A History of Women — An Essay by Brenda Ueland from 1971
This essay is the most important thing I’ve read in 2015. It’s so important to me that I’ve scanned and OCR’d it because it doesn’t exist anywhere online and that upsets me very much.
It is part of a collection of essays Strength to Your Sword Arm by Brenda Ueland published by HOLY COW! PRESS in 1993.
Initially it was an address given at the First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis on March 7, 1971, and later at the University of Minnesota and the University of Wisconsin and Augsburg College of Minneapolis.
Robert Graves, the poet and historian, says, “The most important history of all for me is the changing relationship between men and women down the centuries.”
For thousands of years there has been a tragic situation — the domination of men and the degradation of women. We are so used to it we do not even notice it. The situation has begun to change very little, and going back, I will show you why in a minute.
This was not always so. Now there is an underlying feeling that true equality is impossible because men and women are so different. We can never be like each other. But I disagree. We once were and we must again become noble equals.
Two things stand in the way of this: the age-old egotism of men, their anxious jealousy of women as equals, their touching infantilism, their dire need — all interwoven in their amour-propre to dominate women. The other thing that holds back the equality of women is our acceptance of our own feebleness, our physical weakness, our work to make a kind of virtue of it as a self-sacrificing sweetness, gentleness and nobility. But this is wrong, too, as I will show.
Our weakness, smallness and athletic ineptitude has come about because for four thousand years we have degenerated. Due to what? Male domination.
Fortunately women inherit from their fathers as well as their mothers. If all women were weak, cowardly and flightily stupid it would not be so for more than one generation. But due to this imbalance, something regrettable has happened to us.
In fine wild animals — lions and lionesses, mares and stallions — there is no inequality. A mare can run as fast as a stallion. A lioness is about the same size as a lion and just as brave and capable.
Now go back three thousand years to Asia Minor, the first civilization that was somewhat stable. In those happy and far-off days women were deeply respected and loved by men and had a kind of wise command over things. This was evidenced by the greatest queen of all time perhaps, Semiramis of Assyria, a great wise and beneficent ruler. And she had another quality of women then — bravery, for she was also a great soldier. In fact that was what especially charmed her husband. She reigned 42 years. And she realized, with the modern Einstein, that the only way to have a better world was to have better people and the design of her religious system was to achieve this. We know this from the Mystery Religions of Egypt, Greece and Rome all of which varied only in superficialities. When Semiramis died, after insuring that Babylon was the most magnificent city in the world, she was deified.
Now the goddesses of the Mysteries were all believed to have been originally extremely wise human beings and owed their deification to this fact. Ceres was said to have brought agriculture to mankind — which was one of those talented inventions of women. Cybele the Phrygian was described by the enlightened Emperor Julianus as “the Intellectual Principle,” the very fount of wisdom. Her symbol was the Dove, later the symbol of the Holy Spirit.
This love and earnest respect for women was evidenced in the matriarchal Greeks. Remember their Goddesses — Pallas-Athene, the Goddess of Wisdom who sprang fully armed out of the forehead of love. That is to say, like all bright women with our sixth sense, intuition, which is the highest intelligence on earth, she did not need a lifetime of boring, ponderous academic analyses to know immediately what is the True, the Good and the Beautiful. The Goddess Diana the Huntress was adequately athletic. The Nine Muses were female. In other words the Greeks knew that great poetry, music, history, drama sprang from the wisdom and the golden imagination of women.
There were not startling physical differences between men and women then. The statue of the Winged Victory of Samothrace had not knock-knees, poor musculature nor enormously exaggerated breasts. There is a beautiful statue of Orestes and Electra who were brother and sister, their arms over each other’s shoulders. They are the same height, built identically alike with the same limber prowess and athletic beauty.
The same is true of Egyptian sculpture. The Pharaohs and their queens are almost exactly alike. Even their breasts are about the same. Secondary sex characteristics that we now consider masculine and feminine, came about through centuries of artificial selection due to masculine domination. This is wrong and very sad.
Many matriarchal societies have existed in which there was the opposite, female domination over men, though masculine historians have suppressed this and cannot bear to think it. Nevertheless, they existed and still do in some places. In Ancient Egypt, Diodorus Siculus tells us the women ruled their husbands. There is no ambiguity about it; the wives were absolutely supreme. Herodotus said: “With them the women go to market, the men stay home and weave. The women discharged all kinds of public affairs. The men dealt with domestic affairs. Men were not allowed to undertake war service or any of the functions of government. Nor were they allowed to fill any public office which might have given them more spirit to set themselves against women. The children were handed over immediately after birth to the men, who reared them on milk.” In Sparta women were the dominant sex. They alone could own property. This was the case among the Iroquois, the Kamchadales in Siberia and countless others. “When women ruled in Kamchatka, the men not only did the cooking but all the housework, docilely doing everything assigned to them.” According to the historian, C. Meiners, “Men are so domesticated that they greatly dislike being away from home for more than one day. Should a longer absence than this become necessary, they try to persuade their wives to accompany them, for they cannot get on without the women folk.
“There was only one way in which members of the exploring party in Kamchatka could bribe the Kamchatkan women to undertake tasks regarded by them with contempt (men’s work). This was by gratification of their sexual appetite. The point is worth noting because it is so characteristic of mono-sexual domination to find the dominating sex repaying the subordinate sex for sexual services. When men rule, it is the way of men to reward women for their caresses, and the practice, of course, tends to degenerate into prostitution. Where women rule we find the reverse of this tendency; women reward men for the gifts of love.”
This is why in a Men’s State like ours, men despise feminine tasks. Note that with us, women are proud when they can do men’s work. No woman would be offended to be a Justice of the Supreme Court, just as an Ancient Egyptian would be proud of himself if he — even little he — could do a woman’s work, that is, be a tall, swashbuckling soldier.
In Abyssinia, in Lapland, men did what seems to us women’s work. Tacitus, describing the early Teutons, tells how women did all the work, the hunting, tilling the soil, while men idled and looked after the house, equivalent now to playing bridge and taking naps. The heirlooms in the family, a harnessed horse, a strong spear, a sword and shield passed on to the women. They were the fighters.
And so they were in Libya, in the Congo. In India under the Queens of Nepal only women soldiers were known. In Dahomey, the king had a bodyguard of warrior women and these were braver than any of his men warriors and would reproach each other for cowardice or weakness with such phrases as, “You are a woman!” And physiologically, things were reversed: the women, more active and strenuous, became taller, stronger, tougher than the sedentary home-body men. Now I do not approve of this. I consider it as unhealthy, as disgusting as our own state of affairs, our exaggerated inequality.
Robert Graves says the greatest civilizations were matriarchal. But the ancient Hebrews were patriarchal, very anti-woman, with their stern tetchy male God, Jehovah. And so were the Romans for the most part, expressing their dominant masculinity in Law and War. But the Mycenean Greeks and Etruscans were matriarchal, far better civilizations, more graceful, gifted and kind.
The Semitic race, Hebrews, Islam, all degraded women. They were obsessed with the idea of an all-male God and the superiority of the male sex. Moses and Abraham — in fact there is a persistent ungentlemanliness, a lack of feeling of justice and kindliness toward women, in the Old Testament. They were so terribly concerned with breeding, concubines and herds. Instead of kind, mighty and beautiful Goddesses, they had one harsh, punishing He-man God. I have a friend who says: “if only the Lord’s Prayer had been, ‘Our Mother who are in Heaven . . .’ all would have been different.”
The obsession infiltrated into Christianity through Paul. And note how the three great monotheisms, Judaism, Mohammedanism and Christianity have produced power-loving, aggressive people, revering masculine qualities with their constant wars, the subjugation of women (women, remember, were handicapped unfairly in this contest by having a child a year). They have tragically lacked the moral attributes of the Wisdom Goddess, love, mercy, purity, wisdom and compassion. They have, in fact, been worshipping a semi-Deity, half a God. And so the world has arrived at its present state. We cannot deny that it is the worst half.
The divinely balanced nature, man and woman, together and equal, was manifested in Jesus. He was on our side. His power was restricted to ideas of compassion, healing and mercy and never applied to coercion and punishment.
Now women emerged somewhat in the Renaissance with the rediscovery of Greek culture. It flowered with excitement — a passion for learning and the nations of the great pagans. It became fashionable for kings and nobility to give their children, BOTH girls and boys, into the care of the greatest men of the day, like Erasmus. Vittorino da Feltre, teaching the children of the Dukes of Urbino, created three generations of wonderful men and women. You see the GIRLS were included. And great women began to appear, Vittoria da Colonna whom Michelangelo loved, Caterina Sforza the soldier, St. Catherine of Siena, the great teacher and stateswoman. I am sure that Joan of Arc was a Renaissance manifestation. Shakespeare’s women show this — wonderful women “learned, kind and fair” as he said of Sylvia. There was Portia, Beatrice, Cordelia, even Lady MacBeth had a little ability and courage — bright stars appearing suddenly out of fourteen dark centuries when women were sub-nobodies. Indeed, as they are now.
Now about our physical inferiority. We have seen how the dominating sex gets bigger and stronger, but this is very dysgenic, the opposite of eugenic, and very hard on us all, the whole race. To feel superior, men chose wives with low-grade physical prowess, unable to walk or run decently, with feeble feet, ruined knees and, as at present, enormously exaggerated breasts (a masculine predilection promoted now by that absurd monster, Hugh Hefner). Their offspring, of course, dwindle and become inferior. “A little woman as high as my heart,” was the tender phrase. And men chose such women, as Bertrand Russell said, “because it makes them feel so big and strong without incurring any real danger.”
Fear of bugs and thunder was adorable and it is still considered so, when it should arouse in men fierce scorn. Courage is the greatest virtue, because unless you have it, you cannot practice any of the other virtues. The fraidy-cat mother inflicts a terrible psychic handicap on her sons. Among wild animals the newly-born offspring has no fear at all until he sees it in his mother. Men with instinctive fears because of cowardly mothers have to hide it all their lives, a cause of terrible mental suffering and break-down. Now why do women not yet amount to much? Hardly a hundred years ago, what was our lot? A child a year. (Incidentally, not much time to write Shakespeare’s plays, to compose symphonies.) N0 education. (When the University of Wisconsin allowed girls to recite in class with boys, there was a terrible uproar.) Not allowed to vote. To own property. To own our own children. Why didn’t we keep away from marriage then? Because there was only one alternative — prostitution. In the Civil War they needed women as school teachers, so they gave the girls a little education. Fifty years later, they needed typists and girls who could work in offices.
We had very poor health. Heavily corseted. Skirts fourteen feet around the bottom and dragging in the mud. No exercise at all, not allowed to “romp,” as the saying was. This induced chronic ailing, headaches, the vapors, ten days a month of acute menstrual sickness. (This was one of the big arguments against woman suffrage.)
Sargent at Harvard wondered why girls were such poor stuff athletically. Girls and boys under 13 were structurally identical, agile and lively. But after that girls were clapped in iron corsets and lost three inches in the length of their thighs. No circulation. Thereafter they were weak and clumsy.
Considering these things we have not done so badly.
Now I come to a generalization. We, the women, do not have to worry about being kind. Our maternal physiology accounts for this. We are kind already and cannot help it. It is men who must worry about that. They must worry about their hardness, their dry know-it-allism, their destructiveness. (If any men in the audience have been lucky enough to inherit equally from their mothers, I do not mean you.) That is why I want an honorable equality.
For millenia, mothers have pampered their male children with the result that husbands are dreadfully aggrieved if they have not wives solely focused on their small achievements. Note that women admire men for their first-rate equalities. Men admire women not for their bravery, their intelligence, their contributions to society, but for their splendid courage in baking cookies for themselves.
Do not think that our liberation has arrived. Just consider our unimportance. Being women, we abhor war — babies of 18 and 19 killed by the tens of thousands, for no reason at all. And we abhor just as much the killing by hundreds of thousands of slim little Asian boy and girls, living on a little rice, who heroically hurl themselves into death because they want their
own country. (Note that, this aspect of the wars seems not to bother men too much.) Half of this country is women. The war goes right on. What women think is as powerless as a sigh, a breath, a vapor. Look at TV. Only men: soldiers, politicians, commentators, Meet The Press, football players, coaches. No women. Oh yes, now and then one of those singers moaning about love. Or some narcissistic idiot applying hair spray. If women were equal, half the postmen, policemen, truck drivers, welders, air pilots, doctors, lawyers would be women, half of Congress, the judges and so on. Why not? I think half the soldiers should be women. I don’t mean WACS. This will be good because women are less docile than men and will tear up their draft cards in a fury; and probably go to the front and beat the tar out of all the soldiers of both armies: “Get out of here! Quit it! Go home, where you belong!”
Smedley Butler, a fierce cussing major General of Marines in World War II was a Quaker and a pacifist. After the war he went all over making furious speeches. “What the hell is the matter with you, you blank-blank women, that you allow it?. . . letting these babies of 18 and 19 go to war!” I feel that way all the time. I wonder about it.
That is why we must have equal power in our society. We want to foster life, not coerce and destroy it. Every year twenty million American men go hunting, not from necessity, not for food, indeed at great expense, but for FUN. They kill more than a billion animals weaker than themselves, helpless. Women do not. And note that, what we despise most is the unchivalry of it. The hunters are so cozily safe themselves.
That is why George Bernard Shaw said that one half of every governing body in the world MUST be women. To assure this, it will be necessary at first that every man elected has a female counterpart who goes into office with him. If Humphrey goes to the Senate, a woman senator must go with him willy-nilly. Indeed we have not much time left to save this unhappy planet.
Men are now loosening the bonds of women a little bit but they are almost hysterical with fear less she exceed them in capacity and achievement. They must encourage her to work, but not to excel. They hold onto their superiority with all their might. They are afraid she might be portrayed as morally and spiritually superior for that might lead to the long-suppressed realization that she is really quite first rate, maybe even a higher creature. She must therefore be dragged down and exposed as a near-animal, her worth being assessed by “vital statistics,” her aim to titillate and degrade men.
Rev. W. Hayes, a Unitarian minister in England writes: “Biologists tell us that woman has been the pioneer of progress from the beginning. In the upward path from the lower species, she has led the way — in the decrease of hairiness, in the upright gait, in the shape of the head and face and jaw. Woman is the civilizer. It is through woman that a sense of human nobility and possible beauty and greatness is awakened in man.” And the Irish poet AE wrote: “Woman may again have her temples and mysteries and renew again her radiant life at its fountain. Who shall save us anew shall come divinely as a woman.” And our other good friend, Robert Graves says this, and it is so remarkable that he should be able to see it: “A real woman” he says — he points out that the word “real” is the same word as “royal“ — “A real woman neither despises nor worships men, but is proud not to have been born a man, knows the full extent of her powers and feels free to reject all arbitrary man-made obligations. She is her own oracle of right and wrong, firmly believing in her own five senses and the intuitive sixth.”
“Since she never settles for the second best in love, what troubles her is the rareness of real men. Real women are royal women; the word once had some meaning. Democracy has no welcome for queens. To reach some understanding of real women, one must think back to the primitive age when men invariably treated women as the holier sex because they perpetuated the race. Women were guardians of spring, fruit trees, and the sacred hearth fire. Tribal queens judged each case on merit, not by legal code, as real women do; and showed little regard for trade and mechanical invention.”
Men should be happy because women will rescue us from Science, that horrible idolatry, from dry, hard analyses, the gross literalists and computers of everything. From the dry horrors of technology, bombs, automobiles, mass production and from those silly literal-minded, unloving mechanical fellows, those boring engineering scientific fellows, and measurers collecting rocks on the moon.
Women have almost no friends among men — we are always loved for the wrong thing — only a few very great ones, Pythagoras, Plato, Sophocles, Shakespeare, John Stuart Mill, Ibsen, Bernard Shaw. It seems to me one of the best ways to be a great man would be to be a true friend of women. You would be in good company. How? Neither pamper nor exploit them. Love in women their greatness which is the same as it is in men. Insist on bravery, honor, grandeur, generosity in women.
And as for men, they should be kinder. Quit their silly mass-murdering, their conceit based on nothing, and their absolutely permeating, unstanchable infantilism, feeling wronged if all women’s force and strength is not devoted to themselves, usually their weaknesses, their babyism.
I say this because I think there is a state of great unhappiness between us. If we can be true equals, we will be better friends, better lovers, better wives and husbands.