The trouble with women

In which I invent a new, or at least not usually acknowleged, genre: the historical editorial.

I have been teaching a quarter-long class on “Women in the Ancient World.” It’s a little odd that I should be teaching such a class, since I have never studied women as a separate subject in my own career as a student, nor do I think much of feminist historical theory, insofar as I have experienced it. But the class has been quite eye-opening, in that I have learned a lot both about attitudes toward women in history and the attitudes of my students towards women in history.

In thinking how to sum up my experience with the class, I think that one way to categorize what I’ve learned is that historically, women have been viewed not as partners and co-pilgrims in the journey of life (whether equal or unequal ones), but quite often as a problem to be solved. I think this view is easy to substantiate, and has nothing to do with man-bashing or extreme feminist theories; but that this view is difficult to wrap modern heads around because it differs substantially from modern viewpoints–those of modern defenders of traditional gender roles and even those of modern misogynists, as well as those of feminists and believers in gender equality.

In class, it seems that the most diverse viewpoints–the most feminist as well as the most ardent defenders of traditional gender roles and relations–agree that women are different from men. Women are different biologically, they are typically not as physically strong and, in premodern times, spend much of their adolescence and adulthood either pregnant or caring for small children. Hence, a division of labor is virtually mandated by biology. Further, women are different temperamentally.

Both the feminist and traditionalist views seem to want to view these differences as complementary and equally good. But it seems to me that in antiquity, the differences between men and women–or rather, the differentness of women–was viewed as a problem to be solved, or at least endured.

To begin from the time when people began to think about things in a way we today would recognize as rational (as opposed to religious or practical), in Classical Greece, the problem of women was put by men in terms which are impossible to misinterpret. Women are the cause of all evils in the world, as typified by the myth of Pandora. Women are biologically and intellectually inferior to men. Women are frequently compared to animals, and while it’s not denied that they are humans, they are certainly more animal-like than men are. Marriage, for men, is to subject oneself to the tyranny of an irrational and demanding entity. Marriage was to be undertaken as a duty to the state, not to be expected to be a source of personal enjoyment or fulfillment. Some, though not all ancient writers concede that a good wife is indeed a great good for a man, but she is so rare than no man should expect to get one.

Women are good for only one thing, and that thing is not what more modern misogynists think it is–young boys are much better for that. It’s not what defenders of complementary gender roles think it is, either–women in general make very poor companions, and they are very unlikely to be diligent in their work, preferring to gossip with the servants and sneak around with other men whenever they can. The only thing women are good for is procreation. And they are not so much good for that purpose, since they are liable to try to contracept or abort without the husband’s permission (with the husband’s permission, there’s no problem with either of these things, nor with exposing an infant to die if the husband decrees it). Rather, they are the only option for that purpose. One ancient male writer wonders why Zeus saw fit to saddle them with women as the only way to produce an heir. Wouldn’t it be better, he wonders, to procure an heir by making a donation in a certain amount to the temples? Despite the gods’ undeniable avarice, it seems they didn’t respond to this suggestion.

In the ancient view, women were not fragile and in need of protection, as in the Victorian or Islamic formulation. Rather, they were cloistered, veiled, denied citizenship or virtually any public role, because they were dangerous. A later Roman writer, writing at a time when women had begun to take on more public although not political roles, wonders nervously what is to become of the men if the women were to get equal rights?

In the pre-Graeco-Roman Ancient Near East, the female gods are at least as fierce and cunning as the male gods, perhaps even more so. Inanna of Mesopotamia, Anat of the Canaanites, and Bastet of the Egyptians are like ancient berserkers, losing all capacity for rationality or mercy when exacting revenge on enemies. Isis tricks the aging Ra into giving her his power by poisoning him and offering the antidote if he tells her his secret name.

Of course, the ANE goddesses were also seductive and sexual, whereas the Graeco-Roman goddesses, with the exception of Aphrodite, were much less so. Artemis seems in some ways like a continuation of the antisocial ANE goddess, and was a “virgin” (meaning she was unmarried), and as such was not a threat to men as human women (who did not have the option of being unmarried) were. Athena is representative of how great it would be if a woman could indeed be more like a man–but real women aren’t like Athena. Hestia is the embodiment of the perfect wife and mother, except for one thing: she was neither married nor a mother. Hence, she was the perfect woman: she kept to female roles without imposing her presence on any poor man. Hera was married, and her marriage can easily be seen as representative of the trouble with marriage: though subject to Zeus, she continually chafed at this, and was eternally jealous, quarrelsome, and sought to throw spokes in the wheels of any of the various wacky enterprises Zeus undertook.

It doesn’t seem to be primarily women’s sexuality that was a problem for the Greeks, as it was for the ancient Hebrews, Christians, and modern Muslims. Rather, it is the fact that by their very nature they were a threat to men. Not a potential threat, but a very real and immediate threat, both right this minute and for all time, written into the cosmology. Women were the source of all problems that men encounter in life, said the Greeks, in so many words.

Women were a problem for the Greeks. Of course, men were a problem too, and in one sense the solution to both problems were the same: men were a problem to be solved by men, and so were women. Men solved the problem of themselves through politics and philosophy (note the rise and prevalence of Stoicism, a male pursuit). They solved the problem of women in similar ways. Sumptuary laws limited the public appearances of respectable women to none at all–since wives were a luxury commodity like other forms of conspicuous consumption. The roles of nonrespectable women, slaves and prostitutes, were clearly delineated from those of respectable ones. Both of these nonrespectable categories had much more varied and interesting lives, and simultaneously much worse ones, for the most part, than respectable wives.

There were exceptions to this view of women, of course. Socrates had all sorts of good things to say about a heterae (a kind of geisha-like woman) of his acquaintance, and nothing at all good to say about his own wife, and seemed to prefer the sexual companionship of boys to that of women. But he did believe that women were or could be the intellectual equals of men, and for this and other peculiar opinions was executed as a danger to the morals of the young. Plato followed his lead on this. He proposed a utopia in which family relationships were so diametrically opposed to anything actually practiced anywhere in the world–women holding all societal roles equally to men, and this equality protected by the abolition of the family–that one wonders where in the world this was coming from, and who in the world would want to live that way. The answer, apparently, was that nobody did. Finally, the Epicureans, the main rival to the Stoics, accepted women students on the same basis as men–but nobody every thought very highly of Epicurus or his philosophical school.

During the Hellenistic and the later pre-Christian Roman periods, women had much broader public roles than in the classical Greek or republican Roman periods, but they were still potentially dangerous creatures. The devoted wife and mother finally did get her due, and women were more able to control their own lives rather than to pass from the absolute control of her father to that of her husband. There was also more freedom for women to not be respectable, if they liked, and still lead reasonably pleasant lives. Women had more economic and legal powers.

But there were two things women could never do: hold political power through voting or holding public office, or serving in the military. The reasons for the latter are fairly obvious. What were the reasons for the former? For one, military success was one sure way of garnering political influence, and that was not possible for women. For another, there were still doubts about women’s intellectual capacity and ability to control their emotions, although women’s intellectual ability was now more recognized.

Finally, women were dangerous. As noted above, Romans feared the consequences of giving women political power–they didn’t know what might happen, but they were pretty sure it wouldn’t mean anything good for them. Whether or not one believed women were capable of taking on traditionally male roles, it was better to keep women under men’s thumb as much as possible. It was more “seemly,” it kept the established social order from descending into an unpredictable chaos, it was, above all, safer.

The appearance and rise of Christianity fundamentally challenged the Graeco-Roman notion of the nature and proper roles of women, and it too made the Romans nervous. The early Christians were persecuted because they threated the established Roman order, both as pertains to women and in more important ways. And when the church inherited the project of ordering society from pre-Christian Rome, it too had to tackle the trouble with woman–leading to an entirely new formulation of the problem as well as a new set of solutions, which I hopefully will eventually favor you with my interpretation of.

A Christmas Carol

Just wanted to link to a page about Dicken’s A Christmas Carol with some interesting historical notes about the story.

women’s right to vote

This evening I decided to work on a post about British suffragettes that I started a long time ago and abandoned, only to discover that it was 85 years ago today that the 19th amendment of the Constitution was ratified, granting women the right to vote.

While I work on the suffragettes some more, here’s some links on the suffrage movement in the U.S.:

  • “Votes for Women” suffrage pictures from the Library of Congress
  • “Votes for Women” selections from the National American Woman Suffrage Collection, also from the LoC
  • A timeline of the women’s suffrage movement (from the above site)
  • A speech from Susan B. Anthony
  • The 19th Amendment in the context of World War I
  • an assortment of religious history links

    Just wanted to share a few links on religious history:

    Material History of American Religion Project: An interesting idea: studies religion in America through ephemeral documents and artifacts like these.

    American Religious Experience at WVU: Online essays about the history of various religious movements in the United States…and, as an added bonus, Canada!

    Guide to Early Church Documents: All sorts of writings from folks with Roman-sounding names.

    Virtual Religion Index: A plethora of links on world religions.

    Voice of the Shuttle-Religious Studies: Religion, history, and religious history. If you want to know what the name means, here is a gross story about it.

    “For God and Home and Native Land”: women, temperance, and the vote

    As a little disclaimer before I begin, I have never been particularly enamored of feminist approaches to scholarship. One problem I have with such approaches is that they project current experiences of and beliefs about sexism onto other times and places where they might or might not have any relevance. As I’ve studied various regions and time periods, I realized that views about and roles of women are extremely variable. Women have more or less always had roles in society that differed from those of men, but the degree and way in which they differed, and how these roles were valued, vary widely across time and space.

    One thing about recent women’s history that has interested me is the changing concept of the political role of women. Of course, women have not always been considered to have a political role: Emile Durkheim showed what he thought of such things in his 1893 book The Division of Labor in Society with the disapproving observation that “There are even now a great number of savage peoples in which the woman involves herself in political life.”

    While Durkheim was solemnly denouncing the involvement of women in politics as detrimental to organic solidarity, however, women around the world were deciding that political involvement was the only answer to ensuring their own well-being and that of their families. However, their goals and methods were markedly different from modern feminism, although echoes of their beliefs and practices can still be heard across the political spectrum. Nearly all women today have inherited some part of their political beliefs, and looking into the work of the women of this period has given me more insight into current political worldviews and divisions.

    The emergence of women in the political realm in the late 19th century, and the campaign for women’s suffrage, was associated closely with, of all things, the temperance movement (1, 2). This movement, known as “first-wave feminism,” was a curious mishmash of progressive and conservative means and goals which drew from both the evangelical revival of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and the 19th-century equal rights movements (3). The women of this period saw themselves as equal to but different from men, believing that their main sphere of concern was within the home. They felt that that womanly characteristics of caring and nurturing would be of benefit in the public sphere, and the rights they sought were mainly connected to their roles in the home, over property and their children (4).

    The temperance movement began in the early 19th century, part of a perception of a need for moral reform in a wider sense (5) and was from early on mainly a woman’s movement. It became more organized after the Civil War, however, especially with the formation of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union in 1874. The organization became international in 1893 (6). Especially under its influential president Frances Willard, the Union espoused a wide variety of causes from the criminalization of alcohol sale and use, to votes for women, equal pay for equal work, crackdowns on prostitution, child labor laws, organized labor, education, and world peace (7). The fact that this movement had little to do with modern divisions between conservative and liberal can be seen in the fact that it culminated in both the 18th and 19th amendments; as well as in the Union’s two slogans: “For God and Home and Native Land” and “Agitate – Educate – Legislate.”

    Perhaps this array of causes coalesced around temperance because, on one hand, it attracted a wide range of women: more conservative women who did not seek the vote, and more radical ones for whom it was only part of a wide range of desired reforms (8). On the other hand, the crusade against alcohol struck at the core of women’s lack of rights: in the 19th century, men drank, but women suffered for it (9, 10). Alcoholic husbands and fathers abused and impoverished their families, and as women had no rights over marital property or children, they were helpless to better their situation.

    However, women did not seek only the rights that would allow them to escape from abusive situations. Rather, they sought the salvation of the men in their lives from the ravages of alcohol and other vices. The role of the Victorian woman was as a protector of the home and the nurturer of virtue, and the temperance women saw alcohol as seducing men away from virtue, destroying their bodies and their minds as well as the lives of their families. The desire to protect men from alcohol grew out of this Victorian concept of woman as guardian of virtue.

    The means by which women sought these reforms changed somewhat over time (11). Early on, they sought change by “moral suasion,” in keeping with the prevailing belief that this was the proper realm of women, who were unsuited for political involvement. It was not long before the women decided that political action was necessary to achieve their ends, however; but the movement continued to be rooted in both Christianity and domestic concerns, rather than a secular political philosophy or women’s freedom to take on traditionally male roles in the public sphere.

    This stands in contrast both to the 1970s vision of feminism and to the temperance movements’ contemporaries, the suffragettes (12) (about whom more in a future post, hopefully). The means by which they worked for temperance consisted mainly of prayer and hymn-singing at taverns, and the goal was the conversion of men into Christian husbands and fathers by the elimination of alcohol and other temptations to vice. There were other, more colorful characters in the temperance movement such as the hatchet-swinging Carrie Nation (13); but her goal also was to do God’s work.

    The temperance movement consisted mainly of lower and middle-class white women, although the Anti-Saloon league was also in operation under male leadership (14). Black women also led temperance unions (15); but the Union was criticized by contemporary African-American reformers for racial insensitivity (16, 17).

    Like the Wesleyan evangelical movement of the eighteenth century (18), this “first-wave feminism” was a mix of what would in modern terms be called “progressive” goals (relief for the poor, the rights of women) with profoundly conservative ones (the enforcement of Christian “purity” by legal means (19). Both were seen as necessary, most importantly as the work of God, but also for the relief of human beings; because both societal indifference and personal behavior such as alcoholism and promiscuity contributed to the misery of the poor and underprivileged. Though the schism between these two sets of goals is probably for the most part unbridgeable by this time, nearly all women have inherited some part of the temperance women’s beliefs, even if only that women have an important contribution to make to the political realm. In closing, it is important to note that the WCTU is still in existence (20, 21), still bridging the gap between conservative and liberal based on a particular set of ideas about women and religion.

    Other links:
    The diverse means employed by the temperance workers (22)
    Prohibition stuff (23: warning, plays music)
    Documents from the temperance movement (24, 25)

    A final note: I was messing with different ways of handling links while working on this, and hope it is not too distracting. Some of the numbered links refer to the same web page, when that web page made significant reference to more than one point I wanted to make. All of the pages I’ve linked to are worth reading, and go into much more detail and offer more points of view than I could.