Thanks again to Gary for elevating the level of analysis in the commentary on my recent post about Sarah Palin’s counterintuitive relationship to feminists and conservatives (my point being, roughly, that all women are not liberals and all conservatives are not men). Gary noted that the relationship is only counterintuitive according to liberal mythology, and remarked that “it seems like liberals are at long last required to acknowledge another sort of feminism, one that conservatives have always accepted. It’s something like has happened with environmentalism. Peel away the partisan cruft from environmental notions and you have something that everyone is always already supporting…. To me it seems that there are several legitimate claimants to the idea of feminism and that the unbiased observer would have to include them all in any comprehensive definition.”
My target in the post was what I very loosely called “pop feminism,” by which I meant that basket of commonplaces about women’s oppression by patriarchy celebrated as self-evident truth by folk liberals and derided as self-evident crap by folk conservatives. Gary is quite right that feminism understood as an interest in the condition of women encompasses a much wider variety of positions, ranging from entire satisfaction with the special power and authority already enjoyed by women in traditional social relationships to critical incredulity toward ‘woman’ as a category of being. My own feminism is of the latter sort, although I would not dream of denying the conventional solidity and real consequences of gender constructs and therefore accept the situated logics of the former sort and all points in between.
In fact, as a historian and social analyst I think it’s very important not to let critical ideals, let alone habits of mind, feed back too quickly into the selection and interpretation of the data. Perhaps it helps that I was trained as an intellectual and cultural historian, so I always already know better than to take the truthiness of any particular conceptual schema too literally. But it should be that studying anything about the past or any other instance of ‘otherness’ ought to stimulate this insight. (It often doesn’t; why is a long story.) This is therefore the primary mission of my classes.
Back to feminism. Having grown up in a rural area dotted with family farms, and being married to Rachel who grew up throwing cows around on a subsistence farm, I know Gary is correct that there are socially conservative communities in which the strength and authority claimed by Sarah Palin as a woman, wife and mother is familiar and comfortable. The most common division of labor assigns men to the public and women to the private sphere, but in practice the borders of those spheres are quite fluid and contextually negotiable. Things need doing and everyone pitches in. It is never surprising to see one of these women whose interest is aroused appear in public to represent it, nor would she be stigmatized for doing so. But her authority to shape the family’s discourse at home often means that she can rely on her men to agree with and represent for her.
A hard, impermeable boundary between the public and private spheres is, as rigorous feminist history has repeatedly shown, enabled only under very particular conditions of relative prosperity in a basically static economy. Keeping a private home and dominating a woman there is an expensive luxury, both for the family and the society. We’re talking about withdrawing capable people from productive labor (unfetishized child-rearing is not labor-intensive) and expending effort on supervising them. Even the guarantee of reproductive exclusivity afforded by feminine domestic bondage is a luxury afforded only under relatively flush conditions. There is a class dimension to the feminine condition.
An example of how this works has been gradually coming into focus in my modern world history classes this semester (our themes are community and agency). We started by reading an excerpt of a set of rules from the Miu lineage, a rural southeastern Chinese family during the Ming dynasty (Kevin Reilly, ed., Worlds of History: A Comparative Reader, 3rd ed. vol. 2). On the face of it this document demonstrates the absolute control elder men enjoyed over every aspect of family life in this patriarchal agrarian / commercial society.
But not so fast. Rules are ideals, and generally not everyone’s ideals. Since there is no need to legislate what is already being commonly done, rules are inherently in tension with practices. Each one, in mandating or sanctioning conduct, identifies its transgression as a thing that happens often enough to be worth regulating. (Less frequently, rules are hysterical reactions to imaginary threats; this requires a deeper excavation of the real practices that are being symbolized by the imaginary ones. Witch scares are a famous example of this.)
When the Miu elders complain that “most men lack resolve and listen to what their women say. As a result, blood relatives become estranged and competitiveness, suspicion, and distance arise between them. Therefore, when a wife first comes into a family, it should be made clear to her that such things are prohibited,” they are attempting to simplify by fiat an ordinary situation that they are describing as in practice being quite complicated. Apparently, their experience is that the women they’ve arranged for their sons to marry do not arrive from their own families in a condition of abject subordination, nor are those sons so well imbued with a habit of masculine command that feminine disruption is quickly snuffed out as it ‘should’ be. Perhaps this should not be surprising, given that elsewhere in the rules the training of both sons and daughters is assigned to the women of the household. Indeed, we learn here that these outside wives are able swiftly to detect and exploit latent fissures and conflicts within the family.
The document describes a strict hierarchy of functions and responsibilities. Women are house-bound (if not foot-bound) and assigned familiar duties like running the kitchen. Although they are apparently excluded from the formal decision-making of the family, they also supervise the servants and calculate the grocery expenses, which might be described as managerial functions, and as we’ve seen, they are successful enough in exerting informal influence to inspire a plaintive attempt to reassert patriarchal order. The young men too are subject to patriarchal discipline, with the promise of more power and responsibility later; note that they do not choose their own wives, nor in this rural setting could they expect to get a concubine, which was a status requirement and welcome release for elite men but this farming family saw as a divisive frivolity.
Nevertheless it’s tempting to read our value of individual autonomy back into this document and see these women as distinctively oppressed. But individual autonomy is by no means a self-evidently primary value. It is antithetical to the community, order and continuity the Miu all valued and worked toward in their own ways. It was within this frame that their gendered strategizing and positioning occurred.
It’s this reading-back that led my students at first to prefer the life of the women the Miu warn against: “Women from lower-class families who stop at our houses tend to gossip, create conflicts, peek into the kitchens, or induce our women to believe in prayer and fortune-telling, thereby cheating them out of their money and possessions.” These women are not house-bound, seem to go where they please, are involved in the public economy, and have influence. But weren’t they forced out of their homes by economic necessity? And what’s this about the Miu women having money and possessions to be cheated out of? There are some trade-offs here between difficult autonomy and relative ease within carefully ‘husbanded’ community; but no one was choosing their position, not even the Miu elders.
I wouldn’t want to call the strong-minded effectiveness of the Miu women feminism, nor would I want to call the more contingently autonomous lower-class women feminists. We can see their thinking and practices as adaptations to their environment; they took the opportunities that were afforded to them and pushed for more where they could. In this context individual autonomy was the unenviable result of scrambling to maximize family resources under conditions of scarcity, just as the Miu’s division and hierarchy of functions was a way to stabilize and maintain the resources of the community for the relative good of all. In a very rich society these trade-offs would lose much of their sense, as they have for many but not all of us in the contemporary developed world.
P.S.: Rachel the cow-tosser does not like Sarah Palin, who she thinks is a nasty manipulative twink. Sarah is not Rachel’s kind of babe. “She’s a hollow chocolate Easter bunny. She looks nice and you think you’re going to get a great treat, and then you bite into it and you’re like ‘Shoot, I paid $3 for that’.” For every wise and wonderful Miss Marple, the countryside generates dozens of what Rachel grew up with and sees in Palin: folks who are not dumb but narrow, hyperspecialized creatures of their environment, tough, closed and judgmental. Rachel is particularly offended by the authoritarian model of leadership as herding cattle. She thinks that’s what’s happening when Palin “talks about feelings and checks the right boxes: family, God, guns, abortion.”