The Fraility Myth, subtitled 'Women Approaching Physical Equality' is a feminist work written by Colette Dowling in 2000 about how recognition of women's physical abilities was the final step in women gaining social equality with men.

The book was written in a definitely non-academic tone, and while there is some theory involved, it mostly develops along lines of anecdotes, dating back to the (Western) classical world, all the way through the different waves of feminism, the all important Title IX and the large scale emergence of women's sports in the 1990s.

Her basic thesis is in three parts:

  1. Women are inherently as physically able as men are.
  2. It is only social influences that keep women from using their physical power.
  3. Women must develop, or rather redevelop their physical power to truly be able to succeed in the world.

I would say that I agree with this thesis, with a few caveats (such as, when discussing women's physical ability, the issue of what 'able' means. Able to do what?). I feel however, that this book may have a few shortcomings, both in theory and execution. The real theoretical underpinings of why men should want to keep women helpless, and why women would want to go along with it, is undeveloped. However, such a question is probably beyond the scope of the book. I also think that the actual process of systematic oppression of women's physicality is unexplained, and instead a history of (rather depressing) anecdotes is used by Collete Downing to prove her point. However, this was, after all, a popular work, even though it is well researched and referenced.

I also think that the book does manage to miss its point in one way, is that is uses competitive sports for most of the book, and then veers off in the last chapter into the area of self defence. For example, she points out that many women in Fortune 500 companies were former student atheletes. However, many of us don't neccesarily consider being a business executive as being the best measure of success. Are the women who are doing community action, social work and avante garde art also student atheletes? In addition, her point (which I don't doubt) that women are just as good at competitive sports and tough self promotion seems to rely on the contemporary American view that those are good things. In many cultures, men, as well as women, are accultured to not be competitive and to work in groups. Not all cultures value aggression, male or female, as a valuble thing.

As a final point, the ability of certain elite female athletes to compete in organized competitive sports is seen as proof that women have the skills to defend themselves against rape and other forms of physical violence. While I definitly believe (actually, I definitely have evidence) that women are fully capable of defending themselves, I think finding a direct link between physical activity, in the form of structured competitions, and the actual act of self defence, somewhat tenuous. While having some kind of idea of physical movement is a self defence skill, self defence is not primarily a physical activity.

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