Are Children an Oppressed Class?
I can take no credit for asking this question or raising this issue. Many people I respect have written about this subject before. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find most of these posts through Google, though I remember that one appeared here. You see, when I first started seeing these posts, my response was anger. Haven’t women, and disabled women in particular, been fighting not to be treated like children? Doesn’t saying that children are oppressed undo all of that?
But enough people I respect had commented on the subject that I sat on my rage and thought about it for a while. Eventually I came to see was that my reaction to the idea of children as an oppressed class resembled the way some temporarily able-bodied feminists respond to discussions of ableism. Able-bodied women don’t want to be treated like “cripples”, after all. Then I had to admit that of course children are oppressed as a class. Because they are smaller and weaker than most adults, and at very young ages unable to provide for their needs independently at all, they are deeply vulnerable to oppression.
When Nestle encourages women to use formula even though they cannot afford enough to feed their children adequately and have to water it down too much, it is the children who are being oppressed. Children in countries brutalised by war are forced to become soldiers because they are children and thus more easily coerced. Nations that lack adequate childcare oppress not only the mothers (and a few fathers) whose ability to work is limited but also the children who will often suffer either economic deprivation or lack of adequate nurturance and supervision.
None of this changes the fact that it is wrong to treat a woman, disabled or otherwise, as a child. If you treat a thirty-year old like a four-year old should be treated, you will not be meeting her needs—and the reverse is also true. Similarly, if you treat a sighted woman as if she is blind, you are not meeting her needs just as you would not be meeting the needs of a blind woman by expecting her to act the same way a sighted person would. Talking about these differences gets tricky, however. If you say you simply do not want to be treated the way a member of another oppressed class is treated, it comes across as a desire to be more respected, and less ill-treated, because you are not a member of this other class and that contributes to the stigma they must face. While there may be some contexts in which it is useful to differentiate between the needs of different groups, in most situations it is probably best simply to state the way in which one does not want to be treated. For instance, I want to have my ideas respected and considered because if they are summarily dismissed, my need to be heard is not being respected, not because I am not a child or like a child.
In the end, feminism must address the needs of children not only because women are most often their caretakers, though this does matter, but because children deserve to be loved and respected. They deserve to have their needs met, not merely to be praised when they say or do something that supports the desires and needs of adult feminists. Feminism is for girls, too.