Academic journal article Journal of Research in Gender Studies

Patriarchal vs. Non-Patriarchal Explorations of Feminine Traits

Academic journal article Journal of Research in Gender Studies

Patriarchal vs. Non-Patriarchal Explorations of Feminine Traits

Article excerpt

In a time of shifting social interest from masculine to feminine attributes, a welcome contribution to social change may consist in comparatively discussing the ways in which femininity has been approached up to now.

The main question of past and present explorations of feminine traits has until recently been "how can we define femininity?" In my view, this question has received three historical answers before getting to be itself questioned. In this paper I aim to present the "destiny" of the attempts to define femininity and the way in which these attempts have themselves come to be replaced and left behind.

1. The first approach to femininity has been by reference to masculinity. By what kind of reference? By inferiority. Man was considered to be the human prototype, masculinity was culturally declared to be the human condition, even the human essence. To be a human being still is, in many languages, including English, to be a man - while mankind is equivalent to humankind.

A woman was "less than a man," and because of being so regarded she was "less than a person" or "less of a person." Women were not as powerful as men, not as intelligent as men, not as competitive as men and the list seemed to go on forever, lowering women to a position of permanent inferiority. (Alas! To ancient Greeks, women were not even as beautiful as men.)

Therefore, women also became not as relevant as men, not as deserving as men, not as honored as men. A woman's potential was not considered to be comparable to a man's potential, nor was she believed to possess the capabilities required to develop that potential. She seemed not to be worth the social pain of a proper cultural education. She was destined to stay "in the kitchen."

What was a woman, according to this perspective? She was merely a frail, vulnerable, irrational "quasi-human being," almost a pitiful excuse for a human being. Existentially, she was even less justified to exist. Sometimes she was not conceived of as having a soul. She had the social status of a slave, with no right to vote, to education or to opinion.

Being a woman simply seemed not to be enough. Illustrative for this perspective are jokes such as the following:

A person having undergone sex change (or "gender reassignment") surgery is asked, "What was the most painful part of the process?" The answer is "The part that hurt the most was when they cut off half of my brain."

The obvious consequence of this conception was the tendency to reify women, to transform them into objects of possession, of pleasure, of reaching ends such as having children in order to ensure heir continuity and so on. Only in this paradigm is polygamy possible, along with other (not entirely) forgotten customs such as buying a wife or burning alive all the surviving wives of any man along with his corpse. Also here we find the land senior's right to a bride's first night.

Men owned women, they sexually possessed them and, as for the way in which all human beings were conceived, women were believed to be mere receptacles for men's "seeds:" they could only receive the semen and allow it to develop inside their more or less healthy or "appropriate" wombs - so that, if the baby did not live up to expectations, exclusively mothers were to blame or to follow specific treatment.

What was the social explanation for the development and centennial flourishing of such a perspective on women? Western society was in love with (masculine) rationality and structure, with order and progress, with the promise science had made to help us control nature and reach God.

However, the consequences of this social paradigm were both painful and costly. Men had wives who ran their homes, raised their children and shared their lives, but did not know they could have actual partners, since they regarded women as tolerated, dependent beings, at best objects of passion, but also of compassion. Women were not able to develop their full potential or, if they somehow received a proper education or self-education, they had to hide their gifts and withhold expression of their talents. …

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