Children as an Oppressed Class

  • I am grateful for comments from Adam Kobler (a law professor) and Martine Shelley-Piccinini (an 11-year-old).
  • Skip to the bottom for a summary of the main points, written for a general audience. 

In this post, I’m going to argue that children are an oppressed class, in a position similar to 20th Century housewives, working mothers, and disabled women. Children’s oppression is the new problem that has no name. Their alienation is stigmatized as brattiness, ingratitude, and mental illness. Children are told that they’re lucky to not have to worry about money or politics. They’re given no say over the policies that marginalize, racialize, and commodify them. Medication and punishment will not solve children’s oppression: only political empowerment will. I will approach this topic from an intersectional perspective, consistent with my book, looking at the dynamics of sexism, racism, ableism, and youthism in the lives of young people.

20th-Century Women and the Problem that Had No Name

We can learn a lot about children’s oppression by looking at the history of women’s oppression.

Historically, women were considered the property of their husbands. Upon marriage, a woman’s property was transferred to her husband and she became “civilly dead.” When Betty Friedan wrote “The Feminine Mystique” in 1963, women had gained many civil liberties, but were still an oppressed (albeit intersectional) class. They couldn’t open a bank account, get a prescription for birth control outside of marriage, or do the same work for the same pay as men. In 1981, bell hooks conveyed that Women of Color faced distinct forms of oppression due to the intersections of sexism and racism, which Moya Bailey has since labelled “misogynoir.” Black women had to do domestic service for White families and their own families, were susceptible to domestic violence and state-sanctioned violence, and were denied birth control and subjected to forced sterilization under America’s eugenics regime, amongst other indignities.

Hooks described the oppression of women as a result of [ableist] white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, a set of ideologies and institutions that target women – especially racialized and disabled women – for hyper-exploitation and expropriation. Regimes of expropriation that steal women’s labour or use women’s bodies as a commodity include things like unpaid service work, forced penal labour, sex trafficking, and confinement in the nursing-industrial complex. 

In the 20th Century, women weren’t allowed to complain about their lot. They suffered from ‘a problem that had no name,’ which Friedan called ‘the feminine mystique.’ When women spoke about their alienation, they were seen as spoiled: “The problem was dismissed by telling the housewife she doesn’t realize how lucky she is—her own boss, no time clock, no junior executive gunning for her job” (Friedan, p. 19). They were pathologized and medicated: “many suburban housewives were taking tranquilizers like cough drops” (Friedan, p. 26). They were beaten by their husbands – a practice that was generally accepted and legal. They were silenced by the stereotype of “the ‘strong’ black woman, [which] became the new badge of black female glory” (hooks, p. 6). They were overincarcerated if Black. They were told to ignore their gender and “regard race as the only relevant label of identification” (hooks, p. 1). They were, if disabled, excluded from the workforce and warehoused in ‘state schools’ and ‘asylums.’ 

Rosemarie Garland-Thomson (2002) illustrates how a disability framework helps to explain women’s oppression. While disabled women are oppressed in their own right through things like workplace exclusion and exploitation by medical suppliers and nursing homes, feminized and racialized subjects are oppressed in part because femininity and blackness are seen as “disabling conditions,” and grounds for political disenfranchisement: “A recent study on stereotyping showed that housewives, disabled people, blind people…, and the elderly were all judged as being similarly incompetent. Such a study suggests that intensely normatively feminine positions—such as a housewife—are aligned with negative attitudes about people with disabilities” (p. 7). Housewives, then, are oppressed in part because they’re viewed as disabled, and disabled people are viewed as impaired and incompetent. Today, children are seen in a similar light – as ‘impaired adults,’ incapable of participating in politics and public life.   

Children’s Oppression

The popular narrative about children – as spoiled, ungrateful, and mentally ill – mirrors the popular narratives about 1960s housewives, Black working mothers, and disabled people. Children are in a similar material condition to all three groups, being treated as property rather than persons with human rights. Historically, children – much like women prior to legal emancipation – were the property of their fathers, colonizers, or the state, depending on their social position, and were, accordingly, exploited as status symbols, slaves, or inpatients. In the best-case scenario, children were valued as accessories to a wealthy family, but in most cases, they were exploited in factories, on ‘plantations’ (i.e., slave labour camps), or in ‘state schools’ (i.e., concentration camps). Children have always been seen as a hyper-exploitable class by the rich. 

It wasn’t until 1989 that children were internationally recognized as subjects of rights rather than property through the ratification of the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, which states that “traditional perceptions of children as objects and as the ‘property’ of parents and elders rather than as subjects of rights hinder their right to express their views and to participate in the family, schools and local communities.” The United States is the only U.N. country to reject this declaration, mainly because of the ban on corporal punishment. This means that the U.S. has not yet reached the ‘second wave’ of children’s liberation, which includes banning violence against children, enfranchising children, and addressing structural ageism against children. 

Because children are oppressed, they share a common sense of alienation – a problem that has no name, a ‘youth mystique.’ Children who complain of their alienation are dismissed as spoiled or mentally ill. The media is rife with insulting caricatures of children as spoiled and selfish. “Are your children spoiled rotten?” asks WebMD. “A spoiled child may be recognized by an unwillingness to conform to the ordinary demands of living in a family,” says Psychology Today. Psychiatry is increasingly medicalizing children’s alienation with diagnoses and prescriptions, which now exceed the rate for adults by some estimates. The media shames children by attributing their alienation to irresponsible social media usepoor sleep hygiene, and lack of emotional skills. Since children don’t participate in the workforce, their only market value is as a consumer class. Unsurprisingly, children are replacing housewives as the prime market for advertisers, who are intend on translating young people’s disaffection into consumption. But children who are exploited by consumer culture are not seen as victims, they’re ‘spoiled brats.’ 

The oppression of children is a result of (what we can call) youthist capitalism, a system of class-based expropriation that targets youths, and that intersects with ableist-racial-patriarchal capitalism. In the 1960s, women were excluded from politics, gendered as consumers, and subjected to systemic violence. Now children are in a very similar position. They’re denied voting rights, exploited by advertisers, and subjected to corporal punishment. But if they complain, or fail to show ‘appropriate’ gratitude to adults, they’ll be punished, called spoiled, pathologized, medicated, and perhaps even beaten. In fact, violence is seen as a solution to disobedience in children, on the Biblical logic that ‘sparing the rod spoils the child.’ The privileged rarely consider the possibility that complaining is often the only form of resistance available to the oppressed. When women started protesting, men didn’t much like it, either. 

Black children face intersectional racist-ageist oppression. They face domestic violence and state-sanctioned violence. They receive less encouragement from educators and more punishment than White students. They’re more likely to be separated from their families by the bond and bail system and the child welfare system. Unlike Black adults – who face voter suppression but are legally allowed to vote – Black children have no say over the policies that oppress them. The total disenfranchisement of Black children is a result of their age, not their race, but it prevents them from addressing the systemic racism that they confront every day.

Critical disability theory gives us insight into youthism: childhood, even more than femininity or blackness, is seen as ‘disabling.’ Children are presumed incompetent and incapable of managing their own lives, not as individuals but as a class. That’s why they’re not allowed to vote, serve on school committees, give legal consent, apply for financial aid, etc. Not long ago, women were in the same position of subordination. In 1860, John Stuart Mill pronounced that “what women by nature cannot do, it is quite superfluous to forbid them from doing.” (He went on to say that women are competent to participate in politics). This applies equally to children: if they can’t vote, serve on school committees, apply for financial aid, etc., then why legally forbid them? Let them prove themselves capable or not. And if they’re not competent, so what? Competency isn’t a requirement for adults, who are allowed to vote for white supremacists and anti-vaxxers, spend their money on Ayn Rand novels and sports cars. By the same token, the legal protections applied to children should not be seen as grounded in their intrinsic vulnerability or essential incompetency, but in their status as an oppressed class – a contingent historical circumstance that can be changed. (The voting age of 18 was created in 1971 to justify drafting young men into the Vietnam war to enrich war profiteers; today, it’s used to prevent youths, the most socialist cohort, from voting against the war machine and corporate interests!). Childhood is a social construct and a site of political struggle. As such, children’s alienation cannot be medicated, disciplined, or spanked out of them: it can only be resolved by liberation.

My colleague Eric Wiland (2018) has pointed to analogies between the disenfranchisement of women and children – the idea that their interests are represented by their husbands/parents, that they would vote the same way as their husband/parents, and that they’re fundamentally irrational – and has rejected these arguments in both cases, concluding that there should be no minimum voting age, just as there should be no gender restriction on voting. If children can’t vote on their own, they won’t, and if they can, they shouldn’t be banned. If they would be coerced into voting a certain way by their parents – as some women are by their husbands – this isn’t a reason to deny them the vote: it’s a reason to liberate them from the tyranny of their parents. Wiland suggests that if even one child is capable of voting responsibly, all children should be allowed to vote, since no eligible voter should be disenfranchised. (Similarly, if even one innocent person is executed, we should abolish the death penalty). But there’s no reason to think that most young people are politically incompetent (although they are, no doubt, being denied opportunities to exercise and develop their political expertise through practice). In spite of these barriers, “young people are worried about a wide range of [political] issues…, especially those that disproportionately affect their generation.” They are “competent social actors making decisions and participating in ways which… have political influence and are certainly important in the formation of their political identities.” They are immersed in the mundane politics of patriarchy, racism, and ableism, which doubly affect them because of youthism, yet they are denied the right to translate their political experiences into votes. They are demeaned by the platitude that children should be ‘protected from politics,’ which is a nonstarter: youth simply is a political apparatus, used to depoliticize and silence young people. 

Young people are naturally at the vanguard of youth suffrage, but adults need to recognize youthism as a form of class-based oppression akin to ableism, racism, and sexism. We need to support youth organizations like the National Youth Rights Association, which is committed to fighting the “abuse, coercion, deprivation, indoctrination and invalidation against young people” committed by “adults and adult institutions,” including capitalism. And we need to acknowledge young people’s political agency by including them in our activist communities. Doing so is part of a broader system of coalitional activism and transitional justice that adult activists claim to be committed to… except when it comes to children.

This needs to change.

Short Summary

  • Children are an oppressed class, in a position similar to 20th Century housewives, working mothers, and disabled women

Women:

  • In the past, women were denied the right to vote or own property, and violence against women was socially accepted and legal. 
  • Black and disabled women were especially oppressed because they were especially susceptible to violence, exploitation, and marginalization.
  • Women who complained about their lot were told that they were spoiled and ungrateful, and were pathologized and medicated with tranquillizers.

Children: 

  • Today, children are in a similar position to women prior to women’s liberation.
  • The U.S. is the only U.N. country that has refused to sign the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which recognizes children as persons rather than property, mainly because the U.S. doesn’t agree with the ban on corporal punishment. 
  • Children are denied the right to vote, serve on standing committees, and apply for government aid (amongst other civil rights), and in the U.S. they are not protected from violence from adults.
  • Black and disabled children are especially vulnerable to violence and exploitation.
  • Children who complain about their lot are called spoiled and ungrateful, and are often pathologized and medicated. 
  • The arguments against giving children the vote are flawed. Children are a social class with an interest in controlling their political destinies, just like any oppressed group. 
  • Adults should support youth suffrage (the right to vote) and include young people in political organizations.

Philosophical References

Bailey, M. (2021). Misogynoir Transformed: Black Women’s Digital Resistance. NYU Press.

Friedan, B. (1963). The feminine mystique. New York: Dell Publishing Co, Inc.

Garland-Thomson, R. (2002). Integrating disability, transforming feminist theory. NWSA journal, 1-32.

hooks, bell. (1981). Ain’t I a woman? Black women and feminism. London: Pluto Press.

Wiland, E. (2018). Should Children Have the Right to Vote?. In The Palgrave Handbook of Philosophy and Public

Policy (pp. 215-224). Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

About Mich Ciurria

Mich Ciurrial (She/they) is a disabled queer philosopher who works on intersectionality, feminist philosophy, critical disability theory, and justice studies.

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