A community for discovering, discussing, and celebrating radical feminism. The purpose of this book club is to learn together, so we encourage all members to speak about parts of the books we read that speak to them, about what they agree/disagree with, any questions they have about the material, or other relevant comments they might like to make.
Lerner presents several important ideas in her introduction. We have spoken of this one already, but I think it bears repeating:
“Women’s History is indispensable and essential to the emancipation of women.”
Another concept that I want to spend some time on is the “dialectic of women’s history” that she mentions on page 5.
What’s pictured below is called the Hegelian Dialectic. It basically explains the way that opposing cultural/social/economic forces interact. I had to have someone (my favorite professor ever) sketch this out for me before I could really understand it, so we’ll go through this diagram piece by piece:
We start at the bottom with the thesis, which is the original force or accepted principle. In the dialectic of women’s history, the thesis is “their marginality in the meaning-giving process of interpretation and explanation.”
The antithesis is the opposing idea. This is “women’s central and active role in creating society.” When this is brought into consciousness, we move toward the synthesis, which is supposed to represent the ultimate truth or the final solution to a given struggle.
The synthesis in this case is the “moving (of women) into action to change their condition and to enter a new relationship to male-dominated society.”
Society is dynamic and will produce an idea that is antithetical to the synthesis we’ve reached. (Maybe we could call this conservative backlash?) A new synthesis will be achieved, and the cycle will start over.
The rest of this post will be a review of Lerner’s first proposition:
a) The appropriation by men of women’s sexual and reproductive capacity occurred prior to the formation of private property and class society. Its commodification lies, in fact, at the foundation of private property. (Chapters One and Two)
In Chapter One, Lerner examines several theories asking how, when, and why female subordination came into existence.
First is the traditionalist theory of universal and natural sexual asymmetry. In Western society, women’s inferiority, explained by way of biological determinism, was first thought to be ordained by God, then by Darwin and then by Freud. She also discusses, briefly, newer fields and ideas that are intended to justify patriarchy, such as socio-biology.
She also explores Marxism and maternalism as perspectives that reject the universality of patriarchy.
Engels and Levi-Strauss were among the first (recognized; that is, men) to suggest that gender roles were socially and culturally determined rather than biologically determined. She also briefly mentions this essay by Gayle Rubin, which synthesizes their work with some additional material from a more feminist take on Freud (and which I have already linked a time or two and will probably never stop recommending because it’s just that damn good).
Maternalist theory suggests that women, as mothers, are “better equipped than men to improve society” and is the thought process behind things like municipal housekeeping and the search for a historical or mythical matriarchy.
You may have heard about municipal housekeeping in your U.S. History classes. It’s pretty much the only time women’s contributions to American society are ever mentioned. Municipal housekeeping was a collection of progressive reforms steered by women. It included things like the temperance movement (because drunk husbands are abusive and oppressive), advocacy for public education, abolitionism (but it’s important to note here that most of these ‘housekeepers’ were privileged white women and, I would argue, supported abolition only because of interest convergence), and prostitution “reform” (which sometimes meant housing and education but other times meant forced labor and ostracism).
The search for matriarchy, Lerner argues, is fruitless and misguided. She suggests stepping away from that and examining instead the phenomena that created patriarchy.
She also notes that while hunter/gatherer societies have been the most egalitarian, there is no evidence of any society that does not subordinate or oppress women in one way or another.
In Chapter Two, Lerner suggests that the initial division of labor along sexual lines was functional. The role of women as mothers was essential to the survival of the tribe. Women, she argues, were most likely respected, feared, and/or regarded with awe by men for psychological reasons– the abiding connection of the child with the mother– and because of their mystical reproductive power and menstrual cycle. Men likely created male-only institutions to foster male bonding in societies where women were so revered.
The origins of one male institution– that of domination, rape and warfare– has been the topic of much feminist debate for years, Lerner notes. Some feminists have linked it to biology; others attribute it to man’s domination of land and beast. Lerner posits that times of economic scarcity led to intertribal warfare over those scarce resources, and that the men who emerged as victors were likely held in high esteem, which encouraged men to start and continue a system of male domination.
Here we come into a point of contention between radical feminists and Marxists.
One resource that could and likely did become scarce often was human labor. With the agricultural revolution, children became economic assets; societies depended on the exploitation of their labor. There was thus an incentive for the sexual exploitation of women. Women’s reproductive capacity was a heavily-desired resource that was then conceptualized as property, as something one (a man) could own. And the bond between mother and child provided an added benefit: Regardless of her circumstances, a woman who was impregnated by a given man would likely stay with him in order to raise and protect their child, and that man would have continued access to her reproductive functions. Women became property because they performed reproductive labor; “the exploitation of human labor and the sexual exploitation of women were inextricably linked.”
Lerner’s proposition, then, is that sexual division was, at first, biologically determined and served a functional purpose. As human societies grew and developed, though, this division was increasingly influenced by hierarchy: “the power of some men over other men and all women.” Societies now featured traffic in women and the concept of private property.
At this point, she says, we enter Civilization and see the formation of the first nation-states. Now we can point to concrete evidence rather than abstract theorizing about the origins of patriarchy.
Why is an understanding of women’s history so important for liberation?
What fields and ideas are used to justify women’s subordination in the 21st century?
Do you think matriarchy worth searching for?
Do you agree with Lerner that the commodification of women precedes the advent of private property? Why or why not?
Our timeline is going to shift a little bit starting this month. Instead of running from the fifteenth to the fifteenth, we’ll run from the first to the first. That means we got a little bit of a late start this month, but that’s okay.
So we’ll read The Creation of Patriarchy from now until March 31. From now on, nominations will stay open permanently; you can access that here, and I’ll post regular reminders. Voting for the next read will begin on the 20th of each month and the winner will be announced on the last day of the month (the 30th or 31st).
I’m really looking forward to this month’s book. There are eleven chapters, so you can expect two or three posts each week.
I also wanted to mention that there’s a “sequel” to this called The Creation of Feminist Consciousness, which traces feminism from the middle ages to the 1870s. I think it would be great for us to read this next, so it’s going to be my nomination for next month. I also think it would be great to follow up by exploring the history of feminism from the 1870s onward, so if you have any recommendations please nominate!
Writing in 1972 when the women’s liberation movement was gaining momentum, Anna Davin urged women to study their own history, ‘for by showing that the role and nature of women changes with each society we are helping to defeat the argument “that’s how it’s always been”’. As Davin suggests, the writing of women’s history cannot be separated from contemporary feminist politics. Women concerned to understand their specific inequalities and to challenge institutions which perpetuate their oppression have looked to understand the roots of that oppression in the past; to discover whether such challenges had been made before and what they could learn from them (Davin, 1972, p. 224). If women saw themselves as marginal in the past it would reinforce their view of themselves as subordinate and powerless in the present. Only if a woman’s role could be shown to be socially constructed and rooted in a specific historical context, rather than natural and universal, could feminists hope to argue that it was open to change.
This year’s Women’s History Month theme is supposed to be “Nevertheless, She Persisted: Honoring Women who Fight All Forms of Discrimination against Women.” (In my opinion, this ‘theme’ is incredibly vague and hardly constitutes a theme. It’s a catchphrase and a really long explanation that should just say “feminists.” But whatever.)
Lerner writes that traditionally, women’s history is a “compensatory history:” Historians include some of the contributions of a handful of “worthy” women to make up for the dearth of historical information about women in general. That’s certainly the kind of history I was taught: all male and all white and mostly rich, as if women and people of color and poor people haven’t always existed. They have. I think, too, this is the trend that guides Women’s History Month, and though I was tempted to begin with a piece about Mary Wollstonecraft (because who doesn’t admire the fuck out of her?), we’re going to not do the whole compensatory history thing. It merely adds to the ideology delineated by de Beauvoir– the dogma that woman is “other,” not really part of the whole of humanity that constitutes history.
Instead, Lerner suggests that “the true history of women is the history of their
ongoing functioning in that male-defined world, on their own terms.”
I’m not sure how, exactly, to pay respect to the true history of women. I’m not a historian; beyond that, I’m a one-woman show, so I can really only speak to my own experiences.
One thing that I thought might be helpful would be for us each to contribute our knowledge to a sort of informal, collective pool of women’s history. For that purpose, I created this women’s history month board on the forum. Feel free to create a thread and share some knowledge. It’ll be much appreciated by any roaming radfem who happens upon it.
I think it’s equally important– because the personal is the political– for us to reflect on our personal histories as women. As radical feminists, we all think about that all the time, but this month I’ll be spending some time each day writing (personally, in my journal) about what womanhood has meant for me.
Finally, I think this month presents a great opportunity for us to read about women’s history. We are, after all, a book club. So I’ve updated the nominations poll: It’s now a vote. You can choose between 4 of my suggestions or write in your own.
Looking forward to sharing in some Herstory with you all this month.
If you haven’t already noticed, I haven’t posted here in a while.
January sucked, and then February sucked, but it’s starting to look like all the sucking will be out of the way this month. So after a brief, unannounced hiatus, RFBC is back. (Probably. This club got a lot of traction at its very beginning and weirdly, it’s gotten a lot since I left, but there’s been very little activity in between. If there’s an adequate response to this post/the next couple of polls, then I’m definitely back.)
You can nominate books for the March-April book club here. This will be open until March 10, and then we’ll start voting.
Our March-April read will be announced on March 15.
Additionally, it’s Women’s History Month! Check back each day for a little blurb about incredible women, movements and events in history.
Our January-February book pick is S.C.U.M. Manifesto by Valerie Solanas, which you can find here.
This is an incredibly short read– just 16 pages. Since it’s so short, and because I’m one of those people who really loves context, I’m also posting this PDF of Valerie Solanas, a biography written by Breanne Fahs, for those who are interested.
For feminist historians, two things are notable about this biography. First, Fahs deftly situates Solanas in relationship to the burgeoning women’s liberation movement. In “Provocation: The Contentious Birth of Radical Feminism,” Fahs connects Solanas with key leaders and spokespeople of the women’s liberation movement and highlights conflicts that arose from Solanas shooting Warhol. Fahs examines what feminist leaders thought about Solanas and her action of shooting Warhol, including when they expressed solidarity with Solanas and when they distanced the cause of women’s rights from Solanas’s thinking and her actions. This chapter alone contributes texture and nuance to contemporary histories of women’s liberation.
Second, Fahs teaches us new ways to think and write about mental health through her careful engagement with Solanas. Fahs paints the psychic and emotional landscape of Solanas without pathologizing her and without pitying her. Fahs resists viewing Solanas with pathos or pity not only in early narratives of Solanas’s life, but also in her later years when she clearly struggled for any dignity. One of the striking images that Fahs provides of Solanas is between 1981 through 1985 when Solanas lived in Phoenix, Arizona. A local police officer described her as “gaunt and thin. . .standing in the intersection barefoot, wearing a white nightgown that came down to her knees and wrapped in a thin white blanket.” Lest this image be too angelic, a bit later, Fahs describes her body covered with scabs; she carried a kitchen fork with her and would “dig at every part of her body with the tines of a fork.” Throughout the book, Fahs explores these types of complexities about Solanas: the angelic and the mutilated, the incendiary and the abject, the fierce and the feral. Through thick descriptions of the environments in which Solanas found herself, Fahs allows Solanas’s ideas and actions to unfold; she illuminates a mind that is, if not always reasonable, generally understandable given the circumstances she endured. Perhaps the most impressive achievement of the biography is how Fahs writes about Solanas: she makes her humane and human.
I’d love to have the time to read both the Manifesto and the biography, but it looks like I’m going to have a rather busy semester. If any of you do elect to read it, you should tell us what you learn in the forum!
As for The Second Sex, I’ll probably pick up where I left off the next time I have a chance, and we can continue our discussion from there. It doesn’t all have to be linear; the concepts we’re discussing in this book club weave in and out of our lives, so you should feel free to comment on any thread at any time, even if it’s been months since we read the corresponding book.
Our timeline for the next month, roughly, looks like this:
January 15: begin reading and discussing S.C.U.M. Manifesto
February 1: nominations open for next month’s read
February 10: voting opens for next month’s read
February 14: LiveChat book club discussion of S.C.U.M. Manifesto
February 15: begin new read
Looking forward to discussing this provocative Manifesto with you all.
I’ll be honest with you guys– I didn’t finish this book. I had every intention of reading 30 pages a day, which is manageable for me, but then the holidays came around, and I had a minor depressive spell, and now the semester’s started up again. So I didn’t get any further than the history section. I loved what I read, though, and I’d still love to hear your thoughts on the rest of the book. I’ll definitely revisit this book later on my own or, if you all weren’t able to finish the book either, as a group. I was considering expanding the time frame for this read to two months– if you have an opinion on that, feel free to comment. I’ve also amended our current survey to include “continue reading The Second Sex” as an option for next month’s read. If you’ve already voted and would like to change your answer, it is set up so that you can vote a second time. Remember that this survey will close at 11:59 p.m. tomorrow night!
Our chat room will be open tomorrow night, the 14th, from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Eastern time.
Scum Manifesto by Valerie Solanas: “It argues that men have ruined the world, and that it is up to women to fix it. To achieve this goal, it suggests the formation of SCUM, an organization dedicated to overthrowing society and eliminating the male sex.”
Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde: “In fifteen essays and speeches dating from 1976 to 1984, Lorde explores the complexities of intersectional identity, drawing from her personal experiences with oppression, including sexism, heterosexual, racism, homophobia, classism, and ageism. The book examines a broad range of topics, including love, war, imperialism, police brutality, coalition building, violence against women, Black feminism, and movements towards equality.”
Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism by Elisabeth Grosz: “Volatile Bodies demonstrates that the sexually specific body is socially constructed: biology or nature is not opposed to or in conflict with culture. Human biology is inherently social and has no pure or natural “origin” outside of culture. Being the raw material of social and cultural organization, it is “incomplete” and thus subject to the endless rewriting and social inscription that constitute all sign systems. Examining the theories of Freud, Lacan, Merleau-Ponty, Foucault, Deleuze, Derrida, etc. on the subject of the body, Elizabeth Grosz concludes that the body they theorize is male. These thinkers are not providing an account of “human” corporeality but of male corporeality. Grosz then turns to corporeal experiences unique to women―menstruation, pregnancy, childbirth, lactation, menopause. Her examination of female experience lays the groundwork for developing theories of sexed corporeality rather than merely rectifying flawed models of male theorists.”
Intercourse by Andrea Dworkin: “Intercourse is a 1987 book by Andrea Dworkin in which Dworkin offers a radical feminist analysis of sexual intercourse in literature and society. Dworkin is often said to argue that ‘all heterosexual sex is rape’, based on the line from the book that says ‘violation is a synonym for intercourse.’ However, Dworkin has denied this interpretation, stating, ‘What I think is that sex must not put women in a subordinate position. It must be reciprocal and not an act of aggression from a man looking only to satisfy himself. That’s my point.'”
Each of these is available as a free PDF.
All book descriptions copied from their respective Wikipedia articles and/or Amazon descriptions
In this post, I’ll recap Simone de Beauvoir’s account of the history of patriarchy and of women within it. Then, I’ll talk about other ideas about the origins of patriarchy (with links for further reading!).
In part II of the first volume of The Second Sex, de Beauvoir devotes five chapters to the telling of history from a feminist perspective, beginning chronologically with primitive peoples and ending with the contemporary (remember, this was written in 1949).
In chapter 1, she posits that the origins of male supremacy can be traced to the concept of transcendence/immanence, which I defined in the forum. Men, through production, she says, were able to transcend their animality towards humanity. Valuing reasons for living over life itself, they were active, creative, and productive; in the hunt, they asserted their dominance over nature and from there over all aspects of human life. Women, on the other hand, were tied to their bodies as they constantly menstruated and conceived, carried, birthed and nurtured children; they were unable to transcend their animal nature.
In the next chapter, de Beauvoir describes the earliest societies, both the patrilineal and the matrilineal. She notes that even in those societies where women’s holiness was recognized (because of their reproductive capacities), women were still defined as Other by men. She also claims that in such societies, men idolized women because they feared them, not out of love or respect. And when mundane agricultural tasks were replaced by creative labor, women’s creative power was not so special or fearsome. “Doomed to procreation and secondary tasks, stripped of her practical importance and her mystical prestige, woman becomes no more than a servant.” Men were then left to try to consolidate their view of women as both servant and companion, and this, de Beauvoir says, is what drives the rest of women’s history.
In chapter 3, she links women’s inferiority to the new concept of private property and of inheritance. The owner of private property, de Beauvoir explains, “alienated his existence in property; it was more important to him than life itself;… it lives on after the body is gone … only if it belongs to individuals who are extensions of himself and recognized, who are his own.” Women then belong to men, and they are valuable for producing children who will inherit his property once he dies, which allows him to continue to exist– at least materially– virtually forever. de Beauvoir uses this concept to explain the roles of virginity, fidelity (whether it be monogamous or polygamous in structure), and exogamy (marrying outside of a certain social group, usually the family or clan).
The only way for a woman to escape being made property is to flee to the outer edges of society, to brothels and later to convents; prostitutes, historically, have had more freedom than even the wealthiest of wives and daughters, but this is not without significant cost. Relegated to the out-group, un-kept women are maltreated and cannot participate in most of the benefits offered by the society that shuns them. She ends the chapter by examining the status of Roman women, who were afforded economic independence but not political power. She calls this “false emancipation:” Roman women, like many other groups of women in history and even in contemporary times, were free in name only, tied still to a biologically-determined fate of immanence and/or lasciviousness.
In chapter 4, de Beauvoir discusses women’s situation as influenced by Christianity. Women, in the Christian tradition, are all descendants of Eve, the temptress responsible for the fall of man and his children. They are symbols of sexuality which must be kept in check; Christianity therefore reaffirms the conceptualization of women as property. Again, she writes that the upper class woman is falsely emancipated; she is kept on a tighter leash than the poorer woman who shares out of necessity a more reciprocal relationship with her husband. She also argues against the popular notion that romantic love was ever liberating for women; they were still depicted as inferior and as objects. She traces the slow-moving emancipation of women after the Renaissance, as an elite few are able to devote themselves to their intellect and to writing. But even the successes of women are used against them and still did not constitute real political power. Nevertheless, de Beauvoir concludes, the 17th and 18th centuries can be counted as progress.
The final chapter is an analysis of women’s status after the French Revolution (1789-1799). Though the Revolution’s aim was to overturn the existing structures of power, it merely entrenched women in their social inferiority. Under the anarchist-led portion of the Revolution, women did enjoy some degree of independence, but when the Napoleonic Code was instituted, woman was reduced again to the role of wife and mother. Economic movements after the Industrial Revolution did recognize women as the most-exploited class under capitalism; in de Beauvoir’s view, women were closest to liberation in the Soviet Union, where this kind of class oppression was addressed. Women’s division among class lines, she asserts, is the reason for their failure to achieve liberation elsewhere. Her theory is that because modern machinery reduces the biological divide between men and women, thus empowering women to transcendence, a worker’s revolution might bring about the liberation of women. (That, we know, has yet to happen.)
She also makes note of women’s added reproductive responsibilities. With the Industrial Revolution came a pressure to make women available for work; this was achieved, more or less, by relaxing abortion restrictions and making contraception more widely available. The natural consequence of these freedoms was the advent of widespread movement’s for women’s suffrage and other political rights.
de Beauvoir comes to a significant conclusion in closing this section on history: that women’s history has always been written by men. Antifeminists, she says, rely on two contradictory arguments for explaining their accounts of history: “(1) women have never created anything grand; (2) woman’s situation has never prevented great women personalities from blossoming.” Instead, she says, the truth is that women’s circumstances have always precluded success. Denied every opportunity for transcendence, how can women as a class have accomplished anything of value? And yet some women have, and she lists a great many of them; still, they do not excuse or compensate for the failure of the rest. “This explains why many [women] today demand a new status,” she writes. “And once again, their demand is not to be exalted in their femininity; they want transcendence to prevail over immanence in themselves as in all of humanity; they want abstract rights and concrete possibilities to be granted to them, without which freedom is merely mystification.” de Beauvoir seems here to advocate that women begin writing their own history, defining themselves into existence– and feminists have been reiterating this point ever since.
Given that it’s been nearly 70 years since the publication of this book, it’s remarkable (at least to me) that so much of the information she gives stills stands. I’m not an anthropologist or a historian by any means, but this section on history is largely congruous with other feminists’ opinions on the origins and progression of patriarchy. Some of these include:
Miles begins by discussing the first women. She rectifies the popular idea that Man-the-Hunter were responsible for sustaining human life; rather, women gatherers and agriculturalists provided the largest and most sustainable food sources. (To be clear, I don’t think de Beauvoir means to say that men achieved transcendence through hunting because it sustained life; that would be immanence. Rather, it seems that the act of dominating/killing was the significant part of the hunt.) Women’s knowledge of edible plants also gave them an understanding of nature’s medicinal powers. She also discusses Goddess religions, matriarchal societies, and the rise of the phallus, which she attributes in part to womb-envy (perhaps a variant of the fear that de Beauvoir mentions?).
In writing the story of women, Miles devotes a lot of space to patriarchal religions– especially Christianity– and notes, as de Beauvoir did, that the Father God would lose his power during the Enlightenment, when individual intellect was valued and women were allowed to participate in education and philosophy (though that was only because these were not considered avenues toward power). After that, women of the Western world were relegated to the home– more immanence, in de Beauvoir’s terminology; then some were allowed into factories, where they were doubly abused; then some were taken to the New World, where they were made the tools of imperial proliferation.
Though de Beauvoir could only cover women’s history up until the Age of Revolution and the institution of communist regimes, Miles’s book has the advantage of being much more recent, and so she offers an account of the second wave, which de Beauvoir sparked, and a bit of the third. She concludes that there is a great deal of “love, struggle, and work” to be done.
“Briefly her picture is as follows: the first sexual division of labour was based
on reproductive differences and reflected women’s child-bearing and child
rearing capacities. But this was a culturally, rather than a biologically,
determined choice, since it was both functional and advantageous to those
who adopted it. Moreover, in egalitarian societies, those of hunter-gatherers,
for example, where a sexual division of labour is already established, male
and female functions complement one another and the relative status of the
sexes is “separate but equal.” What role, then, did the exchange of
women play in female subordination? Developing with agriculture in the
Neolithic period, such exchange commodified women’s reproductive
capacities. Women became a resource. Here Lerner elaborates a complex
position put forth by Meillassoux and Aaby. Control over women’s
sexuality, they argue, preceded the acquisition of private property. It is this
that is sought in the exchange and even the capture of women, since
reproducers are essential for survival. In time, out of the labour of women as
reproducers, private property was created: “in the course of the agricultural
revolution the exploitation of human labor and the sexual exploitation of
women became inextricably linked.” Lerner’s framework is thus drawn
from both Engels and Levi-Strauss: she has wed the two.” – from this review
This study supports the link that de Beauvoir draws between women and the earth, man and plow. It does seem that the gendered labor-specialization contributes to masculinist ideology.
Rubin, a cultural anthropologist, synthesizes the work of Engels and Marx through the lens of Levi-Strauss and of Freud as interpreted by Lacan to devise a theory of the “sex/gender system” in which gender is an artificially imposed distinction and separation of the sexes. She defines it as “the set of arrangements by which a society transforms biological sexuality into products of human activity, and in which these transformed sexual needs are satisfied.”
She spends the majority of this essay talking about women as property: daughters/sisters given as wives between men to form kinship bonds. This enforces the rules of exogamy, which de Beauvoir talks about in chapter 3, and, Rubin theorizes, is the origin of compulsive heterosexuality / heteronormativity. Women, in this system, are capital to be exploited by male capitalists. She turns to a unique interpretation of Freud’s psychoanalytic theory to explain how this system is perpetuated through the generations.
(This is my favorite read on the subject of the origins of patriarchy. It’s about 30 pages; if you’re not already exhausted by de Beauvoir’s lengthy tome, you should give it a read.)
In “Patriarchy, Civilization, and the Origins of Gender,” John Zerzan sums up the findings of several feminist researchers and historians on the origin of patriarchy: Man is subject and woman object, and this is affirmed by nearly every aspect of most, if not all, cultures; male supremacy has been connected to gendered divisions of labor in early agriculturalists; as men lay claim to the land, so too do they lay claim to women, and this patriarchal-imperialism is only heightened by technological advances which wreak havoc on nature and alienate women from their bodies; genderlessness seems to be the answer.
In The Evolutionary Origins of Patriarchy, an interesting read for those among us who think that male barbarism may be biologically ingrained, Barbara Smuts seeks to integrate feminist theory and evolutionary theory to explain the phenomenon, remarked on by de Beauvoir, Rubin, Lerner, and other feminist theorists, that patriarchy is seemingly timeless, preceding even the earliest of cultures. The steps to her argument, backed by research into the sexual behaviors of male and female primates, are as follows:
Natural selection favors behaviors that promote individual reproductive success; however, evolutionary theory does not imply genetic determinism.
Female and male mammals have different reproductive interests, and these
interests often conflict. Males sometimes employ coercion to resolve conflicts in their favor.
Female primates have several means of resisting and thwarting male coercion.
Thus, in many primate societies, male control over female sexuality is limited,
and in some primates, females seem to be entirely free of male sexual control.
Many human societies appear to involve greater male control over female sexuality than is typical of most nonhuman primates, and in contrast to males in most nonhuman primate societies, human males tend to control both resources and political power. Why?
Hypothesis 1. Among ancestral hominids, female ability to resist male aggression was compromised by reduced social support from kin and female allies.
Hypothesis 2. Over the course of human evolution, male-male alliances became increasingly well-developed. These alliances were often directed against females, and they increased male power over females.
Hypothesis 3. Over the course of human evolution, and particularly since the advent of agriculture and animal husbandry, males gained control over resources that females need to survive and reproduce. This increased male ability to control and coerce females.
Hypothesis 4. Over the course of evolution, male sociopolitical arrangements increased the variance in male wealth and power and perpetuated family differentials across generations. As a result of increasingly unequal relationships among men, women became increasingly vulnerable to the will and whims of the few most powerful men, and women’s control over their own sexuality was greatly reduced.
Hypothesis 5. In pursuing their material and reproductive interests, women often engage in behaviors that promote male resource control and male control over female sexuality. Thus, women as well as men contribute to the perpetuation of patriarchy.
Hypothesis 6. The evolution of the capacity for language allowed males to consolidate and increase their control over females because it enabled the creation and propagation of ideologies of male dominance/female subordinance and male supremacy/female inferiority.
This evolutionary analysis does not imply that patriarchy is inevitable, because humans have evolved the capacity to express a wide range of possible behaviors.
If de Beauvoir were writing today, what developments in women’s history between 1949 and now would she have included?
Ecofeminism is a discipline that links man’s domination of nature with that of women. Given the seemingly strong link between the advent of agriculture and patriarchy, should radical feminists incorporate ecofeminist ideals? If so, which ones?
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