“Woman is the Nigger of the World”

Wednesday, January 18th, 2006 · 26 Comments »

Shout out to Twisty for a fabulous post. One commenter summed it up with reference to that glorious Plastic Ono Band anthem, “Woman Is The Nigger of the World.” I’ve always loved that song, and damn if I don’t grieve for the days when the public face of feminism was bold and uncompromising, not caked with makeup and cringing so as not to offend The Man.

All oppression is bad. Really, really bad. But goddamnit, the oppression of women has been going on forever. Racism comes and goes, different populations are enslaved at different times, the geography of power shifts — but women remain on the bottom always, everywhere.

Ever since I set out to study history 30 years ago (determined, in my own adolescent phrase, “to find out everything that has ever happened”), I’ve encountered few phenomena more constant than the inferiority of women as a class. Whether it’s Sumerian merchant wives or Roman matrons, Chinese concubines or Greek hetaira, whether we’re talking about medieval Europeans, pre-Columbian Mayans, or modern Pakistanis, women are at the bottom of the pile. The fleeting examples of relative gender equality are few, and come almost exclusively from pre-civilized cultures in benign environments.

The modern feminist revolution is a soap bubble, a blink of an eye, 30 years against 6,000.* Will it last? The patriarchs are working hard to destroy it, and male reclamation of our uteruses is virtually a done deal. Only a fool thinks the gains we’ve made are irreversible and that feminism is obsolete. There is a huge fucking Borg ship out there called 6,000 Years of Women Are Shit. And it’s bearing down on us. Resistance is futile, it says. You will be assimilated.

Fuck that noise. Fuck that noise all the way to the back of beyond.

Blogging for choice.

*At least 6,000 years. Probably more.

Filed under: Why We Still Need Feminism · Tags:

26 Responses to ““Woman is the Nigger of the World””

  1. Kelley Bell says:

    You got it right. and the thing I’ve hit on in my own search of history, is that the problem lies smack dab in cultural mythology. Religion is the great oppressor.

    When we used feminine terms for the divine, women were venerated. Now we use masculine images for god, and women are degraded accordingly.

    Goddess Damnit! and Oh my Goddess, Enough already. It’s time for a change.

  2. Violet Socks says:

    Kelley, have you ever read “The Myth of the Goddess: Evolution of an Image,” by Anne Baring and Jules Cashford? Brilliant book. Baring and Cashford do a remarkable job of tracing how shifts in religious mythology reflected and codified the shifts in women’s status. It belongs on the bookshelf of everyone who’s interested in history or feminism or both.

  3. The Happy Feminist says:

    YES! This seems so glaringly obvious to me that I find myself almost speechless when people claim that feminism is obsolete. As though 6,000 years of severe oppression, that is certainly still raging to the max in many parts of the world, could simply be solved by upper middle class Europeans and Americans in the space of a mere 30 years.

    I am going to link to this at my blog, and probably reproduce it word for word.

  4. tekanji says:

    An interesting and thought provoking post. I found you through The Happy Feminist.

    As a classical studies minor, however, I have to nitpick on your choice of Roman matrons and Greek hetaira. Though no one would claim that they were first class citizens (or anything close), I wouldn’t consider either one the best representation of women’s oppression in those societies.

    Especially in later years, many Roman matrons chose marriage without being handed to her husband’s family so when her pater familias died, she became semi-independent. Yes, she had to have a ‘guardian’ to oversee her finances, but all practical evidence we have points to the position being for show rather than a man actually controlling the women’s income.

    I also personally think that Greek* matrons are a better example of women as second class citizens than hetaira. Yes, hetaira’s bodies were used as objects for men’s pleasure, but so were Greek matrons (the only difference being that their father’s pleasure was to make a good marriage alliance and their husband’s pleasure was to have an ideal wife). Greek women couldn’t own property or inherit; if a family had only daughters the one who would have inherited was married to the closest male relative in order to keep the property in the family. Their children were unambiguously the husband’s property (as were the women). Which is not to say that, like Roman matrons, Greek women never worked around these restrictions. There’s just less evidence that they did so with the freedom that many Roman matrons seemed to enjoy.

    The theme of women’s subjugation throughout world history is too important a one to lose in steretypes. While utilizing the obvious may resonate with some people, I don’t think it does justice to the complex women who lived in those societies.

    * Although perhaps it is more accurate to say “Athenian” matrons. Evidence from other city-states shows differing laws on the treatment of women, some of which were much more progressive than what we think of when we say “Greek matrons.”

  5. Violet Socks says:

    Glad you liked it, Happy Feminist!

    tekanji, I actually chose Roman matrons because I was coupling them with Sumerian merchant wives, and Greek hetaira because I was coupling them with Chinese concubines. A slight literary flourish. And my goal was not to choose the most oppressed women in each society; actually Sumerian merchant wives and Roman matrons, to take two examples, were among the most privileged females in their societies. And in that, you see, lies the point: even they were subservient to men, inferior to men, defective, second-class, not fully citizens and not, ultimately, fully human.

  6. humbition says:

    In my comment on The Happy Feminist I did indicate a few of the anthropologically known societies which have been thought to have been examples, as you say, of “relative gender equality.” I don’t know whether one would say that they are from “benign environments,” that’s kind of in the eye of the beholder. (Polyandry, or the marriage of one woman to more than one man, is characteristic of some of the toughest locations in the Himalayas, and the Na, who I made the subject of a link, are also from that rigorous environment.) Actually I can’t think of anything else, aside from relative gender equality, they have in common. (Except, of course, their fragility in the path of colonialism and postcolonialism.)

    I am not quite sure why you claim that “slavery” is older than “patriarchy,” unless you are thinking specifically of the kind of “patriarchy” characterized by social ranking and chieftainship, and eventually leading up to literate (more or less) “civilization.” In the absence of reliable surpluses, I think one will find that war tends toward small-scale genocide or adoption of the losing population — slavery means that someone has to supervise the slave, and this has its economic preconditions, unless you can think of an exception to that.

  7. Violet Socks says:

    humbition, I’m claiming that slavery has an older (slightly) historical record than patriarchy, if by the latter we mean the subjugation of women as a class. See Gerda Lerner (1986) for the appearance of slavery in early Sumeria. The first slaves were female — in fact the first written symbol for slave was “woman from the mountains.” In Lerner’s analysis, this reification of the foreign female led to the reification of all females — and hence their subjugation as a class. (War, of course, predates slavery, and was undoubtedly the source of the first slaves.)

    Now, when you leave behind the historical record and look at archaeology, it gets trickier to sort out what came first or if all kinds of class distinctions came bundled together. That’s where I turn to anthropology. Peggy Reeves Sanday (1981) finds a clear correlation between high status for women and “benign” environments — i.e., low food stress, relative abundance, low external conflict, plant-based economies. In societies where you have migration, uncertain food sources, animal economies, external conflict, etc., then men’s roles become paramount and women become subservient. A kind of feedback loop then entails (in both setups).

  8. Violet Socks says:

    one more thing — interesting point about the Himalayan polyandry. I’m vaguely remembering (maybe incorrectly) that the matrilineal custom is ancient, and their form of polyandry (several brothers sharing one wife) actually serves to keep property in male hands. But I’m talking out of my ass here because I can’t remember the study. I’ll have to look it up.

  9. humbition says:

    Thank you for responding. Your point on polyandry is well taken — it may not actually correlate perfectly with women’s status. I will have to find Sanday’s paper and think about it, since offhand I can think of what I imagine to be exceptions.

    It is always interesting to learn more about Sumer. Systematic enslavement of women there somehow doesn’t surprise me. But if patriarchy starts with the subjugation of women as a class, and if subjugation is something which requires intensive settlement and centralized control, then what would one call a society which is still male dominated but which does not yet have intensive settlement and centralized control?

  10. Violet Socks says:

    You’ve put your finger on the limitation with Lerner’s analysis, which is that it’s based on the historical record of civilized societies. But anthropology shows clearly that pre-civilized (if I may use the term) societies also have male domination, which is why Sanday’s model is useful.

    Sumer gives us the earliest written records of slavery and then female oppression, but I think Lerner’s argument that this is the absolute origin of patriarchy is incomplete. I think Sanday’s model makes sense as a kind of big-picture guide to why and where male domination arises, with the pressures of urban civilization (as arose in Sumer) then serving to greatly exacerbate and codify the sense of men’s superiority to women.

    But also: It is absolutely striking that at the dawn of civilization, we keep running into these mythologies explaining how women used to have power back in a mythic pre-civilized Golden Age, but then men (or male gods) wrested control away…

  11. Alon Levy says:

    In addition to anthropology, we can use linguistics to look at pre-literate cultures. For example, reconstruction of Proto-Indo-European shows that the culture was strongly patriarchal, because of the following pieces of evidence:
    1. The head of the pantheon is male (its name is Dyeus-Pater – sky father – which in Greek became Zeus and in Latin became Jupiter)
    2. There are more words to describe paternal than maternal relatives, indicating patrilocality and patrilinearity
    3. The monarch, if I’m not mistaken, is a king (reges, which in Latin became rex and in Sanskrit became raja)
    There probably are additional pieces of evidence I don’t know of, but people who study IE historical linguistics are certain that the Proto-Indo-Europeans were patriarchal, patrilocal, and patrilinear.

    Incidentally, if the near-eradication of Western anti-Semitism is any indication, culturally rooted patriarchy can easily end in 30 years, given the right political and social pressures. With Jews they were of course the Holocaust and the founding of the state of Israel, which largely ended the schism between Zionists and assimilationists.

    To see the propects of feminism in the future, we can try and look at the main forms of oppression of women in Western cultures and see what historical antecedents there are to their elimination with regards to other oppressed groups, such as Jews, blacks, Asians, and members of minority Christian denominations. For example, it’s possible that 30 years from now, women will flow into senior management and government in large enough numbers to no longer be outnumbered by men, because of the current trend in education for girls to succeed more than boys.

  12. Violet Socks says:

    Good point on the linguistics, Alon, and you are absolutely right about Proto-IE.

    I don’t know if I agree that patriarchy can be eradicated at the same rate as other oppressions. I’d like to think so, but the gender divide is qualitatively different from racial or creedal divisions.

    An idea I’ve been batting around in my head for about 15 years is that different races or classes are like different molecules interacting, but males and females are like nuclear particles. The relations between races/classes are like a chemical reaction, but tampering with gender relations is like a nuclear reaction — you’re tearing apart something fundamental to our species. I have no idea if that bizarre analogy will make sense to anyone but me, but there it is.

  13. Sandy says:

    I’ve read some interesting things about gender inequality (aka the history of the patriarchy) in primate studies. Franz de Waal’s recent book “Our Inner Ape” has some fascinating comparisons of chimpanzee & bonobo (used to be called pygmy chimp) societies, which are very different in terms of gender relationships and social organization. It makes you realize how flexible even proto-human societies may have been, while showing certain commonalities that lead to institutionalized inequality. I should blog about it, I guess.

  14. Violet Socks says:

    I need to read that. I’m utterly fascinated by the bonobo stuff and the comparisons with pan troglodyte. I take away the same big message you do, Sandy — when you get to the level of complexity of the higher simians, there is remarkable flexibility in how sexual organization can develop.

    Here’s the dream synthesis I’m looking for on the origins of patriarchy: biology, evolution, primate studies, anthropology, archaeology, history, religio-mythical studies, class analysis… Nobody has yet put all the pieces together. I would love to take a crack at it but need to set aside several years.

  15. Alon Levy says:

    I don’t know if I agree that patriarchy can be eradicated at the same rate as other oppressions. I’d like to think so, but the gender divide is qualitatively different from racial or creedal divisions.

    I’m not so sure the difference is that important. It depends on just how much cultural continuity there is between a civilization and its successors. Some civilizations are founded on racial, creedal, or class oppression (e.g. Roman civilization on slavery, Western civilization on anti-Semitism, Indian civilization on the caste system), and in many cases they shed these oppressions.

    Therefore, if gender oppression is something that is reinvented each time a civilization collapses and is only as strong as the current civilization, then in fact patriarchy isn’t qualitatively different than anti-Semitism or caste or slavery. Further, if gender oppression needs to be reinvented, then it stands to reason it will not be once there are enough women in positions of power, which will happen sometime in the 21st century even if feminists mount no additional pressure to enforce gender equality.

    The problem, of course, is whether gender oppression is in fact reinvented. The main piece of evidence that it is is that in certain environments, preliterate patriarchies became more egalitarian (I’m thinking mainly of the Celts vs. the Proto-Indo-Europeans).

    In addition, some extinct and extant cultures aren’t particularly patriarchal. For example, the women control the market in Southeast Asia, and the overall gender division of labor is fairly egalitarian; I think the situation used to be even more egalitarian before the region was subjected to influences from China and Arabia, and to changes in once-matrilocal inheritance patterns caused by the decline of subsistence agriculture.

    On the other hand, I think if the patriarchy were really only as strong as it is in each extant culture, then egalitarian civilizations would probably appear far more frequently. Further, despite being an example of a relatively equal society by tradition, Southeast Asia is far from a heaven of gender equality; women are still far more empowered in Sweden and Australia and Norway than in Thailand and Cambodia.

    Here’s the dream synthesis I’m looking for on the origins of patriarchy: biology, evolution, primate studies, anthropology, archaeology, history, religio-mythical studies, class analysis… Nobody has yet put all the pieces together. I would love to take a crack at it but need to set aside several years.

    It sounds like something Jared Diamond would write a book about.

  16. Violet Socks says:

    Alon, think about sex.

    Think about making babies and the continuation of the species. I’m quite serious.

    And Jared Diamond — if he wrote it he would get it wrong. Guns, Germs, and Steel drove me nuts. He had some good stuff, but too many logical fallacies.

  17. Burrow says:

    For more stuff on chimps and bonobos (and a book I thoroughly enjoyed): Woman: An Intimate Geography by Natalie Angier. I learned so much and it’s her answer to the crap that is evo-biology. So good.

  18. Alon Levy says:

    Speaking of sex and babies, I read somewhere (I think on some comment thread on Majikthise) that pre-civilized cultures begin as egalitarian, but become patriarchal once they discover the connection between sex and childbirth. Do you know whether it’s true?

    Burrow, I presume you mean, “the crap that is evo-psych.” Evo-biology is an established scientific theory, the only people who oppose which are creationist cranks.

  19. Sandy says:

    pre-civilized cultures begin as egalitarian, but become patriarchal once they discover the connection between sex and childbirth. Do you know whether it’s true?

    Definitely not true. Not all pre-literate cultures are (or were) egalitarian, and some that were more egalitarian did not become less so with increased knowledge of reproduction. And the evidence that “primitive” cultures did not understand the link between sex and children is very weak – true, they didn’t have the exact mechanics down, but in all cases that modern cultural anthropologists have examined, some sort of link is well-known. Cynthia Eller covers this pretty well in “The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory”.

    I’m guessing Burrow meant sociobiology or evolutionary psychology (which tries to account for social, cultural & psychological practices with biological underpinnings).

  20. Burrow says:

    She’s talking about how biology has been used to keep women oppressed and yes also evo-psych. She’s a biologist herself and she attacks the destructive ideas within biology and Darwinism that are held up as women’s biological programming to be passive, etc.

    She calls it “liberation biology” and yes it argues with misogynistic ideas in Darwinism and biology and is very very good.

  21. iam whoiam says:

    what about the need for childcare and protection, don’t you think conditions required separation of duties and led to oppression of the weaker people by the people with access to economic security? (food)

  22. iam whoiam says:

    Therefore isn’t “birth control” and “abortion” etc. our only hope for liberation? or maybe parthenogenesis? That would be ideal. Don’t we have the ability right now to mix up just female genes?
    and not use men at all? for anything? wouldn’t that be great? After all they are the less evolved of our species.

  23. Pastor Al E Pistle says:

    Please get over it. Women were created by GOD to be the chattel of the dominant and more intelligent male. If you do not believe me or the Bible, I suggest you contact Andrew Longman who was fired from RenewAmerica.com but knows ~everything~ or visit http://www.landoverbaptist.com.

    Dearie, forget ‘parthenogenesis’. It is merely a theory like Darwinisim or gravity. Intelligent design is the question and GOD is the answer. You had best get back to the kitchen and get some soldiers in the oven for CHRIST’S war against the heathen mudslum hoardes.

  24. Violet Socks says:

    Andrew Longman was fired???? But he was my favorite! See here: http://www.reclusiveleftist.com/?p=82

  25. Irwin Cortez says:

    Violet you are as scary as how you talk.

    The ranting of men for what happen in the past should not be brought up know in the 22nd century as an endless vendetta for what happened in the past. Now that females have all this freedoms why shouldn’t men defend himself against your reprimand. Should the modern man stand the accusation to which he has yet to commit or should they compare feminism endless rage? African American had it the worst than women in this country and around the world, but do you still see The Black Panter making war on the white man? No.
    You sometimes forget some female societies in the past. Take for example the Indian culture in the northwest part of the Unites States or the Iroquois in the northeast. There culture was completely dominated by broom-stick headbaging woman. (I’m Kidding don’t take it personal.)

    Violet, you have a beautiful mind but a stubborn one at that.

  26. Violet says:

    Irwin, if you want to rant about things you don’t understand, you need to get back over there in the cartoon thread where that sort of thing is expected.