Misogyny’s Roots Run Deep, Men; it’s Time to Dig — Pt.3
American History and the Intersection of Racial Subjugation and Sexual Suppression
[To myself and to men who look like me: much work lies ahead to help repair systemic damage to all those long-excluded from full equity in every area of public and private society, particularly women]
Every broad social change delivering real impact on individual lives comes as the result of innumerable steps away from some norm or another. As the saying goes, “Success has a million fathers; failure is an orphan.” American examples abound, for example:
- Representative Democracy wasn’t just the result of Thomas Jefferson penning few florid words and George Washington winning battles against the Redcoats. Men and women in the colonies spent decades staging insurrections and having debates — public and private — leading to farmers, pamphleteers, merchants, seamstresses, fathers, mothers, and idealistic students rallying around the historically-preposterous twin ideas that not only was living under a monarchy inherently wrong, but that these New World rubes could actually do something revolutionary about it.
- Emancipation wasn’t just the results of Frederick Douglass’s heroic activism and Abraham Lincoln’s success in war, any more than Civil Rights victories a century later were merely the byproduct of Rosa Parks’ brave demonstrations or Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s eloquent sermons and steadfast example. It was Sojourner Truth escaping bondage, becoming the first black woman to win a case against a white man, delivering exquisitely raw truth to the multitudes in her speeches decrying slavery. It was Harriet Tubman making almost two dozen trips back into the South that once enslaved her to bring over 300 slaves to freedom through the Underground Railroad, then serving as a scout and spy and the first female leader of an armed expedition when Union Soldiers raided Combahee Ferry in the Civil War to free another 700 indentured souls, only to struggle to receive her due pension in her near-destitute remaining decades. It was Anna J. Cooper, spanning the time between the Civil War and The Civil Rights Act of 1964 with speeches, books, and tours across the Jim Crow South promoting education and fiercely calling for both Civil Rights and Women’s Rights, as the above-mentioned ladies also did. (In her seminal book A Voice from the South: By A Woman from the South she explored how “the violent natures of men often run counter to the goals of higher education, so it is important to foster more female intellectuals because they will bring more elegance to education.”) These people were the tips of the spear, but with them, before them, behind them, beside them and succeeding them were millions of people questioning the status quo, bending without breaking under enormous unfair constraint, challenging white power brokers and persuading sympathetic ears in print, in court, at lunch counters, in schools, on streets, in churches, and in homes where their voices could be heard, no matter how odious the laws and norms of their country viewed them.
Women’s Rights, broadly, has had neither as celebrated nor culturally resonant a history. While a few of the above-mentioned women are known to today’s populace, mostly it is in the context of their obvious, necessary and irreplaceable work towards racial justice. The same holds true for Coretta Scott King and Rachel Robinson (both of whom are immensely underestimated and underappreciated, as their actions and impact are often viewed solely through the lenses of the lives of their more famous husbands) and the shockingly-unheralded Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman to serve in Congress (alllllllll the way back in 1968), as well as the first woman to run for a major party’s presidential ticket. As for white women who fought to change the discourse and realities around gender rights, Susan B. Anthony is known just as little for having a coin named after her as she is for her tireless work for suffrage. Fellow pioneer Elizabeth Cady Stanton is barely taught at all. Abigail Adams, Betty Ford and Eleanor Roosevelt are remembered in presidential circles, as they influenced their powerful husbands and made outspokenness their norm as first ladies. Let us not forget that Roosevelt also traveled and spoke on behalf of both her husband and herself throughout FDR’s historically long presidency, having her hands in more meaningful legislation and diplomatic success than those of many presidents before or since. As for the size of her megaphone, she spoke to the nation as a national columnist, and then spoke to the world as the first woman representing the U.S. at the United Nations. Dorothy Day, maybe my biggest hero, was only recently brought back to national attention when Pope Francis invoked her name and example during his speech to Congress in 2015. Among other things, she fought for Universal Suffrage, Civil Rights, the end of nuclear armament, the 40-hr work week, Child Labor Laws, and the rights and welfare of the homeless and indigent, to whom she humbly tended her entire adult life. (If you’re looking for a great book, you can’t go wrong with her autobiography, The Long Loneliness).
All of these women, and countless others (and not a few men, as well), were part of a long journey to change the minds of those in their statehouses, school houses and the most important houses of all: their homes. It is an odd thing that, throughout the world, women are authorities to be respected and revered as they teach, raise, and mold the youth in their homes and schools, yet they don’t stand upon equal footing when young boys become young men. There are clear and oft-referenced examples of this codified submission in the tenants of many religions, of course, but secular, family and legal norms can just as patriarchic, if sometimes a bit less obvious. To illustrate, I submit the following idea that may likely be clumsily executed, but please try to just follow the logic and not think that I am directly equating paternalism and sexism with slavery.
The intersection of sexism and slavery is curious, though, and speaks to the male mind and the minds of those who wield power over others. White men brought slaves from Africa to the colonies in 1619 (though it had already long been a horrific reality across the globe). These white slave merchants viewed these particular human beings as anything but what they actually were: their fellow human beings. This is beyond deplorable and to many — especially kids — unfathomable in its implication and logic. (I remember when we were started teaching our daughters about The Civil Rights Movement and the history of slavery…it made zero logical sense to them that people could do such things). I don’t understand how a man can view another person as less than human, as a thing to be bought and sold and tortured. I don’t understand it, but I know as a fact that many, many people and countries subscribed to this belief with apparently not much hesitation or guilt. Again, I don’t see how one could feel and act that way, but I know that it was a reality for a long, long time (as it still is today, in some forms) as people from one race or class viewed those from another as completely “other,” those with whom they had virtually no perceived common ground in culture, language, religion, or education. I hate that this is how it was, but I know that humans love to “otherize” strangers and those we perceive as threats — categorizing and separating them while stripping them of their innate dignity (sound familiar in the socio-political discourse of 2015–2016?).
Now let’s look at how these slave-owning men also treated with indignity the women with whom they shared their homes, their “polite society,” their beds? As a man — vis à-vis a woman — how do you woo her, be intimate and vulnerable with her, marry her, build your life around the creation of a family explicitly through your connection with her, sacrifice for her, and spend more time with her than anyone else, only to make sure she has no rights to her own money (and barely even to that which you share), no right to assembly, no right to represent or petition the government, no right to accuse a man of wrongdoing, no right to make decisions about her own body, no right to agency over reproduction, and no place in society to express opinion or question cultural norms without being shunned, jailed, assaulted or worse? Again, it is a despicable fact that we humans can readily dismiss, suppress, and even enslave those with whom we have no relationship or dependence. To those we are ambivalent to (let alone to those we despise), their personal affairs can mean shockingly little. But what is more personal than your relationship with the person you marry, leave behind your old family and life for, sleep with, spend the most of your days with, and entrust with your children (who were, especially in the times of American slavery, the very key to your future survival and legacy?) Yet suppressing, belittling, disenfranchising, infantilizing and subjugating women in various ways has been the cultural and legal norm in practically every society since the dawn of humanity. Today are we so arrogant and ignorant of history to think that the vestiges of such sexist attitudes and practices are gone, just because there are now some female CEO’s?A paltry percentage of female Senators (instead of none)? Because more women graduate college now than men (often with less institutional assistance)? Because one woman has come close to attaining the Presidency?
Up Next: Pt. 4 — The Power of Law and Turning an Idea on its Head