March 08, 2006

Women's history

Whenever we talk about sexism, my students want to leap quickly to the feel-good stories about how far we've come. That is the kind of stuff you hear so often during March, women's history month. We've come a long way, baby. I suppose if you are thinking back just a few generations, the narrative about how much better things are for women is perfectly true.

The white women who lived in this area about 150 years ago, women who were descendents of European immigrants, had virtually no political power: they could not vote, they could not sue anyone, they could not testify in court. A married woman could not own property. The church, the state, and the social order dictated that a married woman be submissive to her husband, who was within his rights to beat her if she disobeyed him. And as much as I complain now about the ways that high heels cause women today permanent damage to their feet, legs, and lower backs, the socially mandated corset was far worse, a garment that meant that women could not even take a deep breath, a garment that contributed to a woman's chances of dying in childbirth. A man had all rights to his children: a dying man could choose that his children be taken from their mother upon his death and given to another woman to raise.

Of course, these white women were not the only women who lived in this area. Native women lived here too at that time. And when those white women looked at the lives of the native women who lived here, they were no doubt surprised at what they saw.

The native women participated fully in the decision-making in their community. They spoke up at meetings, they took full part in the spiritual ceremonies of the clan, and they had leadership roles. Property was held in common by all, women and men alike. Clan mothers and chiefs worked together to share the responsibility of keeping the community in balance, in harmony. Power was shared: the concept of power-over was not part of the social structure. Women could be healers, using the traditional ecological knowledge passed down over generations. Midwives attended births, used herbs for abortions, taught women to know and care for their bodies. Even the clothing the women wore – comfortable leggings that enabled them to run, to garden, or to do all kinds of physical tasks – was enviable.

Many male missionaries were horrified at the autonomy of native women. Certainly, their freedom and independence indicated that the native community was unnatural, heretical, blasphemous. Just plain wrong.

Some of the missionary’s wives, no doubt, looked at the way the native women lived – and were envious.

Some historians have said that for some of these white women, contact with native women helped spark that realization, that vision, that women did not have to live beneath men. And these white women did begin to organize, to assert themselves, to change the political and social structures that kept them in subordination to men.

So yeah, if I look back at the white women who lived here 150 years ago, I can feel good about how far we've come, how much more freedom and independence my daughter will have compared to them. But if I look at the lives of native women in this area, how they lived hundreds of years ago, a way of living that of course was attacked fiercely by the powers of patriarchy, I can see that we are still just playing catch up, still trying to throw off the legacy and the myth of white male supremacy.

Our daughters are taught this myth repeatedly: we’ve come a long way, baby. But I think we need to be suspicious of a slogan used successfully to convince women that they, too, could ruin their lungs with cigarettes. The view of history as a linear progression in which things are always getting better for women is a dangerous one.

The longer view shows a different story. We still have a long ways to go just to gain back what we've lost. There is nothing here to feel good about.

This will sort of give away my geographic location, but I am too much of an academic not to cite at least one of my sources for the facts I've include in this blog post: a book called Sisters in Spirit: Haudenosaunee Influence on Early American Feminists by Sally Roesch Wagner.

13 comments:

Dr.K said...

Yes, and ecologically, the native people were way, way ahead of the European arrivals, who still haven't learned how to live in this place. White women in this society may have begun regaining lost political ground, but ecologically most of us have gone backwards. We have to keep up the fight on all fronts.

Mona Buonanotte said...

Bravo, jo(e), this is an excellent point. I still don't feel that we women have 'progressed', what with the Supreme Court poised, and various states approving legislation to tell us what we can and cannot do with our bodies and our families. I fear for my daughter and her friends. Perhaps it's time we 'rise up' again and fight. I'm ready.

Rob Helpy-Chalk said...

An honest look at a good section of history will undermine almost any master narrative. The story of the Ecofeminist Native American suffers similarly from a broadening of perspective. While the nations in these parts were quite civilized, folks farther west treated women as chattel slaves. Good woodland management in these parts has to be balanced against the Anasizi, who deforested their territory and exhausted the soil, bringing the downfall of their own civilization.

jo(e) said...

Rob: Oh, absolutely. There were more than 200 peoples on this continent pre-contact -- or something like that anyhow -- and it would be a mistake to lump them all together. I am writing about the Haudenosaunee, who live in my region.

Yankee T said...

Great post, jo(e). Our daughters only stand a chance if we never forget and never give up.

negativecapability said...

I was going to ask for a source...then I came to the end of the post :).

KathyR said...

But isn't it just like us girls to smooth it over and make nice and all...


-sigh-

Seeking Solace said...

I loved you post! But then I read an article that made me very sad. I have the link posted on my blog. It seems that there are some who still don't get it.

littleandy said...

A really nice article. It's really a pity that so many people still don't get it, that men and women should have equal rights.
Just for the interest: What do you think about the Norwegian law, that 40% of the executive boards of (stock) corporations have to be female, considering that there is no equal quotation for males? Is that OK for feminists or isn't it some kind of sexism, too?

jo(e) said...

Littleandy: Well, I can't speak for all feminists -- I am sure there are many different opinions on the Norwegian law, which is one that I am not familiar with. It sounds to be like they are trying to effect change by through legislation. Sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn't. Right now, men currently hold the political and economic power, and forcing some of those positions to be given to women will certainly do something to change the power base. I imagine the move has created all kinds of backlash from those who in power. I think the myth of meritocracy, that people in power have somehow earned it or deserved it, is still pretty strong for most people in positions of power. I think when we have a patriarchy, people cling to the idea that somehow it is not male privilege that put men in positions of power, those men just happen to be most fit as leaders. So of course taking power away from men and giving some of it to women will be seen as unfair.

My own thinking for this country is that leaving the system intact, and merely inserting women into positions of power, will not bring about the kind of change we need. I think the kind of changes we need are far more sweeping than that.

littleandy said...

Well, I actually don't like the law, too, although I would like to see like 40% or the half of all positions in the boards given to women. I just imagine, if I was a woman, I wouldn't like the fact, that I got the position only because of a quota, that is, not because of my qualities (and, yeah, I do know that many women can't get into a certain position not because of their qualification but because they are women).

An english article about that law is here.

hypatia cade said...

I watched the North Country recently and I was struck by two things... 1) the first class action sexual harrassment suit wasn't brought until the mid-80's 2) it wasn't resolved until the mid-90s. However far we think we've come, certain "milestones" that I thought happened in my mother's generation are still happening in my lifetime. We've got a ways to go yet I think.

Rob Helpy-Chalk said...

KathyR

I'm suddenly envisioning a book called "Women's History with Pink Hearts and Purple Flowers." Actually, it wouldn't suprise me if my young daughter didn't wind up with such a book. American Girl meets Elizabeth Cady Stanton.