Some Notes on Gender and Power (Part 2)

Picking up from where we left off last week, here are some more notes on gender and power. First, a refresher on where we started:

1. There is a lot of bad theorizing out there about gender and power relations

Primordial matriarchies, evo-psych patriarchies — all bunk.

2. Patriarchy is not inherent in human societies.

Patriarchy is a historical development, not a biological imperative.

Carrying on now:

3. There are many different kinds of patriarchy

150713VictoriaAs I explained last week, patriarchy is not a universal of human societies but rather a product of specific historical circumstances. As a result, there are as many different varieties of patriarchy as there are cultures that practice it. There is no “the patriarchy” any more than there is “the democracy” or “the music.” Some democracies have parliaments, some have electoral colleges, and some just have town meetings. Some music has violins, some has taiko drums, and some has beatboxing. Patriarchies are just as variable.

Consider, if you will, Victorian Britain and the Roman empire. Both were unquestionably patriarchal, but that doesn’t mean they worked the same way.

Queen Victoria was, by some measures, the most powerful human being who has ever lived. She ruled over the largest empire the world has ever seen, holding sway over the lives of some 20% of the world’s population. At the same time, ordinary British women had virtually no power at all. They could not vote or run for political office. They had no access to the courts. They could not own property in their own names. They could not divorce except under exceedingly rare conditions. To be a woman in Victorian Britain who was not Victoria herself was to live at the whims of men.

Ancient Roman women, by contrast, enjoyed many of the rights their Victorian sisters lacked. Roman women could own and dispose of property. With only minor procedural hurdles, the courts were open to them. Divorce was easy and could be initiated by either party to a marriage. Although not the social equals of men, Roman women could do most of the practical things that men could do. But in the realm of high politics, the bar was firm. In more than a thousand years, no woman ruled as consul or emperor, and none ever joined the ranks of the senate. Only in very unusual circumstances did women even appear at political gatherings.

In many ways, the lives of women in Victorian Britain and imperial Rome were opposites. The rights and positions that women enjoyed in one society they were barred from in the other. A Roman transported to Victorian times and seeing how powerful the queen was might have mistakenly thought he had stepped into a matriarchy. Like Britain and Rome, two societies can be patriarchal yet have very different rules for what rights, powers, and privileges are open to women.

4. There are no clear examples of matriarchal societies

The consensus among historians and anthropologists is that no matriarchal society has ever been shown to exist now or to have existed in the past. Now, the general consensus of scholars is always developing in response to new evidence and interpretations, and at times it is simply wrong. When talking about all of human history, of which we know only some quite recent fragments, “never” is a word we have to be especially careful with. Still, as far as our current evidence can show us, there has never been a matriarchal society.

There are plenty of claims about matriarchies, usually made by modern westerners about pre-historic or non-western societies, which is to say: made by outsiders about societies they have only limited knowledge of, like our hypothetical Roman time-traveling to Victorian Britain. On further examination, these claims generally turn out to be misinterpretations of societies that are fundamentally patriarchal, but work in different ways than the people making the claims were used to.

Two things that are frequently mistaken for matriarchy are matriliny and elite women’s involvement in succession. Matriliny means that descent is reckoned from a female rather than male ancestor, but does not mean that women hold power. Matrilineal societies see power passed from brother to brother or uncle to nephew rather than father to son, but the people wielding power are still men. In other societies, elite women of a family or clan choose or help to choose its next leader, but the leaders they choose are men.

The worship of divine women is also not evidence of matriarchy. Ancient Athenians loved their patron goddess Athena and modern conservative Catholics can be devoted to the Virgin Mary, but that doesn’t make either group matriarchal.

There are plenty of historical examples of powerful women, including women who ruled their societies, led soldiers in battle, created great works of art and advancements in science, amassed huge fortunes, and wielded tremendous cultural and religious influence. Some of them lived in societies where holding such power was considered ordinary and proper for them. Others in societies where it was not, but they did it anyway. They did all these things, though, in the context of societies that were essentially patriarchal. Patriarchy doesn’t mean that women have no power, only that, on the whole, men have more.

The absence of matriarchy from history does not mean matriarchy is impossible, any more than the frequency of patriarchy makes it natural. The evidence of early peoples suggests that the base state of human civilization is equality. Patriarchy was the product of specific historical circumstances. A different set of historical circumstances could as easily have produced matriarchy.

5. Gender isn’t everything

Gender is just one of the categories that can define a person’s role and rights. Class, status, family, race, religion, language, wealth, and many other factors intersect and interact with each other in complex ways. The rules may be very different for two people of the same gender within the same society but of different family lines, social statuses, or ethnic groups. (Compare, say, the “upstairs” life of Edwardian ladies and gentlemen with the “downstairs” life of their footmen and maids.)

Furthermore, there are always exceptions. Some exceptions are institutional, such as the Vestal Virgins, a group of priestesses in Rome who enjoyed an official status not far removed from what elite Roman men held. Other exceptions are individual, like Jeanne D’Arc, who led French forces against the English armies late in the Hundred Years’ War. There have always been and will always be people who, through some combination of fortune, family, personality, and will, defy the roles that convention would impose on them.

Thoughts for writers

Gender has become a big topic of discussion in the world of today’s storytelling. We analyze whether female characters are “strong” (and what strong means in the first place) and debate the gender politics of imaginary lands. In the midst of these conversations, people sometimes invoke “history” as a justification for one position or another. Usually the argument runs to some variation of: “Women could never have done this” or “Men had all the power and women had to manipulate them from behind the scenes” or “Sexual violence just happened all the time.” The history of gender, though, is not so simple.

Any statement about “women are like this” or “men are like that” fails when we hold it up to history. There are some broad patterns, but those patterns are contingent on particular historical contexts. Every culture has its own ideas about what men and women are like and these ideas influence the lived experience of people within that culture, but real life has never colored perfectly within the lines of cultural expectations. One culture’s expectations will be very different from another’s, and even with a single society there are many subcultures with their own ideas and other categories that overlap and interact with gender.

When creating our own worlds and populating them with people of all different genders and gender expressions, it is important that we not let simplistic assumptions guide us or fall unthinking into familiar patterns. We are comfortable tinkering with the basic elements of the worlds we write about. What if there were dragons? What if people could conjure fireballs from their hands? What if a secret sect of assassins were working behind the scenes to lead the world into chaos and war? What if people’s lives were controlled by drunk gods throwing golden darts at a silver board? What if a great king from the distant past returned to lead his people in their hour of greatest need, except he turned out to be kind of a tool and not very good at this whole leading business? We are very good at thinking through the possibilities and their implications. We need to be just as good at thinking of all the complex possibilities when it comes to gender.

I know, I know — not a lot of practical advice here. Sorry. I thought we needed to get some basics out there. I’ll try to offer some more practical ideas in a later post.

Image: Portrait of Queen Victoria via Wikimedia (Royal Collection, London; 1887; photograph; by Alexander Bassano)

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.

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