As you read this post, please be forewarned, its message is about the perceptions that drive our current worldview. In writing it, I was less concerned with the nuances of historical exceptions than I was with the general stereotype that women have been and continue to be saddled with.
In reviewing history of women’s role in society, we find discussions of both matriarchal and patriarchal cultures. Ours is and has been for centuries, a patriarchal society. The election of 2008 has exposed the result of this patriarchal worldview – a persistent belief that women are somehow subordinate to men in the workplace and in society. Since the time of the first settlers, men brought with them to the new world a patriarchal worldview that was unfortunately embraced by many women and persists into the present. For some time now, many of us had been lulled into a sense of false confidence that this worldview was evaporating. There were now women in Congress, female state Governors, high-level Cabinet positions, and female CEOs, demonstrating to us that the old adage “a woman’s place is in the home” was outdated and irrelevant…or was it? The election of 2008 opened many of our eyes.
One of my favorite parables is one told by a former Sociology professor about some cave dwellers who built fires in front of their caves to ward off the Saber-Tooth Tigers. Centuries after the extinction of the Saber-Tooth Tigers, this same community was still building fires in front of their caves. Those who stopped doing so were considered rebels, deviants, and harmful to society. It’s been many years, but its message still resonates with me today: that people begin a practice for one reason and many times continue the practice despite having long forgotten why it was done in the first place. Is this the problem with our society? Are we still “lighting fires in front of our caves” and blindly continuing a practice that may have been developed of necessity and then carried forward out of habit? Where is the genesis of this worldview and how do we turn a new page?
There is sufficient archeological evidence to show that there may have been matriarchal societies where women were revered for their life-giving abilities. Nomadic, egalitarian, and peaceful peoples found strength and leadership in the ability of women resolve conflict diplomatically, problem-solve in a way that met multiple needs, and join in equal effort to find shelter, food and other resources. These women were able to meet the needs of society regardless of their gender AND bring forth the children needed to populate future generations. Their breasts were not sexualized, their intelligence not dismissed, their clothing was not evaluated and their beauty or lack thereof was not considered in the equation of their value; and while matriarchy was not the structure adopted by the majority of nomadic groups, at a minimum they embraced the equality of the egalitarian culture.
Soon however, tribes began to settle and remain in a single place for longer periods. The ability to plant and grow foods, coupled with animal husbandry, made nomadic roaming unnecessary for survival. These innovations brought with them the challenge of securing and protecting their settlements and a new gender distinction became fodder for changes in society: size and strength. Males, who were the bigger and stronger gender, were more equipped to provide this protection to the group. Their testosterone-laden system made them ripe for battle and a transformation of worldview occurred. Men were now “the protectors.” This made them, by their own official proclamations, the more valuable of the genders. Women were considered weak and vulnerable and in need of protection so that they could continue their child-bearing duties. These vessels of life were constrained to the walls of the settlement and their homes while the men went out for food, armed and ready for battle in the event that other tribes sought to take their bounty, thus creating the concept of domestic work as women’s work.
This vulnerability of women soon became an exploitable commodity. Males began to see women as property with value for trading and increasing their wealth through offspring. Polygamy was seen as a sign of the male’s wealth –more wives meant more children, which meant more work could be performed on the farm to grow more food for both sustenance and bartering. Dowries, tribal negotiations and contests were all ways that men exploited the life-giving capacity of their women tribal members. Within the tribe, women were the property of the husband and crimes perpetrated against them were considered a crime against the husband. Kidnapping and sexual assault of women by other tribes was seen as not a crime against their humanity, but a crime against the tribe. The value of a woman was now reduced to her ability to produce offspring and carry out the duties of the home. Sound familiar? It should. Many people still hold this worldview today. It has been carried through into the present by organized religion and “holy” texts written by men who wanted to preserve their status as patriarchs, populate the earth, and retain control over their most valuable baby-making commodity -women.
The greatest challenge to the patriarchy of our culture has been the entrance of women into the workforce. Initially, as the majority of settlers sought out economic independence through business investments, craft artesian work and/or land ownership and farming, women remained domiciled in the home. Their work still consisted primarily of domestic needs and some in-sourced sewing, but they remained confined to the home in this method of production. The only women who ventured out into the new jobs of the industrial age were those who were unmarried and seeking to build a valuable dowry. In doing this, they could someday have a husband and become the domestic goddess they were ordained by God to be.
But the two great wars changed all of this and a revolution happened in the American workplace. Women entered the workforce in greater numbers than ever before. Both married and unmarried women worked side by side, filling the enormous number of positions left vacant by men (ever still the battle warriors) who left to fight the war. Initially, men and the unions that represented them, fought back against women entering the workforce, calling such activity “an evolutionary backslide…a menace to prosperity [and a] foe to our civilized pretensions.”(*1) However, to preserve the wage progress that had been made leading up to World War I, the AFL promoted the concept of “Equal Pay for Equal Work.” Unfortunately, this was in no way an acknowledgement of equality in the workplace; in fact the AFL’s official proclamation that “Every labor organization in the country should be keenly interested in the welfare of women in industry…Equal pay for equal work should be the slogan” was tempered by the caveat that “women are [currently] being employed in railroad shops and other forms of employment entirely unsuited for them.” (*2)
Male supremacy was swiftly restored after both wars as women were removed from this “men’s” work and scuttled back to their obligations at home or at a minimum to the more “feminine” positions like clerical and nursing work. These experiences however gave women a taste of economic independence. Having a paycheck and the independence to determine spending priorities while their men were off fighting exposed a new life to women; one they were not eager to relinquish so easily. Little by little, women made their way back into the workforce, struggling at each juncture to meet and exceed the barriers set by women before them.
And so we arrive here today. Looking back at the election of 2008 we find ourselves pondering how we as a culture could have allowed this sexism and misogynistic worldview to survive sufficiently to rear its ugly head in the degree we’ve witnessed – at levels not seen for decades. Both Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin were subjected to slurs and violent imagery portraying them as deviants of society, subordinate to men, and vulnerable to egregious assault. Each of these individual acts, seeking to push women back into subservience, must be recognized, challenged and met with firm resistance. We must not shield our eyes or the eyes of society from the blatant and many times brutal attacks on women who dare seek equality at all levels of the workplace and in our government. Are there areas where physical size and strength still matter? Certainly; however we are not challenging those barriers. We must work towards creating a new mindset – one that acknowledges equality of standing in society for both men and women.
So, since we no longer need our baby-making abilities protected by the “warriors” and Saber-tooth Tigers are extinct, can someone please blow out those fires??? It’s just too damn hot in here.
Sources: Campbell, Joseph. Transformation of Myth through Time. (1990). NY: Harpers.; (*1)O’Donnell, Edward. “Women as Bread Winners: The Error of Age” American Federationist. 4, no. 8 (October 1897); Shaw, Susan, and Lee, Janet (2001). Women’s Voices, Feminist Visions: Classic and Contemporary Readings. California: Mayfield Publishing.;(*2) “Slogan of Equal Pay for Women.” Jewelry Workers’ Monthly Bulletin. (July 1917); Lichtenstein, Strasser, et al. Who Built America. Vol 1 and 2. (2001).
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