I am a very busy college student who truly sucks at running a book club! Contact me if you’d like to contribute/mod/take over because I can’t do this all by myself!
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?
Our read for Women’s History Month will be The Creation of Patriarchy by Gerda Lerner. Click here to download a free PDF of the book.
Our timeline is going to shift a little bit starting this month. Instead of running from the fifteenth to the fifteenth, we’ll run from the first to the first. That means we got a little bit of a late start this month, but that’s okay.
So we’ll read The Creation of Patriarchy from now until March 31. From now on, nominations will stay open permanently; you can access that here, and I’ll post regular reminders. Voting for the next read will begin on the 20th of each month and the winner will be announced on the last day of the month (the 30th or 31st).
I’m really looking forward to this month’s book. There are eleven chapters, so you can expect two or three posts each week.
I also wanted to mention that there’s a “sequel” to this called The Creation of Feminist Consciousness, which traces feminism from the middle ages to the 1870s. I think it would be great for us to read this next, so it’s going to be my nomination for next month. I also think it would be great to follow up by exploring the history of feminism from the 1870s onward, so if you have any recommendations please nominate!
There is a chapter in Introducing Women’s Studies titled, “Women, History and Protest” in which Jane Hannam writes:
Writing in 1972 when the women’s liberation movement was gaining momentum, Anna Davin urged women to study their own history, ‘for by showing that the role and nature of women changes with each society we are helping to defeat the argument “that’s how it’s always been”’. As Davin suggests, the writing of women’s history cannot be separated from contemporary feminist politics. Women concerned to understand their specific inequalities and to challenge institutions which perpetuate their oppression have looked to understand the roots of that oppression in the past; to discover whether such challenges had been made before and what they could learn from them (Davin, 1972, p. 224). If women saw themselves as marginal in the past it would reinforce their view of themselves as subordinate and powerless in the present. Only if a woman’s role could be shown to be socially constructed and rooted in a specific historical context, rather than natural and universal, could feminists hope to argue that it was open to change.
This year’s Women’s History Month theme is supposed to be “Nevertheless, She Persisted: Honoring Women who Fight All Forms of Discrimination against Women.” (In my opinion, this ‘theme’ is incredibly vague and hardly constitutes a theme. It’s a catchphrase and a really long explanation that should just say “feminists.” But whatever.)
In the spirit of that (I think?), I wanted to talk briefly about what it means to have a women’s history. My ideas on this are based in large part on this 1975 essay by bad-ass woman’s historian Gerda Lerner.
Lerner writes that traditionally, women’s history is a “compensatory history:” Historians include some of the contributions of a handful of “worthy” women to make up for the dearth of historical information about women in general. That’s certainly the kind of history I was taught: all male and all white and mostly rich, as if women and people of color and poor people haven’t always existed. They have. I think, too, this is the trend that guides Women’s History Month, and though I was tempted to begin with a piece about Mary Wollstonecraft (because who doesn’t admire the fuck out of her?), we’re going to not do the whole compensatory history thing. It merely adds to the ideology delineated by de Beauvoir– the dogma that woman is “other,” not really part of the whole of humanity that constitutes history.
Instead, Lerner suggests that “the true history of women is the history of their
ongoing functioning in that male-defined world, on their own terms.”
I’m not sure how, exactly, to pay respect to the true history of women. I’m not a historian; beyond that, I’m a one-woman show, so I can really only speak to my own experiences.
One thing that I thought might be helpful would be for us each to contribute our knowledge to a sort of informal, collective pool of women’s history. For that purpose, I created this women’s history month board on the forum. Feel free to create a thread and share some knowledge. It’ll be much appreciated by any roaming radfem who happens upon it.
I think it’s equally important– because the personal is the political– for us to reflect on our personal histories as women. As radical feminists, we all think about that all the time, but this month I’ll be spending some time each day writing (personally, in my journal) about what womanhood has meant for me.
Finally, I think this month presents a great opportunity for us to read about women’s history. We are, after all, a book club. So I’ve updated the nominations poll: It’s now a vote. You can choose between 4 of my suggestions or write in your own.
Looking forward to sharing in some Herstory with you all this month.
If you haven’t already noticed, I haven’t posted here in a while.
January sucked, and then February sucked, but it’s starting to look like all the sucking will be out of the way this month. So after a brief, unannounced hiatus, RFBC is back. (Probably. This club got a lot of traction at its very beginning and weirdly, it’s gotten a lot since I left, but there’s been very little activity in between. If there’s an adequate response to this post/the next couple of polls, then I’m definitely back.)
You can nominate books for the March-April book club here. This will be open until March 10, and then we’ll start voting.
Our March-April read will be announced on March 15.
Additionally, it’s Women’s History Month! Check back each day for a little blurb about incredible women, movements and events in history.
Here’s the survey for nominating books!
I will definitely post something about our current read this Saturday, February 3, so be on the lookout for that!
Our January-February book pick is S.C.U.M. Manifesto by Valerie Solanas, which you can find here.
This is an incredibly short read– just 16 pages. Since it’s so short, and because I’m one of those people who really loves context, I’m also posting this PDF of Valerie Solanas, a biography written by Breanne Fahs, for those who are interested.
For feminist historians, two things are notable about this biography. First, Fahs deftly situates Solanas in relationship to the burgeoning women’s liberation movement. In “Provocation: The Contentious Birth of Radical Feminism,” Fahs connects Solanas with key leaders and spokespeople of the women’s liberation movement and highlights conflicts that arose from Solanas shooting Warhol. Fahs examines what feminist leaders thought about Solanas and her action of shooting Warhol, including when they expressed solidarity with Solanas and when they distanced the cause of women’s rights from Solanas’s thinking and her actions. This chapter alone contributes texture and nuance to contemporary histories of women’s liberation.
Second, Fahs teaches us new ways to think and write about mental health through her careful engagement with Solanas. Fahs paints the psychic and emotional landscape of Solanas without pathologizing her and without pitying her. Fahs resists viewing Solanas with pathos or pity not only in early narratives of Solanas’s life, but also in her later years when she clearly struggled for any dignity. One of the striking images that Fahs provides of Solanas is between 1981 through 1985 when Solanas lived in Phoenix, Arizona. A local police officer described her as “gaunt and thin. . .standing in the intersection barefoot, wearing a white nightgown that came down to her knees and wrapped in a thin white blanket.” Lest this image be too angelic, a bit later, Fahs describes her body covered with scabs; she carried a kitchen fork with her and would “dig at every part of her body with the tines of a fork.” Throughout the book, Fahs explores these types of complexities about Solanas: the angelic and the mutilated, the incendiary and the abject, the fierce and the feral. Through thick descriptions of the environments in which Solanas found herself, Fahs allows Solanas’s ideas and actions to unfold; she illuminates a mind that is, if not always reasonable, generally understandable given the circumstances she endured. Perhaps the most impressive achievement of the biography is how Fahs writes about Solanas: she makes her humane and human.
-from a review by Julie R. Enszer
I’d love to have the time to read both the Manifesto and the biography, but it looks like I’m going to have a rather busy semester. If any of you do elect to read it, you should tell us what you learn in the forum!
As for The Second Sex, I’ll probably pick up where I left off the next time I have a chance, and we can continue our discussion from there. It doesn’t all have to be linear; the concepts we’re discussing in this book club weave in and out of our lives, so you should feel free to comment on any thread at any time, even if it’s been months since we read the corresponding book.
Our timeline for the next month, roughly, looks like this:
- January 15: begin reading and discussing S.C.U.M. Manifesto
- February 1: nominations open for next month’s read
- February 10: voting opens for next month’s read
- February 14: LiveChat book club discussion of S.C.U.M. Manifesto
- February 15: begin new read
Looking forward to discussing this provocative Manifesto with you all.