Women's History--Our History
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, March 18, 2001
This morning, we’re starting way, way, way, way, way back (even before the Second World War!). Somewhere in Africa, about 40,000 years ago (give or take a couple of centuries), a woman appeared who looked just like us. She walked upright and had a high forehead, a large brain, and sparse body hair. She spoke a language and used tools. She was-- for the first time-- fully human (as we define “humanity” today).
She and her mate were the first homo sapiens, the product of millions of years of evolution. They were also hunter-gatherers, and our first female would have been a natural forager, able to balance the task of gathering nuts and berries with the need to feed and care for her young. The male, with no children to bear and care for (obviously) would have been better suited to go out and hunt for prey. Their two roles-- forager and hunter-- were equally necessary to their race’s survival. Both roles were equally necessary-- and thus, equally respected. Such a society, then, would have been equalitarian-- neither sex would have had more power or status than the other.
Now, let’s jump ahead about 30,000 years: Somewhere between 10,000 and 7,000 years Before the Common Era, both in Southeast Asia and in Southwest Europe, someone-- most probably a female-- began to cultivate crops. The nomadic lifestyle of the hunter-gatherers gradually came to an end. Communities started gathering and settling in particular places to plant and harvest and store foodstuffs after they were harvested. The first permanent dwellings were erected.
This brought with it a really big change, something that would alter the relationship of women and men for a long, long, long time: Men began to domesticate sheep and cattle and other animals and use them for plowing, food, and clothing,. Women, it’s thought, back at home with the kids, developed the art of weaving flax and wool into cloth. For the first time in pre-history, women’s duties kept her inside the home, while men’s took him out of it.
Individuals began to accumulate stuff-- private property (and we haven’t stopped accumulating since). Those who had more livestock and crops could barter their surplus for the goods and services of others. The hierarchy of wealth and class began. Early records also show that, before too long, women and children started being used as a medium of exchange (so much for the “good old days”)-- they were traded away to pay off debts or to cement alliances. Ultimately, the male (through his physical strength alone) became recognized as the head of the household, and could consider not only his stuff and his livestock and his land as his property-- but also his women and his children. And so, patriarchy was born-- and would stick around for (at least) the next 5000 years (and maybe, it ain’t gone yet.)
Patriarchy-- the domination of women by men-- has been a characteristic of nearly all human societies for 5000 years. But it was (and is) hardly a monolithic or consistent institution. It has varied widely from time and place throughout history, down to our own day. Nor has it always meant that all women in patriarchal societies were necessarily powerless or subjugated.
In ancient Egypt, for example, women seemed to have enjoyed nearly equal rights with men. Once they became adults, they were able to inherit and bequeath property and wealth (and this was almost 3000 years ago). An Egyptian woman could sell in the marketplace and work in the fields-- she could even be drafted into the army and proscribed as a forced laborer of the state (such were the “benefits” of equality!). Powerful women in ancient Egypt could be priests and could hold government offices. They could even rule over whole dynasties, as did Queen Hatshepsut.
Likewise, in India during the Vedic Age (that’s between 1500 and 300 BCE), women seemed to have held high status. They could be scholars or teachers, and even wrote some of the vedas, or hymns, of the ancient Hindu scriptures. But as the centuries passed, and power moved from the local kinship group to the centralized kingdom, India became pretty much like every place else. Women’s power declined. By the first century of the Common Era, the law code of Manu declared:
A lot can change (not necessarily for the better) in 500 years-- and it got even worse for women in India: By the year 1000, the practice of suree, the burning of widows on their husbands’ funeral pyres, was widespread throughout India.
Now, back in the Western world, we often consider Athens to be the cradle of democracy and freedom. For some people, maybe it was. It’s true that in Athens, all adult male citizens could vote, hold office, and serve on juries. Women, however, like slaves and children, were not allowed to participate in the work of the city-state. They were to remain at home, completely isolated from the whole of society, day in, day out. Their only tasks in life were to bear children and to take care of the household. The misogynist nature of Athenian society was aptly summarized by that man’s man Aristotle:
As Greece and Rome faded as the pinnacles of Western civilization, two new religions arose in the West to change the course of history-- though not always to uplift the status of women.
In the first four centuries of the Common Era, Christianity spread like wildfire throughout northern Africa and southern Europe. With its radical inclusiveness, and its promise that “the last shall be first”, the new Christian religion seemed to promise great things for the powerless of society-- to the lower classes, to slaves, and significantly, to women.
In the early Christian church, thousands of women took an active role as organizers, evangelists, even as martyrs. Christian women were allowed to attend worship services alongside men, and were allowed to participate in all aspects of church life. Above all, they were acknowledged as the spiritual equals of men (something with which Aristotle would never have agreed).
But while the apostle Paul wrote “In Christ Jesus, there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female”--he also wrote “Women are to remain silent in the churches”-- and early Christianity never completely lost its patriarchal roots. These roots would, in the centuries to come, burgeon forth with further oppression of women at the hands of organized religion.
In the year 610, the prophet Mohammed received his call to preach the faith of Islam, or submission to Allah, the one true God. Early Islamic women prayed openly in mosques and some even became religious scholars. Likewise, in the Koran, Mohammed show no small concern for the rights of women. But as in Christianity, as the years went on, and as the body of Islamic law became systematized, the roles that women in the faith were allowed to play became more and more restricted-- and the penalties against women who refused to obey became more and more severe.
In the year 476, the Holy Roman Empire, which had once spanned across Europe from Britain to Constantinople, finally expired. In the tumultuous centuries that followed (the so-called “Dark Ages”), Europe was buffeted by foreign invasions and internal power struggles. But for women, perhaps, the “Dark Ages” weren’t totally dark after all.
For a time, newly established monasteries and convents became islands of relative peace and stability. Combined monasteries, where nuns and monks lived the religious life together, became increasingly common. The abbesses who often ran these monasteries-- women like Hildegard of Bingen and Julian of Norwich-- were women of great influence and learning-- among the most respected and powerful people of their time.
Likewise, in the feudal world, where ties of family and kinship were paramount, women could also exert greater power. They oftentimes arose as the rulers, military leaders, judges and defenders of their own domains. They managed huge estates and influenced the course of events at Court. As some scholars have observed, women were not to enjoy such varied opportunities and powers again until well into the Twentieth Century!
However, during the years of the High Middle Ages (roughly the 12th through 14th centuries), the power of women gradually withered once again. Scholars within the Church began a long, drawn-out debate on “women’s true nature”. It was a “no win” situation for women no matter how you looked at it: On the one hand, women were held to be weak, ignorant, and docile; they needed to be cared for and watched over. On the other hand, women were said to be-- like Eve herself-- the cause of all evil, to blame for all of society’s problems, the source of all the devilish temptations society faced.
But on the third hand (if you can have a third hand), the cult of Virgin Mary elevated the mother of Jesus to near goddess-like status. Mary, the Church taught, was the one who had erased Eve’s sins by bearing her son, Jesus. By the 14th Century, hundreds of cathedrals had been raised throughout Christian Europe-- every one of them dedicated in honor of “Notre Dame”-- “Our Lady”, the Blessed Virgin Mary.
But any benefit women might have received as daughters of Mary was quickly erased by the institution of a bloody Inquisition to wipe out heresy. Over the next 300 years, thousands of women and men-- ten thousand women for every man, according to one study-- were condemned as “witches” and burned at the stake. During one 16-year period, one single German judge sentenced over 500 witches to die (that’s almost as high as the execution rate than in Texas)... In the city of Wurtemburg, 900 suspected “witches” were burned in one year... In Geneva, 500 were executed in three months... In 1631, on a trip to Cologne, an Italian cardinal named Abizzi (hardly a bleeding-heart feminist) wrote:
For nearly two hundred years between the 15th and 17th century, generation after generation watched as their mothers, grandmothers, sisters, and neighbors were tortured and killed right before their eyes. The first birth pangs of the modern era were marked by the cries of thousands (perhaps hundreds of thousands) of murdered women.
History tells us that the time period in which these heinous crimes were taking place was called the “Renaissance”-- the “rebirth” of classical learning throughout Europe. The Renaissance, we are told, gave rise to new respect for individuality, education, and civic virtue. The philosophy of humanism emphasized human freedom and creativity. “O highest and most marvelous felicity of Man!” one Renaissance philosopher rhapsodized. “To him is granted to have whatever he chooses , to be whatever he wills.”
Man, perhaps. But not necessarily woman...
The Renaissance inherited all of the misogyny of the Classical world along with its learning. To the liberal, educated humanist, a woman was still, somehow, an “incomplete male”, to use Plato’s Classical description. “When a woman is born, it is a defect of nature, and contrary to what [Nature] would wish to do,” wrote the Italian writer Castiglione, with great authority.
As (supposedly) inferior beings, most women were completely barred from imbibing all this “new learning” of the Renaissance. Women who did insist on cultivating their minds and talents usually found themselves bitterly attacked and scorned.
No matter how great their achievements were, women who stepped outside the “accepted” roles of their gender were usual regarded with great suspicion. “A woman’s intellect is notably feebler than that of a man,” declared a French archbishop. But nobody remembers his name today. We do remember that some of the greatest rulers of his era—Isabella of Spain, Catherine de Medici of France, Elizabeth I in England, Catherine the Great in Russia (a little later)-- were all, indisputably, women.
In 1517, a German monk named Martin Luther successfully defied the authority of the Pope, and the Protestant Reformation began. But in spite of Luther’s elevation of marriage and the family (the pious “God-fearing wife” was a special gift of the Almighty, Luther believed), the Protestant reformation was more a “changing of the guards” at the top of the hierarchy, as far as the rights of women were concerned.
But slowly, surely, seeds of change were being planted. Young girls were now, increasingly, being taught to read at home, so that they could learn to read the Bible, and be more efficiently inculcated into the Christian faith. But parents also thought it right and proper for a girl to be married young, in order that she might subject herself readily to her husband’s wishes, and not be given too much time to develop independent ideas of her own. In Italy in the 17th Century, having an unmarried 16 year old daughter (like Juliet in the play by Shakespeare) was considered a matter of great concern-- even public disgrace.
But as the Renaissance entered its final stage, many upper class women chafed at being denied access to the learning going on in society at large. In the larger cities of France, some women started discussion groups (or salons) in their homes, in order to share ideas and imbibe some of the new thinking.
In these French salons, Enlightenment thinkers like Voltaire, Diderot, and Rousseau met and expounded on some of their thoughts on the “rights of man”-- the idea that all people, regardless of social class, have certain natural rights. Some of this talk naturally spilled over into discussions about the rights and roles of women. Here, the thinkers of the Enlightenment differed among themselves. Voltaire denounced the injustice of women’s lot; Diderot agreed that the ideas of women’s inferiority were largely created by society. But Jean Jacques Rousseau disagreed:
The “true calling” of women, Rousseau said is “To please, to be useful to us, to make us love and esteem them, to educate us when young, and to take care of us when grown up, to advise, to console us, to render our lives easy and agreeable: these are the duties of women at all times...”
But for an increasing number of women, rendering the lives of men “easy and agreeable” just wasn’t enough. Writing at a makeshift desk in a London attic in 1791, a young woman named Mary Wollenstonecraft knew that a new dawn was about to break:
It is perhaps fair to say that Wollenstonescraft’s essay, “Vindication of the Rights of Women” laid the foundation for the modern women’s rights movement. The revolutions of 1776 (in the American colonies) and of 1789 (in France) shook the foundations of the Old Order throughout Europe. For if all “men” were “created equal”-- as both revolutions declared-- then might women be the equals of men, as well?
“Remember the ladies”, Abigail Adams declared. Not just as a flip comment from a solicitous wife-- but as prophetic words from a wise woman who knew that a new age was dawning.
A wise woman who knew that to re-member means to re-join with something, to become one with something. When we re-member the past, we unite with it, and we know its power dwelling within us. To re-member can also mean to join together again that which is broken, to heal that which needs mending.
When we re-member the proud history of the women who have nurtured and built and brought to birth the world we have inherited, we take an important step toward healing the pain of the past.
When we remember, we learn the lessons of the past, and join together in building a future in which (as Judy Chicago says) “all that has divided us will merge”.
And if it will not be Eden again (for I don’t think it’s possible for us human ones to build an Eden), it can be, at least a time and place where “compassion will be wedded to power... and all will be strong... and all will live in harmony with each other and the earth...”
And a time and place where all voices will be heard... and all people honored for who they are... and where none will be burned at the stake for being different...
Out of history we have come. Out of a shared human history, women and men together. A history filled with anger. But also a history radiant with hope and courage, and the power of woman and men of goodwill and sacrificial spirit to change the world. A history abundant with so many brilliant forebears-- forefathers, and foremothers, too-- whom we need more than anything to re-member-- so many brilliant forebears“touching our thoughts, touching our lives, like a deep-flowing stream.”