The Wrongs of Women’s Rights
by Thomas Fleming
(More by this author, and along these lines, can be found here: http://www.chroniclesmagazine.org/category/thomas-fleming/ )
The recent decision to deploy women on submarines has been hailed as a victory in the continuing struggle to liberate women from the oppression of the domineering male sex. Conservatives have generally deplored the move, citing the inevitable sexual tensions and lowering of morale that will result from putting young males and females in such close quarters for long periods of time. (And, think of all those poor male homosexuals who find the submarine service so attractive because of the lack of female competition!). Some conservatives even go so far as to declare their opposition to women serving in any military capacity, but they are a species on the endangered list: Even the great nemesis of women in uniform, James Webb, has backed off, proving once again, that no honest man can be a US senator.
What almost no decent conservative is willing to revive is the old argument that differences between men and women should be reflected in legal, social, and economic structures that encourage women to pursue their traditional role as wives and mothers under the protection and authority of the senior men in their life: fathers, husbands, or guardians. There is, it is true, a “men’s movement,” consisting mostly of disgruntled peripheral males who are forever whining about their manhood. But if we set such marginalized creatures aside, we can safely conclude that there are few defenders of what feminists like to call “the patriarchy.” Even conservative Republicans have largely adopted the feminist myth that one of the triumphs of civilization has been the liberation of women that has taken place in the past, roughly 150 years.
The “patriarchalist” counter-argument, which I have been making for over 30 years, denies the so-called facts in the case. Traditional sex roles, they say, are a function of natural differences—physical, emotional, intellectual—between the sexes. The authority of senior males over a woman is, then, a natural means of protecting her in her role as wife and mother, a role essential for the bearing and rearing of the next generation, which is, after all, the primary duty of each generation. To speak of the oppression of women is like speaking of the oppression of men whom gravity prevents from flying.
When we say that an institution or custom is “natural” (as I have indicated earlier), we mean that it is a response—sometimes quite imperfect—to natural needs. To determine the naturalness of an institution, we look first for a biological basis and then try to establish a base line by making a broad cross-cultural examination. Finally, since there can be quite a wild variation in cultural forms, we should look most closely at the highest traditions to which we are heirs—Christian, Greek, Roman, Medieval. If we determined that the subordination of women was natural, it would not follow that we should approve of clitorectomies, foot-binding, or brutality.
Then, in talking about the “liberation” of women, we shall have to be very careful about what we mean. Many people speak of women’s suffrage as a large part of the liberation movement, but the right to vote is clearly irrelevant. A French resident-alien female here in the United States cannot legally vote, but she is possessed of nearly every other civil and social right the feminist revolution has dreamed up. To make the discussion very precise, let us speak only of the liberation of married women from their husbands and look most carefully at the Anglo-American tradition.
But before beginning such an inquiry, we should also make up our minds about corporal punishment within the home. Do we think it is never to be permitted? (If so, on what grounds.) Is it permitted against children but not women? Are there limits that have been observed among civilized peoples? The most extreme case is killing an adulterous wife and/or her lover for honor. This was permitted in Italy and in several American states down into the second half of the 20th century. Are Italians and Texans simply brutes or are such customs—extremely common both in our own and in other traditions—a reasonable response under certain circumstances.
In any such discussion, we must set aside irrational convictions and all the misinformation we may have picked up in school or in popular books on either side, whether the pro-feminist inventions of modern social historians like Lawrence Stone or the simian fantasies of Lionel Tiger, followed by George Gilder.
Then let us start with some very simple propositions. To make the task easier I am going to insert a brief overview that summarizes my earlier work as a preparation for a discussion of the revolutions in English and American law that took place in the past 150 years:
“Feminists, looking back at the traditional sex roles of 19th and 20th century Europe and the Americas, have often written sneeringly of “the patriarchy,” as if the insertion of the definite article confers an academic anathema upon the word. Anti-feminists have responded by explicitly defending patriarchy or by discussing male dominance in terms of the rigid hierarchy of baboons. But human social life has little in common with that of the boorish baboon, and “patriarchy,” as the word suggests,[ refers properly not to the virtually universal human tendency toward male dominance but to societies in which the fathers and senior males rule over the family and tribal structure with sovereign authority.
Our image of patriarchy inevitably comes from Old Testament patriarchs like Abraham and Jacob, who exercised a regal authority over their wives, children, and extended kinfolk. This pattern of authority is not uncommon among other pastoral peoples, but, as societies grow and develop greater complexity, much of this authority is transferred to chieftains, kings, and representative bodies. Nonetheless, in every known society, men have occupied and continue to occupy most of the highest niches of power and prestige.
Why is this so? Anyone who has taken a look, however brief, at his fellow human beings, will have noticed that members of the male sex tend to be bigger and stronger than their nearest female relatives. The difference–on an order of roughly 10%–is not so great as in some species, but it is enough to ensure that most men can physically dominate most women. This disparity is partly a function of inherent physical differences but even more of the different roles played by men and women in society. Most women in history have had to spend a good deal of their time and energy on bearing and rearing children. In primitive societies, this burden, though it might be shared with female relatives, was a good deal heavier than it is in an era of daycare and electrical appliances.
Social roles are not, however, the whole story. Organized women’s athletics are, for the most part, a recent development, but they have existed long enough and, in recent decades, with a good deal of government encouragement without really eliminating the gap between the sexes. Even today women do not often compete with men in aggressive male sports such as boxing and football, and even in sprinting men maintain a significant advantage. The fastest official score for a man running 100 meters is Usain Bolt’s 9.58 seconds, about 9% faster than Florence Joyner’s record 10.48, about which questions have been raised. At the 2008 Olympics, gold medal winner Shelly-Ann Frazier’s 10.78 seconds was beaten by the number 8 male runner’s 10.00. We can begin to believe in sexual equality in the physical sense when there is no sexual distinction in sports, that is, when men and women compete in the same leagues.
It is only natural to assume—and scientific research has gone a long way to verify this assumption—that in the evolution of mammalian, specifically primate species, males and females developed specialized roles: Men became the experts in hunting large game and fighting the enemies of family and clan. Because these specialties are associated with certain attributes of mind and spirit as well as with bodily functions, the nervous and hormonal systems of males and females develop somewhat differently. The differences, in any individual cases, may be quite slight, but overall women are more verbal, men more analytical, women more inclined to what is now called “multi-tasking,” men more prone to concentrating on problems one at a time. For a detailed survey of evidence down to the early 1980’s, see my book, The Politics of Human Nature. As human societies have grown and developed—often in strange and wonderful ways–they have always been shaped by these fundamental facts of sexual dimorphism. In a near-universal pattern of dominance, younger humans defer to their elders and females to males.
But, given the creativity of the human race, the type and extent of that power varies greatly, from the easily familiarity of pygmy husbands and wives to the rigidity of Chinese men who (down into the early 20th century) bound women’s feet to make them more dependent. Then we have to distinguish between the basic principle, the sexual differentiation of political power, and, for example, the family practices of nomadic shepherds. Wherever our search may lead us, it will not be toward the reestablishment of a patriarchal theonomy based on Old Testament law.
It is dangerous to speak too broadly, but, in general, sexual distinctions have been more marked in developed civilizations than in primitive societies. At the same time, the civilizations of ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome–and of Medieval Europe—developed traditions and rules that required respect for mothers and wives, sisters and daughters. Men controlled the government and the army, dominated the economy, and occupied most of the high status positions. Women who inherited power were often regarded, fairly or not, as weak rulers, and both the woman pharaoh Hatshepsut and Queen Elizabeth I were sometimes portrayed or described in terms that hinted at masculinity. Nonetheless, while men may have ruled (theoretically) their children as absolute monarchs, their authority over wives was, as Aristotle says, political rather than monarchical in the sense that it was limited by law, custom, and respect.
Ancient civilizations, as they developed more complex social, political, and liberal systems, increasingly took steps to protect wives from abusive husbands. The institutions of power were, nonetheless, dominated by men. This domination did not reduce women to slaves or chattel or even to the level of dependent children. While Athenian women were generally subject to the authority of a father, husband, or guardian, some of them were involved in commerce. Roman women were much freer to engage in business and to evade the control of a guardian. They could not, however, engage in public (that is, most legal and political) business, which must have restricted their sphere of operations. Nonetheless, Roman women had greater economic opportunities and a wider sphere of liberty than most European and American women had down to the late 19th century.”
So, to conclude this introductory argument, distinct sex roles are more or less universal in human societies and a natural adaptation of the human species to the needs of propagation and social order. Natural tendencies, however, can find almost infinite types of expression. Higher civilizations, while continuing to protect women, have also found ways of accommodating the needs of complex societies, for example by finding the ways of establishing contract rights for married women engaged in business. What the feminist movement has done is to destroy the institutional framework of marriage and society and reduced many men and women to a form of social organization more typical of non-human primates than of even the most primitive human societies.
More to come…