I believed they were. I never had any significant contact with feminists, but this seems to be mainstream knowledge. For a couple of months, I’ve been reading history books and trying to find out if it’s really true. I’ve also been reading the “feminist bible” – “The Second Sex” by Simone de Beauvoir.
I haven’t finished either, but feel ready to pass on some knowledge. The latter book says women were oppressed, and it is so because humans are always hostile to those different from them. If two different groups meet, they are hostile to each other until they either acknowledge each other as subjects of one of them wins and oppresses the other. Well, women are different from men, and men see them as “the Other” and are their oppressors, because women arouse men’s hostility. However, Simone de Beauvoir says these things:
- Women, even in her time, aren’t eager to free themselves, and it’s too tempting to remain “an object” and be free of having to make your own decisions. Women often feel good in their role as the Other.
- Even when women get the same rights as men, it’s not enough to free them.
- A subject must have transcendence. Your life only has meaning when you make something bigger than yourself, something that differentiates you from animals. Human beings are different from animals when they have projects: conquer nature, invent, build. Having children is not a valid transcendent project, it’s just a biological function, any animal can do it.
If I was as uninformed and lacking in understanding of other women as Simone, I’d believe point 3 myself. I believe there are women who are more inclined to build, create and invent, rather than raise children. Those would feel like Simone and me and think that other women must be the same way, secretly. It might seem unbelievable to us that someone might actually feel fulfilled doing housework, backing up their man and raising the new generation of well-adjusted citizens. Well, there are people like that and what is transcendence to some, is immanence others. Different women value different things!
End of digression.
Now I will tell you what I found out from history books :). I’ve read mostly about Europe between 1500 and 1750 .
Was marriage expoilative and abusive for women?
Renaissance lawyers considered marriage to be more beneficial to women than to men. During the Reformation (when Protestantism appeared), marriage was given even more value than before. So was sexuality within the marriage (the idea was to serve your spouse with your body, not selfish desire). According to religion, marriages had to be approved by parents, but it wasn’t good to force kids to marry people they didn’t love either. Getting a divorce was messy, you had to give your case to special courts.
Husband’s duties were to provide for wife and kids, defend his home and lead his family and servants. The wife was not seen as a servant (in theory), she had a special role in the house. Also, there wasn’t a policeman at every corner, so when it came to crime, the husband controlled his family, the community controlled the family if the husband couldn’t, and if the community wasn’t enough, the case could be brought to the courts. It doesn’t mean women were never punished for anything by courts, but men were sometimes dragged in as accomplices. A fun example:
“In 1573 William Davy’s wife was accused of “using herself dishonorably”, meaning selling sex, and William was accused of being an accomplice. Without his cooperation, they said, she wouldn’t have been so nasty, because her actions were going on for such a long time”
If the spouses had a physical fight, the neighbors could take matters into their own hands and break their house. A woman spreading gossip would be publicly shamed. Interestingly enough, a man beat up by his wife could also be shamed, or if he was cuckolded by her.
There was a bigger punishment for a wife who hits her husband than for a husband that hit his wife. Each individual family wasn’t private, its condition was important to whole society. The idea was that if the husband’s authority was broken, the family, the marriage and even society wouldn’t survive. An ideal wife was chaste and obedient.
What about the sexual double standard?
Honor was a big deal, and if someone spread rumor about you, you and your neighbors could demand they prove the rumors, to restore your reputation. A man usually had to defend himself against accusations of being a drunkard, thief or a blasphemer. A woman usually defended herself against being called a whore, making her husband a cuckold or other such sexual accusations.
Sex outside of marriage was illegal. The worst was to get children with someone other than your spouse. Not being married and getting kids was also a crime. So was giving birth so quickly after the wedding that it’s obvious you had sex before marriage. In Scandinavia, to begin with, only men got punished for it. Later, it slowly switched over onto women.
Men were usually punished for having kids with others than their wife, impregnating unmarried women and rape with fines. Women were usually punished for prostitution, with physical punishment and chasing her out of town. Killing a baby to avoid single-mom shaming and jailtime lead to jailtime (or death if you repeated it).
A woman could kill her rapist and walk free, if she couldn’t defend herself or run away in the situation. However, killing your husband couldn’t be justified so easily.
Were women denied jobs?
Most people were farmers and made most of what they needed themselves. The man could have some profession and made money on it, but the wife was involved in it and they worked as a unit in both his profession and making food and other things. There was a lot to do every day, and both man and wife did a lot of house work and land work. The wife also made money, often by selling what she grew or made. Even kids had to contribute to economy. If you ask me, I don’t think working in any other way other than as a unit would have sufficed.
However, there were times when women were barred from guilds. Guilds were companies of masters (goldsmiths, watchmakers, weavers, etc.). Guilds were created to protect buyers from crappy products. Women used to be in them, but after a while they got kicked out, especially when times were economically tough. Apprentices viewed women as competition and didn’t want their jobs stolen. Here is a possible interpretation of this:
But for a long time, master’s widows could continue their husband’s trade after his death. The book says they often did it out of necessity rather than desire.
England dealt with its poor by taking poor kids and letting them be taught some trade in a type of foster-family. Non-poor also used this arrangement (kids got taught a trade away from their family). Boys and girls had a wide spectrum of professions to choose from. Furniture-maker, stonemason, engraver, weaver, butcher, surgeon, coal miner, wig maker, shoemaker, dentist, textile jobs. 3-41% of apprentices within these were female. Towards the 19th century, the spectrum got smaller and smaller for girls though.
In 1841, England possessed 512 female blacksmiths and 2966 female coal miners.
Could women publish books?
Yes, as Justine Siegmund did in 1680. It was a textbook on midwifery, concentrating on abnormal births.
Could women get higher education?
No, universities were for men. But the first of them were founded by individuals anyway (professors and students, anyone interested in learning), and they conducted their own affairs like any company, free of outside control, meaning women weren’t entitled to being in them.
However, other schools were founded, often by religious groups of volunteers. Some for boys, some for girls.
1. Beauvoir, S.d., The Second Sex. 1949: Editions Gallimard.
2. Ida Blom, S.S., Bente Rosenbeck, Kvinner i den Vestlige Verden fra år 1500 til i dag. 2005: Cappelen Akademisk Forlag.