Feminism, the Public and the Private

By Joan B. Landes | Go to book overview

--the particularistic, familial ties that civic man must rise above and that some men would attempt to educate/rescue women from.75

While women had the potential to give birth to babies and thus renew populations, inevitably these frail and mortal human lives must, in their turn, end. It was within the abstract masculine realm that the power of infinite and indestructible generativity would lie. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries it was men, through the social contract, who give birth to civil society.76 It was early nineteenth-century engineers and entrepreneurs, through their 'all but miraculous creations', the machines, who appeared to give birth by immaculate conception, and in the process endow machine- based industrial production with women's life-creating function.77 In the later nineteenth century it was only men, it seemed, who 'could give birth to the political entity, the imperishable community of the nation'.78 Such appropriations of reproduction and gestures towards immortality were built upon, as they served to maintain, the division between the public and the private.

We, in the late twentieth century, are the inheritors of a world structured by these categories and these conceptions. They continue to operate subtextually and informally to the disadvantage of women (and other subordinate groups) long after explicit formal restrictions on women's entry into the public realm have been lifted.79 As in every human society, constructing such categories represents our culture's way of coming to terms with the mysteries of creation and of mortality. The difference from all previous cultures is that nineteenth-century England, through its empire and the diffusion of its economic and military dominance, through its values, technologies, and language, had the power--certainly never uncontested but nevertheless always present--to shape not only our destiny but potentially that of a goodly portion of our planet.


Notes
1.
Olivia Harris, "'Households as Natural Units'", in Kate Young, Carol Wolkowitz , and Roslyn McCullagh (eds.), Of Marriage and the Market. Women's Subordination in International Perspective ( London: CSE Books, 1981).
2.
There was an extended debate on this topic in the 1970s, starting with Michelle Rosaldo, joined by Edward Ardener and Sherry Ortner. See in particular Sherry Ortner, "'Is Female to Male as Nature Is to Culture?'" ( 1974), included as Ch. 1 in this volume. This was answered

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