The following text was written by West German feminist Ingrid Strobl in the 1980s. It was translated into English and published in the European anti-imperialist magazine Clash #6 and was subsequently reprinted in the North American anti-imperialist magazine Breakthrough #23 – Fall 1992. Note that much of the historical data on which Strobl bases her claim that between 9 and 30 million women were killed in the European witchhunt has been called into question: see Recent Developments in the Study of The Great European Witch Hunt by Jenny Gibbons.
Though we only know a bit about matriarchy and about certain matriarchal societies from historically factual materials (as opposed to retrospective daydreams), one thing is sure: namely, that patriarchy as a ruling system could only be established after a long and bloody struggle. The proof can be found in European history, in the classic legends and stone tablets depicting the Amazons, in the witch hunts, and also in the ethic of Rousseau and the Napoleonic Code. Yet even after the temporary total defeat of the female gender, over and over again groups of women rose up against what was thought of as their “natural destiny”.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, for instance, numerous groups of women fought for lives which were independent of men. They survived in various ways: as craftswomen, migrant labourers, midwives, or even swindlers. These women refused to be reduced to the role of “reproducer”. Rather they were noisy, insolent, and rebellious, and were actively involved in developing political sects and rebellious movements. They formed a feisty revolutionary potential, and were thus a threat to both the secular and spiritual powers. The witch hunts which accompanied the consolidation of the state were developed as an instrument to suppress these potential and sometimes acute uprisings of those rebellious wives. After the murder of what’s estimated to be between 9 and 30 million women in less than two centuries, the majority of the survivors and descendants were intimidated to such an extent that they subjected themselves to what had become a common patriarchal society. Although all women were not accused, tortured, or killed, the effect was the same. In an atmosphere in which any woman is a potential witch, behaviour which may help to avert the suspicion of oneself is quickly developed.
The middle class revolution of the next century liquidated what was left of female rebellion. The beheading of Marie Antoinette can be looked upon in this light. The infamous Marie was decapitated not only because she was queen but also as a symbol of the “immorality” of the old society. Long before her death, male revolutionaries had started a campaign in which the queen was portrayed as the personification of decadence: nymphomaniac, lesbian, adulteress, power crazed. Last but not least, she was accused of keeping contact with poisoners and witches. The revolutionary Olympe de Gouges suspected the deeper meaning of this campaign and had her head chopped off too. But the ordinary run of middle class women went along with this sexist garbage to the point where they wanted the queen’s head even before that of the king.
Because of their ability to bear children, women were entrusted socially with the task of child rearing and reproduction as a whole. This became a burden which curtailed their social and political influence. Many theorists, including some feminists, attribute this gender role to “natural” biological differences, thus consolidating women’s role through biological determinism. These theories, however, ignore the fact that, rather than being unchangeable, both reproductive and social work were formed and have evolved over time.
An example is the historical development of child-rearing. Until long into the 18th century, children were not “raised”. Instead, they were fed and grew up in their mother’s family or social group. Babies were put in carrying boxes so that they could be laid down somewhere during work – whether in the fields, the stable, the workroom, the forage-wagons, or on the barrow of the travelling market-woman. Unwanted babies were often killed or given to a midwife to raise until they were no longer a hindrance. So- called mother love, in the way that we know it today, is a middle class invention. Reproductive work didn’t always mean what it means today – that the “housewife” has to handle it all herself.
This reduction of the woman’s role to that of child rearer did not take place for the greater number of women. Women participated in trade, in agriculture, in the factories. Women were always present – in some periods so much that their position was challenged by their male contemporaries. Examples can be found in the struggles of craft guild women, midwives, beer-brewing women, and others. In the 19th century, the developing German workers’ movement collaborated with reactionary tailors to bring the women- controlled trade of tailoring into the hands of men.
The fact is that women are required to do not only reproductive work, but productive work as well. In reality they are doubly burdened, while in society’s eyes they’re not seen as doing any work at all. Patriarchal theory and social politics have systematically worked on making the woman invisible, by excluding her from daily life where it was possible to ignore her. This invisibility was propagated for so long that she herself began to doubt here existence, began to see herself as merely an appendage to a man.
All of this is not to deny biological differences between men and women, especially in the reproduction of the human race. The man only carries the sperm, while the women has to do all the rest: bringing together the sperm and egg, ripening the egg. the developing the fetus into a child, giving birth, and finally nursing the child.
If a society were organized around the simplest principles of fairness, it would be obvious that, after the birth of the child, it should be the father’s task to take over. He should be responsible for caring for the baby, since, after all, up to that point he was rather idle in its reproduction. There is no reason at all, neither physical nor psychological, why the biological mother should be indispensable in caring for the newborn child.
The ability of women to give birth also causes other burdens and, although they exist in nature, they are conditioned by society as well. Monthly menstruation is one of these. But paramount is the fact that women, unlike other animals, are fertile all year around and can always be made pregnant. A continual state of pregnancy not only weakens the woman’s body, but limits her participation in society. Women therefore experience a permanent threat: their whole way of life is limited just by the sexual act.
Women’s experience has consequences not just for their social existence as a whole but for their sexuality and views of sexuality. Too often the woman becomes resigned to her state, at the same time as the man becomes aware of his power: his ability to make the woman pregnant and thus weaken her. Society needs to be organized differently in order to address this situation; women need to be given more power to complement the biological vulnerability of childbirth and reproduction.
There have been times in European history in which women were capable of redressing this imbalance. From the beginning of history women have developed methods of birth control which allowed them to regulate their fertility and uncouple their sexuality from the dictates of reproduction. In other words, sexuality could become a pleasurable experience.
By the time of the tradition from matriarchal society to the patriarchy, a large part of the female population had already been deprived of these contraceptive skills and only a few specialists, the midwives, could offer them help. This explains why midwives and so-called wise women were the first to be criminalized in the witch hunts. In the end women had to be deprived of their ability to control their own fertility, so that they would be at the mercy of men.
Hereafter, heterosexual women could only control their fertility by mutilating themselves: by totally giving up their sexuality, by subjective to barbarous and often murderous abortion practices, and by acquiring the ideology of female asexuality or frigidity and, even, internalizing it.
The decent middle class female was unacquainted with feeling of pleasure. Her body was an instrument for the satisfaction of men and for reproduction. The price a man had (theoretically) to pay for this satisfaction was either taking care of one legally inferior woman for life or paying by the hour for a prostitute.
Kant’s rather sober statement – that marriage is a contract for the mutual use of the sexual organs – was already an anachronism at the moment of its formulation. Certainly from the time of the French revolution, when the uncontrollable fishwives of Paris became domesticated middle class women, mutuality was out of the question. Only the woman’s body was used: by the man to satisfy his growing sexual needs, by the woman to obtain some “social” advantages. For the woman, here body was no longer a source of delight, but simply an apparatus, the use of which she could sell in exchange for other goods of equal value: either a one-time sale to a single user or one that would be repeated again and again to multiple users. The necessary support, care, and cleaning of the machinery was guaranteed in the first case by the one-time buyer, the husband. In the second case, the woman had to bear the costs herself, resulting in a higher sales price – and faster deterioration of the machinery. In this way, women experienced an alienation far deeper than a worker’s from the production of her labour. For, while as a wage labourer, a women sold her labour power – for example, the skills of her hands – as a women she sold herself entirely.
The most humiliating picture of female slavery and alienation is that of the married woman who, full of loathing and antipathy, lies resigned and completely abandoned under her possessor, wanting only one thing: that he finish quickly. This radical depersonalization of a woman’s sexual identity has far-reaching effects on her whole identity. And this is true for the identity of the man as well. He is confident in his wife’s willingness, but her resignation bores him and drives him to search for variety among “immoral’ women. They not only sell hem their bodies, but for an extra fee give him the illusion that he experiences and gives delight. So, the original intent – to give and receive delight – is perverted into a lie for sale, a luxury which can be regulated and controlled, a fantasy. In reality, the man doesn’t want to see the independent autonomous delight of the woman, because it threatens him. It is a sign of self-reliance, of independence. It is something to be denied women, because it attacks the power base of men.
On this basis, which is the result of a social development so deeply anchored that it has become second nature for both genders, men feel themselves strong enough and confident enough to try to appropriate women’s attempts to liberate themselves. thus, in the early revolutionary stage of the Soviet Union, initial attempts at sexual liberation promptly changed into their opposite. When women like Kollontai advocated the dismantling of marriage as a forced structure and called for free love, every man who did not directly disapprove of such demands joined their ranks. The girls of the Komsomol were now under pressure or even forced by their male colleagues to be sexually available. If they refused to be at the men’s disposal, they were branded as counter-revolutionary and effectively blackmailed.
Something similar occurred during the sexual revolution of the 60s. Women who refused to sleep with everybody and join in any and all sexual games were denounced as reactionary and frigid. What happened then in limited, quasi-elite circles has become a mass phenomenon in today’s porno-drenched male society.
The Love Connection
Simone de Beauvoir once laconically observed, because you cannot make women believe that their greatest happiness comes from scouring pots and doing laundry, you must make them believe that they do it out of love. With the political and social entrenchment of the middle class, which followed the overthrow of the aristocracies of Europe, marriages of convenience were replaced by marriages of “love”. At least that’s what marriage partners tried to make themselves believe.
The working class had the idea drummed into their heads that the petty-bourgeois family based on love was a sign of social progress, an escape from a backstreet existence. This propaganda landed on fertile soil. In the case of men, this ideology strengthened their social status and actual power over women. It gave women the illusion that they could be liberated from the production-labour portion of their double burden. And, as de Beauvoir asserted, they found the scouring of pots out of love more acceptable than the scouring of pots out of slavery.
Beneath this constructed ideology, however, lives a real human desire for companionship, love and sex. It was this need, taking different forms throughout the course of history, which has channelled into the strait-jacket of “love”. It became one of the most effective levers of patriarchal power, next to the actual application of violence. It’s the most radical, strongly anchored obstacle to her liberation that a woman encounters: namely that she “loves” her possessor, that she looks to her private rapist for protection for a rapist who is a stranger, that she has gained her very identity from the “acceptance” of her opponent.
The base of middle-class patriarchal power rests on a three- part constellation: 1) the dependency of the woman who lacks power or knowledge to control her own fertility, 2) the ongoing alienation of the woman from her own body as a source of pleasure, and 3) the simultaneous numbing of the female consciousness by the drug “love”. Denying any of these deprives a “revolutionary” theory of its revolutionary quality.
That men remain silent about the sexual relations of power is logical. Their self-indulgent sexual behaviour has become second nature in the process of establishing and expanding patriarchal power. It’s a part of their identity, which is threatened in its totality when this part is abandoned. That women remain silent about this is in part connected to their identification with the aggressor and his theories. And it is also connected to the fear, by the (female) slave, of the shivers of freedom. In this way, the sexual relation between the genders – based on violence and forming the foundation for economic and social relations, and therefore needing to be overturned in the most radical way – is disregarded, even by those who are at this moment busy fighting relations of violence and power.
The Woman-Friendly Sexists Of The Left
Just as their are smart racists, there are smart sexists. Their well established tactic is to encourage women to believe that their ability to give birth confers special qualities: women as a gender are better human beings, more loving, more tolerant, more caring, more peaceful and considerate of life. This suggestion implies, on the one hand, that men don’t have to learn these qualities, and that women, on the other hand, should keep their distance from “male” (as defined by men) qualities. Many women let themselves be drugged by this narcotic, so that they don’t have to accept and change their real position as unequal, dependent, exploited and humiliated beings.
The radical left variation of this smart sexism is the romanticization of reproduction as a domain of subjectivity, a sort of enclave which so far hasn’t been demolished by the order and rationalism of capitalism. This variant of “woman-friendly” sexism denies the dependency-creating, isolating, obtuse, monotonous, and neurotic character of domestic work. This kind of work consists for the most part of endlessly repeated activities, “Sisyphus” work. The cleaned plates are used, get dirty, have to be cleaned again and so on ad nauseam. The floor’s cleaned, it’s walked over, get dirty again, has to be cleaned, and on and on.
The lie, or self-deception, of these left sexists is exposed by their fantasy images. They demand, at the most, a socialization of these activities by the man, either privately or collectively. In his fantasies, the male revolutionary does not see himself washing the dishes, doing the laundry or cleaning toilets. If he has to do these kinds of necessary duties at all, he does them with aversion, as a duty or concession (often forced to it by female housemates). But in his revolutionary theory, although these nasty tasks are left automatically to women, the left man manages, through a kind of revolutionary magic, to transform the unpleasant character of domestic chores into a thoroughly humanizing activity.
It would be naive to believe that the regulating of human beings, something which has become second nature, could be negated by a decision, by a revolutionary deed. For an interminable time, it can only be brought up again and again as a subject for discussion through a long-lasting and tough struggle. It will bring the revolutionary women again and again into conflict with her comrades and with “normal” people. These societal “norms” appeal to the love of ease, because it’s always less tiring comply with them than to fight them, socially as well as personally. Society tells the revolutionary woman: “You can only make yourself heard and understood by normal people, the masses, if you start to behave normally yourself.”
It’s not an outside enemy against which the revolutionary must fight: the norms are hidden deep inside and closely intertwined with the material which makes him a social being. In order to fight against it he has to destroy part of himself. This is also the case for the revolutionary woman. She must destroy the (female) slave inside herself, just as the male revolutionary has to destroy the ruler in himself. She struggles for her victory as a human being, but he must struggle for his defeat as a man. The norm that is inside of him makes him blind to the goal that the revolutionary woman struggles to attain: the creation of the human being. The concrete advantages of his maleness obstruct his view of the unimaginable advantages of being human.
That’s why the male revolutionary again and again swerves onto the terrain that he can oversee, that of pure economy. That’s why he denies the political in the personal, his own involvement as a profiteer in the relations of power. That’s why he falls back into petty-bourgeois idealism, into total personification, as soon as the terrain shifts to the contradiction between the sexes and his personal contribution to its abolition. As a revolutionary man, he acknowledges the societal conditions of human existence. But in the meantime, he can shirk away from history and declare, as stubbornly as a child, “But I’m not like that!” In the worst case of all, men are evil, but he’s the friend and helper of women.
Women who struggle against the power relations between women and men, women who have declared war upon the patriarchal norm – that tough and grim enemy of being human – women who want to radically abolish the ruling relations, their dominion in the true sense of the word – we women have no need for male comrades who look upon themselves as our friends. But we do need male comrades who are prepared to become the enemy of the man.