Posts Tagged ‘history’

Women’s Liberation vs Black Slavery

Wednesday, February 4th, 2009

It is quite common to compare feminism, or women’s liberation, to other major liberation movements. Sometime the comparisons focus on how women have a lot in common with people in the GLBT movement (GLBT = gay, lesbian, bisexual, transsexual), and at other times women are bundled together with immigrants. The argument that is usually put forward is that women have been oppressed, just like GLBT people and immigrants have been and are oppressed.

Perhaps the most common comparison is that of drawing parallels between feminism and the Civil Rights Movement in the US. Just like black people have had to endure oppression, racism and slavery at the hands of white people – women are said to have been oppressed by men, and to therefore have a lot in common with African Americans. According to this view, black people in the US and women around the world, are simply two oppressed groups who have been and still are fighting for their freedom and rights.

I believe this kind of comparison to be deeply flawed, and it doesn’t hold up to a closer scrutiny. African Americans have certainly had to face slavery, oppression and all kinds of horrible acts that they could not defend themselves against. Even to this day, there remains a lot of prejudice, racism and discrimination that needs to be dealt with, in the US and around the world.

However, women’s history has not been shaped by men who actively oppressed women. Women’s (and men’s) history has been co-created by men and women, and has largely been determined by survival needs which made certain gender roles or behaviors more or less unavoidable. Patriarchy was not created by men, it was simply a functional fit to the historical circumstances – so that human beings could survive and start building more civilized societies.

To investigate this further, and check whether my assumption is correct, let’s travel back in time. Here is a list of some the major difficulties and oppressive structures that black slaves had to face, when slavery was still around:

1. Slaves do the heavy labor
2. Slaves do the dangerous labor
3. The lives of slaves are worth less than the lives of their owners
4. Slaves are only worth something to society if they perform
5. Slaves do not have a voice in the public sphere
6. Slaves cannot vote
7. Slaves are confined to the home
8. Slaves cannot earn a salary

As you can see, slave owners – being in complete control of their slaves and being free to oppress them as they saw fit – left all the unwanted responsibilities to the slaves while giving them none of the coveted benefits. If women are indeed oppressed by men within a patriarchy, then we would expect men to make similar choices: giving all the benefits to themselves while letting women take care of all the undesirable chores and responsibilities.

When we look at the above points (1-8) through a gender lens, who was given what task within a patriarchy? If men really did oppress and control women, then we would expect women to have a situation corresponding to that of the slaves in all or most cases.

1. Slaves do the heavy labor. In a patriarchy, it is the responsibility of men to do the heavy work. Some of you may object to the inclusion of this point, and say that of course men did the heavy labor; men are simply a whole lot stronger! However, that objection actually rhymes well with what I claimed above: that history has been co-created by men and women, and gender roles have been determined by survival needs and who could do certain tasks most efficiently.

2. Slaves do the dangerous labor. In a patriarchy men have to perform the dangerous work. In fact, women are discouraged to ever take part in any dangerous activities and the safety of women (and children) is often emphasized. The reason for this is that historically every society needed lots of children to prosper, and only women have wombs.

3. The lives of slaves are worth less than the lives of their owners. Similarly, men’s lives are worth less than women’s lives in a patriarchy. Men are expected to die for their country, die protecting their wife, or die performing a dangerous job.

4. Slaves are only worth something to society if they perform. Again, it is men who have a situation similar to the slaves. Unemployed men or men who hold down very low status jobs don’t get much respect from society, or from women for that matter.

5. Slaves do not have a voice in the public sphere. Clearly, this corresponds to women’s situation in a patriarchy. Women cannot work and are expected to stay home most of the time in a traditional patriarchal society.

6. Slaves cannot vote. Men were given this right before women, so women are the ones who most closely match the slaves in this case.

7. Slaves are confined to the home. As stated above, women tend to be confined to the home in a traditional patriarchal society.

8. Slaves cannot earn a salary. Women are the ones who don’t have access to the labor market in an old-fashioned patriarchy, so women’s situation is the one that resembles that of the slaves in this example.

The result of this simple thought experiment is very interesting. If men oppressed women the same way that white slave owners could oppress their black slaves, then we would expect women and blacks to end up in the same disadvantageous situations – at least most of the time. However, the analysis above indicates that the unwanted tasks and the withheld rights are distributed pretty equally between men and women, even in a traditional patriarchal society that supposedly benefits men.

A common feminist definition of patriarchy is: “Patriarchal refers to power relations in which women’s interests are subordinated to the interests of men” (this definition is taken from the book Introducing Feminism by Cathia Jenainati and Judy Groves). At one point in my life I believed this definition to be correct, but at this point I take it for what it is: misinformed ideology. Women have suffered terribly throughout history (as have men), but if women’s interests were truly subordinated to the interests of men within a patriarchy, then this thought experiment would have turned out very differently.

Culture Wars: The Need for a Culture to Be Competitive

Monday, January 26th, 2009

Roy F. Baumeister is a social psychologist who in 2007 gave an excellent speech on the topic “Is There Anything Good About Men?”, that I resonate deeply with. Unfortunately I wasn’t there to hear him speak, but a transcript is freely available.

The gist of Baumeister’s talk is that the feminist assumption that men and women constantly compete for power within a culture, may not be as true as many people think. In fact, feminism has created a false worldview of the sexes always being against each other and competing for power. The reality is that throughout history men and women have usually been forced to cooperate in order to obtain adequate amounts of food and to ensure that their offspring survives and thrives.

We approach a much more profound truth when we realize that every culture has always competed with other cultures for power and influence. The largest determinant of how cultures have been organized through history is not a power struggle between men and women, but instead a competition between different cultures. Cultures have had to be organized efficiently enough to be able to maintain or even increase their power and influence, or else face the possibility of being dominated or subsumed by another, more efficient culture.

So why has there been this constant competition, whether fierce or subtle, between different cultures? Why haven’t cultures been able to get along peacefully, trusting each other to only want what best for everyone? Nowadays, we see that lots of countries do try to stay out of wars as much as possible, and two democracies have still never gone to war with each other. However, historically speaking, cultures and people simply weren’t as evolved as we are now, so the primitive threat of being overrun or dominated by your neighbouring culture was always a very real threat.

Cultures therefore needed to be as efficient as possible, in order to stay competitive and also to simply be able to gather enough food to survive. As it turns out, what all successful cultures have discovered is that it is very efficient and beneficial to use men for most or all of the high risk tasks, while keeping women as safe as possible. As you are probably aware of yourself, this pattern of using men for high risk activities while keeping women safe remains with us until this day.

But why did women need to be kept safe? Why couldn’t women participate alongside men in the dangerous activities? The safety of women has always been crucial, because it’s only women who have wombs – and wombs are the limiting factor for maintaining or increasing the population of a certain culture. Men’s biological contribution to reproduction is simply a batch of sperms, and sperms are abundant. Each man could potentially father hundreds of children with hundreds of different women, which means that men have never been a limiting factor in the reproduction process.

Each woman, on the other hand, can only be pregnant with one baby at a time (on average), and each pregnancy lasts for nine months. Losing the life of a woman is thereby equivalent to losing a womb, and from the perspective of a culture competing with other cultures, this represents the loss of a “baby factory”. Lots of children being born increased the chances for a culture to expand its influence and power. When population grows, you have more people available to produce wealth by working, trading or fighting. And in this context wealth creation is pretty the same thing as becoming more powerful and influential.

We can now see that the competition that has been going on between different cultures or societies around the world has been a major catalyst for the evolution of human culture and human societies. Constantly striving for wealth creation and better organization, in order to be able to compete better, has fueled the process of increased civilization and has given us more sophisticated ways of being human. We’ve simply become less primitive and more evolved.

The downside to all this is that even to this day, we view men as expendable and male lives as less worth than female lives. Men are still the ones who go to war, and who do the dangerous jobs such as being a police officer, fireman, coal miner, oil platform worker and pretty much any dangerous job you can think of. This is an issue that is currently not addressed properly in the gender debate, and feminism does not have this issue on its agenda.

Feminism has very much realized that the whole business of keeping women safe, helped contribute to women being shut out of the public sphere, which isn’t desirable in a modern society. However, if we are intellectually honest, we need to look at the flip side of the coin, and the fact that because of cultures competing in the past (and to some extent still competing) – men now have a gender role where they are considered expendable or disposable.

Stay tuned for the upcoming post where I’ll address this universal male expendability in a lot more detail.


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