Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Read It If You Dare

I have been spending a few hours reading In Her Place. A Documentary History of Prejudice Against Women, edited by S.T. Joshi. It's not something you want to read when you feel all vulnerable or stripped to the bones or insecure. Indeed, reading it might be a masochistic act, because the book, a collection of influential anti-feminist articles over the last 150 years, has put together more misogynistic food than anyone can digest without getting nauseous.

Nevertheless, I read it, and found lots to be fascinated about. For instance, the arguments used against women's suffrage a hundred years ago are almost identical to the anti-feminist arguments of today: If women change at all the sky will fall! This odd power of women to bring down both Western civilization and god's wrath on his creation is a constant theme in the articles and familiar to anyone who follows anti-feminist arguments of today.

As an example, much of the nineteenth century resistance against higher education for women focused on the fear that educated women would stop wanting to get married or having children. This, in turn, would result in White Racial Suicide and the end of the world as we know it. Echoes of the same assertions are common in current conservative writings about uppity women.

What is also familiar is the way the power of women to wreck everything is combined with their uselessness in all other tasks except child-rearing within the home. Thus, women are seen as emotionally unstable, intellectually inferior and physically puny. This makes them unsuited for any role in the public life, even unsuited for independence, yet admirably suited to be in sole charge of vulnerable young children. Indeed, that is the only role they are prescribed. I have never seen anyone explain how this paradox works. Do the hysterical, capricious and stupid women suddenly get turned into something different when they give birth? Perhaps. And note how that argument ignores the fact that most women have always toiled in the fields or in the barns or in the shops. Even today the 'back-to-home' movement addresses largely the wealthier women.

Not everything has stayed constant in the realm of anti-feminist writings. The conclusions are the same, true, but the evidence given to support those conclusions has changed over time as old evidence has been falsified. This suggests to me that it is the conclusions which provide the starting point in the arguments of women's essential inferiority. Just assume that women are inferior, then look for something that supports it.

While reading the book I happened to also read this recent blog post about "Battlestar Galactica" and the feminization (!) of American culture as well as the attached comments thread. In it I found the same essentialist gender arguments ("Men hand out cigars. Women "hand out" babies. And thus the world for thousands of years has gone' round.") as in the book, with the same fear of the sky falling, the society unraveling, all because of women's refusal to stay in their allotted places.

How powerful and powerless we are. Sigh.