New under the Sun
A Long View of Women
May 26, 2013
With embarrassment I note that in my last column, due to confusion with an assistant, a photo of a bridge in France was labeled as being in Mexico. I request clemency on grounds that I have never before stolen a bridge, much less transported it to another continent. I have since returned the bridge.
Oh, sigh. One grows weary, or at least I do, of feminists who complain constantly of imaginary discrimination. It makes no sense. They are in almost the only place and time in which women are not mistreated. Those who do not read history may not know the extent to which woman really have been—tired word, but accurate—oppressed.
For the hell of it I made a list of all the men of classical Greece I could name in five minutes, thanks to courses in philosophy and to general reading. Of men, 25 and counting, of women, two: Sapho, notorious for being a lesbian, and Xantippe, Socrates’ wife, for being a shrew. (I didn’t count mythical women like Cassandra and Clytemnestra.) The absence verges on total erasure.
More women are known from Roman times, most conspicuously Livia and Messalina I suppose, but mostly as poisoners and villainesses. In general women were nonentities. Men had life-and-death power over their wives and daughters, meaning exactly that: they could kill them if they so chose. It was not a theoretical power, but one at least occasionally exercised. To an American man in 2013 this seems insane, even if he has had adolescent daughters.
The pattern holds with variation in details almost everywhere. American Indians, savages but hardly noble, subjugated women utterly. Foot-binding, as lunatic a practice as the mind of man has conceived, was common among China’s upper classes. In India women were kept in strict isolation in purdah and, should their husbands die, expected to immolate themselves on the funeral pyres. What all of this was supposed to accomplish, I cannot imagine.
So much for the idea cherished in semi-literate courses in Women’s Studies that non-Western cultures have been female-friendly. They have not.
But in this feminists are right: The three mid-Eastern religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, do indeed have a ghastly record. The Jews I think were least bad, subjugating their women but not waging actual war against them. Christianity was hideous. The Catholic Church for three centuries practiced systematic sadism against witches, torturing and burning alive uncounted thousands of women. Torture meant crushed bones, dislocated joints, molten lead, and other pleasantries ordained by the Vicar of Christ.
Today the church has softened. It has given itself to the minor consolations of pederasty and to urging women who can’t afford them to have large families. This is an improvement.
Islam, intractably primitive, follows still the old ways. Girls in many places are not allowed to learn to read. Horrendous genital mutilation is horrendously common. Why the world puts up with this is a mystery. If I had been the British administrator of colonies practicing such mutilation, I would have had the fathers strung up naked on the town square and castrated with a blowtorch. Barbarous? Yes. But the cutting would have stopped in about ten minutes.
Curiously, in America more fury arises from the suggestion that men may be better than women at mathematics than from tens of millions of bloody clitoridectomies practiced on screaming young girls. Nobody, not the UN, not feminists, makes an issue of it. This too is beyond my comprehension, but maybe I just don’t comprehend well.
So why have misogyny and subjugation of women—these are not quite the same thing—ceased in much of the world, and very much so in America? Said subjugation has been so widespread through all time that one might suspect it to be a trait genetically determined. But it isn’t. In Europe, North America above the Rio Bravo, Australia, and New Zealand among others, women are fully integrated into society.
Many places thought to be bastions of repressive masculinity no longer are. For example, Mexico crawls with female doctors, dentists, lawyers and such. About half of the students in my stepdaughter’s university (La Universidad Marista de Guadalajara) by impressionistic eyeball snapshot seem to be girls. Don’t buy stock in machismo. Slide rules have a brighter future.
Feminists believe that they brought about the change by a valiant struggle against long odds and awful men. (By which they seem to mean all men.) Not so, quite. Powerless groups seldom rise unless those in power decide to permit it. For example, Brown versus the School Board was passed by nine white men. Whatever one thinks of Roe versus Wade, the court was male.
It is odd that in America, where women enjoy historically unprecedented rights and opportunities, often greater than those of men—who don’t have affirmative action—feminists complain of oppression. It is fantasy. Consider the undying assertion that women are paid less than men for the same work. It was once true. Today there are fifty thousand slavering lawyers who would love to launch class-action suits, which they would be sure to win.
The trouble with basing your identity on fighting discrimination is that if you run out of discrimination, you don’t know who you are.
The attitude of European men to the change, to include most white American men, is interesting. Men I know are for it, though they may not think they are. Irritation with the unending bitching of the professionals of bitching, the compelled political correctness, the demands for special privilege, the noisy hostility of too many women—weariness with all of these can obscure a few truths:
American men do not want to oppress women. All the men I know very much like intelligent, educated women who do not wear chadors or burkas. They like athletic, adventurous women with whom they can scuba dive and camp. (My younger daughter got her scuba ticket at age twelve, muchly with her dad’s support.) Many of my male friends have daughters. If any university tried to exclude them because they were girls, a law suit would instantly ensue.
But one mustn´t speak of this. If you speak unfavorably of the ill-breeding and obnoxiousness of professional feminists, they say that you hate women. The tactic is common. Criticize the treatment of Palestinians by Israelis, and you hate Jews. Object to the beating to brain damage of whites by urban black mobs, and you hate blacks. Yet it is not the race, sex, or faith that one objects to, but specific behavior of specific members of these groups. A very different thing.
We live in the middle of a social order that is, so far as I know, entirely new. To those who have grown up in it, it seems normal and, now, is. Seen against the backdrop of three thousand years, the merging of women into the polity is astonishing. How it will shake out in the long run is uncertain. Spare me the nineteen-year-old bimbos in Women’s Studies at Dartmouth telling me how oppressed they are, on daddy’s dime.