We are all victims, men and women, of the centuries-old belief that women are somehow less than fully human beings, that males rule the public sphere and women the home, that males have rights, privileges and prerogatives, and women have socially acceptable roles. The fact that women are born with the same range of talent, intellect, interests, and dreams as men does not figure into this equation. Never has.
These social expectations and cultural beliefs are hard-wired into us from birth. This is what Patriarchy is all about. Betty Friedan, in 1963, called it "the feminine mystique." And a "mystique" it is. The mystique that men are born to rule and women to follow, to obey. The mystique that men's experiences, needs, ways of thinking and points of view are dominant and have authority, while the voices of women are mute, less important. Persistence is not considered a virtue in women as it is in men, for example, nor is achievement.
These expectations and roles have become so "normal," so pervasive, so ubiquitous, that they are as much an unconscious ideology as a conscious pattern of behavior.
The ideological rigidity of male and female roles drives men to act on their prerogatives in lots of ways, now painfully evident in the exposure of the extent and depth of sexual harassment. It leaves women to deal with it in their own ways. Some succumb, some recoil, some get hurt, some get angry, some laugh it off as 'men will be men, boys will be boys.' I don't know of any woman who has not dealt with this behavior, from moderate to severe, in one way or another. I do know, like most women, that lots of men have fallen into this patriarchal trap, and it's not pretty.
Look at Matt Lauer, the most recent to be exposed. "As his 20 years as a fixture of U.S. morning television came to an abrupt end, the married 59-year-old Matt Lauer found himself joining the fast-growing ranks of powerful men in U.S. entertainment, politics and media to be felled in recent months by accusations of sexual misconduct." (yahoo news, 11/30/17). While Lauer said some accusations were "untrue or mischaracterized," several of the accused have said something similar, he had to acknowledge that "there is enough truth in these stories to make me feel embarrassed and ashamed."
Feeling embarrassed and ashamed. Doesn't feel good. Women know this feeling well.
This is the misogyny condoned by patriarchy. Whether conscious or unconscious, it is an abuse of women, especially virulent against achieving women. Anita Hill, in the face of her courage even to confront the issue of sexual harassment, let alone do so in public, was treated as if she were less than human, treated with disdain and disrespect, a life to use, abuse, and demean.
Patriarchy (male dominance) and misogyny (ill-treatment of women) are indeed a central theme of American history, consigned to what's called "women's history." I started the women's history course at the University of Toledo in the mid-1970s and have taught it off and on for some 30 years, here and in DC and Florida. Whenever I get a chance, I still recommend Eleanor Flexner's Century of Struggle as a basic text. Lots of studies have since been published, but it remains a thoughtful introduction to a complex subject. Teaching women's history has been a labor of love, and the field has exploded, but it's also been a daunting effort to have a voice.
Finding a voice is the essence of women's history. From the beginning of the new experiment in democracy, women's experiences and points of view, the way they think and they way they communicate, have been diminished and silenced. Women had few rights and lots of responsibilities for hearth and home and child raising, for working from sunup to sundown on farms large and small. They had no legal rights (married women were "femme covert" in English Common Law), no right to education, no path into the professions, no right to vote. Abigail Adams, John Adams' wife, urged the "Founding Fathers" in 1776 to "Remember the ladies," but that was not about to happen.
Women like Susan B. Anthony, the Grimke sisters, Sojourner Truth, and Lucy Stone were among the first to speak out against slavery, pioneer abolitionists, but who remembers them? Who remembers that it was when women were forbidden to speak out against slavery that the women's rights movement was born? Who remembers that it took a century of struggle to win the right to vote? Who remembers that Jane Addams, M. Carey Thomas, Carrie Catt, Alice Paul were reformers and pioneers in social justice at the turn of the 20th century, before men climbed onto the "progressive" bandwagon?
The silence of women's voices in American history, the lack of knowledge about women's efforts to gain rights and respect, to pioneer in equality and social justice, has led us to the present predicaments over sexism in our culture. So has the lack of interest or concern about the meaning of patriarchy and most of all its consequences. That's what we are dealing with today. Men in power positions are being exposed and we haven't even gotten to the voices of ordinary women, women of all ages, in all fields of endeavor, who are juggling home, child care and work.
Most of us find nothing gleeful about the exposes. They are not a political game of "gotcha," although men are making it so. Not about conservatives or liberals, Reds or Blues. They are about a changing culture, about questioning societal roles, attitudes, and expectations. They are about exposing the excesses of an unconscious but powerful ideology. They are the sad consequences of unfinished business in the area of equality and human dignity, unresolved issues in the long struggle to find places for women in the broader world.
One day society will recognize--for the good of all, for the common good--that women have many talents, skills and points of view to contribute to our society and to lead us into a strong future. Then women will be found wherever their inherent talents and interests take them, without the barriers of an ideology or role expectations in their path to self-fulfillment and human dignity. It's never been an easy climb.
|Still at it after all these years. Women's March in DC, January 2017|
One grievance reads that men "have endeavored, in every way that he could, to destroy her confidence in her own powers, to lessen her self-respect, and to make her willing to lead a dependent life.... " A powerful statement at the time. The Declaration concludes: "Now, in view of this entire disfranchisement of one-half the people of this country, their social and religious degradation--in view of the unjust laws above mentioned, and because women do feel themselves aggrieved, oppressed, and fraudulently deprived of their most sacred rights, we insist that they have immediate admission to all the rights and privileges which belong to them as citizens of the United States." from Elizabeth Cady Stanton, A History of Woman Suffrage , vol. 1 (Rochester, N.Y.: Fowler and Wells, 1889), pages 70-71. The most radical of the rights called for in 1848? The right to vote. And it took incredible effort over several generations to achieve it.