Infra has, both in the comment section to my last post and on his own site, raised some very interesting points. I may not succeed in answering all of them directly but would certainly like to expand on what I have earlier written.
The first place that I would like to start is with Infra's always necessary re-statement of the precautionary principle, "First do no harm" and his warning of the danger of unforeseen consequences. No-one with any knowledge of 20 century history can be in ignorance of the mortal dangers that are inherent in any ideology. No matter how benign its early proponents may be, there are those who cannot see the spirit for the letter and, in pursuit of the perceived "greatest good for the greatest number", sanction atrocity. (Not only sanction, moreover, but steel themselves to perform it. One of the major preoccupations of Himmler, for example, was how to prevent psychological damage to SS personnel whose ideologically motivated actions were in direct conflict with their consciences. I am not, by the way, here implying that Nazism had any benign intentions but merely recognising that many of its adherents did).
Caution, however, should not extend to inactivity. None of us, in anything we do, can be aware of all the consequences of our actions. This is why free and open debate is necessary. What I write, here and elsewhere, is my contribution to the debates about gender, difference, patriarchy, Goddess etc. It is only from such debate that we can minimise the chances of malign consequences from benignly intentioned acts. We can never, however, totally avoid such consequences We might, for example, save a man from drowning - are we then responsible for the subsequent deaths if he turns out to be a serial killer?
Infra sees potential danger in some of my ideas. Good. I do not want, and have never wanted, uncritical acceptance. And I have never really wanted to think safe thoughts but to try to push boundaries - to ask questions and suggest possible answers.
To get more to some of the substance of Infra's criticism. He says that the evidence is that in other, older, cultures gender roles have been less contingent on physical sex. I am not familiar with the particular research on which this evidence is based but it certainly ties in with my own perceptions. And this is my major cause for hope - that there are ways of ordering society in order to accommodate and celebrate human diversity. If I believed there were no such ways, I would have succumbed to despair long ago - or perhaps have remained a Christian so that I could hope for a later paradise.
I am a little familiar with the literature of the later medieval and early modern periods and agree with Infra that the particular construction of gender that now prevails had its origin in the last couple of centuries and that in earlier times it was different in many ways. Also, it is clear that within the gender norms there were at all times variants - some accepted, some tolerated, others proscribed. Gender and sexuality have always had a degree of fluidity. In the medieval period women would be working alongside their husbands in the the various crafts and trades and were even admitted to membership of some guilds. This was particularly true when the ranks of the trades were much reduced by the effects of plague and the widows of members were vital in the transmission of expertise to apprentices. It is also true that women were not unquestioning about their roles and obligations. Chaucer's satirical depiction of the Wife of Bath, for example, with her celebration of experience as opposed to authority, has a very contemporary resonance. Christine de Pisan can also be mentioned in this regard. However, my contention is that such fluidity was only allowed within fairly strictly defined channels. And that this definition was based upon biological difference - with childbearing and rearing being the main social role of women, who, to all intents and purposes, were, unless widowed, legally seen as the property of men.
With regard to classical thinking, there was certainly a great deal of subtlety and recognition of fluidity within it. The problem with such written record, however, is that it is only really fully accessible, even now, to an elite who have had the time and the inclination to devote themselves to study. The rest of us have had to rely on filters - secondary or even tertiary (or beyond) sources. Thus in the later medieval period, these ideas, although studied and discussed in the emerging universities, would only reach the general population through the offices of the often barely literate, and nominally celibate, parish priest- long after any possibly dangerous thoughts were removed. Thus the ideas of the ancients were first filtered through such as Augustine and his precursors and successors, and then through commentary upon commentary before being regurgitated in homily and confessional. Scholars can look at, discuss and admire, for example, the thoughts of Peter Abelard, but, for most, all that is known of him is his love affair with Heloise and his subsequent castration. No doubt this was recounted as a cautionary tale in numerous homilies - rather like certain tabloid newspapers today will, with relish, tell of the dangers of celebrity and too much cleverness.
The officially prescribed line was that the purpose of women was childbearing and rearing. They could choose to renounce this and offer themselves to the Divine Lover, but this was the only really accepted alternative, It also stated that women were inferior - whether by reason of their wandering womb or otherwise. I also believe that this was not universally accepted - but that deviation from it was only tolerated within the limits of "propriety" - which fluctuated in severity from time to time. Gender, as publicly perceived, was built upon the physical differences between men and women. It is still being reinforced. As despite the recession, people are buying for Christmas, many boys will be given toy guns or cars or Action Man while girls given dolls - either of Baby or Barbie. And what would be the reaction to a boy who asked for a doll? Or, having been given one by accepting parents, took that doll to school? My feeling is that this binary division and the values attached to it have their roots in male envy at women's ability to give birth. The fact that not all women are able to or choose to do this is irrelevant to the general perception - besides which there were, and in some cultures remain, very strong restrictions on women's right to choose. And the word envy is deliberately chosen. In my reading of the meaning of these words, envy is the desire to have the possessions or attributes of another whereas jealousy is the desire to keep one's own possessions or attributes to oneself - as in "the lord thy god is a jealous lord". Other cultures may have developed other ways of dealing with this envy - we have perversely and negatively enshrined it.
That there was opposition to this is also clear - for example the appearance and acceptance of women prophets in times of turmoil such as prevailed in England after in the 1640s and 1650s. But after each such aberration, there was a reassertion of the old order. Just as in the late 1940s and early 50s there was the move to get women back into the home. This time, however, there was something new - a large, educated, enfranchised and, for the war years, economically independent group of women. Things could not return. The genie was now out of the bottle - and despite the best efforts of fundamentalists of all persuasions, she will not be tricked back in.
Weekly round-up and open thread
1 day ago