Lerner presents several important ideas in her introduction. We have spoken of this one already, but I think it bears repeating:
“Women’s History is indispensable and essential to the emancipation of women.”
Another concept that I want to spend some time on is the “dialectic of women’s history” that she mentions on page 5.
What’s pictured below is called the Hegelian Dialectic. It basically explains the way that opposing cultural/social/economic forces interact. I had to have someone (my favorite professor ever) sketch this out for me before I could really understand it, so we’ll go through this diagram piece by piece:
We start at the bottom with the thesis, which is the original force or accepted principle. In the dialectic of women’s history, the thesis is “their marginality in the meaning-giving process of interpretation and explanation.”
The antithesis is the opposing idea. This is “women’s central and active role in creating society.” When this is brought into consciousness, we move toward the synthesis, which is supposed to represent the ultimate truth or the final solution to a given struggle.
The synthesis in this case is the “moving (of women) into action to change their condition and to enter a new relationship to male-dominated society.”
Society is dynamic and will produce an idea that is antithetical to the synthesis we’ve reached. (Maybe we could call this conservative backlash?) A new synthesis will be achieved, and the cycle will start over.
The rest of this post will be a review of Lerner’s first proposition:
The appropriation by men of women’s sexual and reproductive capacity occurred prior to the formation of private property and class society. Its commodification lies, in fact, at the foundation of private property.
In Chapter One, Lerner examines several theories asking how, when, and why female subordination came into existence.
First is the traditionalist theory of universal and natural sexual asymmetry. In Western society, women’s inferiority, explained by way of biological determinism, was first thought to be ordained by God, then by Darwin and then by Freud. She also discusses, briefly, newer fields and ideas that are intended to justify patriarchy, such as socio-biology.
She also explores Marxism and maternalism as perspectives that reject the universality of patriarchy.
- Engels and Levi-Strauss were among the first (recognized; that is, men) to suggest that gender roles were socially and culturally determined rather than biologically determined. She also briefly mentions this essay by Gayle Rubin, which synthesizes their work with some additional material from a more feminist take on Freud (and which I have already linked a time or two and will probably never stop recommending because it’s just that damn good).
- Maternalist theory suggests that women, as mothers, are “better equipped than men to improve society” and is the thought process behind things like municipal housekeeping and the search for a historical or mythical matriarchy.
- You may have heard about municipal housekeeping in your U.S. History classes. It’s pretty much the only time women’s contributions to American society are ever mentioned. Municipal housekeeping was a collection of progressive reforms steered by women. It included things like the temperance movement (because drunk husbands are abusive and oppressive), advocacy for public education, abolitionism (but it’s important to note here that most of these ‘housekeepers’ were privileged white women and, I would argue, supported abolition only because of interest convergence), and prostitution “reform” (which sometimes meant housing and education but other times meant forced labor and ostracism).
- The search for matriarchy, Lerner argues, is fruitless and misguided. She suggests stepping away from that and examining instead the phenomena that created patriarchy.
She also notes that while hunter/gatherer societies have been the most egalitarian, there is no evidence of any society that does not subordinate or oppress women in one way or another.
In Chapter Two, Lerner suggests that the initial division of labor along sexual lines was functional. The role of women as mothers was essential to the survival of the tribe. Women, she argues, were most likely respected, feared, and/or regarded with awe by men for psychological reasons– the abiding connection of the child with the mother– and because of their mystical reproductive power and menstrual cycle. Men likely created male-only institutions to foster male bonding in societies where women were so revered.
The origins of one male institution– that of domination, rape and warfare– has been the topic of much feminist debate for years, Lerner notes. Some feminists have linked it to biology; others attribute it to man’s domination of land and beast. Lerner posits that times of economic scarcity led to intertribal warfare over those scarce resources, and that the men who emerged as victors were likely held in high esteem, which encouraged men to start and continue a system of male domination.
Here we come into a point of contention between radical feminists and Marxists.
One resource that could and likely did become scarce often was human labor. With the agricultural revolution, children became economic assets; societies depended on the exploitation of their labor. There was thus an incentive for the sexual exploitation of women. Women’s reproductive capacity was a heavily-desired resource that was then conceptualized as property, as something one (a man) could own. And the bond between mother and child provided an added benefit: Regardless of her circumstances, a woman who was impregnated by a given man would likely stay with him in order to raise and protect their child, and that man would have continued access to her reproductive functions. Women became property because they performed reproductive labor; “the exploitation of human labor and the sexual exploitation of women were inextricably linked.”
Lerner’s proposition, then, is that sexual division was, at first, biologically determined and served a functional purpose. As human societies grew and developed, though, this division was increasingly influenced by hierarchy: “the power of some men over other men and all women.” Societies now featured traffic in women and the concept of private property.
At this point, she says, we enter Civilization and see the formation of the first nation-states. Now we can point to concrete evidence rather than abstract theorizing about the origins of patriarchy.
- Why is an understanding of women’s history so important for liberation?
- What fields and ideas are used to justify women’s subordination in the 21st century?
- Do you think matriarchy worth searching for?
- Do you agree with Lerner that the commodification of women precedes the advent of private property? Why or why not?