“Our inner being, which we call ourself, no eye nor touch of man or angel has ever pierced.”—Elizabeth Cady Stanton, The Solitude of Self.
Stanton’s famous 1892 address captures the essence of the feminist idea. With allowances for the language and culture of that time, the message is just as relevant now as ever. It is a refutation, in what I would call spiritual terms, of all arguments for male supremacy.
Every person experiences her life singly, as the one and only center of that life. The preciousness of one’s life lies precisely in the fact that it is the only life one has. Moreover, all human beings desire the free exercise of their wills, minds, and faculties. When a person is treated as if she were an object, a means towards an end not her own, this is perceived as unjust at some level of consciousness, because it is essentially a lie, a denial of her reality as self. Even if she is so thoroughly socialized that there is no conscious awareness of injustice, the denial of self will exact a psychological price. The suppression of truth at such a fundamental level cannot be maintained without destructive effects. In the long view, this sums up the history of the subjection of women by men.
Engels seemed to hint that the domestication of animals led to the herdsman’s application of the same idea of ownership and control to women, and later to other men. This is of course speculation—the origins of the problem are murky. The outcome, however, is clear. Women were eventually made the slaves of men. The patriarchal social order limited women to the roles of sexual mates, mothers, and domestic laborers. Slavery as it developed in the ancient world was not much different in principle from what already existed in the family structure.
The system was powerful and all-pervading, so embedded in the social order that most people couldn’t even see it. In addition to being firmly established through law and custom, women’s “role” was deeply internalized and transmitted from parents to children for thousands of years. The limitations of patriarchal culture made it almost impossible for anyone, male or female, to see beyond it, until the intellectual rebellion of the 17th century, and the subsequent gradual widening of education in society, awakened the long-dormant thirst for freedom. But even before any of this, from the most ancient times, lack of freedom was perceived at a subconscious level as painful and unjust, and there were sporadic instinctual rebellions, sometimes only suppressed by the cruelest measures.
The act of force, the establishment of patriarchy through domination, far preceded the various reasons and justifications offered for male supremacy. Nevertheless, the anti-feminist arguments lead us to the awareness of certain assumptions about men and women. The basic assumption, as Stanton so shrewdly divined, is that selfhood is a prerogative of the patriarch, and that women are meant to serve the patriarch as a means towards his ends. That’s what objectification ultimately means, in the sexual and every other sense: the subservience of the female self to a power outside of her—in effect, the denial of any absolute value to her self.
A secondary assumption, following from the basic one, is that men are superior to women. The idea of superiority arises, as in the debates on slavery, from the need to justify the already existing power structure. A lot of words have been spent arguing the merits of either side of this question. After modern feminist gains, the superiority idea has been supplanted for the most part by the notion of essential difference. In other words, neither is superior; it’s just that men are designed to do certain things and women to do other things, and these things shouldn’t be mixed. Of course it’s really just a new version of the old idea: the things men are designed to do turn out to involve the exercise of their wills, minds, and faculties; while women are romantic nurturers and mothers.
Concepts of superiority and inferiority are, in any case, completely determined by what one considers more or less valuable. The anti-feminist argument sometimes even falls back on physical strength as an absolute value, as if we were still hunter-gatherers. The point is that the feminist argument for equality is based on the inherent worthiness of each human life rather than on comparisons of perceived qualities peculiar to the different genders. In fact, even if one were to concede (purely for the sake of argument) that men possessed some sort of natural superiority, the claim doesn’t even touch the validity of the point Stanton is making. For my self, the one life that only I experience, there can be no imposition of an absolute role based on some sort of natural or social comparison. I still desire freedom as my condition, and in my heart I cannot fully accept myself as a mere object of someone else’s will or purpose.
So the superiority debate is a sham, a cover for the basic assumption, which is that the male authority is the only valid subject. We come back to earth and find nothing but a simple self-centeredness that exercises its power and control over other people in order to gain more power and control. This is what patriarchy amounts to in the end.
In our imagination we can turn the mirror around and see how a man would react to becoming an object. A man is encouraged to strive in a realm of action, or to explore a realm of ideas, or perhaps even both. At the least, he is expected to have some measure of ambition in the world, however modest. He is also expected, usually, to find a mate and raise a family. But try to imagine if he was told that his primary purpose was to find a mate and raise a family, and that all else was frivolous compared to that. Would a man accept this? Of course not. There is more to life, he knows, than romance and babies, and it would be an intolerable restriction on his free will for society to limit him so. And what if his appearance, his sexual attractiveness, was valued above everything else—mind, creativity, commitment or effort? Most men would be driven to despair by such an arrangement. And yet, because of the hypnotic effect of the ancient patriarchal structure, many men fail to see that this is exactly what women are faced with.
That women have made gains, particularly in the West, in recent centuries, is almost entirely due to the struggles of women who have awakened to reality. There have been male allies, many of them perhaps not fully realizing the implications of the movement, but the institutional structure has resisted feminism every step of the way, and continues to do so. The oldest form of oppression, it would seem, dies the hardest.
With all the gains, however, we can sometimes minimize or forget the fundamental importance of the struggle. In the conventional discourse, it is framed in terms of women’s rights and the need for equality, especially in economic and political terms. This is all very important because women need more power over their own lives, and everything that works towards that end is worthwhile. Still, feminism ultimately looks beyond the symbolism of the woman executive or soldier or politician, the woman integrated more equally into the system, and extends its thought to a radical critique of the patriarchal structure itself.
Behind the anti-feminist argument, grown softer and subtler and more ingratiating in the modern age, stands the unacknowledged shadow of slavery. It still survives undisguised in the poorer nations. It is important to remember that the argument always leads to the same place. Male supremacy, in the end, is founded on force. Rape is not an aberration, but a primary symptom of the central problem of human society. You’ll notice that rape always accompanies war; it’s an essential expression of it. Domination, the power principle, is the illusion that an inviolable, free, solitary self can be transformed into a mere object, sacrificed on the altar of authority. This is the tragedy of human history, and patriarchy is at its very core. Feminism is the awakening insight, the recognition of freedom as an absolute and inherent value in the self. Its significance embraces the political, social, and cultural realms—it is ultimately a spiritual liberation.