The Process of Becoming

on Women Moving To the Center in Patriarchy
excerpted from Gerda Lerner*

The myth that women are marginal to the creation of history and civilization has profoundly affected the psychology of women and men. It has given men a skewed and essentially erroneous view of their place in human society and in the universe. Most difficult of all was the seeming absence of a tradition which would reaffirm the independence and autonomy of women. It seems in the history of patriarchy that there had never been any group of women who had lived without male protection. All the important examples to the contrary were expressed in myth and fable—amazons, dragon-slayers, women with magic powers. But in real life, women had no history—so they were told and so they believed. And because they had no history, they had no future alternatives.

In one sense, class struggle can be described as a struggle for the control of the symbol systems of a given society. The oppressed group, while it shares in and partakes of the leading symbols controlled by the dominant group, also develops its own symbols. These become, in time of revolutionary change, important forces in the creation of alternatives. Thus, slaves living in an environment controlled by their masters, could maintain their humanity by holding onto their own “culture”. Such a culture consisted of collective memories, carefully kept alive, of a prior state of freedom and of alternatives to the masters’ ritual, symbols, and beliefs.  What was decisive for the individual was the ability to identity him/herself with a state different from that of enslavement or subordination. No matter how degraded, each male slave or peasant was like to the master in his relationship with god. This was not the case for women.They never had a reference to other females in positions of intellectual authority and religious leadership. The few exceptional noblewomen and mystics, mostly cloistered nuns, were unlikely models for the ordinary woman.

Where there is no precedent, one cannot imagine alternatives to existing conditions. It is this feature of male hegemony which has been most damaging to women and has ensured their subordinate statues for thousands of years. The denial to women of their history has reinforced their acceptance of the ideology of patriarchy and has undermined the individual women’s sense of self-worth. Men’s version of history, legitimized as “universal truth”, has presented women as marginal to civilization and as the victim of historical process. To be so presented and to believe it is almost worse than being entirely forgotten. The picture is false, as we now know, but women’s progress thought history has been marked by their struggle against this disabling distortion.

Moreover, for more than 2500 years, women have been educationally disadvantaged and deprived of the conditions under which to develop abstract thought. Abstract thinking is key to creating symbol systems. Obviously thought is not based on sex; the capacity for thought is inherent in humanity—it can be fostered or discouraged but it cannot ultimately be restrained.  But, the generating of abstract thought and of new conceptual models—theory formation—is another matter.  This activity depends on the individual thinkers’ education in the best existing traditions, and on the thinkers’ acceptance by a group of educated persons who, by criticism and interaction, provide “cultural prodding”.

Women being central to cultural development depends on them having private time.  Finally, it depends on the individual thinker being capable of making a creative leap into a new ordering.  Women, historically, have been unable to avail themselves of all these necessary preconditions. Universally, women of all classes have had less leisure time than men and due to their child-rearing and family service function, taking care of food and dirt, food and dirt, an endlessly repetitive cycle. What free time they had was not their own. The time of thinking men has, since the inception of Greek philosophy, been respected as private. Women have for more than 2500 years suffered the disadvantages of constantly interrupted, fragmented time. Finally, the kind of character development which makes a mind capable of seeing new connections and fashioning a new order of abstractions has been exactly the opposite of that required of women, trained to accept their subordinate status and service-oriented position in society.

Academically-trained women, especially in the past hundred years, have first had to learn how to “think like a man”.  In the process, many of them have so internalized that learning that they have lost the ability to conceive of alternatives. The way to think abstractly is to define precisely, to create models in the mind and generalize from them. Such thought, men have taught us, must be based on the exclusion of feelings. Women—like the poor, the subordinate, the marginal— have close knowledge of ambiguity, of feelings mixed with thought, of value judgments coloring abstractions.  Living in a world where they are so devalued, their experience bears the stigma of insignificance. Thus they have learned to mistrust their own experience and devalue it.  Women deal, not with abstractions, but with the particular—they experience reality daily, hourly in their service function—taking care of food and dirt. In their constantly- interrupted time and splintered attention lies a huge barrier. How can one generalize while the particular tugs at one’s sleeve? Why no female system-builders? Because one cannot think in universals when one’s self is excluded from the generic.  He, who makes symbols and explains the world and she, who takes care of bodily and psychic needs and of his children—the gulf between them is enormous.

The social cost of having excluded women from the human enterprise of constructing abstract thought has never been reckoned. For centuries, we find in the works of literary women a pathetic, almost desperate search for Women’s History, long before such historical studies exist. The voices of anonymous women were always present as a steady undercurrent in the oral tradition, in folksong and nursery rhymes, tales of powerful witches and good fairies. In stitchery, embroidery, and quilting women’s artistic creativity expressed an alternate vision. In letters, diaries, prayers, and songs, the symbol-making force of women’s creativity pulsed and persisted.

Women and men have entered the historical process under different conditions and have passed through it at different rates of speed. Recording, defining, and interpreting marks men’s entry into history, and this occurred for males in the third millennium B.C. (3,000 BC).

It occurred for women, and only some of them, with few notable exceptions, in the nineteenth century. Until then, all History was for women pre-History.  

Women’s lack of knowledge of our own history of struggle and achievement has been one of the major means of keeping us subordinate. But even those of us already defining ourselves as feminist thinkers are still held back by unacknowledged restraints buried deep within our psyches. How can our daring thought co-exist with our life as a woman? More immediately, many may fear the threat of loss of communication with, approval by, and love from the man (or men) in our lives. Withdrawal of love and the designation of thinking woman as “deviant” (lesbian, or man-hater) have historically been the means of discouraging woman’s intellectual work. In the past, and now, many emergent women have turned to other women as love objects and reinforcers of self. Heterosexual feminists too have, throughout the ages, drawn strength from their friendships with women, from their chosen celibacy, or from the separation of sex from love. No thinking-man has ever been threatened in his self-definition and his love life as the price for his thinking.  We should not underestimate the significance of that aspect of gender control as a force restraining women from full participation in the process of creating thought systems.

Nor is this the end of our difficulties. In line with our historic gender conditioning, women have aimed to please and have sought to avoid disapproval. This is poor preparation for making the leap into the unknown required of those who fashion new systems. Moreover, each emergent woman has been schooled in patriarchal thought. We each hold at least one “Great Man” in our heads. The lack of knowledge of the female past has deprived us of female heroines, a fact which is only recently being corrected through the development of Women’s History. So, for a long time, thinking women have refurbished the idea systems created by thinking men, engaging in a dialogue with the great male minds in their heads.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton took on the Bible, the church fathers, and the founders of the American Republic. Kate Millet argued with Freud, Norman Mailer, and the liberal literary establishment.  Simone de Beauvoir with Sartre, Marx, and Camus. All Marxist-Feminists are in a dialogue with Marx and Engels and many with Freud. In this dialogue, the woman tends to merely accept whatever she finds useful to her in the great man’s system. But in these systems, woman-as-concept, a collective entity, an individual—is marginalized or subsumed.  In accepting such dialogue, thinking-woman stays far longer than is useful within the boundaries or the question-setting defined by the great men. And just as long as she does, new insights are closed to her.

Revolutionary thought has always been based on upgrading the experience of the oppressed.  The peasant had to learn to trust in the significance of his life experience before he could dare to challenge the feudal lords. The industrial worker had to become “class conscious”, the Black revolutionary “race-conscious” before liberating thought could develop into a revolutionary theory. The oppressed have acted and learned simultaneously—the process of becoming the newly conscious person or group is in itself liberating. So with women.

The shift in consciousness we must make occurs in two steps—we must, at least for a time, be woman-centered. We must, as far as possible, leave patriarchal thought behind.  

To be WOMAN-CENTERED means asking if women were central to this argument, how would it be defined? It means ignoring all evidence of woman’s marginality, because even where women appear to be marginal, this is the result of patriarchal intervention; frequently it is merely an appearance. The basic assumption should be that it is inconceivable for anything ever to have taken place in the world in which women were not involved, except if they were prevented from participation through coercion and repression. We must use methods and concepts from traditional thought systems from the vantage point of the centrality of women.

Women cannot be put into the empty spaces of patriarchal thought and systems—in moving to the center, they transform the system.

To step outside of patriarchal thought means being skeptical towards every known system; being critical of all assumptions, values, and definitions. It means getting rid of the deep seated resistance we have within ourselves, and accepting ourselves and our knowledge as valid.  It means getting rid of the great man in our heads and substituting him with ourselves, our sisters, and our anonymous foremothers. It means being critical towards our own thought, which is, after all, trained in the patriarchal tradition. Finally, it means developing an intellectual courage, the courage to stand alone, the courage to reach farther than our grasp, the courage to risk failure. Perhaps the greatest challenge to thinking women is the challenge to move from the desire for safety and approval to that most “unfeminine” quality of all— intellectual arrogance – that supreme hubris which asserts itself the right to reorder the world. The hubris of the god-makers, the hubris of male system builders.

The system of patriarchy is a historical construct. It had a beginning, it will have an end. Its time seems to have nearly run its course. It no longer serves the needs of men or women and in its inextricable linkage to militarism, hierarchy, and racism it threatens the very existence of life on earth. What will come after, what kind of structure for alternate forms of social organization, we cannot yet know. We are in the process of becoming. This is an age of unprecedented transformation. Yet, as long as both men and women regard the subordination of half the human race, it is impossible to envision a society in which differences do not connote either dominance or submission. Women’s history is an essential tool in creating feminist consciousness in women, in providing the body of experience against which new theory can be tested, and the ground on which women of vision can stand.

A feminist world view will enable women and men to free their minds from patriarchal thought and practice, and at last to build a world free of domination and hierarchy, a world that is truly human.

*The late, great thinker and scholar, Gerda Lerner created the nation’s first Women’s History Program, and created an M.A. in it at Sarah Lawrence College, and a PhD program in Women’s History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She believed that the main strength of patriarchy was ideological, and that in western societies it "severed the connection between women and the Divine".

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