Squadratomagico has an interesting post (and discussion in the comments) about patriarchy: What is it? Where does it come from? And perhaps most urgently, who’s enforcing it? She writes:
What is at stake when a rhetorical dichotomy between “patriarchy” and “women” is posited? The way this opposition is used seems to me to suggest the following things:
1. If “patriarchy” and “women” are on opposite sides of a dichotomy, then patriarchy must be an all-male thing.
2. Thus, women are not a part of patriarchy, but fall somewhere outside it. Women may be acted upon by patriarchy in ways that either victimize or benefit them (depending on the women’s status and position vis-a-vis particular men), but they do not themselves perpetuate patriarchy, participate in it, or drive it.
3. If a woman suggests that women sometimes do perpetuate, participate within, or drive patriarchy, then she herself is acting as an agent of patriarchy by blaming women and undermining female solidarity, rather than attacking the real enemy, patriarchy, which is composed of men only. Oh, but wait: huh? Please review the tendentious aspects of this reasoning. I think it boils down to this: women are not part of patriarchy, except when the commenter disagrees with said women. In that case, indignantly accusing your opponent of being an agent of patriarchy, or of “blaming women,” is a convenient means of bludgeoning them into silence while declaiming your own impeccable feminist credentials as a supporter of women. Hence, the tactic poses a false dichotomy between “blaming women” versus “supporting women,” while simultaneously defining debate itself as inherently divisive.
4. Following upon the previous point: feminist politics, for these commenters, appears to be predicated upon strict solidarity for both sexes. The feminist first principle is for women to stick together without dissension or debate, in order to best advance their own collective interests, which are presumed to be self-evident. Feminism thus conceived constitutes a neat counterpoint to patriarchy which, as we already have seen, is presented as an all-male formation existing to best advance men’s collective interests.
I especially like that point in #2: talking about patriarchy this way erases the complexity of patriarchy (and not incidentally, women’s agency too). We don’t think this way about other systems–capitalism, or colonialism, and divide the entire world arbitrarily into either victims or agents thereof. Why do this with patriarchy? In my own work in early American history, it’s quite clear that patriarchy works to the benefit of some men, but that there are many ways in which it disadvantages many men even as they frequently benefited from some aspects of patriarchy. (This was in fact the topic of my dissertation, and a major emphasis in my published work, both in my book and the articles that preceded it.)
For example: enslaved men were able to leverage very few, if any, of the benefits of patriarchy–but there were plenty of free men too who were more often subject to patriarchy than able to lord it over their putative female victims. Not just sons, or servants, or others lower on the “Great Chain of Being,” but householders who are no longer able-bodied fail to live up to patriarchal ideals who were reduced to dependence (and even begging for charity). I have read many affecting petitions filed by disabled English war veterans after King Philip’s War–men who met the highest test of manhood by serving in the military, who were then reduced by their injuries to petitioning the colony to support their families because they can no longer farm their land or otherwise work. If English common law didn’t erase wives as citizens, if the gendered division of labor wasn’t so strict, if Calvinist religion didn’t demand such abject submission from women, and if girls were taught to write and cipher as well as to read, maybe their wives could have better compensated for the loss of their husband’s labor. Those are the stakes in a patriarchal family–all of your eggs (so to speak) are in one person’s basket, and are riding on his health, strength, and goodwill.
Similarly, there were many early American women who simultaneously achieved some advantages from living in a patriarchal society and cooperating with patriarchal institutions even as they too paid a price. Religious women in New France and Mexico performed a delicate dance between the patriarchal authority of the Church they served and its earthly governors, all of whom were men, and the authority they were able (and happy) to wield over their students and in their communities (Indian, French, and Spanish alike) precisely because they too were agents of the Church and conduits of its influence and power. Anglo-American women consented to marriage although coverture erased them economically and legally, because through marriage and by contributing their labors to their husbands’ households, they might become the mothers of children, and even the mistresses of servants and slaves, all of whom were subject to their authority in the household. These same women, as “goodwives” and mistresses, eagerly enlisted in monitoring and punishing the illicit sexual activity of unmarried women in their communities. Because of their own sexual (and usually childbirth) experiences who were authorized to offer testimony in infanticide, rape, and bastardy cases.
Anyone who is interested in the micropolitics of authority and submission in colonial America–or anywhere, really–should take a look at Trevor Burnard’s fine study, Mastery, Tyranny, and Desire: Thomas Thistlewood and his Slaves in the Anglo-Jamaican World (2004). It’s a chilling account of the relative ease with which a mid-18th century slave master and overseer is able to divide and conquer enslaved men and women alike with a complex combination of rewards and torture, which he bestowed and/or inflicted on enslaved people with whom he was personally and frequently sexually intimate. Thistlewood’s knowledge of their personalities, desires, and their relationships with each other were instrumental to his exploitation of them.
In the comments to Squadratomagico’s post, Susan came up with a brilliant way to think about patriarchy:
What you’ve captured is exactly why there is a patriarchal equilibrium. It’s not about being well-intentioned, or individual relationships, but a system. In discussions of racism they talk about institutionalized racism to get away from talking about individual feelings. Maybe we should start talking about institutionalized sexism — i.e. sexism embedded not in individuals and their behavior but the structures and assumptions of various institutions with which we interact.
Exactly–racism is not a feeling felt by white people that they resent/mistrust/don’t like people with darker skin. Racism is–to borrow from Squadrato’s analysis of patriarchy:
[Racism/patriarchy] is an idealist, rather than a materialist, force within the world — though one that has significant material effects. More specifically, it is a cultural system premised upon a particular set of power relations; [People of all races/sexes] may participate within and reproduce it, for it possesses the formidable power to structure notions of “common sense” and attendant social norms.
My point in writing about what I called the Breastfeeding Imperative last week was not to criticize women who breastfeed their children, nor to point the finger at them in letting down the entire feminist movement. (I did criticize the “nursing Nazis,” who believe they must enforce the Breastfeeding Imperative on all women, regardless of anyone’s actual circumstances or needs, and whom I have seen and heard in action personally myself, and downthread in the comments I made sport of the fetish many people seem to have for “natural,” although we all worship at the altar of nature very selectively.) Rather, I wanted to examine Hanna Rosin’s proposition that what I dubbed the Breastfeeding Imperative is one of (in Susan’s words) “the . . . assumptions of various institutions [e.g. the family] with which we interact.”
I realize that it may be difficult, or even enraging, for women who sacrificed a lot to breastfeed to read Rosin’s judgment that it probably wasn’t worth it, that it won’t make much (if any) difference in your child’s health, and that it may play a part in undermining feminist goals–but I thought she made a compelling case. My standing as a breastfeeding mother, a bottle-feeding mother, or as a non-mother should have no bearing on people’s responses to this post–I’m a women’s historian who has written about women and men who have had a variety of life experiences vastly different from mine (and thank goodness for that!) My expertise comes from my intellectual training and 20 years as a student and then as a professor of history, not from any personal experiences I choose to claim (or not.) I am Historiann, not Mommiann, not Notmommiann. As Dr. Crazy wrote last night as I was finishing this post,
I don’t think that it’s my responsibility to talk about parenting or motherhood in a way that parents or mothers approve. I’m not hostile to parents or to children or to helping to accommodate colleagues. I’m not judging women who have children, or attacking them. I’m not resentful of them, nor am I envious of them. I don’t look down on people just because they have children, nor do I admire people just because they don’t have children. I don’t, ultimately, judge people by whether or not they’ve procreated. All I’m asking for is the same courtesy. How dare I?
Yeah–how dare you, Crazy? Here’s some more food for thought from the good Dr.: “I think it probably makes sense to consider the ways in which women – whether they have children or not – are inscribed within discourses about motherhood, and the negative consequences of that inscription.” Ya think?
Second image courtesy of The Angry Dome. Thanks, man–I couldn’t have said it any better myself.
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