Definitions, Reasoning, and Ideas

The-Creation-of-Patriarchy-9780195051858‘Definitions’ is the title of the lone chapter in the Appendix. In it, Lerner defines her use of certain words and phrases. But more interesting than her definitions are her reasoning and ideas. For example, in the first paragraph she observes that ‘the exclusion of women from symbol-making and definition … has prevented women from “coming into consciousness” as women, and it thus has been one of the major props of the system of patriarchal dominance.’ She is ‘part of a group effort by feminist thinkers in a variety of disciplines to rectify’ this exclusion, who ‘face the threefold challenge of correctly defining, of deconstructing existing theory, and of constructing a new paradigm.’ (231)

Oppression is problematic because it …

  • means ‘forceful subordination’; it ‘inadequately describes paternalistic dominance’ (which has oppression but also has a degree of mutuality)
  • ‘conjures up comparisons with the other oppressed groups’ (Blacks, colonials, etc.)
  • ‘implies victimization’

However, unlike the other oppressed groups, ‘the dominance of one half of humankind over the other is qualitatively different from any other form of dominance, and our terminology should make that clear.’ Moreover, ‘the use of a term which obscures this complexity is counter-productive.’ Subordination may be a better term because it …

  • does not connote evil intent
  • allows for mutuality
  • allows for greater complexity

cover_menDeprivation has the advantage over both of the other terms of being objective, but it has the disadvantage of masking and hiding the existence of power relationships.’ However, ‘each word is appropriate to specific aspects of women’s status.’ Lerner warns the reader that ‘the effort to affix one descriptive label to all the different aspects of women’s situation has confused the interpretation of Women’s History.’ (233-236)

Feminism–‘I have long argued the need for a more disciplined definition…. For greater accuracy we would do well to distinguish between woman’s rights feminism and woman’s emancipation feminism.’ Emancipation pre-dates Rights, although it is still not fully achieved; emancipation is not necessarily external (for example, it can refer to one’s consciousness), whereas gaining rights is. (236-237)

Woman’s Liberation–she has the same objections as ‘oppression of women’; it …

  • ‘conjures up political liberation movements of other groups’ (Blacks, colonials, etc)
  • ‘implies victimization’ (237)

gender41-from-thinktankt.wordpress.comSex in the biological sense only has two options: male or female (though Lerner doesn’t mention a creature with both male and female sex characteristics, a hermaphrodite). Gender, on the other hand, is culturally determined and can have many expressions with cultural overtones of morality no doubt–for example, one can define oneself (or be defined) as pre-pubescent, heterosexual (or straight, etc), homosexual (or lesbian or gay, etc), bisexual, monogamous, promiscuous, polyamourous, celibate, etcetera. Unfortunately, society often uses ‘gender’ when it means ‘sex’. The term Sex-Gender System, introduced by Gayle Rubin, helps to clarify this. The term ‘has found wide currency among feminists. It refers to the institutionalized system which allots resources, property, and privileges to persons according to culturally defined gender roles.’ (238) image from

Patriarchy is confusing because it has both a narrow and wide sense. Patriarchy in the West in the narrow sense, ‘absolute legal and economic power over’ females by the male head of the house, began with ancient Greece and ended in the 19th century, but in the wide sense, where it means male dominance in society in general, began long before and persists today, whereas Paternalism (or more accurately Paternalistic Dominance) ‘describes a particular mode, a subset of patriarchal relations … in which the dominance is mitigated by mutual obligations and reciprocal rights.’ Lerner contends that submission under paternalism ends for males when they become head of a household, but for females it never ends. Yet, patriarchy is the word of choice. ‘One of the most challenging tasks of Women’s History,’ then, ‘is to trace with precision the various forms and modes in which patriarchy appears historically, the shifts and changes in its structure and function, and the adaptations it makes to female pressure and demands.’ Hence, the subject of this awarded book took Lerner back thousands of years and consumed her for eight years in research and writing. (238-239)

bring-the-hammer-down-on-sexism-from-takebackthenighthamilton.wordpress.comSexism defines the ideology of male supremacy.’ Sexism is the inward set of feelings and ideas behind patriarchy (which is the outward set of laws and practises and institutions that reinforce male supremacy). ‘Sexism and patriarchy mutually reinforce one another.’ Yet, even when patriarchy ends, sexism remains and patriarchy can be re-established. Racism in the USA, which to a degree parallels sexism, did not re-institute slavery because ‘slaves kept alive an oral tradition–a body of myth, folklore, and history.’ Lerner observes that ‘women deprived of group support and of an accurate knowledge of [their history] … experienced the full and devastating impact of cultural modeling through sexist ideology, as expressed in religion, law, and myth.’ The differences between men and women are less pronounced in pre-industrial cultures. ‘It is no accident that, worldwide, feminist movements begin only after industrialization.’ Striving towards an accurate interpretation of the past can reduce the differences in the present and thus better guide decisions for the future. (240-242) image from

Woman’s Culture has two senses: a cultural sense (where it is an antidote to sexism) and an anthropological sense (where it is the record of ‘familial and friendship networks’). Feminist Consciousness arises when historical conditions are right; it occurs ‘in distinct stages:

  1. the awareness of a wrong
  2. the development of a sense of sisterhood
  3. the autonomous definition by women of their goals and strategies for changing their condition
  4. the development of an alternate vision of the future’

women_at_occupy_wall_street-from-msLerner notes that the development of sisterhood gives rise to new forms of woman’s culture. Women define their own demands and create theory, shifting from androcentricity to ‘woman-centeredness’. ‘In the field of scholarship, Women’s Studies seeks to find a new framework of interpretation from within women’s historical culture, leading to their emancipation. It is only through the discovery … of their roots, their past, their history, that women … become enabled to project an alternate future … [and ultimately to demand] the right to define, the right to decide.’ (242-243) image from ms.

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