The Creation of Feminist Consciousness

Volume 2 of Gerda Lerner’s Women and History (Vol 1 The Creation of Patriarchy) shows how the exclusion of women from history has affected women. Her introduction brings forth an idea I hadn’t considered—the debate during the drafting of the U.S. Constitution that compromised in slaves being counted as 3/5 of a person hadn’t even brought forth the idea of women as voters even though they were counted as full people for the purpose of representation in Congress.

The educational disadvantaging of women is her next big point. Education was granted to the elites (political, military, or religious), primarily men. Women who wanted to study found their only option to join a convent and seclude themselves with other like-minded women. Latin was taught in convents up until the 12th century, then came the rise of universities and Latin became the sole domain of university-educated males. In the U.S. well into the 19th century, education for girls ended at elementary level, while boys of all classes could continue on toward higher ed with scholarships. “In this dreary landscape of educational discrimination against women, extending over more than a millennium, there appear several islands of privileged space for women. From these emerge groups of educated women, exceptional for their attainments only because of the abysmal ignorance out of which they appear and against which they are measured.” These are the nunneries of 8th-13th centuries, double monasteries of 7th & 8th centuries, urban centers of Holland and Rhineland in 12th centuries (beguinage movement allowed women without money to join convents), some Renaissance courts, and centers of Protestant Reformation. Until the late 17th century, women’s best chances for being educated were to be a wealthy daughter in a family without sons and with a father who was broad-minded enough to encourage women’s education.

“The fame and notoriety of ‘learned women’ of the Middle Ages and early Renaissance attest to their rarity—with few exceptions, they were noted more for existing at all than for their accomplishments,” e.g. the dancing poodle effect. Those that somehow clawed their way to an education were met with derision, incredulity, accusation of plagiary of their father or husband’s work. Perhaps the first recorded trolling of a woman in history was the anonymous writer in 1438 Verona accusing Isotta Nogarola of incest with her brother.

Learned about the incredible life of Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz of Mexico (1651-95) who was one of the few women intellectuals of her time not upper class by birth, born to an illiterate mother as one of six illegitimate children she was sent to her grandfather’s home in town to be raised and tricked her older sister’s tutor into teaching her to read at age 3. She read all the books in his library and was writing at age 6. After being sent to Mexico City at age 8, she had 20 lessons in Latin and then studied on her own. She became a lady-in-waiting to the court, and then court poet, but eventually became a nun, saying, “Considering the total negative opinion that I had of matrimony, it was the least unsuitable and the most decent station that I was able to select in order to bring about my salvation… I conquered all the stupidities of my disposition which included the desire to live alone and to have no obligatory occupations in order to enjoy complete freedom to study without communal obligations which would interrupt the peaceful silence of my books.” Lerner cites these sources as her references on Sor Juana: A Sor Juana Anthology, 1988, translated by Alan Trueblood; A Woman of Genius: The Intellectual Autobiography of Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, 1982, ed by Margaret Sayers Peden; Sor Juana: or the Traps of Faith by Octavio Paz, plus a few articles in journals.

Lerner goes a step beyond education, “far more detrimental than the inferior training offered to women was the misogynist explanatory system that dominated Church doctrine and shaped ideas of gender in society in general.” The so-called inferiority of women was codified by the Church in the years after 300 when it became a hierarchy run by a male clergy. The concept that women were inferior with a weaker mind and intellect had a devastating effect on women’s minds. “Each thinking woman had to spend inordinate amounts of time and energy apologizing for the very fact of her thinking.”

Despite this, women struggled to learn and think and teach, finding the courage either through the rare encouragement of male mentors, or self-actualizing by heeding their own talents for writing, finding a voice as a mystic and proclaiming god’s word, or the thousand year feminist critique of the Bible. Women like Hrosvitha hid her writing on the threshing floor of the abbey of Gandersheim, much like Harriet Beecher Stowe hid her manuscript of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in her sewing basket, and like Austen pretended to be writing letters instead of working on her novels.


The Creation of Patriarchy

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:

  1. The appropriation of women’s reproductive capacity happened before private property and class formation, indeed it laid the foundations for private property.
  2. Men learned to enslave women and then expanded to enslaving conquered men and women.
  3. 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).
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. “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.