Sunday, March 29, 2009

History Matters: The Grand Finale (A Guest Post by Judith Bennett)

Thanks to all commenters and fellow bloggers for making the month of posts on Judith Bennett's History Matters such a success. I think we've had some productive and interesting discussions. As many of you have gathered, the author has been following the discussion, and has written up some reflections, and points for further discussion (and lookee! graphs!), which I've posted below. So read on, and join in the conversation! --NPhD

It’s been a fun ride for the last four weeks—enormously flattering to be the center of so much smart commentary, a bit nerve-wracking to see how others have construed my words, and occasionally flummoxing to navigate the mostly-new-to-me world of blogging (both “tool” and “troll” sent me straight to google for updated definitions.) I’ve laughed a bit and learned a lot. So first of all, thank you—to Notorious Ph.D., Historiann, Tenured Radical, and Another Damned Medievalist for hosting this blogfest, and to the dozens of you who have responded with insightful comments of your own. I am very, very grateful.

Now, thanks to Notorious Ph.D.’s willingness to host me, it’s my turn. Three topics stand out for me as worth more discussion in this our last week. I hope you’ll agree.

To be honest, I was going to let this part of our discussions stand without comment, as I’ve had my say fully enough in History Matters. But John Hope Franklin died this past week and an NPR remembrance had a clip from a 2005 interview in which he said, in the context of African American history, what I think about women’s and gender history. He said, “We have to confront history. We have to face it down, to be certain that it won’t haunt us again.” It’s easy to agree with this statement, isn’t it? Then, why are we so often so uncomfortable with applying the same aspiration—to face down the past so it doesn’t haunt us—in the case of feminist history?

I’ve been struck by how often our conversations have constructed an age gap between readers (younger) and myself (older). Sometimes this generational divide was adduced to explain my seemingly “retro” arguments; sometimes it seemed a source of tension, as if the critiques in History Matters were especially aimed at younger scholars. This generational divide was something I certainly never intended or, indeed, imagined.
  • Not really so old: I’m 58, for the record, not really all that old, especially in a profession in which most of us don’t get going until 30 or so, and many of us now carry on into our 70s. Also, I’m not old enough to have participated in the earliest struggles to establish women’s history in the 1960s and 70s. I came of intellectual age after that beginning, so my professional worldview was formed from a position of awe in relation to older-than-me scholars who had forged the way—scholars such as Gerda Lerner, Linda Gordon, and Alice Kessler-Harris in U.S. History; Joan Scott and Louise Tilly in modern European history; Joan Kelly, Jo Ann McNamara, Susan Mosher Stuard, and Natalie Zemon Davis in medieval and early modern history. These and others were the pioneers; my generation (doing doctorates in the late 1970s) followed in their big footsteps.
  • Not grumbling about young'uns: My anxieties about the depoliticization of women’s history long predate the work of scholars now in their 20s, 30s, and 40s. I first noticed the waning of feminist discourse in women’s history in the mid-1980s when I was in my early 30s. I felt too vulnerable to articulate my concerns until tenure, but as soon as I had that brass ring in hand, I fired my first salvo—aimed at the waning feminist content of history being written by historians in my generation and those older. To put this another way, those of you who are in your 20s, 30s, and 40s did not create the problem of waning feminist engagement in women’s and gender history that I first articulated in 1989—it was a pre-existing condition by the time you came on board. I very much regret that anyone can read History Matters as a critique leveled at younger scholars by an older scholar. My hands are not clean; the hands of my generation are not clean; I hope that all of us might acknowledge and cope with the challenges that depoliticization presents.
  • Not nostalgic: I have been horrified to realize that History Matters can be read as evoking a golden age of 1970s feminism. I do, indeed, wish we could recover some of the feminist forthrightness of that era, but I have no illusions about either the feminist politics of that decade or the quality of some of the history it produced. I offered caveats on both scores in History Matters, but I must not have offered them sufficiently clearly or emphatically. So, I ask your indulgence and help. If you ever find yourself thinking “Oh, that Judith Bennett, she’s just built her own golden age of feminist history back in the 1970s,” please reread what I said towards the bottom of pages 4 and 65.
  • Not divisive: I sought in History Matters to provoke conversation among historians of women and gender. We are, of course, a diverse group, but as I explained on pages 3-4, I believe we should make strategic common cause. In talking together, it is important, of course, to recognize our differences, but it is also important not to let those differences become a reason for dismissal or non-engagement. Yes, indeed, I am older than most people who talk in the blogging world; yes, indeed, my intellectual formation was different from those who went to graduate school in the 1980s or after. But this is just one difference among many (e.g., I’m a lesbian, too, but that seems to have generated no cause for division in our discussion . . .), and in any case, I hope we can speak across such divides, rather than letting them obstruct our conversation.
When all is said and done, though, I have to accept that History Matters has struck some of you as suggesting that my generation had a purer feminism or a more feminist approach to history than those who have come after. This is precisely counter to my hopes for the book, because more than anything else, I want the book to engage younger scholars. After all, the future of women’s and gender history is in their (your?) hands. I regret profoundly the book’s deficiencies in this regard, and I apologize for them. Believe me, these were unintentional and unwanted.

What do you think? Have I protested too much? Can we indeed put generational issues aside? Am I just hopelessly out-of-touch? Does my inadvertent offense in this regard nevertheless offend?

If I am ever to contribute something enduringly useful to women’s and gender history, I hope it will be the idea of “patriarchal equilibrium.” Until ADM’s hosting this past week, the term had not, I think, come up at all in postings or comments. I’ve been delighted by the discussion this past week (and also by the discussions at Magistra et Mater), so I thought I might try to move it along a bit more.

To indulge in the weird pleasure of summarizing myself . . . I contend in chapter 4 that a hard look at the past suggests a “dynamically stable” pattern in the story of women’s oppression: lots of small changes, but rarely (perhaps never) a transformation in the status of women vis-à-vis men. This is what I call “patriarchal equilibrium.” I’m a bit hesitant to offer this, but I think a couple of graphic representations might provoke discussion.

Here goes:
What I’m trying to suggest with this graph is that there is lots of dynamic change in women’s status—hence, the constant ups and downs. There are lots of differences too. The different colors—of which there could be many more—represent both different ways of measuring status (legal, economic, political, etc.) and the diverse experiences of different women (considered by race, class, sexuality, marital status, etc.). So, yes, there is change, and yes, there are differences among women too, but there’s also a self-adjusting equilibrium that seems to keep that change and diversity within a set range.

Now, here’s another way to schematize patriarchal equilibrium:

This graph shows a narrower range of movement at any moment. It also shows the possibility of times of substantive change, albeit within a limited range.

I’m not sure which graph might be better to think with . . . maybe both are useful. In any case, I think we need more research to figure if either graph works or if something else would do a better job.

I’m also not sure about the upper and lower limits of a patriarchal equilibrium. In both these schematizations, I’ve shown women’s status ranging from roughly 20 to 80 percent of “full humanity,” but that’s arbitrary. If I had to pick a range right now, I’d likely revert to what I know from wage data—and use a range of roughly 50-80 percent. But it would be madness to base the range on one index alone, and so I’ve opted here for a more expansive one. All told, I think it’s too early to be talking about firm limits, high or low.

So, there’s a lot of uncertainty and arbitrariness here, but I think that the patriarchal equilibrium of History Matters might look something like one of these two graphs, and if so, this graphing might help us to recognize patriarchal equilibrium, study it, and eventually explain it.

[Please don’t over-interpret these graphs. I am a poor artist with an unsteady hand.]

[Also, please note this caveat: Attainment of “full humanity” (by which I mean something like the ability to fully exercise all the potential of the human condition) might be achieved only by men, but it is not achieved by all men. Only men privileged by class, race, sexuality, religion, and the like can enjoy full humanity. I’m not sure how I would graph men’s approach toward full humanity over time, but it would certainly vary by race, class, sexuality, and the like. And there would be some men—such as slaves—whose experiences would fall by some measures within (or even below) the range I’m showing for women.]

In any case, both of these graphs imagine the history of women’s status relative to men as moving differently from schemas that were dominant when I started studying history and are, I think, still dominant today. One of those schemas—linked to liberal feminism specifically and whiggish history generally—sees an upward movement. The other—linked to socialist feminism—sees a downward one. What I’ve graphed here has ideological roots that are closer to radical feminism.

What I’ve graphed here is also dangerous, as it can seem to play into antifeminist arguments that male dominance is “natural” or “right” just because it has always been . . . and therefore that it is rooted either in biological differences (e.g., women must stay in their place because they bear children) or functional imperatives (e.g., societies work best when women stay in their place). I see this continuity differently. I see it was as showing how difficult and challenging—and, indeed, how radical—must be solutions to the problem of women’s oppression.

So. Might these graphs help us talk about patriarchal equilibrium in new and deeper ways?


There we have it! Happy Women's History Month! And (in the immortal words of Maurice Sednak) let the wild rumpus start!


liliannattel said...

What a though provoking post. A couple of questions occur to me. Obviously first of all--what sort of radical solutions did you have in mind? Of course the relative status of women vis a vis men varies hugely among countries as well as along a time-line. My question would be: have we been here before. If movement is squished between two limits, then knowing that we have had this degree of "full humanity" before, at an earlier time, would substantiate that claim. I'd rather think that we have come further, but I'd rather not think like an idiot! IE I don't want my thoughts to be rooted in ignorance. I'm not aware of any other time or place where violence against women and children was as secretive as it is, now, for example. Not that it isn't too prevalent, but that it is a social as well as legal crime in the west and therefore is hidden.

PennPress said...

We at Penn Press have enjoyed watching this Bloggers' Roundtable discussion of Judith M. Bennett's History Matters: Patriarchy and the Challenge of Feminism. We hope the interaction between academic blogging and scholarly publications will continue to grow. Thank you, bloggers!

David said...

Thanks for this excellent post. Perhaps it is a remnant of whatever post-modern demons still lurk in my closet, but I don't know what "full humanity" means within the context of women's lives, or men's lives, for that matter. The graphs as presented seem awfully teleological not in the sense that they chart progress, but rather in their general assumption that this is the starting point for analyzing women's history in general. I also wonder what the measuring sticks are, and whether they can be applied to non-Western cultures.


Janice said...

I'm really interested in your idea of patriarchal equilibrium -- it offers an interesting explanation for the impressive endurance of second-class status for women in so many aspects of society.

For instance, when women start to work in jobs of a certain type, for instance, the jobs decline in status (think teachers for the 19th and 20th century West, say) -- a useful example of patriarchal equilibrium standing in opposition to your brewsters whose jobs, as they rise in status, are moved out of women's reach.

Of course, I fear that some historians would react badly to this idea, projecting some kind of malevolent agency on men as a general group or elite men in particular. Patriarchal equilibrium, if it's to work as a historical concept, needs to be understood as a broad social tendency to reduce or counteract the challenges to the current social order posed by changes in women's status. I like the idea and I think it's worth pursuing, though.

Finally, about the generation gap. I know that in one of the earlier posts, I'd commented that although you and I both did grad studies at U of T, those few years you preceded me meant a world of difference. Probably this also had something to do with my working in the department of history and not very much with the PIMS people (beyond my years of Latin). I TA'd for one woman professor who taught a great course on women's history in which I learned a lot but that was it for working with women historians and women's history.

Digger said...

I've been reading the blogfest, and actually ended up buying the book as a result(I got a copy through ILL, but quickly realized I'd need to be more ah... interactive... than ILL would prefer. I tend to read with a pen/pencil in my hand...). I'm an historical archaeologist, not an historian, but I have found both the book and the blog commentaries stimulating in how to frame questions about, and think about, women/gender/sex in the past, and to begin to consider what these identities and relationships might look like in the archaeological record.

Thanks, Judith, for the graphs. They served to clarify for me what you meant by patriarchal equilibrium. I agree with David regarding the necessity of exploring what the measuring sticks are. Are there universals that define "full humanity" for all people in all cultures in all times? (And who are we to decide what those might be?) Or, should the measuring sticks be set by the people we study? Even while these sorts of "pesky" details are getting hammered out, however, I think the concept could be a very interesting one, particularly looking over longer periods of time. What are the mechanics of patriarchal equilibrium? How have women challenged a moving target and who has moved the target? I'd be interested to see how race and class fit in with this idea of a moving target.

Thank you for a thought-provoking book, and also to all the bloggers for hosting the discussions.

former student of Judith's (Women in the Middle Ages, spring '95?) said...

Love the graphs! (In a social-scientist/statistician sort of way. Hate what they represent.)

judithb said...

Hi former student & U Penn Press & fellow Torontonian and others. Thanks a lot for your comments. Here are some fast replies. What sorts of radical solutions (lilliannattel asks)? I dunno. I’m in the business of studying the past; it’s my hope that what we historians report will inform those who *are* in the business of feminist strategizing. This might sound like a cop out, but most historians really are not competent to move into strategizing . . . and I certainly am not. Do the graphs work world-wide? I dunno, but there’s no reason to assume right off that they would not. I certainly think we should beware of valorizing the status of women in the contemporary West vis-à-vis other world regions. And digger’s “pesky details”? Well, I’m having an “I dunno” evening. Yes, they are important, and if the graphs help us work some of them out, great.

Digger said...

Janice, you wrote: "Of course, I fear that some historians would react badly to this idea, projecting some kind of malevolent agency on men as a general group or elite men in particular. Patriarchal equilibrium, if it's to work as a historical concept, needs to be understood as a broad social tendency to reduce or counteract the challenges to the current social order posed by changes in women's status."

Won't any discussion of feminist history cause some to react badly? ;)

Seriously, though... I completely agree with you about framing it as the SOCIAL tendency to reduce or counteract the challenges to the current social order posed by changes in women's status. That tendency to reduce or counteract will not/has not come solely from men (pardon my ignorance, but has there been any historical research on women who I've seen labeled currently as "patriarchal collaborators?" Specifically, "collaborators" pre-twentieth century).

Things always get messy when theory meets practice, but patriarchal equilibrium, as framed here by Judith and yourself, gives a framework for some interesting runs at things. Can it be poked at with an archaeological stick? I'm not sure (no answers here, tonight, either).

David said...

To elaborate further on my question regarding non-Western cultures, my field is African history, and I'm currently living in Southern Africa. The degree of patriarchal oppression of women has really struck me here, but I'm not sure if there is an equilibrium here over time. There is an excellent article on masculinity in Eastern Africa by Margritte Silberschmidt (might have the spelling wrong, don't have it in front of me) which argues that here in Africa endemic poverty and HIV/AIDS have changed the way masculinity gets expressed, as men without jobs and without dependents value their worth increasingly by sexual conquest and sexual violence alone. This has a deadly impact on women, young women in particular,in places where the HIV infection rate is north of 20, 30, or 40 percent among the adult population. I think she is onto something in that when social dislocation and disease are rife, and unemployment is at 30 percent or higher, patriarchal control will necessarily take very different forms.

My impression, which may be faulty, is that the notion of continuity, of equilibrium, is in one sense designed to counteract the idea that there has been progress in gender equality. In another sense, it seems to me, the concept relies on a certain expectation of social stability and general (relative) economic prosperity, such as has defined the imperialist nations of the world for the last couple centuries or more. But these assumptions, if indeed they are part of the model, are often not applicable to areas of the world outside Europe and the United States. Perhaps one avenue to explore would be how gender relationships have changed in the West during times of prolonged and acute crisis.

I also still wonder what "full humanity" means, but that is another topic. Sorry for the long post.

NewKidontheHallway said...

David, your comment is interesting, because the patriarchal equilibrium discussed here comes out research on a pre-industrial, pre-colonial society. The kind of relative economic prosperity you identify wasn't the case for Europe in the Middle Ages. (I'm not sure I'd say medieval Europe was social stable, either, but it depends what you mean by that term - I'd actually almost be willing to say medieval Europe is more socially stable than the 19th & 20th c. industrialized world, but that's debatable depending on what we mean by socially stable.) I completely understand your questions about whether the concept works outside of Europe, but if it doesn't, I don't think it's for the reasons you identify here.

I also don't think the fact that patriarchal control takes different forms over time invalidates the concept of the patriarchal equilibrium. The very point is that no matter the different forms, the end result isn't that different, right? I think it is possible to identify change within this equilibrium. (Though of course I still don't know whether it is a concept that works for Africa or not. I will say I think Africanists and medievalists should talk to each other more, because I think there are fruitful conversations about methodology that could be had - how do you uncover the lives of people who were written about by others? - but will admit that I haven't done enough of that myself.)

David said...

I haven't read the book (it's deathly hard and expensive to get books where I am living now), but I gathered from the comments made so far that patriarchal equilibrium was being applied over the longue duree. Further, the avowedly political orientation of the argument suggests, to me, that it is addressed as much to modern history as it is to medieval history.

The problem I see with equilibrium is that it implies an almost mathematical regularity, yet the axes of the chart "status of women" and "full humanity" seem to require more explication and problematizing.

I'm skeptical of equilibrium when it comes to patriarchy because, for Africa, I think you can make a strong case that the situation is worse than it was before. The laws of many African countries are as "liberal" as Western countries, and often moreso, but it doesn't mean much in the face of endemic poverty, disease, war, crime, and illiteracy, among other things. I guess what I'm getting at is that a rising incidence of rape as a "cure" for HIV is not exactly offset by, say, women's right to vote or get an education, when most of the continent is run by unaccountable single party rulers and there are few or no jobs available to anyone, male or female.

So I guess I would maintain that the concept of equilibrium still implies, for me, some kind of social or economic stability, although I do recognize that the author's research comes from a pre-industrial period.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Hi all --

Sorry I've been silent on the thread so far: I was traveling all day yesterday, and time constraints today mean that this will be a short comment. But I'd like to actually take up what JB has said about patriarchal equilibrium and continuity. In many ways, I find this a really useful concept for teaching and thinking about the past, because it's the one way to make connections with students.

More later... running late for another appointment.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

David -- I think that there's not really a problem with the idea of Patriarchal Equilibrium (which I have now taught to my survey classes!) over the longue durée, if you see it as meaning (and Bennett's illustrations show this) that, no matter when, women in any given social/political/economic situation are considered and treated as less than the men in the same situation.

NewKidontheHallway said...

David -

Equilibrium, in this case, doesn't mean that a bad thing for women is balanced out by a good thing for women; it means that no matter what the social/economic conditions, women are disadvantaged in ways that men aren't. The equilibrium is that inequity continually reasserting itself, not any kind of balancing of good/bad things. So it would kind of make sense given what you say about Africa: as laws governing women's lives get more liberal, certain realities (e.g. increase in rape) emerge to ensure that the liberalizing laws don't actually improve women's lives significantly, and the patriarchal equilibrium is maintained (excuse the anthropomorphizing of "realities," I realize that's not a very elegant way to frame this!). It's not about social/economic stability - the only thing that's stable is patriarchy.

And yes, it is intended to apply to the modern world, but since the theory was derived from research in a pre-industrial, pre-colonial society, I don't think it's dependent on modern western conditions to be a viable theory. So I agree that it might not work in the African context, but I think, for different reasons than you suggest.

David said...

I was under the impression that Bennett was trying to say more than just that women have always been disadvantaged compared to men. If that's her argument, it's certainly not a new one. The "equilibrium" seems to argue there is a mechanism at work which balances the condition of women vis a vis men. The whole point is to emphasize "continuity" yes? So does this continuity allow for conditions to get worse for women compared to men (and thus, by implication, also better for women as compared to men?) The chart seems to suggest that her answer is no. The position of women relative to men seems to be staying the same across the longue duree. It is this that I dispute.

Given that the chart is working with terms that remain undefined (at least for me, as I haven't read the book), I am making a number of assumptions that may not be warranted. But one of the things I suspect is that the model relies on certain assumptions about the power of institutional change. Thus, women gaining something in legal status has a specific value. But, as I alluded to in my earlier post, what about situations where the institutions themselves are meaningless or relatively meaningless, or where the rule of law does not exist? This is what I mean about the assumption of social stability inherent in the model.

To close by making a specific example, imagine trying to apply this chart to Congo-Kinshasa. A large country, millions of women, in the last 100 years it has passed from the genocidal rule of the concessions companies, to a period of relative stability, to the cruel and murderous dictatorship of one man to a prolonged civil war over resources in which the rape of women is a major weapon. If the argument is that the condition of Congolese women vis a vis Congolese men has been marked by continuity throughout all of this, (leaving aside the status of women in the pre-colonial era), or that Congolese women's status vis a vis Congolese men is similar to gender disparities in the West, I would have to strenuously disagree.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Leaving David's rather puzzling objection aside (do take a look at both the graphs and the post itself, if you haven't read the book), I'd like to go back to the point about "collaborators." I believe that JB makes the point somewhere in the book that women have benefited from patriarchy, and have been instrumental in upholding it by embracing many of its values and yardsticks? This is actually something I'm dealing with in my own work, which concentrates on gender and law: the idea that in order for patriarchal legal constructs to become "real" (whatever that means), women *have to* participate. But what's the alternative: *not* using the legal system at all? At least in premodern times, changing the system wasn't really on the table.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Sorry, left the last part of that last comment out. I meant to finish up with:

So, as historians, how do we assess the role of women in the maintenance of patriarchal structures? Do we make distinctions between active and passive participation, for example?

Anonymous said...

All this is a very polite discourse on male supremacy, and the horror that is the worldwide war economy of men.

I believe that equality with men is simply aiming too low in life. I believe women need to seriously separate from men to construct their own social power. That's what many of us are doing.

The past can be understood by looking at Judith Bennett's wage statistics over the last 700 years -- .50 cents to .75 cents on the dollar compared to male wages.
If this has been true for so long, then more women need to develop businesses and serve women. We need to remove our wages from a male economy.

And in social settings, when you see the dynamic of the vibrant conversationally lively woman and her dead pan dead voiced husband, you need to simply ignore those socially incompetant men, and create the power of women conversing.

What Bennett's book proved to me, is that women really need to get out of patriarchy, or as far away from it as possible. I don't believe men are capable of reform, and the more historical research we do, we need to find women throughout time, study their methods of resistence to male abuse, rape, war, and sexual colonization. We are reaching a toxic excess of war, weapons, rape, spousal abuse, child rape and horrible poverty, and I think men are to blame for all of this.

When men read feminism, they should be ashamed for their animal cluelessness throughout time, vow to reform, and form groups of other men to educate men.

Women need to not waste time educating men at all, and the sooner we realize this lesson of history the better.

Let's not get too enamoured of the "brass ring" of tenure, and let's not settle for academic speak for global patriarchy and all its horrors.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

MODERATOR INTERVENTION: I don't think tarring all men throughout time with the same brush is any more productive than centuries of similar being done to women. Nor do I think it's appropriate to castigate academics for approaching a book (even a programmatic book) by an academic in an academic manner. There are undoubtedly important conversations to be had about separatism and feminist revolution (one of my favorite bloggers moderates just such a conversation), but this isn't what we're talking about here.

David said...

I have read the post and looked at the graphs, thank you. Several questions remain:

Referring back to the original post, Bennett says that "there is a self-adjusting equilibrium that seems to keep that diversity within a set range." What is the source of this self-adjustment? What mechanism controls the equilibrium? The one factor Bennett mentions is wage level, which again, gets me back to the point about the premise of the chart being based on conditions in modern, industrialized societies that are relatively stable over time. Yet this has not been the historical experience for many millions of women in countries outside the West.

Second, to echo a point made earlier by another poster, who gets to decide the measure and meaning of "full humanity"? Will this mean the same for different people in different cultures? Bennett defines it loosely as "something like the ability to fully exercise all the potential of the human condition." How are we measuring the potential of the human condition? Who has attained this full potential? Rich white heterosexual men? It appears so: Bennett writes that "Only men privileged by class, race, sexuality, religion, and the like can enjoy full humanity." So does this mean that rich white heterosexual men are the measuring stick for experiencing "full humanity?" (I'm quite serious with this question. Are they?)

Piecing together all the above, I can't help but conclude that the concept of patriarchal equilibrium is oriented towards gender relations and patriarchal oppression in Western countries. Which is fine, but it makes me wonder how women in other parts of the world can fit into this conversation, if indeed they can. My research involves, in part, the study of gender relationships and inequalities in colonial Africa, so when reading posts such as this one I find myself constantly intrigued and frustrated at the same time.

judithb said...

I think, David, that you are quite right to be both intrigued and frustrated. There's much we still don't know--including the extent to which my proposed model might apply in various times and places. (That said, I do not think it applies solely to Western, industrialized societies, if only because I myself don’t study those societies.) Certainly, I'm not proposing a new metanarrative, god forbid; I proposing a way of thinking about the past. It might work for you; it might not; my hope is that it might work at least a bit. Might it help to think about this “patriarchal equilibrium” less as a fixed template and more as a hypothesis?

David said...

Yes, I think so. I must admit that I've spent much of my idle time in the past two days thinking about this idea of equilibrium in general and for Africa in particular. Perhaps it is better for me to conceive of the equilibrium as being constantly reconstituted through a reapportionment of gendered rights and privileges as societies evolve. (Which may be what you are saying, and I'm just not picking up on it.) Perhaps the self-regulating mechanism emerges through patterns of behavior by both men and women (echoing Notorious PhD's remark about collaborators...and which could mean, I suppose, that there exists something like a patriarchal bargain that some women actively participate in because they see it as being in their own self-interest to do so.) Anyway, I would think that to maintain an equilibrium over time there would have to be a perceived self-interest for many women.

As for Africa, I don't know. To get at the longue duree you would have to see changes from pre-colonial to colonial to post-colonial periods, and the sources are slim for much of the pre-colonial period. We really can't say, for instance what women's status was vis a vis men in, say, the 15th century in Africa. The sources only emerge with European contact, and they are of course extremely biased and narrow in scope in most cases. You don't really get at the voices of women themselves until the twentieth century, which was marked by so much turmoil and conflict in many areas that it can be hard to conceive of continuities.

Maybe the patriarchal equilibrium can be seen as a Western invention/innovation?

Anyway, thanks for starting the stimulating dialogue.

Digger said...

I'm still working through the book. Judith, there is much here that can be applied to historical archaeology. As one example, I think the distinction between continuity and change in women's status in relation to the traditionally recognized historical shifts (ie, industrial revolution, urbanization, etc.)(Ch 4) is something that historical archaeololgy could certainly address.

NPhD: I think it is important to distinguish between women who actively enforce vs. passively acquiesce to the patriarchy. I'd also toss in the idea of awareness; people who were aware of their enforcing vs. acquiescing to the social status quo, in contrast to those who may not have been aware of the repercussions of their decisions. (I also think that there are examples of people challenging the patriarchy without necessarily being aware of it). The idea of "collaborators" to me seems problematic; it smacks of the "if you are not with us, you are against us" framework. There may also be circumstances in one person's life where they challenge and others where they enforce the patriarchy; they may take simultaneous actions that do both. I think the issue of maintaining/challenging/surviving the patriarchy as it is framed in History Matters, is more complex than a for/against dichotomy. To my mind, then, to explore it as more grayscale than black/white, just makes sense to me.

David: I was very serious with my question about who gets to decide what "full humanity" means. I was trained as an archaeologist in four-field anthropology departments, with an emphasis that cultures must be understood on their own terms, as holistic systems. This isn't a culturally-relativistic means of making everything that happens in those cultures "ok" (there are things that happen in other cultures that are not ok, and "we've always done this" is not a good excuse), but to understand the role of those various things. If the theory of patriarchal equilibrium is to be tested in non-Industrial, Western cultures/societies,then the studier needs to decide if "full humanity" is a cross-cultural universal, or if the definition is culturally specific (I think I'm agreeing with you here...). My sense is that much of what is done now politically takes the view that there are cross-cultural ideals of "full humanity"; as an anthropologist, I'd sure be interested to hear what those other culturs had to say about it before I came to any conclusions.

I'm enjoying the discussion very much. Thanks to NPhD, JB, and all the posters!

David said...

Digger, thanks for the excellent response. One place to start perhaps when it comes to cultural differences is that, for instance, in much of Africa (I exclude to some extent the urban centers which are not very representative), there is a far, far greater emphasis on community, and thus less of an emphasis on individuality. Having many children is seen as a very good thing, but the work of raising them is much more distributed throughout the community, so you don't really see the isolated and ignored stay-at-home Mom that is so common in the West. This is not to say at all that men in these societies aren't exploiting women for their reproductive labor, but rather that the parameters for understanding the value of that labor are very different.

Then there is the whole issue of brideprice, which is another matter altogether.

Knitting Clio said...

Since I'm the one who made the golden age remark on my blog and at Historiann, I'll say that now I've finished the book that I was hasty in making that comment. However, the notion that women's history has been depoliticized doesn't fit with my experience -- perhaps it's a regional thing. I also think Bennett could have considered critiques of feminism by women of color.

Susan said...

I am coming to this late because I tried to post on Monday (twice) and somehow my post did not survive. The last few days have been crazy enough that I haven't tried to reconstruct it. I'm going off in a slightly different direction, for what it's worth.

One of my questions about patriarchal equilibrium has to do with what I think is kind of a moving target situation. That is, it seems to me that participating in "full humanitiy" is not the same at different times. What would a 19th C feminist say about our world? We've got much of what was fought for -- from the vote, to education, professional roles, etc. Now we see that there are other things we need for full humanity. I'm not sure where this fits, but it's one of my puzzles about patriarchal equilibrium as a concept. I'm not entirely sure this is a problem, but it's something that rattles around for me.

I do think, however, that when I next teach women's history, I will use the concept as one of my organizing concepts. I think it's incredibly helpful thinking over the long duree, and I think it's helpful in getting students to think in more sophisticated ways about the nature of change.

I don't, by and large, talk about patriarchy in my published work. When I started my dissertation, about the same time Judith did, I was very interested in the relationship of capitalism and patriarchy, but ultimately I said little about either. That is partly because patriarchy feels somewhat abstract, and I like to be concrete. Also, I'm an early modernist, so patriarchalism is an important concept in political theory -- and that gets into confusion. Patriarchy raises hackles, too, and I'm not a terribly confrontational type if I can help it. I mean, women's history still raises hackles in my field, at least among some of the "guys" -- though more often than not they just ignore it (and me). Finally, I don't always think it's analytically useful -- that is, since I've been interested in the intersections of various hierarchies, I've paid more attention to the intersections than the hierarchies. (That could have been a mistake, of course, but that's what it is.)

But -- ever since JB's first article on patriarchy in 1989, I've thought about this. Should I talk more explicitly about patriarchy? I think the use of language is and should be strategic. And there are times when it's helpful to use patriarchy as a concept. And I actually think "patriarchal equilibrium" may be a more useful framing than just patriarchy, because it names the way we can often see change in certain aspects of women's experience without seeing significant change in their status in relation to men. It's actually helping me a lot in an article I'm working on now.

Which is a roundabout way of saying that while I have questions, I think patriarchal equilibrium is a more analytically useful concept for a historian than patriarchy itself.

Oh, and I totally love the graphs. You're a better artist than I am!

judithb said...

Thanks, Susan, for the compliment on my artistic skills--a first ever, I think. As to "full humanity," I agree that we have to account for its changing over time & place--in terms of content and also in terms of the men who can fully access it. Hmmmm, it's clearly a part of the graph that needs more thinking . . . thanks!

David said...

By full humanity, do you mean basically the opportunity to do whatever you want with your life?

judithb said...

No, David, that's not what I mean by "full humanity." Again, what I've suggested in these graphs is a beginning, not an end . . . an hypothesis, not a template. I'm comfortable right now with the fuzzy definition I offered initially for "full humanity"--i.e., "something like the ability to fully exercise all the potential of the human condition." Thanks to our discussion, I'd add now a codicil like this " . . . potential of the human condition, as shaped by time and place."

Digger said...

After much mulling, I think addressing the ideas of full humanity and patriarchal equilibrium in both emic (meaningful to the actor) and etic (from the outside; "culturally universal") could result in interesting ideas, questions and discussions. I'm not suggesting any one project address both, just that researchers are clear about which way they're coming at it.

Auspex said...

I just stumbled on this discussion and have not had a chance to digest all the interesting ideas fully, but I find the idea of "patriarchal equilibrium" intriguing. I've long thought that something like that is at work in the problem of "Thermidor"--why do so many revolutions end in counter-revolution. I've suspected that one thing that happens at a time like 1789 or 1917 is that there is a relaxing of, among other things, gender roles, which makes some people, especially many men, uncomfortable, often profoundly uncomfortable. Leaders like Stalin, then, can take advantage of those feelings to re-impose, at least in part, patriarchy along with other aspects of repression. If so, the graph should show some sharp punctuations. Vague ideas from a non-historian, but I hope someone finds them useful.

Evie said...

I’m finding the idea of patriarchal equilibrium is an extremely useful 'tool to think with' - more so than the rather monolithic idea of 'Patriarchy'. As others have mentioned, the idea of what 'full humanity' means is variable depending on time/place/cultural context, but I think the concept of patriarchal equilibrium enables one to take full account of this cultural and historical contingency while still critically examining why, how and to what extent inequities exist (and perhaps persist over time) in any given society. The graphs work to simply illustrate the concept, but it would be fascinating to actually start plotting some specific variables – for example, the wage gap, legal status with regard to property and family, reproductive rights etc. I suspect we would see some big spikes in some areas at certain times (thinking of the previous post re: Thermidor, maybe the legal right for women to instigate divorce in the early days of the French Revolution) but few unbroken upward trajectories (there might be some, in some societies). For me, this approach enables one to draw a much more complex and convincing picture than simply talking about ‘patriarchal oppression’.

Since reading History Matters, I have had this discussion with many non-academic friends, and often their first reaction is that in the country where I live, women have the same legal/property rights as men and there is legislation to (in theory) ensure pay equity. There are lots of women CEOs, judges etc. and we’ve just ended nine years under a female PM. Therefore ‘women’s rights’ is a battle that has been long won. It is only when I point out things like the fact that women still don’t have full legal rights over their own bodies (abortion) or that statistically, a wage gap (of, you guessed it, around 70 – 75%) still persists between men and women despite the (rather toothless) law, that they begin to think more deeply about the issue of gender inequality.

I just wanted to finish by saying thank you to Judith. As a student of the later Middle Ages, I have read many of your works and found them very useful in my studies and engaging to read. I’ve also really enjoyed following this discussion and found some excellent new blogs to read!

rootlesscosmo said...

As I'm not a historian and haven't read Judith Bennett's book, I was reluctant to jump into this thread; all the same I'd like to share a couple of (vague, speculative) ideas.

Either the "Whig" or "non-directional" versions of the graph can be true. That is, if the condition of women as measured on some meaningful set of scales has followed this zigzag path over time, the claim that the pattern has a "longue durée" equilibrium--maybe expressed as the moving mean of a suitably factor-weighted aggregate of the scales--is valid whether this long-term equilibrium has an upward trend, a downward trend, or no trend at all. What I'm getting at is that we can examine the idea of equilibrium without necessarily addressing, let alone reaching agreement on, the question whether or not it gives grounds for hope.

Looking at it more closely, I think (and if I were a historian I'd be a labor historian, I spent around 30 years as a railroad worker and student of US rail labor history) the equilibrium can be usefully conceived as what Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould called a "punctuated equilibrium"--that is, a longue durée pattern in which more or less lengthy periods of relative stability are interrupted by briefer periods of rapid, far-reaching change. That's how I've come to think of labor-management conflict (which I no longer think is quite the same as labor-capital conflict, but that's for another discussion.) Any given collective bargaining agreement, or body of settled labor law, can be viewed as marking the most recent temporary equilibrium; any strike, and still more any wave of strikes as in the mid-1970's, marks the breakdown of an equilibrium phase, followed typically by a brief period of sharp conflict and the establishment of a new equilibrium having novel features that distinguish it from the one before. (We are still, I think, living in the long shadow of Reagan's successful bustup of the Air Traffic Controllers in 1981.)

Organic evolution, the experts assure us, is non-directional; we can plot speciation over time but there's no evidence that evolution favors "complexity" or "big brains" or anything else. Labor-management equilibrium, I think, is probably non-directional too; "increasing immiseration" (per Marx) and "rising expectations" (per any number of cheerful Cold War-era social scientists) are slogans, not accounts of reality. To my surprise, I've become a Bernsteinian: the only thing working people can be certain of is that the struggle with the boss will go on, and if the Commonwealth of Toil is coming, today's strike, today's recognition fight, today's grievance won't, in all likelihood, bring it nearer or hold it back.

And I think this may also be a helpful framework for thinking about the longue durée of women's struggle toward full humanity. Without universalizing or mistaking change along one or several parameters for Change unmodified--the Planetary Twistolution, as it's known at IBtP--it's probably fair to say that a majority of women in the US and much of Europe and parts of Latin America made significant advances in the direction of full humanity starting, maybe, around the early 1960's, and slowing or even backtracking after, say, 1973--I think the defeat of ERA (which no one has even tried to revive) is a convenient marker--and that a new equilibrium, clearly different from the preceding one--post-Roe is a different world from pre-Roe, though reproductive rights have been under attack for a generation--has been established after the hopes of the Second Wave were dashed.

If I'm right, then the graphs are fundamentally accurate but could be made moreso if the alternation of zigs and zags were less regular, less steep on the downward side, and separated by intervals of barely measurable activity. Patriarchal equilibrium means not just that there's a weighted average (moving upward, downward, or neither) but that there's a characteristic fine-grained pattern to the ups and downs, and intervals of near-stasis, that moving average tracks--a pattern which (of course) historians labor to illuminate, and strategists labor to shape. (If I have a hero it's Marc Bloch; if I have a living hero it's Alexander Saxton.)

I hope this hasn't been boring or vacuous and that I'm not being what Twisty calls a f***ing pedantic a**hole. I try not to be a f***king a**hole; as to the pedantic part, I've always wanted to be elected to a Workers' and Pedants' Soviet, but at 67 I fear the chance is slipping away.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

R, you may be late, but I think you are on-target here. And I think you'd enjoy the book, if you get a chance this summer.

And I'm always gratified when Blamers** pop over and check us out here!

**For those not in the know, please understand that this is a term of art over at IBtP, and meant as a complement.

rootlesscosmo said...

Thanks, Notorious Ph. D. On rereading it seems embarrassingly long and sententious--the failings of age, I suspect.

I've added Bennett's book to my Powell's shopping cart. Thanks.

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