Friday, November 5

Patriarchy, Genesis, and Women's rights

It seems to me the conventional wisdom is that patriarchal societies, especially those in the far past like in biblical times in the middle east, give short shift to the idea that women had any sort of rights. In fact, it seems the opinion of the mainstream is that women "through the ages", by which the speaker often means "before the 1970's", has been gone from worse
to merely bad. Women before the 19th century were property, some sort of implicitly slavery implied by the marriage vows.

I think this is quite the overstatement. I'll start by examining several women from the historical books of Genesis, i.e., after Abram.
  • Rebekah - Rebekah chooses Isaac, not the reverse. Abraham sends out his servant to seek out a wife for his son. Then (Genesis 24 v16)
And she came down from the spring and filled her jug and came back up. And the servant ran to her and said, "Pray let me sip a bit of water from your jug". And she said, "Drink my lord". And she hurried and lowered her jug into her hand and let him drink. And she let him drink his fill and she said, "For your camels, too. I will draw water until they drink their fill." And she hurried and emptied her jug into the trough and she ran again to the well to draw water and drew water for all the camels.

The point being, is that Rebekah was not a beaten sullen slavish, piece of property. She saw what she wanted and she went out and got it. In fact, throughout her marriage to Isaac, it can be argued that God worked through her more than her husband and that she "wore the pants in the family."
  • Tamar - Tamar marries Judah's firstborn son. He dies before they have children (male children). As part of the so-called Levirite marriage, she is then "given" to Judah's second son Onan. He dies as well. Judah fears his third (and last son) will die as well if that son marries Tamar (and is apparently quite young). He tells Tamar to wait. Tamar comes to realize her waiting is going to be in vain. She tricks Judah into siring sons instead. Judah, finding she was pregnant, was going to have her killed for adultery, but then upon finding it was he that was the father, admits he was in the wrong. The point here is that Tamar has rights. If women had no rights, or were truly property, this would not have come up.
Speaking to the historical point that in the past "women" were property. It is apparently true that romantic as the "best" reason for marriage came into vogue in the mid 19th century. However, I find it hard to believe that throughout history men (and women) didn't ordinarily come to love their spouse. Or that men didn't love the woman who gave birth to their sons. That a man holding his child in the embrace of his wife thought of her as property. I'll concede freely that women and men's marital futures were both on the blocks among the aristocrats in Medieval times. But that was restricted to the "rich and famous". I will also admit that with few exceptions (such as medieval Wales) women and men had different standing under the law.

But people often confuse the fact that women had defined roles in their society with a lack of rights. Women were expected to be raise children, run the household, or be a prophetess but were largely constrained to "traditional female" roles. Additionally, we are told that in those days, a woman derived her "self-worth" through the accomplishments of her sons, hence the Levirite tradition. But this "limited" role aspect is confused with a lack of "rights". It seems to me, there are far more rights which are often more important than the right to choose your profession. In fact, men just as women through history had little or no choice in that arena. In our modern society today, we have difficulty in identifying with someone who gets their self-worth from another. What we don't understand, we belittle. Today's society has far fewer "traditional" roles for women. This lack of direction in our society leads is one of the factors leading to the weaker family structure we see today. It is a trade off. We have accomplished women everywhere in our society. But we also have the additional psychic strain on husbands and wives as they have to find for themselves without the benefit of much history a way to re-negotiate their respective roles mutating family architecture.

Update: On re-reading this, I decided to add a comment about the Levirite marriage. This is the practice of marrying a women to a surviving son of the husband on the death of a woman's spouse if she had not yet sired sons.

The Levirite marriage was not a "loss of rights" of the woman, in fact the reverse was true. In a society in which a woman sought her self-worth via her sons, having her husband die before granting her a son (or least one) meant she was cheated of what she was to get out of her part of the marriage agreement. It was a responsibilty laid on the sons of her husband's family and not a passing of property within the family. In fact, this is a "right" that women back then enjoyed. Today, we would do not see eye to eye with this practice, but that is because women today do not seek their self esteem in the same way, not because women back then were mere chattle.