As I sat on the rowers at the gym this morning, I ruefully reflected on a regular phenomenon that I encounter at the gym - the one where I get on an exercise machine adjacent to a man and he inevitably begins rowing/jogging/cross-country-skiing faster, as if to try and impress me. Or perhaps remind me that I'm 'just a girl' and he's bigger, stronger, faster, wotever. I've always found this both amusing and sad, insofar as physical prowess counts for so very little in our society these days. You're a great rower? Oh, come father my babies, please! You can lift your own body weight above your head? I'm sure that skill brings with it a six-figure income, let's go for a drink.
I'm being facetious of course, and I pass no judgement on those who find satisfaction in intense exercise, although I do think it's a shame that so many of us, male and female, 'work out' not to be healthy and fit, but to look good to the opposite sex. But this got me thinking about how, whenever someone dares to suggest that feminism ain't so bad because heck, all it means is treating both sexes equally, a troll inevitably crawls out of the wordwork to whinge "But wimmin can't lift heavy loads/run as fast as Mo Farah/reach high shelves, how dare they demand to be treated equally to men!". I'm not exaggerating - Peter Salmon wrote these seemingly uncontroversial words "women are as capable as men across all spheres of human endeavour, and that society should ensure an equality of access and reward for these endeavours" in an article on Australian feminism. As well as the inevitable labelling of feminism as extreme, man-hating and responsible for all social ills, it didn't take long before several (presumably male) responders rejected the truth in Salmon's statement. A female commenter suggested that what these knee-jerk reponses were actually trying to say was -"Generally, yes. Specifically looking at spheres of human endeavour that require great physical strength, probably not."
But the fact that this red herring of an argument is still being trotted out shows how invested some parts of our society are in a belief that men's ability to swing sledgehammers and run marathons is evidence for dismissal of all of feminism's aims. Like the puffing man on the rower trying to show off to me, it all feels a bit desperate - because let's face it, few people, men OR women do physical labour any more. Our coalmines are largely closed, our building industry is in decline, and we are happy to let Eastern European men and women do the menial labour we don't fancy ourselves, such as construction and back-breaking farm work. The care industry, which requires a LOT of moving, handling and lifting, is largely staffed by women and African immigrants. This implies that who does the physical work in this society often has less to do with gender and more to do with race and class.
Let's face it, those who wield power in our society have probably never carried a hod of bricks in their life. Are you going to tell me that David Cameron is 'naturally superior' to Theresa May because he possibly might be able to lift a heavier load than her, even though neither of them probably even lift their own briefcases, so privileged are their positions? Please. Do we really think that all the white LA residents who drive to work to sit in an office all day while Mexican men sweat in their gardens would swap their lot with their gardeners', just to gain the 'glory' that allegedly comes from being physically strong? Come on. It's not 'strength' that gets you ahead in this society. (Sadly it's too often cunning and corruption, but that's another issue for another day)
The Olympics definitely reignited a debate about the disparities between male and female athletes' capabilities, despite the utter irrelevance of this to everyday life. If we are going to start building hierarchies based upon physical prowess, we'd find ourselves in a pretty unpleasant society. Would all the men who are arguing that 'might is right' accept that since the average Olympic female athlete is far physically superior to the average male specimen you'd find in a British pub, all men should be socially subservient to female athletes? Would we then like to posit the notion that because a lot of Jamaican and African men are rather spiffy runners, all white men should accept that their black brothers deserve better pay and an elevated social status than them? Didn't think so, somehow. Trying to make arguments about social equality based on the achievements of a razor-narrow band of trained individuals is a pretty silly exercise. And we wouldn't be hearing about them if there weren't a group of men out there feeling threatened and feeling the need to try and reassert their 'superiority' in the first place - which is both concerning and a bit sad.
Now, the armed forces is another area which the 'physical superiority' brigade often point to when it's suggested that women do everything men do, and that it might not be a big deal. While women soldiers are very much 'on the front line' of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, female soldiers are still offically barred from 'close combat' which means they are only eligible for 67% of army roles. But again, I'd question why the army should be treated as a microcosm of British society, when it's in no way reflective of most of our lives, concerns and capabilities. I can think of very few individuals I know, male OR female, who could or would want to 'yomp 100 miles with 45lbs on their back'. The soldiers who do this deserve respect for their commitment and bravery, but this is no more evidence that 'women and men don't deserve equal opportunities and equal pay' than the notion that because it's mostly women caring for and nursing the elderly and disabled, men must obviously not be making enough of a contribution to the social good. I'd also add that it takes a great deal of guts to be a female soldier in a male-dominated arena where soldier-on-soldier rape and sexual assault is a massive problem in both UK and US forces. If we're going to start awarding genders points on account of 'bravery', let's ask who's braver - the woman who goes into the US military knowing she is 180 times more likely to be sexually assaulted than die in combat, or the man who has the comfort of knowing that only 12 percent of military rape victims are male and if he rapes a female colleague, he's likely to get away with it?
However, I'm not interested in getting into cross-gender mud-flinging, which is exactly what the 'might is right' proponents would have us do. I don't believe in disregarding male problems just to avenge the countless times women's inequality has been ignored or brushed under the carpet - but I do believe in the right to a space to address these inequalities without being jumped upon by armchair theorists who think that because Andy Murray might be able to beat the Williams sisters in a tennis match, that's somehow evidence that the sexes don't deserve equal treatment (although part of me suspects Serena's Amazon ferocity would see Murray eaten alive - just look what happened to the jackass who tried to silence Billie Jean King with sexism). We don't operate a society based on physical superiority - and thank God for that, because the vast majority of us - male, female, black, white, Asian, disabled or able bodied would not make the grade. We base our laws and actions upon intelligence and reason, but also compassion, which is why we put frail babies in incubators rather than leaving them out on mountaintops, and care for children, elderly and the disabled even when it costs us. So in such a society, it doesn't just become apparent that the 'stronger = better' argument is largely based on falsehoods - it also bcomes clear that it's totally irrelevant.