This is Part II of a three part post. Part I is here.
I’m still trying to fathom how to break down this masterpiece; hopefully by Part three I will have worked it out. Meanwhile I’ve summarized Chapter two, because this is the part that makes me want to dash out immediately to order some T-shirts or print out some bumper stickers…
Chapter Two: The Theory of Sexual Politics
When she uses the word “politics” Millet is not referring to the narrow definition that we usually associate with the term: of meetings, chairmen and parties. In what she calls her “notes on a theory of sexual politics” (Chapter Two) she proves that sex is a status category with political implications.
I’ve chosen the ideas that stood out for me, and assembled them in the categories below. Choose your favourite!
Government is upheld either through the consent of the people, or violence. Patriarchy uses an effective mix of both. Millett looks at the way consent is obtained through the “socialization” of both sexes with regard to temperament, role and status.
“Temperament” refers to the socialization of humans into stereotyped lines of sex category–“masculine” and–“feminine”. Both masculinity and femininity support male dominance because both are: “…based on the needs and values of the dominant group and dictated by what its members cherish in themselves and find convenient in subordinates: aggression, intelligence, force and efficacy in the male; passivity, ignorance, docility, “virtue” and ineffectuality in the female.” (p.26)
“Role” refers to the sex roles, which complement masculinity and femininity. A highly elaborate code of conduct, gesture and attitude are ascribed to each sex: “… in terms of activity, sex role assigns domestic service and attendance upon infants to the female, the rest of human achievement, interest and ambition to the male. The limited role allotted the female tends to arrest her at the level of biological experience. Therefore, nearly all that can be described as distinctly human rather than animal in activity is largely reserved for the male.” (p.26)
“Status” follows from these assignments, in that what has been assigned to the female is given low status.
Human males are built bigger with a heavier musculature, which is a secondary sexual characteristic common among mammals. And yet it is irrelevant to the subject of political relations within civilization. Male supremacy does not depend on physical strength, but in the acceptance of a value system, which is not biological.
“Superior physical strength is not a factor in political relations–vide those of race and class….At present, as in the past, physical exertion is very generally a class factor, those at the bottom performing the most strenuous tasks, whether they be strong or not.” (p27)
Whatever the “real” differences between the sexes may be, we are not likely to know them until the sexes are treated differently, that is alike. (p.28)
Biology, of course, should never be confused with gender. Sex is biological, gender psychological (and therefore cultural). She quotes Stoller:
“Gender is a term that has psychological or cultural rather than biological connotations. If the proper terms for sex are “male” and “female”, the corresponding terms for gender are “masculine” and “feminine”; these latter may be quite independent of (biological)sex. “(p.30)
Millett concludes that because of our social circumstances, male and female are really two cultures and their life experiences are completely different. This early conditioning, imposed on children by parents, peers, and the culture’s notions of what is appropriate, is crucial.
“Patriarchy’s chief institution is the family.” (p.33) It is the first of the three patriarchal institutions: the family, society and the state. The fate of one depends heavily on the functioning of the other two, which is why both the state and society support the nuclear family. Religious and secular states designate the father as “head of the household” an idea supported by financial incentives or grand statements. The status of women within marriage in every patriarchy has always been grim: “Traditionally, patriarchies granted the father nearly total ownership of wives and children, including the powers of physical abuse and often even those of murder and sale.”(p33)
The chief contribution of the family is socialization of the young, especially with regard to the prescribed temperament, role and status, and to insure that its crucial function and socialization of the young takes places only within its confines, the patriarchal family insists on legitimacy. Men own property, and women, generally don’t own much at all, therefore as proprietors, men need to be sure that their private property and wealth is not being invested in a cuckoo. Patriarchy also decrees that the status of both the mother and the child are dependent upon the male.
“While we may niggle over the balance of authority between personalities of various households, one must remember that the entire culture supports masculine authority in all areas of life–and outside of the home–permits the female none at all.” (p.35)
Millet puts forward strong and clear views on the subject of class, but I will leave those aside for a moment and look at her interesting take on love, especially the way that Western patriarchies seem to rely on the concept a little more than Eastern ones in order to consolidate their power. It might not be because Western men are more loving but perhaps because they are more patronizing.
“It is generally accepted that Western patriarchy has been much softened by the concepts of courtly and romantic love. While this is certainly true, such influence has also been vastly overestimated. In comparison withe candor of “machismo” or oriental behaviour, one realizes how much of a concession traditional chivalrous behaviour represents–a sporting kind of reparation to allow the subordinate female certain means of saving face. While a palliative to the injustice of woman’s social position, chivalry is also a technique for disguising it. One must acknowledge that the chivalrous stance is a game the master group plays in elevating its subject to pedestal level. Historians of courtly love stress the fact that the raptures of the poets had no effect upon the legal or economic standing of women, and very little upon their social status. As the sociologist Hugo Beigel has observed, both the courtly and romantic versions of love are “grants” which the male concedes out of his total powers.” (p.36)
If men loved women, they would not allow the two-tier caste system to continue. Moreover the emphasis (or obsession!) on romance in the West serves to conceal the patriarchal nature of those societies. Romance is a double edged sword because it also depends on a woman being slotted into a caricature of the virtuous woman, a good woman worthy of being romanced. In this way, impossible virtues were attributed to women. Millet adds that: “It was a Victorian habit, for example, to insist the female assume the function of serving as the male’s conscience and living the life of goodness he found tedious but felt someone ought to do anyway.”
During the seventies (perhaps less so now) the concept of romantic love also served as a means of emotional manipulation: because women were conditioned to be “good” , it is only if they loved their partner that they were ideologically pardoned for sexual activity. Indeed some women may only have been able to let go sexually and lose their inhibitions this way. Recent social developments have altered this and now the pendulum has swung the other way: it is impossible for woman to escape sexual intercourse with men, it is expected of her no matter how brief the affair, whether she is in love or not.
Economic and Educational
Patriarchal government works efficiently due to the economic hold it wields over its female subjects. In traditional patriarchies (until very recently in most countries), women were “non-persons” without legal standing, and could neither own nor earn. That is not to say women didn’t work. Women have always worked, doing the most strenuous and routine tasks. The issue here is not labour, but economic reward. (In the UK, for example, only women operated the windlass down the coal mines, as it was very dangerous and their lives were more expendable).
Women’s distance from high technology–large scale building construction, the development of computers, the moon shot etc– is great. If knowledge is power, power is also knowledge, and a large factor in their subordinate position is the fairly systematic ignorance patriarchy imposes upon women. (p.42)
“Traditionally patriarchy permitted occasional minimal literacy to women while higher education was closed to them. While modern patriarchies have, fairly recently, opened all educational levels to women, the kind and quality of education is not the same for each sex. The difference is of course apparent in early socialization, but it persists and enters higher education as well. “(p.42)
Control over certain fields is very clearly about political power. The exclusive dominance of males in the most prestigious fields directly serves the interests of patriarchal power in industry, government and the military.(p.42) It can also be argued that when women are encouraged to concentrate on the “inferior” sphere of culture through studying the humanities, it is similar to when they once cultivated “accomplishments” in preparation for the marriage market. Achievement in the arts and humanities is still largely reserved for males.
“We are not accustomed to associate patriarchy with force. So perfect is its system of socialization, so complete the general assent to its values, so long and so universally has it prevailed in human society, that it scarcely seems to require violent implementation. Customarily, we view its brutalities in the past as exotic or “primitive” custom. Those of the present are regarded as the product of individual deviance, confined to pathological or exceptional behaviour, and without general import. And yet, just as under other total ideologies (racism and colonialism are somewhat analogous in this respect) control in a patriarchal society would be imperfect, even inoperable, unless it had the rule of force to rely on, both in emergencies and as an ever-present instrument of intimidation. (p.43)”
Patriarchies institutionalize force against women through their legal systems. For example, strict patriarchies implement prohibitions against illegitimacy or sexual autonomy. The punishment (for women, not for men) is death. In Saudi Arabia the adulteress is stoned. Men are not punished unless in the case of property interests, that is, if the woman they had relations with “belonged” to another man. The death penalty for illegitimacy also manifests in countries where women are deprived of safe abortions.
Emotional response to violence against women in patriarchy is often curiously ambivalent; references to wife-beating, for example, invariably produces laughter and some embarrassment. Exemplary atrocity, such as the mass murders committed by Richard Speck, greeted at one level with a certain scandalized, possibly hypocritical indignation, is capable of eliciting a mass response of titillation at another level. At such times one even hears from men occasional expressions of envy or amusement. In view of the sadistic character of such public fantasy as caters to male audiences in pornography or semi-pornographic media, one might expect that a certain element of identification is by no means absent from the general response. Probably a similar collective frisson sweeps through racist society when its more “logical” members have perpetrated a lynching. Unconsciously, both crimes may serve the larger group as a ritual act, cathartic in effect. (p.45)
Anthropological: Myth and Religion
Anthropology, religious and literary myth lay bare men’s convictions about women. “The image of women as we know it is an image created by men and fashioned to suit their needs. These needs spring from a fear of the “otherness” of women.” (p.46) This “othering” is necessary because it can be used as a rationale, whereby men justify the inferior status of women, using their “otherness” to explain the oppression in their lives.
A constant in every patriarchy is the feeling that women, particularly their sexual functions, are impure:
“Nearly all patriarchies enforce taboos against women touching ritual objects (those of war or religion) or food. In ancient and preliterate societies women are generally not permitted to eat with men. Women eat apart today in a great number of cultures, chiefly those of the Near and Far East. Some of the inspiration of such custom appears to lie in fears of contamination, probably sexual in origin. In their function as domestic servants, females are forced to prepare food, yet at the same time may be liable to spread their contagion through it. They are considered filthy and infectious, yet as domestics they are forced to prepare food for their queasy superiors. In both cases the dilemma is generally solved in a deplorably illogical fashion by segregating the act of eating itself, while cooking is carried on out of sight by the very group who would infect the table. With an admirable consistency, some Hindu males do not permit their wives to touch their food at all.” (p.47)
Patriarchal myth and religions blame women for all the ills in the world, rather than placing the blame at the feet of the men who are actually committing the crimes.
A witty experiment by Phillip Goldberg proves what everyone knows, that having internalized the disesteem in which they are held, women despise both themselves and each other. This simple test consisted of asking women undergraduates to respond to the scholarship in an essay signed alternatively by one John McKay and one Joan McKay. In making their assessments the students generally agreed that John was a remarkable thinker, Joan an unimpressive mind. Yet the articles were identical: the reaction was dependent on the sex of the supposed author. (p.55)
Just like all minority groups (minority in terms of status), women experience group self-hatred and self-rejection, “a contempt for both herself and her fellows–the result of that continual, however subtle, reiteration of her inferiority which she eventually accepts as fact.” (p.56)
Most women find the situation too hard to bear, in which case denial becomes an important self-preservation mechanism.
“As with all marginal groups, certain women are accorded a higher status than others so that they may police the rest…It is a common trait of minority status that a small percentage of the fortunate are permitted to entertain their rulers.. Women entertain, please, gratify, satisfy and flatter men with their sexuality. In most minority groups athletes or intellectuals are allowed to emerge as “stars”, identification with whom should content their less fortunate fellows. In the case of women both such eventualities are discouraged on the reasonable grounds that the most popular explanations of the female’s inferior status ascribe it to her physical weakness or intellectual inferiority. Logically, exhibitions of physical courage or agility are indecorous, just as any display of serious intelligence tends to be out of place.” (p.58)