Women’s Search For Equality

From Martin Van Creveld’s Equality: The Impossible Quest

8. Minorities Into Majorities

In many ways, the most interesting modern experiment with equality is the feminist-instigated one concerning men and women. Nothing similar has ever been tried before. In all historically known societies, women have always been subordinated to men. That was true both inside the family and in public life. A century-and-a-half of contact with civilization has made it impossible to say whether women of the Andamanese, the simplest society of all, were permitted to be shamans. But there is no doubt that male shamans outnumbered female ones.[1] That is not necessarily to say women were oppressed. Some women dominated their husbands, as they still do. For every disadvantage under which women labored there were almost always was, and still is, some privileges they alone enjoyed.[2]

The most important privileges were the right to be supported by their husbands (often, in case they had no husbands, their brothers) and the right not to go to war, not to fight, and not to die for their dearly beloved rulers, polities, and countries. In many modern societies, the advent of feminism has caused men and women to be placed on a more equal footing than ever before. The catch is that, in most of the societies in question, women, desperately trying to achieve what they see as equality, no longer bear enough children to maintain the population. Some countries, such as the U.S., are making up for the deficit by importing millions of foreigners. Others, such as Japan, seem resigned to gradual demographic decline and hope that robots will make up the difference. If demographics count for anything, the future of patriarchy— not the comparatively mild form of patriarchy that is said to have characterized the West, but the more rigorous Islamic variety—seems assured.[3] 

Over the ages there have been many “utopian” schemes for putting men and women on an equal basis. Plato wanted his male and female guardians to receive a similar education and engage in similar work on behalf of the city. He could not change the natural inequality that results from pregnancy, childbirth and childcare. But he did propose to take children away from their mothers (and fathers) and have them raised by the community. Starting with the Stoics Zeno (334-262 BC) and Chrysippus (279-206 BC), many other utopian writers, including not least some modern feminist utopias, have followed his suggestion.[6] Other authors sought to maintain the family, and with it, women’s traditional position, as did Thomas More. Some even proposed an end to sex, as in some medieval utopias and a few American utopian communities, or suggested that the link between sex and procreation be cut, as in Brave New World….

Thomas Hobbes believed that men and women in the original state of nature had been equal. However, since his main concern was with order, he had little to say about the position of women in society.[7] Neither Locke nor Rousseau nor Montesquieu extended the kind of equality they envisaged to women. When Abigail, wife of John Adams, asked that the Declaration of Independence be modified to read “all men and women” he ignored her.[8] One of the few, and most interesting, voices calling for gender equality was that of the Marquis de Sade (1740-1814).[9] Today Sade is remembered mainly for his name which gave rise to the term sadism. In reality, though, he was a radical thinker and a good writer who deliberately moved from the banal to the sublime and back again. To Sade the quest for liberty, which at the time stood at the center of public discussion, could not be complete until men and women were put on an equal basis, sexually speaking. Each person, limited only by his or her power, should have the right to do anything with and to anyone he or she liked. Only by carnal knowledge could they learn who they really were and realize their full potential for good and evil alike. In the event, the realization of Sade’s dream had to wait until the invention of the pill in the 1960s. Instead of execrating him, as many of them do, feminists should erect a statue in his honor.

The mother of the present-day drive for women’s equality is often said to be Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797). Wollstonecraft was a disciple of Rousseau whose “sensibility” she greatly admired and whose grave she visited. She was, however, disappointed by his failure to make women equal to men. In her 1792 volume, “A Vindication of the Rights of Women”, she demanded women’s social, professional, economic and political emancipation. Born to a father who did not, as she saw it, carry out his duty to feed his family in a satisfactory way, Wollstonecraft did her modest best to live by her pen without male support. Where she differed from many subsequent feminists was in that she did not blame women’s allegedly sad condition on men alone. Reviewing books for the Analytical Review, she claimed that “lady authors” were “timid sheep.” In their work, “weakness too often is exalted into an excellence”.[10] The problem persists—mainly among feminists who, even as they demand “equality,” often present women as foolish, psychologically vulnerable, and unable to stand up to the machinations of wicked men who somehow succeed in misleading them and subjugating them.

The problem, Wollstonecraft thought, was not natural ability but education. From the beginning of history on, women had been made into “little, smooth, delicate, fair creatures.” They were taught “to lisp and totter” so they could “inspire love.” She felt little but contempt for them. To help them develop “courage and resolution” they should be subject to a “masculine system of education.” As the ancient Spartan agoge demonstrates, though, such a system was likely to be rather harsh, physically and mentally. Probably few women would have chosen to enter it, let alone successfully completed it. In one modern Canadian experiment, out of 100 women who joined a full infantry training course just one graduated. Conversely, no sooner are women admitted to any field then it starts losing much of its rigor, as has happened to basic training in the U.S armed services from about 1980 on.[11] Mary Wollstonecraft herself was well aware of these problems. Having joined her sister in running a school for girls, she believed that most women were only too happy to accept the privileges that men, seeking sex and love, were offering them.[12] Never mind that the price of privilege was subordination.

Generations of subsequent feminists have seen “A Vindication of the Rights of Women” as the starting-shot for a quest of equality that is still going on. Like so much else in the modern world, feminism—the term, incidentally, was invented by Charles Fourier whom we have already met—started in what is now known the West.[13] From there it spread to the rest of the world, with very mixed success. Nineteenth-century European and North American feminists focused on questions such as property rights, divorce, and child-custody. They also demanded admission to educational facilities and the professions, the vote, and the right to serve in public office. By the end of World War I many of these fights had been won, more or less. Even so, the number of women who did paid work outside the home remained much smaller than that of men. Unless they were members of the lowest classes, few married women worked at all. Female politicians did exist, but very few of them rose to the first rank.

During World War II the proportion of working women went up. Still, except in the Soviet Union where they formed a majority even in the mines, they were greatly outnumbered by men. The vast number of casualties their country had suffered forced Soviet women to keep on working even after 1945. Elsewhere, most female workers and soldiers were happy to go home.[14] Communist countries had their own separate version of women’s equality. The Communist Manifesto denied that there was any intention of abolishing the family and instituting a commonality of wives. The leader who took the greatest interest in the question was August Bebel (1840-1913), one of the founders of the German Social Democratic Party. His “Women and Socialism” (1879) remained a bestseller for decades and was translated into some fifty languages. To Bebel, history was a sad tale in which woman had been prevented from participating in society’s productive labor. That in turn forced her into an inferior position inside the family as well as in society. Accordingly, he suggested making men and women equal in respect to family law as well as granting women the vote. Child-raising and cooking would be taken over by the community. As women’s economic dependence came to an end, for the first time in history people of both sexes would be free to choose their partners and live with them for love alone.

In many ways, Bebel’s work formed the basis for the policies adopted in the Soviet Union from 1918 on. Having seized power in a country ruined by war and revolution, the Bolsheviks’ most immediate concern was to restore production. They believed the fastest way to achieve this goal was to draw upon what they saw as the country’s chief untapped source of manpower, i.e. the vast number of women who did not do paid work. It was primarily to enable, not to say compel, them to do so that the nascent communist state carried out some of the most thorough reforms in the situation of women in history.[15] Men’s position as the heads of households was terminated. With it went the distinction between legitimate and illegitimate children. Expecting women to work for a living on equal terms with men, the government made divorce so easy that the family itself was all but abolished. Two prominent women, Alexandra Kollontai and Lenin’s wife Nadezha Krupskaya, drew up utopian plans for communities in which private housing and domestic life would be abolished. Children were to be taken away from their families and raised in dormitories.[16] As we saw, some of those plans were later put in action in Mao’s China, with disastrous results.

However, Soviet women refused to give up their children as Kollontai and Krupskaya, neither having children of their own, wanted them to. If only for that reason, little came of the plans. Even so, the results of communist-style equality between the sexes were not slow to make themselves felt. The number of divorces exploded. That of deserted wives and children desperately trying to survive without male support rose into the millions.[17]

Poverty bred crime as a generation of youngsters was thrown into the streets and forced to live by theft or prostitution. In the late twenties the authorities performed an about-turn. Family law was re-tightened. Kollontai’s works were banned and she herself banished to Sweden where she served as Soviet ambassador. She may have owed her life to Stalin whose mistress she was reputed to have been; several of her collaborators were arrested and shot.

The most important part of the original program to survive this turn-about was the one that sought to take women out of the household and make them take up paid work. Under Stalin the percentage of female workers in the factories skyrocketed. Whereas, under the Tsarist regime, women had not been permitted to enter the universities, now hundreds of thousands of them did so. To make all this possible, free kindergartens were provided. These efforts notwithstanding, the Soviet Union was like all other countries in that women remained over-represented at the bottom of the political and economic hierarchy and greatly underrepresented at the top.[18] The same thing happened later in the Soviet-satellite countries of Eastern Europe.

Meanwhile cramped housing, the need to spend hours queuing for even the simplest consumer goods, and the continued burden of housework made the lives of many women all but intolerable. In the 1930s, women began to respond to the burden equality had imposed on them by having fewer children. Around 1900, the average Russian woman lived in the countryside, looking after the household as well as doing the less onerous kinds of agricultural work. During her lifetime she would have six to eight children, of whom four usually survived. Under the equality regime, the typical Soviet family was urban, with two working parents, one child, and a grandmother to look after him or her became the norm. Around 1980, the regime realized it had a problem on its hands. It tried to put back the clock, but it was too little, too late. The dearth of children affected the urbanized parts of the USSR where the Slavs lived much more than it did the outlying Moslem ones where patriarchy and inequality still reigned. This contradiction, as Marx would have called it, led straight to the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1989-1991.

In 1963 Betty Friedan, author of the “Feminine Mystique”, jump-started the so-called Second Feminist Wave. During an interview she told me that what really got her going was the fact that, working as a journalist, she was twice fired because she was pregnant. Friedan’s main point was that women who stayed at home were likely to suffer from depression, or take to drink, or have an extra-marital affair. To retain their sanity they should leave their homes, work like men, and earn money like men. Exercising a hobby, or doing voluntary works of the kind many upper class women had always done and still do, was not good enough. Conversely, non-working women were responsible for many of society’s ills. If, at the time, the Soviets were ahead of the U.S in the space race that was because more Soviet women worked. If many American men were homosexual, that was because, in their youth, they had been spoiled by bored stay-at-home mothers with too much time and not enough to do. In the view of Friedan, Simone de Beauvoir, and many of their followers, Arbeit macht frei and non-working women scarcely deserved to live.[19]

Since then, so relentless has the quest for women’s equality been that a google.com search on 30 October 2013 yielded 152,000,000 hits. The movement has even brought some change to many Moslem countries. Slowly, and often screaming at the top of their lungs, they are being dragged into the twenty-first century as their women demand equal rights with men. As millions of women took jobs they discovered two things. First, the road ahead was often much harder than they had thought. Men, with good reason as it turned out, feared that their own work would be devalued. Almost always they resisted. Quite often male resistance could be overcome and some sort of equality attained, only through the aid of the courts. Second, working closely with men in an environment originally created by and for men exposed women to “sexual harassment.” The precise meaning of the term has never been clarified. In practice, it meant any attempt to communicate with a woman that she, for whatever reason, did not like and decided to report to her superiors and to the justice system.

At this point a Catch-22 situation emerged. Success in the workplace requires drive, aggression, and a tendency towards dominance. Getting mileage, and often enough money, out of sexual harassment suits presupposes presenting to the world a certain kind of helplessness and vulnerability, real or make-believe. As Wollstonecraft might have written, in such cases weakness, even stupidity as women claim not to understand what men want of them, is exalted into excellence. The two sets of attitudes are contradictory. How can a woman who suffers, or claims to suffer, a life-long psychological trauma because somebody at work tried to make a pass at her be trusted to withstand the pressures that business life very often involves? Perhaps even worse, a woman who complains and fails will never again be approached by any man. A woman who wins her case will be seen as dangerous and men will avoid her as if she were a leper. However one looks at it, the price of equality at the workplace is a truly high one indeed. No wonder many, probably most, women do not complain. Of those who do complain, quite a few are persuaded, if not coerced, into doing so by their feminist sisters.[20]

Of course, women who wanted to work needed someone else to raise their children for them. That was how the Israeli kibbutzim used to operate. Early on, kibbutz women worked in the fields along with men, though it goes without saying that men always did the harder kinds of labor. Later, as children were born, they increasingly found themselves relegated to a life in which they were endlessly rotated between children’s home, kitchen, and launderette. Kibbutz women participated in the kibbutz general assembly and voted in it. However, as in the rest of Jewish-Israeli society, practically all important public positions were occupied by men. In the 1970s, kibbutz women raised the standard of revolt. Some took jobs outside the kibbutz where they did work they found more interesting. They also started demanding to have their children back at home. Once that demand was granted couples again turned into families. Families needed larger houses with kitchens and other amenities to live in. As differential salaries based on performance rather than needs were introduced, communal life started falling apart.[21] As it declined economic inequality between members grew, threatening the kibbutzim’s very existence. Whether they will survive remains to be seen. In all societies, the vast majority of those hired to mind children and do housework were themselves women. The traditional gap between mistresses and maids (paid or unpaid as in the case of grandmothers), continues to exist. More equality for some led to less equality for others. Much worse still, in all known societies since the world was created practically all new discoveries and innovations have been made by men. By adopting men’s life-patterns women mounted a treadmill where they were forever running behind, trying to catch up.[22]

Once they were on the treadmill another problem emerged. For men, money, fame and power have always been the strongest aphrodisiacs of all. For women things do not work in the same way. As Rousseau once put it: “the more you become like us, Mesdames, the less we shall like you.” Almost the only exceptions are women, especially the exceptionally attractive, who succeed in fields where they only compete with other women; such as dancers, singers, actresses, models, women in some kinds of sports, etc.

Women’s quest for equality has even led them into fields for which they are simply not suited; principally to war and the military. There are many physical reasons why women are less suited for war than men. While women may forge ahead and ignore those reasons, experience shows that doing so is dangerous to their health.[23] Judging by the fact that among veterans of the war in Iraq, women are more likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome than men, war is also dangerous to their mental health as well. Some psychological studies reported such a large difference between the sexes that a new kind of disorder, “military-sexual trauma,” had to be invented to explain it away.[24]

In any case, not every woman may feel that attaining the sort of equality ”that the military in particular offers is worth being made to travel seven or eight thousand miles from home, spending months or years in a foreign, mostly underdeveloped, country, and risking death in combat. For many, perhaps most, women the attempt to gain equality by doing as men do has caused more harm than good. It is even now causing the difference in life expectancy between them and men to decline.[25] The point has been reached where many women, by focusing on their careers and refusing to have children, are literally waging war against their own genes. The better educated they are, the more true this is. As has been said, the feminist movements’ cathedrals are the abortion clinics on one hand and the adoption agencies on the other; neither of which enjoy a particularly good reputation.

Throughout all this, the quest for equality has hardly caused the basic relationship between men and women to change. Today, as ever, men protect women and feed them, which itself entails a certain kind of inequality. Today, as ever, the higher one climbs, the fewer women one meets. And some of those one meets are there to create the illusion of equality, not the reality. Many feminists who demand equality do so primarily because they despise women and admire men. Others, by suggesting that women not have children, are bent on making the human race commit suicide. If present trends continue, the societies in which the movement towards women’s equality is strongest are simply doomed to disappear. In fact, as Plato wrote, men and women are similar in some ways but differ in others. The differences are as important as the similarities. Furthermore, a good deal of the attraction between the sexes rests on both the similarities and the differences. Women who try to gain equality with men by acting like men, living like men, and being like men will end up by becoming (second rate) men.

Women who try to exploit the advantages nature has given them to obtain the protection of men and be fed by them cannot and will not be equal with men. Women who are equal with men will in many ways cease to be women at all. The see-saw between equality and protection is as old as human history and is unlikely to ever come to an end. Each of the two approaches, when taken to extremes, has the potential to inflict endless misery on both women and men.



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