Published August 22, 2017 in Warp & Woof
A Feminist Manifesto (from a Heteronormative Male Who Raised Only Sons)
Let’s not trivialize the “elephant in the room.” Patriarchy has been the near universal social structure throughout the Euro-Asian world since the Neolithic revolution of agriculture, perhaps 12,000 years ago. It has been accepted by all the world’s major religions for thousands of years. It underlies the persistence of monarchy and transmission of wealth in all of history’s greatest empires.
True to the patrilineal society in which we live, both my adult sons took my surname, not their mother’s.
So, where do feminists come from, anyway? In primitive Neolithic societies child-bearing and nursing the young were activities which necessarily distracted from the attention that had to be paid to tending crops and domesticating animals – and, life spans were not long enough to allow for much post-child-rearing endeavors, especially when generous fertility was required, due to infant mortality.
Yet, archaeologists and anthropologists agree that pre-agricultural hunter-gatherer societies were NOT necessarily patriarchal, but often were far more egalitarian, as are many indigenous peoples today. Women might make superior hunters than men, or superior gatherers, and the investment in land and infrastructure simply was not there, needing protection from adversaries. Hunter-gatherer villages were small, and monogamy less likely – every child knew its mother, if not its father. Matrilineal cultures could, and did, evolve in these conditions.
With agriculture, and land, came the notion of property. Property was overhead – it added an additional layer on the Neolithic world. Property determined wealth, wealth easily translated into power, and those who possessed it would fight to keep it. They considered women and children property as well. Families emerged, forged alliances with other families, forming tribes, then tribes invented myths to perpetuate themselves (religion). Later, tribes grew into nation-states and empires. Men were the “haves,” women the “have-nots.” Women were chattel, and slavery was the dominant organizing principle for labor. Only in modern times have women been allowed to own property, and has slavery been abolished.
Rendered powerless by religious and legal systems, many women became acculturated in a different method of influencing the world – through manipulation of men. Rather than contesting men for power, they discovered ways to share it.
As cultures became more complex, the demand for specialization of labor led to the development of educational and other social support systems. At the same time, there were great improvements in life expectancy, especially for women vis-à-vis their men. Suddenly, women often became the better-equipped to manage many of the ancillary activities of daily life. Not only the role of teacher, but the nurse, seamstress, and other home-based activities became accessible to women.
But, as men detected a change in the power balance, they sought to redress it. Women resented this. Moving through the 20th century, women’s health concerns were much ameliorated by science and medicine. It was no longer necessary to be neutralized by child-rearing. Late In the century, it even became possible, with proper educational credentials, to start a career, interrupt it to start a family, then resume it later, when children were older. These options were only available to a privileged slice of educated women in “advanced” western countries, however. And, even there, the vestiges of patriarchy were still found in pay scales, allegedly due to those “interruptions” in their careers.
Clinging to power in their patriarchal world motivates many men in the world to this day. The recent episode of the “Google manifesto,” which caused a software engineer to be fired, indicates the continued sensitivity many men feel about their abilities to compete with women in the workplace.
Some societies still have legal constraints on women’s activities (Saudi Arabia), others endorse religious restrictions on women (both from Islam and the Roman Catholic Church). To most of us in the western world, the rationale for these legal or religious restrictions appears anachronistic, to say the least – there is still a vocal minority of men who feel they are oppressed by feminism.
Emerging in the 21st century are even more challenges to the patriarchal social structure. Now, it is becoming difficult to even determine gender in an individual. Freedom to switch genders is being asserted more forcefully throughout the West. If women can simply say “now, I’m a man,” they are forcing a confrontation with the rules of patriarchy. The male reaction, along with their female collaborators, would be to deny that freedom. Reproductive freedom is a similar argument – it forces a confrontation with many patriarchy-enforced values, mainly via religion.
Queer Theory has developed an ideology of fluid gender roles, where individuals can move comfortably back and forth between genders, or adopt characteristics of both genders simultaneously. Indeed, this is not new — cross-dressing and unconventional career choices have long been on the plate for all of us, as has choice of the gender of intimate partners. The only change is that now we have academic and psychological endorsements from social elites. The expression “heteronormative” was invented as part of queer theory to focus on the aspect of normalization in the patriarchy.
What about families? Is feminism a threat to the family unit? It seems to me, at least, that for all the reasons mentioned above: the complexity of the demand for labor, the advances in science and technology, and the favored position women have developed over the last couple centuries in the West – we can now say that any “interruption” in the care of children caused by mothers being absent some of the time is transitory at best, and might even be beneficial to child development. What is threatened is not the family itself, but the hierarchy of authority that has sought to dominate the family, and all social institutions, since the very earliest days of the Neolithic revolution!
Greater autonomy of women (including property rights) has also been a stabilizing influence on the family because it places constraints on men’s philandering. The ability to divorce a husband is a feminist contribution of the last hundred years.
In many cases, my own included, men are now forced to accept – even in the deepest recesses of their socialized brains – that women are, and ought to be, autonomous actors in their own lives.
In the future, many now see a growing “useless class” of unemployed, due to advances in artificial intelligence, and many (but not all) of them will be men. It is them, and not the growing class of educated and skilled women that are the primary threat to the persistence of the patriarchal social model. Their only salvation may lie in replacing capitalism with a non-property-based system.
We can expect to see a corresponding dissolution of those authoritarian entities which have perpetuated the patriarchy – the state and the church. And, as we try to envision this future, we should remember that history lies in the records, not the myths. What do we know about alternative social models? Those that existed in the remote past, and those that exist among some indigenous groups today? Learning about them will be more useful than stubborn allegiance to the myths of the past, even those that have seen a very long run of thousands of years.
Human society has proven very adaptable over its long history. There is no reason to think that the patriarchal gods of the last five millennia cannot be replaced by a new “earth mother” model, in many ways similar to the earliest hunter-gatherers.