The statement that women are oppressed is frequently met with the claim that men are oppressed
too. We hear that oppressing is oppressive to those who oppress as well as those they oppress.
Some men cite as evidence of their oppression their much-advertised inability to cry. It is tough, we
are told, to be masculine. When the stresses and frustrations of being a man are cited as evidence
that oppressors are oppressed by their oppressing, the word "oppression" is being stretched to mean-
inglessness; it is treated as though its scope includes any and all human experience of limitation or
suffering, no matter the cause, degree or consequence. Once such usage has been put over on us,
then if ever we deny that any person or group is oppressed, we seem to imply that we think they nev-
er suffer and have no feelings. We are accused of insensitivity; even of bigotry. For women, such ac-
cusation is particularly intimidating, since sensitivity is one of the few virtues that has been assigned
to us. If we are found insensitive, we may fear we have no redeeming traits at all and perhaps are not
real women. Thus are we silenced before we begin: the name of our situation drained of meaning and
our guilt mechanisms tripped.
But this is nonsense. Human beings can be miserable without being oppressed, and it is perfectly
consistent to deny that a person or group is oppressed without denying that they have feelings or that
We need to think clealy about oppression, and there is much that mitigates against this. I do not want
to undertake to prove that women are oppressed (or that men are not), but I want to make clear what
is being said when we say it. We need this word, this concept, and we need it to be sharp and sure.
The root of the word "oppression" is the element "press."
The press of the
crowd; pressed into military service; to press a pair of pants; printing press;
press the button.
Presses are used to mold things or ±atten them or reduce
them in bulk, sometimes to reduce them by squeezing out the gases or liq-
uids in them. Something pressed is something caught between or among forc-
es and barriers which are so related to each other that jointly they restrain,
restrict or prevent the thing’s motion or mobility. Mold. Immobilize. Reduce.
The mundane experience of the oppressed provides another clue. One of the most characteristic and
ubiquitous features of the world as experienced by oppressed people is the double bind – situations
in which options are reduced to a very few and all of them expose one to penalty, censure or depriva-
tion. For example, it is often a requirement upon oppressed people that we smile and be cheerful. If
we comply, we signal our docility and our acquiescence in our situation. We need not, then, be taken
note of. We acquiesce in being made invisible, in our occupying no space. We participate in our own
erasure. On the other hand, anything but the sunniest countenance exposes us to being perceived as