The Myth of the Fairer Sex

According to new research unveiled this month, women were far more involved in the atrocities committed during the Holocaust than previously thought. Wendy Lower, an American historian living in Munich, uncovered that thousands of German women ("a conservative estimate") willingly went out to the Nazi-occupied eastern territories to take part in the "war effort," otherwise known as genocide.

This news is disturbing, to be sure, but it's also not surprising. Anyone who reacts with shock to the reality that women have the capacity to be immoral, malicious, and violent -- just like the guys -- hasn't paid enough attention in history class, much less to the nightly news.

Yes, men are behind some of the most violent moments that make headlines, but women also have the capacity for violence and are so often passive observers in the face of it -- particularly when it's structural, not physical. The "banality of evil," as Hannah Arendt described it, is alive and well in the women who sit by as their co-workers are sexually harassed or their neighbors are racially profiled or as the social safety net is cut out from under our most vulnerable citizens (usually women and children). It is present in the double speak becoming more and more common among "mama grizzly" politicians who claim to care for women but then legislate and budget in direct opposition to their interests and rights. This is violence without a clenched fist and a busted lip. It is the less visible violence of detachment and deceit.

Women the world over, especially self-proclaimed feminists, must own the truth about our gender's capacity for violence if we are ever going to be effective in combating it. With our recent past of cowboy presidents and reckless money men, it's tempting to sit smugly in our stitch 'n bitch circles and surmise that if we were in charge, we would never do what they have done.

Bitch Magazine co-founder Lisa Jervis wrote of this tendency in her powerfully original 2005 piece, "If Women Ruled the World, Nothing Would be Different." She describe a disturbing rise in "femmenism," in which all women, just by virtue of being female, are to be elevated and glorified. Instead of focusing on gender, as radical feminists should, she argues, feminists have become obsessed with women. This, she writes, "causes sloppy thinking, intellectual dishonesty, and massive strategic errors."

When it comes to violence, femmenism is alive and well. Just because the violence most often perpetrated by women doesn't take such obvious forms (rockets exploding! oil gushing! guns popping!), it doesn't mean we aren't part of the problem. Forty-eight percent of us supported the administration that started a preemptive -- and now seemingly never-ending -- war. We are the majority purchasers of all consumer products, including the ones that destroy the environment, pay foreign workers slave wages, and toxify our own bodies. It would be nice if we could wrap ourselves in a pink flag of immunity, but we would be denying both our past (slavery, for starters), our present, and the possibility of a more honest, less violent future.

There has been a lot of buzz in international development and feminist circles as of late about the rise of girls and women. Last year a video called "The Girl Effect," produced by the Nike Foundation, went viral faster than a cute-cat clip, solidifying the suspicion that development dollars in the hands of girls and women are more bang for the buck. Microlending, Greg Mortenson's girls' schools, and community-education models like Tostan -- all of the most beloved trends in the social change of the moment -- are fueled by a belief in the goodness of girls and women.

As they should be. I, too, am perched upon "the girl effect" bandwagon, feminist flag flying high, wallet open, and heart happy. But just because we champion the notion that girls and women, when empowered -- economically and educationally, have the capacity to change the whole dang world, it doesn't mean that we have to deny their twin power for destruction. Just as we take female empowerment personally, we must take female cruelty and immorality personally. We must, at the very least, admit that it exists.

In her 1996 commencement address at her alma mater, Wellesley, Nora Ephron told the graduates: "One of the things people always say to you if you get upset is, don't take it personally, but listen hard to what's going on and, please, I beg you, take it personally. … The acquittal of O.J. Simpson is an attack on you. Any move to limit abortion rights is an attack on you -- whether or not you believe in abortion. The fact that Clarence Thomas is sitting on the Supreme Court today is an attack on you."

Ephron was mostly speaking about the ways in which the political is personal, how even seemingly disconnected D.C. politics are very much the stuff of our everyday lives. But I think she was also warning the young women with their big dreams and wide eyes against the ease of locating evil in someone else's actions -- or as the case may be, in some else's gender.

We must take injustice and violence personally, not just because we want to be part of the solution but because we are morally bound to own the ways in which we are, at this very moment, in myriad ways, part of the problem.