are many such holdovers in our customs and language—habits and turns-of-phrase that are arbitrary or strange, but which, having grown up with them, we take as a matter of course. We automatically say “God bless you” when somebody sneezes, even though most of us no longer believe that our souls are expelled along with our mucus. We knock on wood, we “bite the bullet” and “bury the hatchet,” we pass our food to the right.
But what happens when these types of conventions have their root in a social system that we no longer abide by or accept? Even if most people don’t intend to reinforce out-dated societal norms, can the continued presence of certain expressions in our language be harmful to social progress?
The phrase that prompts me to ask these questions is one that tends to crop up when talking about heavy topics like war zone casualties or tragic accidents. The phrase is “women and children,” or, even more explicitly, “innocent women and children.” Examples of this phrase in everyday use can be found by searching newspapers’ online archives. This turns up results like “Women and children were among 14 people killed six days ago [by American fighter aircraft in Afghanistan]” (The New York Times, March 13, 2002) and “[The prisoners] reportedly include militants convicted of killing Israeli women and children” (Fox News, July 28, 2013) Just last week, Secretary of State John Kerry used the phrase in his statement about the crisis in Syria: “The indiscriminate slaughter of civilians, the killing of women and children and innocent bystanders, by chemical weapons is a moral obscenity. This phrase comes so naturally to the lips and pens of journalists, world leaders, and everyday citizens that the words “women” and “children” have become an obvious combination, like “apples and oranges” or “Simon and Garfunkel.”
I have to ask: why are women lumped in with children? This pairing reflects the notion that women are innocent, weak, and sheltered creatures who must be protected by men. It is problematic on many levels.
The phrase “women and children” equates women with the people who, in our society, are not considered fully mentally or physically developed. It associates them with vulnerability and impressionability. It places them on a level with those who are not allowed to drink, smoke, drive, vote, sign official documents, live alone, travel unattended, or seek medical treatment without the permission of their legal guardians. In the past, women have indeed been denied many of these social privileges and legal rights. In the U.S. we have moved past the days when women couldn’t own property independently of their husbands; perhaps it is time that we update our language as well.
The idea of women as “innocents” has been used throughout history to justify denying women the right to vote or receive an education—after all, we mustn’t bother our pretty little heads with ideas that are too difficult or unpleasant. But furthermore, this idea glides smoothly over the fact that far from being ignorant of life’s unpleasant aspects, women often bear the brunt of them. Women are more likely than men to live in extreme poverty; according to the UN Development Programme, 60% of the world’s poorest people are women. One in four women has experienced violence at the hands of a domestic partner or significant other, and 84% of spouse abuse victims are women. Women are 180 times more likely than men to be victims of rape or sexual assault. The hardships that women endure—often at the hands of the very people who, in theory, are supposed to “protect” them—defies the myth of women as naive, innocent, and weak. Women know plenty about the evils of the world. The concept of female frailty and innocence neither gives women agency, nor acknowledges the hardships that they face and endure every day.
This saying also assumes that women are civilians, as it takes for granted that they are not responsible for any armed conflict that takes place. In fact women make up 15.7% of the U.S. armed forces and have recently won the right to serve in combat roles. In Israel, the country that Fox News mentions in the article quoted above, military service is mandatory for women. They make up 20% of the standing army, and in 2003 59% of 18-year-old Jewish Israeli women were conscripted into the army.A significant proportion of both Israeli men and women have served in the country’s military; then why are women placed alongside children in the category of blameless bystanders whose deaths defy the laws of war?
Finally, this phrase implies that the death of a woman is more tragic or disgraceful than that of a man. This is unfair to both men and women. It suggests that, if armed conflict is to occur, men should be the one to place their bodies in harm’s way for the good of all. It also excludes women from real adulthood and personhood—like children, they are set apart from being actors in conflicts that concern their own interests just as much as those of their fellow countrymen.
I am not a child. I am not more innocent or sheltered than my male friends, and I do not think my untimely death would be any more tragic than theirs. I do not want to be protected. I want to shoulder the burdens and responsibilities of being an active member of our global society.
Yes, it is difficult to be a thinker, a laborer, an activist, an artist, a teacher, a governor, a judge, or a fighter. But to be excluded from taking part in the great movements of the world, to be prevented from plumbing the depths of human experience and climbing its heights, to be perpetually limited to the status of a helpless child, is a terrible and perverse fate.
Does this phrase “women and children” single-handedly relegate women to the status of minors? Of course not. It does, however, continue to associate women in people’s minds with innocence, fragility, and lack of agency. It makes assumptions about women’s role in society that would fit in nicely in a 1950s sitcom. It perpetuates in language—that extremely powerful medium that contains our thoughts and defines our interactions—the idea that women are somehow both more and less important than men, and certainly not equal.
By: Hannah Poor, Contributor