Gerda Lerner’s 1986 book is the first volume in her exploration of Women and History, and I heard about it from the unlikely source of Jane Fonda, via Fonda’s essay in Lenny about her convoluted journey to feminism. She begins her introduction, “Women’s history is indispensable and essential to the emancipation of women.” From this statement, she dives into historical record to try and resurrect the voices of women. “Women are and have been central, not marginal, to the making of society and to the buildng of civilization.” In the earliest times, history was preserved in collective memory passed down through oral tradition. Then, writing hit the scene in ancient Mesopotamia, and was preserved by men, recording what men have done and experienced and found significant.
Her main arguments:
- The appropriation of women’s reproductive capacity happened before private property and class formation, indeed it laid the foundations for private property.
- Men learned to enslave women and then expanded to enslaving conquered men and women.
- The earliest law codes institutionalized women’s sexual subordination and created an artificial division of women into respectable vs. not (respectable allowed to/must wear veils when out in public, prostitutes not allowed to veil themselves).
- Goddesses rejected by a dominant male god soon after the establishment of a strong and imperialist kingship. Hebrew monotheism further attacks cult of fertility goddesses, and encoding the Old Testament with creativity and pro-creativity to an all-powerful male god, associating female sexuality with sin and evil.
- Establishment of basic symbolism that the contract between God and humanity demands that women are subordinate, their only access to God is in their function as mothers.
- “This symbolic devaluing of women in relation to the divine becomes one of the founding metaphors of Western civilization. The other founding metaphor is supplied by Aristotelian philosophy, which assumes as a given that women are incomplete and damaged human beings of an entirely different order than men. It is with the creation of these two metaphorical constructs, which are build into the very foundations of the symbol system of Western civilization, that the subordination of women comes to be seen as “natural,” hence it becomes invisible. It is this which finally establishes patriarchy firmly as an actuality and as an ideology.”
Because I’m always very interested in the connection between women’s subordination and slavery, an extensive quote of Lerner’s thoughts on that in her Definitions section.
Sexism stands in the same relation to paternalism as racism does to slavery. Both ideologies enabled the dominant to convince themselves that they were extending paternalistic benevolence to creatures inferior and weaker than themselves. But here the parallel ends, for slaves were driven to group solidarity by racism, while women were separated from one another by sexism.
The slave saw other kinds of hierarchy and inequality: that of white men inferior in rank and class to his master; that of white women inferior to white men. The slave experienced his oppression as one kind within a system of hierarchy. Slaves could see clearly that their condition was due to the exploitation of their race. Thus race, the factor on which oppression was based, became also the force unifying the oppressed.
For the maintenance of paternalism (and slavery) it is essential to convince subordinates that their protector is the only authority capable of fulfilling their needs. It is therefore in the interest of the master to keep the slave in ignorance of his past and of future alternatives. But slaves kept alive an oral tradition which spoke of a time prior to their enslavement and defined a previous time of freedom. This offered an alternative to their present state. Slaves knew that their people had not always been slaves and that others like them were free. This knowledge of the past, their separate cultural tradition, the power of their religion and their group solidarity enabled slaves to resist oppression and secure the reciprocity of rights implicit in their status.
Eugene Genovese, in his superb study of slave culture, shows how paternalism, while it softened the harshest features of the system, also tended to weaken the individual’s ability to see the system in political terms. He says: “It was not that the slaves did not act like men. Rather, it was that they could not grasp their collective strength as people and act like political men.” That they could not become conscious of their collective strength was due to paternalism.
This description has great significance for an analysis of the position of women, since their subordination has been primarily expressed in the form of paternalistic dominance within the structure of the family. This structural condition made any development of female solidarity and group cohesiveness extremely difficult. In general we can observe that women deprived of group support and of an accurate knowledge of the past history of women experienced the full and devastating impact of cultural modeling through sexist ideology, as expressed in religion, law, and myth.