WOMEN AND HISTORY Part I: THE CREATION OF PATRIARCHY with GERDA LERNER, Ph.D.

JEFFREY MISHLOVE, Ph.D.: Hello and welcome. I'm Jeffrey Mishlove. Our topic today is "Women and History," and we are privileged to have with us Dr. Gerda Lerner, one of the foremost historians of women's history. Dr. Lerner is a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin, and the author of The Creation of Patriarchy and The Creation of Feminist Consciousness. Welcome, Dr. Lerner.

GERDA LERNER, Ph.D.: It's very nice to be here.

MISHLOVE: It's a pleasure to be with you. This is the first of a two-part program on women and history; we'll be focusing on your book, The Creation of Patriarchy. But I think it would be important to set the stage by talking about the subject of history first, and the role of women, both as figures in history and as students of history.

LERNER: Well, I undertook this work, which in fact took me eighteen years of scholarly work to do these two volumes -- I undertook it because the question of women and history is a very problematic question. When I started working on women's history about thirty years ago, the field did not exist. It was not recognized; people didn't think that women had a history worth knowing. The professors that taught me thought that it was an exotic specialty and I was wasting my talents pursuing it. And for women, looking back to the past has usually been painful, because what we would learn would be an absence. We would learn that women had not done this, and they had not done that, and that essentially, according to the traditional view, women had contributed very little to the making of human society, and even less to the making of the intellectual product of Western civilization. Now, I knew that not to be the case; I knew that that was false. I've been working for thirty years in the field of women's history, and the fact is that women do have a history, that they have participated in making history, but that we have not until very recently recognized that. And that has created enormous problems for society as a whole, for both men and women. I think the problems are that it has given women a totally wrong impression of their connection to the work of the world.

MISHLOVE: You know, as I was preparing for this interview, I was reading your book with my wife today, and she asked me, she said, "Imagine what it would be like for you as a male if all the history you read was about the great achievements of women -- that you never read about any great male achievements." And I have to say I was floored. I had never considered it in that light.

LERNER: And that is one of the worst effects of this omission -- that women have no heroines. I always cite as an example that the only heroine that women of my generation, and up to my generation, grew up with was Joan of Arc, and we all knew what end she came to. That's not a very desirable model. And there was always Molly Pitcher, who in fact is a mythical figure, who hands the water to the men -- so the handmaiden, that's all. Now, all of this is false. The record is wrong that we have handed down; and let me just say a word to the comment that you just made about your wife. The effect on men has been very bad too, of the omission of women's history, because men have been given the impression that they're much more important in the world than they actually are, and that's not a good way to become a human being. It has fostered illusions of grandeur in every man that are unwarranted. If you can think, as a man, that everything great in the world and in civilization was created by men, then naturally you have to look down on women, and naturally you have to have different aspirations for your sons than for your daughters, and I don't think that's good for men either. So it was that problem that concerned me when I undertook the research for these two books.

MISHLOVE: And certainly there are many groups of people who have been oppressed throughout human history, but the fundamental division of the human race between men and women, and the oppression, the neglect of women that occurs across all cultures and all levels of society, is very, very deep, and in your work you point out that it goes to the very earliest beginnings of history itself.

LERNER: Well, you see, I asked myself the question, which I think most women ask themselves sometimes in their lives, "How come that we did not even know that we were subordinated for such a long time?" Other groups that were subordinated in history -- peasants, slaves, colonials, any kind of group, ethnic minorities -- all of those groups knew very quickly that they were subordinated, and they developed theories about their liberation, about their rights as human beings, about what kind of struggle to conduct in order to emancipate themselves. But women did not, and so that was the question that I really wanted to explore. And in order to understand it I had to understand really whether patriarchy was, as most of us have been taught, a natural, almost God-given condition, or whether it was a human invention coming out of a specific historic period. Well, in Creation of Patriarchy I think I show that it was indeed a human invention; it was created by human beings, it was created by men and women, at a certain given point in the historical development of the human race. It was probably appropriate as a solution for the problems of that time, which was the Bronze Age, but it's no longer appropriate, all right? And the reason we find it so hard, and we have found it so hard, to understand it and to combat it, is that it was institutionalized before Western civilization really, as we know it, was, so to speak, invented, and the process of creating patriarchy was really well completed by the time that the idea systems of Western civilization were formed.

MISHLOVE: Long before the Bible was written.

LERNER: Exactly.

MISHLOVE: Long before Greek philosophy.

LERNER: Greek philosophy, Greek science, and the Bible are the mainstays of the idea systems on which Western civilization is founded, and which pretend, or assert, that they explain the world to us, right? These systems all took the subordination of women for granted, because at the time they were created that subordination had already been completed. And that is the subject of my book, The Creation of Patriarchy -- to show the historic origins and the steps that were taken in order to create patriarchy as a system.

MISHLOVE: I might mention, for the benefit of our viewers and listeners, that one of the reasons that I have for pursuing this subject with you in depth in a two-part program is because it's my belief that if we can get underneath these ancient values that have conditioned our culture so much, we will find the potential for new realms of our own consciousness -- that we're very constrained because of these ancient systems.

LERNER: I completely agree with you, and I think that we will find a new potential for both men and women to truly become human beings, which at the moment I think we're not, because a humanness which allows us to accommodate to the subordination of half the human race leads inevitably, and has led, to other forms of subordination such as racial or religious or any other kind, the many kinds of subordinations that we know. And that makes for unjust thinking and faulty thinking.

MISHLOVE: You're very explicit about this in your analysis of the ancient cultures that grew up in the Middle East, in ancient Mesopotamia. You point out that the subordination of women's sexual rights preceded even the creation of private property.

LERNER: That's right, and it in fact in my opinion led to what I call the invention of slavery, because it is a fact that has been acknowledged by every historian of slavery that the first slaves in every civilization that we know were women and children. But other historians have stated that fact, but they have never asked the simple question, well, why was that so? What does it signify? And I have occupied myself with that question very thoroughly and studied it. The reason that women were first enslaved, and children, was that men in the Bronze Age, when they were fighting with bronze weapons --

MISHLOVE: What are the dates, approximately?

LERNER: Well, the beginnings of the process of the creation of patriarchy lie in the second millennium B.C., and the process of institutionalizing it in the ancient Near East, in every society of the ancient Near East, was completed by about 500-600 B.C. So 1500 years of a process of making changes in the society so that we end up with a society where men have rights in women which women do not have in men, all right? Now, the enslavement of men and women was made possible as a result of the agricultural revolution. You can't keep slaves as long as you don't have enough foodstuffs to support an added population. But with the Bronze Age and plow agriculture, there was an increase in agricultural production that made it possible to amass enough surpluses so you could keep prisoners of war alive. But for a long time the warriors, who had just fought hand to hand with enemies from maybe the next village or the next mountain range --

MISHLOVE: Using simple bronze weapons.

LERNER: -- using a cudgel, a bronze cudgel -- they could conceive of how they could bring that man home in chains and hand him a bronze hoe and say to him, "You're now my slave. Work in the ground," and not take the risk that that man at night would brain them all, the master and the mistress and the children. But they did know, through previous marriage arrangements, through exogamy -- the habit of marrying women from outside of one's tribe -- that you could bring women into your family and marry them, make them pregnant, and they would become part of your group. And so they tried it on the conquered women, and only after decades, and in some cases maybe a hundred years, of doing that with the women, did they learn how to enslave the men. Now, this is a very important fact, because it shows the close connection between the suppression of women, the subordination of women, and hierarchy, and the subordination of people of other tribes and other races. So racism and sexism are very closely connected. And if you remember that the first class distinctions were the distinctions between those who owned slaves and those who did not, then you see that class and race and sex, from the inception, were very closely linked.

MISHLOVE: Now, I know your particular historical analysis is pretty much limited to the cultures of the ancient Middle East. But of course we know that this form of patriarchy and sexual suppression is more universal than that. Do you think it began this way in other parts of the world?

LERNER: Well, I would think that it began in a similar way, but I cannot possibly know enough about other places to say with the same certainty that I say it about the ancient Near East. However, a colleague of mine in India has undertaken the study of the origin of slavery in India independently, and she came to the same results. So in India it certainly was the same way. There are certainly variations in history in every phenomenon, as to time and place. In every society eventually you learn how to build an arch, for example; but what the arch looks like, and how you arrive at it, and when you arrive at it, varies historically. And of course no one rule holds for the whole world.

MISHLOVE: I suppose the deeper issue here is, was the suppression of women and the development of patriarchy, like the arch, a human-created phenomenon, or is it somehow biologically based and natural and inevitable?

LERNER: Well, I think the former. I think there's nothing natural about it. It was a historic creation. It solved certain problems at the time, because the Bronze Age had the effect on the one hand of creating agricultural surpluses, and on the other hand of intensifying warfare enormously. It was a tremendous technological advance in terms of the ease with which you could conquer other people. And so the people of those regions lived at that time, lived then, in a very unstable situation, and it was advantageous for women, if they wished to have protection for themselves and their children, to ally themselves to a man who promised to give them that protection. And that in effect was the initial underpinning of patriarchy. Women gave up their sexual freedom, in the sense of sexual promiscuity and the opportunity to select partners, and all that, in exchange for security in a war-torn world. So it's quite conceivable that at the time patriarchy was quite a good solution to the problems of the people who instituted it.

MISHLOVE: Are you therefore suggesting that prior to the Bronze Age it wasn't this way?

LERNER: That's right, that's right. Now, of course the problem with that is that we don't have hard evidence for anything prior to the third millennium B.C. We only have artifacts and bones and diggings and things like that. And what has happened, of course, is that people tend to interpret findings of that sort always in line with their existing philosophy. So for example Friedrich Engels, who described the family in the archaic states, described a family that looked suspiciously like the Victorian bourgeoisie of his day. So did everybody else. And so the explanations that we have had up to now have all been from a framework of patriarchy looking back and explaining patriarchy as being natural. But I do the opposite. I step outside of it, look at it from the point of view that it is not yet invented, and what do we need to do? What happens in order to institute it?

MISHLOVE: I think that phrase that you used is crucial to your work -- you stepped outside of it. Because my sense is that the very notion of creating this as part of history, rather than as part of some unquestioned, inevitable way of things, gives people that ability to transcend the local belief.

LERNER: Well, it's unfortunately not just the local belief, and of course my work has been always under great attack from many sides by people who think it's outrageous for me to even make that assumption. But I think that more and more now, more people are doing it, and have come to the conclusion that that's the way to go.

MISHLOVE: I used the phrase local belief, I suppose, in the sense that maybe ten thousand years from now we'll look at patriarchy as being an unusual blip in human history.

LERNER: I hope so. I hope so, because I think it has outlived its usefulness by quite a few centuries already, and you want to remember about that that it came out of a warfare society, OK? It was a system adapted to a society torn by constant war and destruction, in which stability was the most desired goal.

MISHLOVE: And this is at the very time when we are creating cities and states and nations.

LERNER: Exactly. And the very formation of the state was done in such a way as to strengthen patriarchy, because the kings that created these states were to begin with usurpers. They had no right. And to strengthen themselves, they used their war buddies, the lieutenants and the others that they had fought with, the men that had fought with them, and they now became the king's men. And the way that the king held them to him was by giving them land and wealth, and the wealth was in the form of slave women, so that this is the time when the harem becomes a sign of power. The richer the king, the more wives he has, the stronger he is. Only the wealthy can afford large groups of women in their household, and so forth. So there's an interaction between that state formation and the strengthening of patriarchal relations.

MISHLOVE: Now, you mentioned something earlier about women being married to other tribes as being a custom that existed prior to the enslavement of women.

LERNER: Right.

MISHLOVE: And it seems that even then, was it the case that this was part of a political arrangement going on?

LERNER: Well, there again you have different theories. Anthropologists like Levi-Strauss explain it one way; other people have guessed that it was a form of actually peacekeeping between tribes. The women were, so to speak, mediators between. Rather than go to war, you married into the other tribe, and therefore pacified them. Probably both of those things were true.

MISHLOVE: But at some point women were used by the rulers for this purpose.

LERNER: Well, in this early period of the archaic states, the rulers did not yet have a group or a class of people that they could trust, so they delegated a lot of power to their wives and daughters, and we have then the phenomenon of something that's still with us -- the stand-in wife. She's a stand-in for a missing man. So if the husband is away on warfare, his wife becomes his regent, so to speak, and she has all the powers that he has, except sexually. And I have some wonderful examples in my book of a city-state of Mari where a king Simrilim has a very heated correspondence with his wife and his daughters, and he tells his wife -- his wife collects taxes; she helps to find soldiers for his service; she runs his estate. And then he sends her home prisoners of war, and tells her to select the most beautiful for his harem, and she does that. So there you have the perfect example of patriarchal power for women. She has all the powers in the world, but her husband has a harem of women, where any one of those women could supplant her at any time.

MISHLOVE: But I suppose the first detailed records that we have of powerful women in history go back to this period.

LERNER: That's true, that's true.

MISHLOVE: The ancient Sumerians and Akkadians left very, very detailed records.

LERNER: Well, it's not quite true, because even before patriarchy was established in those societies, there were very powerful women. In fact Sumerian women had more rights than British women and United States women in the nineteenth century. They had property rights that British wives did not have. They could go to court. They could testify in court, which American women could not do without the permission of their husbands, and so on. So it's quite interesting to see the change from that to the first millennium when gradually these rights become eroded.

MISHLOVE: You have traced over fifteen hundred years how the patriarchy grew stronger and stronger and more oppressive of women.

LERNER: That's right -- also in more aspects of women's lives. So for example, at first it was only women's sexual conduct that was regulated, and then more and more other aspects of women's lives are being regulated. And then, what was perhaps the most decisive last step was the relationship to the gods and goddesses changed, and that transition was very, very significant for establishing patriarchy as the only ruling system.

MISHLOVE: The mythological system as a whole changed. Dr. Lerner, we only have about two minutes left, and it's such a rich and deep topic. But I suppose it's useful, as we begin to wind up Part 1 of this program, to look at how many of us who are of the Judaeo-Christian tradition feel that it's that tradition that supports the patriarchy, and what you're saying is that the Judaeo-Christian tradition inherited it from the earlier cultures.

LERNER: Well, in all the cultures -- you see, it so happens that Western civilization bases itself on the Judaeo-Christian tradition -- but in all the cultures that I studied in the ancient Near East, a single male god supplanted the pantheon of gods and goddesses at the same time. So it's a simplification to say it was the fault of the Judaeo-Christian religion only.

MISHLOVE: It happened in Islam as well.

LERNER: It happened in Islam; it happened everywhere. It happened in ancient Indian tradition, and so forth.

MISHLOVE: Even the polytheistic cultures have had the same issues.

LERNER: When the society changes, as the society becomes patriarchal, the religion brings to the fore a strong male god as the central god. And that is exactly what happened. And when that happened -- it so happened in the ancient Near East -- the role of women as priestesses declined. And that used to be a very powerful role.

MISHLOVE: Professor Gerda Lerner, we're out of timeÿnow, but thank you so much for being with me.

LERNER: Thank you very much.

MISHLOVE: For those of you who have enjoyed Part 1 of this two-part program on "Women and History," check your program schedule for Part 2.

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