Monday, April 21, 2008

I Don't Blame the Patriarchy

Well, not much, anyway. Let me explain. (And yeah, I realize I'm courting trouble here.)

Before anyone starts throwing rotten tomatoes at their computer screens, I'll give you an actual thesis statement: Patriarchies (note the plural, she says pedantically) have existed in many parts of the globe over many centuries. To call the present-day United States a patriarchy is just inaccurate. Yes, male privilege is still the rule rather than the exception. But to collapse all societies including our own into this single category ignores the substantial cracks in the edifice of male power today. The term patriarchy vastly overgeneralizes. It's ahistorical.

Lion of Ishtar, Babylonian frieze displayed in Berlin's Pergamon Museum; photo by Flickr user kairoinfo4u, used under a Creative Commons license.

In the gender and religion class I'm helping teach, we've been discussing the patriarchies of the ancient Middle East. Patriarchy was invented, according to Gerda Lerner's now-classic study The Creation of Patriarchy, when humans morphed from hunter-gatherers into settled farmers. Increased productivity from agriculture meant people could begin to accumulate property for the first time. Control of property gave men both a motive for controlling productive and reproductive resources - slaves of both sexes and fertile "free" women. Holding property also gave dominant men leverage in controlling subordinate persons.

What, exactly, did this patriarchal control look like? Relying largely on Lerner's account, Leila Ahmed's Women and Gender in Islam describes this history for ancient Mesopotamia. In ancient Assyria, laws were geared to give men as much control as possible, up to and including selling wives and children into slavery (or pawning them in cases of debt) and killing them under certain circumstances. Virgins essentially belonged to their fathers and were sold into marriage; virginity was thus an asset that belonged to the patriarchs. Veiling and seclusion marked wives as respectable - and their opposites, harlots and slaves, as not. (Concubines occupied a middle position in this hierarchy.) Men were free to screw around with slaves, prostitutes, and concubines. Women could be put to death for adultery.

Initially, under the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi (ca. 1760 B.C.E.), women - especially wives - did have a few rights that mitigated this bleak situation. They could hold property, practice a number of occupations, make contracts, and sign pre-nuptial agreements that might spare them from debt slavery or other abuses. Wives could hold slaves as prostitutes and pimp them out, which just goes to show how the upper-crust women were complicit in the system and profited from it.

The Code of Hammurabi in the Louvre; photo by flickr user Scott MacLeod Liddle, used under a Creative Commons license.

Over time, though, women's status went from bad to worse throughout the Middle East, due largely to the increasingly warfare and militarization in the region. Where Zoroastrianism reigned several centuries before the birth of Jesus, women lost rights precipitously, and - as Ahmed puts it - "Elements of these Zoroastrian regulations suggest that notionally women were somewhere between personhood and thingness – as evidenced by wives being legally loaned for sexual and other services." (Ahmed, 20–21) A man could loan out his wife to another man without her consent; she had to give him sex and raise his children if he was a widower. But any offspring still belonged to her lawful husband, in accordance with the idea that "a woman is a field. … All which grows there belongs to its owner, even if he did not plant it." (Ahmed, 20) Disobedience was grounds for a man to divorce his wife and invalidated any pre-nup. Incestuous marriage was held to be pious and a smart way to outfox demons, with the result that men married their own mothers and sisters and daughters.

What sets modern America apart from ancient Mesopotamia? Mainly, the control of women isn't nearly systematic enough to qualify as patriarchy. In fact, patriarchy has been in a slow though uneven decline ever since the early days of Christianity. Yes, I know that Christianity has much to answer for in its history of misogyny and loathing of sex and the body. But compared to a society where women had no sexual determination, the ability to opt for celibacy offered women at least the chance to say no.

Fast-forwarding to today: I realize we're still far from full equality. We haven't had a female president. Women are still a minority in each house of Congress. Female CEOs are scarce on the ground, too. Absolutely, there are fuckwits of both sexes who'd like to give the state far-reaching control over women's reproductive lives. People like Leslee Unruh and Ann Coulter prove the point that those who'd like to restore patriarchy need female collaborators.

But the fact remains that American women do have the right to abortion, which fundamentally and fatally undermines male control of women's reproductive capacities. We have a viable female candidate for the presidency, even if her campaign has been beset by media sexism. We've gone from having just a token woman or two in Congress to women making up 16 percent of each chamber - not to mention our first female Speaker of the House. (Even if I don't always agree with Nancy Pelosi, I'm mostly glad she got the job.) Ann Coulter has a megaphone but I'm not sure anyone other than hypnotized wingnuts take her seriously. I'll admit Leslee Unruh scares me, especially since her latest brainstorm, a new ballot initiative banning abortion in South Dakota that might actually pass since it has a rape/incest exemption. If you want to convince yourself that the patriarchy has planted pod people among us, just read The Well-Timed Period's take on Unruh.

But Unruh is just one super-scary chick, up against legions of young women who believe that they get to do with their bodies what they will. Women in the United States now have very substantial reproductive and sexual freedom. Even something as apparently trivial as no-strings-attached hookups undercuts patriarchal control of women (unless the women involved are being coerced). I'm not saying women should all go out and get laid to smash the patriarchy. But women's sexuality and fertility was the main "resource" captured by patriarchy in the first place. Where women dissociate the two and claim an autonomous sexuality, true patriarchy cannot exist. This (and not the welfare of the fetus or even anti-sex hysteria) is the rock-bottom reason why right-wingers froth at the mouth over abortion rights.

Patriarchy is still absolutely a useful term. It can explain a great deal about the history behind today's gender woes. But we'd be better off not just intellectually but politically if we reserved it for those situations where it really fits: Afghan fathers who sell their 13-year-old daughters into marriage with men four decades their senior. Or polygamist Mormon men who do the same with their daughters in Texas. When feminists use "patriarchy" imprecisely (as happens all the time in the blogosphere), it diminishes those abuses while painting us into a corner, politically. If patriarchy is timeless, then what's the point in blaming it, much less fighting it? If instead we note that male control of women is no longer monolithic, we might have better luck dismantling its remnants - and inspiring others to join us.


Sugarmag said...

Sungold, this post was just inspired. I have been wanting to write a post like this but you said it better than I would have.

One thing, though, and it pains me to say this because I am absolutely pro choice for lots of reasons, but I have to say that I really think that many people who are anti abortion truly believe that abortion is murder and they are defending the unborn. I have known enough Catholics that I can tell you that many people who oppose abortion are truly good people who also consider themselves feminists and they would say that it is not that they want to control women, but that they feel that they must stand up for the most defenseless among us, the unborn. I do not share this view, but I think that they believe that they are doing the right thing and that is why this issue is so emotional, because both sides feel that they have the moral high ground. Yucko. I wish with all my heart that this issue would just go away.

Sungold said...

Thanks, Sugar Mag. I get your point about ordinary people who oppose abortion, as opposed to movement leaders like Unruh. I know this from friends and students. Some of them may not equate it with murder but still believe it should be illegal because it destroys something extremely precious. I can respect *part* of this view - a fetus is not morally neutral, not a mere clump of cells - though I disagree on the legality question.

But my main point here, as I know you're aware, is that the sloppy use of "patriarchy" to explain everything doesn't clarify anything and is ultimately defeatist.

figleaf said...

In either the introduction or first chapters of Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English's "For Her Own Good: Two Centuries of the Experts Advice to Women," the authors strongly make the case that the industrial revolution killed capital-p Patriarchy leaving mere male supremacy -- unlinked from any necessity or, really, legitimacy and, therefore, unlinked from any constraint as well.

It doesn't exactly change everything or, in context to what we grow up in, anything to see it that way. Nor does it change the fact that some places -- Yearning for Zion Ranch, and Saudi Arabia are only to particularly extreme examples -- strive mightily to preserve, restore, or extend it.

But they do make the case that since neither patriarchy nor it's ugly little male-supremist mini-me are no longer even remotely necessary they're also unlinked from all conceivable *legitimacy.*

Sungold said...

Hi figleaf! Yes, E & E make that argument (you inspired me to pull out my yellowed copy of their book), which is not at all surprising, because they're presenting a historical analysis. Almost *every* historian would agree with them. My post wasn't saying much that's original, only trying to state something that historians talk about among themselves but not often enough to the outside world. E & E also mention the scientific revolution and the 18th century political revolutions as helping undermine patriarchy, which makes sense because patriarchy within the individual family mirrored the king's divine rights

The industrial revolution dealt a death blow to patriarchy because patriarchy was bound up with an agricultural economy from its beginnings. (Arguably, the information economy is hastening the demise of its tattered remnants.) But it's not even clear that patriarchy was "necessary" in the first place. Lerner titled her book "The Creation of Patriarchy" rather than, say, "Origin ..." for this reason, I think. Also, a colleague tells me she's learned that the in the Indus Valley, the introduction of agriculture did *not* lead to patriarchy, and no one seems to know why. It seems like this fact actually ought to inspire someone to revisit Lerner's interpretation, which is largely materialist, and question the role of agriculture.

I have to disagree that "it doesn't exactly change everything" to know that patriarchy is moribund in rich Western societies. It drives me nuts that even some very smart people, in universities and the media alike, talk about "the patriarchy." This implies that nothing ever changes and that there's no substantive difference between, say, Seattle and Saudi Arabia. (Twisty is one example, and there are many others.) Calling every form of male domination "patriarchy" can block more nuanced analysis and effective political action.

Thanks for making me keep thinking about this. I definitely should've said something about the industrial revolution but darnit, the post was already long.