The dangerous paradigm of gender hierarchy

"Violence against women has an insidious presence in every community in every country on the planet."

I went to view the Clothesline Project in my hometown.  Originating in 1990 in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, the Project was a response to an alarming statistic: 58,000 American soldiers died in the Viet Nam war, and during that same period, 51,000 women were killed by their intimate partner.  The Project uses a simple idea to heighten awareness in the community about the issue of violence against women. Victims of violence paint a T-shirt to communicate their experience of abuse, and hang the T-shirt on the Clothesline.

Violence against women has an insidious presence in every community in every country on the planet.  Some acts of violence against women and girls, like the 1989 Montreal Massacre, the shooting of Malala Yousafzai, or the rape and suicide of Rehtaeh Parsons, become part of the public domain.  Others remain private. The Clothesline draws our attention to these private acts of violence. When T-shirts flutter in the breeze outside the local supermarket, the presence of violence against women in our community becomes a reality.

Gender hierarchy, in my view, is one of the underlying causes of violence against women. Gender hierarchy is culturally, and religiously conditioned. Culturally accepted (think of  “honor killings”), and Biblically rationalized (think of “wives obey your husbands”), violence against women reduces male/female interactions to domination and subordination.

Domination has many expressions. Some, like Muslim women walking around in tents, are blatantly obvious. Others, like North American men describing strong, talented women in the boardroom as “bitches”, are subtler. Every expression of male arrogance over women demeans the dignity of both sexes.

Gender hierarchy distorts our understanding of what it means to be fully human.  Over the millennia, this distortion reduced men and women to a series of stereotypical and opposing traits. The so-called male traits (strength, aggression, rationality and intelligence) were placed on a higher level than the so-called female traits (weakness, meekness, irrationality and emotion).  Instead of integrating strength with compassion, self-assurance with humility, and rationality with nurture, cultural assumptions diminished men and women to an “either/or” proposition. It is time to cast off this ratty, old mantle of distortion that fuels violence against women, and tears the soul apart.

Gender hierarchy crops up everywhere. It has inserted itself into this column in the conventional word order that places “male” before “female”. We incorporate it into our psyches, and propagate it unconsciously, passing it onto our children in a myriad of ways, including the repetition of nursery rhymes that appear innocuous:  “What are little boys made of?/ Slugs and snails and puppy dog’s tails. /What are little girls made of? /Sugar and spice and everything nice.”  Men are supposed to be nasty, and women are supposed to be nice. It’s a dangerous paradigm.

The destructive results of this cultural paradigm hang on the Clothesline for all to see.  We have a choice. We can walk by or we can stop. We can let the T-shirts accomplish their goal of touching our hearts and opening our consciousness to violence against women.  Then, we will begin to look deeply at the unquestioned assumptions that first created the problem so many centuries ago.

Louise McEwan is a freelance religion writer with degrees in English and Theology. She has a background in education and faith formation. Her blog is Contact her at


April 23, 2013