The patriarchy is ancient. In almost every society, throughout most of recorded history, men have lorded over women. The kings and emperors were all men. The heads of the household were all men. Men owned everything.
In Rome—including the Byzantine Empire that was Roman Empire transplanted to Constantinople—a woman could not and did not rule unless she had a man as either a husband-emperor, or a son-emperor, to give her legitimacy. To be sure, there were extraordinarily powerful Roman and Byzantine women: Livia, the wife of Caesar Augustus and his de facto chief of staff; Julia Domna, a Syrian by birth, and the wife of Septimius Severus; Theodora, the common actress the great Justinian took as his empress and partner; Maria of Alania, who married two Byzantine emperors and was lovers with a third. But all of their power was dependent on their husbands, and could be shut off as quickly and suddenly as the Texas power grid. Even Zenobia, ruler of the upstart Palmyrene Empire that broke from Rome during the third-century Age of Chaos, leaned heavily on her son to stay in power. (It was the ruins of her queendom that ISIS destroyed at Palmyra, which no doubt added to their ardor for cultural destruction.)
It wasn’t until Elizabeth I was crowned in England in 1558—more than a thousand years after the fall of Rome—that women began, very occasionally, to occupy powerful European thrones. Christina was queen of Sweden for 22 years after her father Gustavus Adolphus died in 1632. Charles VI, the Holy Roman Emperor, had to issue the Pragmatic Sanction in 1713 to ensure that his daughter, Maria Theresa, would succeed him; even then, his death and her ascension precipitated the War of Austrian Succession. Russia, of all places, had four tsarinas after the death of Peter the Great: Catherine I (1725-27), Anna (1730-40), Elizabeth (1741-62), and Catherine the Great (1762-96). The last was so successful, and thus so reviled by the Jordan Petersons of 18th century Russia, that ugly rumors spread about her prodigious sexual appetites (some true) and the equestrian manner of her death (absolute horseshit). In 1837, Queen Victoria began her long reign, presiding over the most powerful empire since Rome. But even in the 19th and 20th centuries, female heads of state were few and far between. In the United States, a quarter millennium in, we’re still waiting for our first female president; backlash to the prospect of that streak ending in 2016 helped give us Trump.
In Europe, property was owned almost exclusively by men. In Britain, women could not inherit real estate until the mid-14th century, when the Black Death killed off multiple generations of men in a very short period of time, necessitating the practice. After that it was only used in extreme circumstances. Women who engaged in premarital sex—women who were victims of rape, even—were considered “ruined.” Divorce? Please. Henry VIII had to break from Rome to get a divorce, and he was the king! That option was not available to women—not in the West, anyway.
In the United States, women were ignored in the Constitution, ignored during the Civil War, ignored during Reconstruction. The temperance movement was organized by women, who didn’t object to booze as much as men drinking too much of it and becoming violent and abusive. Women could not vote until the election of 1920, after a long and relentless campaign by the suffragettes. For that election cycle, Warren G. Harding was floated as a candidate because—and here we must take the contemporary reporting at its word, as this is not evident by any existing photographs—the cigar-chomping men in the smoke-filled back rooms figured that the ladies would vote for Harding because he was such a handsome hunk. In other words, men just assumed women would based their ballot-box decision on looks—in case there was any doubt that men did not understand women at all.
And why did this sexual dynamic happen? Why did men dominate women? Why did the patriarchy take root and grow? Was it because men are inherently superior to the “gentle sex?” No. It’s because of simple biology. As Nina Burleigh—the journalist and author of Virus and my guest on today’s PREVAIL podcast—put it in a recent op-ed, women are “a subset of human beings who, whatever our differences in terms of class, race, or ethnicity, share the utterly exceptional, unique challenge of being impregnable.” Combine female impregnability with men being physically stronger, and voilà, patriarchy.
And for all of human history until the 1960s, women had no real control over the reproductive process. They could be impregnated by a husband, a lover, a client, a family member, a rapist, and other than the dangerous, primitive forms of abortion then available, there was not much they could do about it but see the pregnancy through. As Sylvia Plath wrote in “Metaphors” in 1960:
I’m a means, a stage, a cow in calf.
I’ve eaten a bag of green apples,
Boarded the train there’s no getting off.
And then, suddenly, with FDA approval of the birth control pill that same year, and the subsequent decriminalization of abortion in Roe v. Wade, this was no longer the case. Suddenly, for the first time in all of history, women could choose whether or not to have a baby. Out of the clear blue sky, an atomic bomb had been dropped on the patriarchy.
“That changed everything at the most intimate level of the power relations between men and women,” Burleigh tells me. “It’s the biggest change in the history of human beings. Because at that point, for the first time ever in human history, women were enabled to say, ‘I don’t think I’m going to have that baby. . . If I fuck you, I’m not going to get pregnant. And I’m just not going to pick you to have a baby [with], but I might pick that guy.”
It’s no accident that the term incel—for involuntary celibate; unfuckables; basically, men women won’t go near with a ten-foot pole—was coined at this moment in history. Incels have always existed—go look at paintings of the aforementioned Henry VIII—but in the past, women would have no choice but to subject themselves to their advances. Not anymore. This wholesale rejection is the incels’ fundamental grievance.
Women of the Greatest and the Silent Generations led the Second Wave feminist movement of the late sixties/early seventies, as Burleigh explains in our discussion: Bella Abzug (b. 1920), Betty Friedan (b. 1921), Shirley Chisholm (b. 1924), Gloria Steinem (b. 1934), Germaine Greer (b. 1939). Boomer women lived through it. Gen X grew up with it, adjusted to it, finetuned it. Millennials and Gen Z are exploring the limits of what it all means.
I asked a non-binary high school student why they opted to eschew the “he/him” pronouns. They said something to the effect of, “I just don’t feel comfortable with what masculinity means.” I said, “Then why not change the definition of masculinity? Expand it? Why reject it wholesale?” What I didn’t realize is that changing their pronouns was their way of changing the definition of masculinity. Inform a Zoomer that you’re now “they/them,” and they can immediately make the linguistic shift. They don’t miss a beat. Me, I get so bogged down with remembering the pronouns that I lose focus on whatever it is that I was going to say. My communication becomes more stilted, because, not wanting to screw it up, I have to stop and think before I speak. And maybe that’s the point.
“In 1991, Susan Faludi wrote a book, Backlash: The Undeclared War Against Women, chronicling the ways in which the patriarchy was then fighting to reverse the gains made by our mothers and grandmothers,” Burleigh writes in her op-ed. “Faludi was spot on, of course. Sadly, though, the backlash of the 1980s she chronicled would prove to be just a prologue. Having had it named for us, you might think we could have checked that backlash and maintained momentum toward gender equality. Who in the 1990s could have imagined a day when elected men in at least 25 states would be legally enabled to force raped women to give birth or prevent doctors from performing procedures to save women likely to die of pregnancy?”
In retrospect, maybe this shouldn’t have been so hard to forecast. The patriarchy has been around for many thousands of years; like any pox, it’s going to die hard. What we’re seeing right now, I think, with the retrograde Supreme Court and the pervasive gun culture and the rise of these rightwing militia groups, is a pendulum swing the other way—counterreformation following reformation.
One prominent thinker on the manly virtues spoke on the topic at a conference last year. He warned of a burgeoning social movement to “define traditional masculinity as toxic” and “the traditional masculine virtues—things like courage, and independence, and assertiveness—as a danger to society.” This anti-men point of view, he declared, permeates all of our media, our movies, our advertising, our educational system. Furthermore, he warns,
Men are getting the message. They’re leaving higher education in record numbers. I suspect you’ve seen the recent Wall Street Journal reporting: Women now make up 60 percent of college students; men, 40 percent. Experts predict a 2:1 ratio soon, with the trend sped up by the pandemic.
But the message of toxic masculinity is not only in the academy. It’s in our grade schools, where boys are increasingly treated like an illness in search of a cure. If boys are too rambunctious, they’re diagnosed with hyperactivity disorder and medicated into submission.
Hollywood delivers the toxic masculinity theme ad nauseum in television and film.
And our expert class amplifies it. The American Psychological Association now advises that “conforming to traditional masculinity ideology has been shown to limit males’ psychological development…and negatively influence mental health and physical health.” Manhood is a disease to be defeated.
Clever oratory, for sure, but the thing is, “toxic masculinity” is not a synonym for “manly virtues like courage, and independence, and assertiveness.” There is no Leftist plot to “give us a world beyond men,” a Beyond Meat for sexual dynamics. Josh Hawley—for, as you may have guessed, the speaker in question was the fist-pumper from Missouri—has that part completely wrong. It’s total make-believe. He’s also a joke of a person, whose book on the subject, Manhood, is probably not very good. But in that Halloween 2021 speech at the National Conservatism Conference, Hawley tapped into something very real: the anger male chauvinists feel at their loss of power over women, the stubborn resistance among some men to change, the fear others have of looming male obsolescence, and for the rest of us, more than a little confusion.
The patriarchy has been around for all of recorded history—heck, Leonard Shlain wrote a fascinating book, The Alphabet Versus the Goddess, suggesting that they are one and the same, that patriarchy and the written language are inextricable. This shit is old. And never before has it sustained this much damage. Globally, women have never had as much power, ever, in human history. These are unprecedented times. Of course there will be backlash. Of course there will be testosterone-fueled rage. Of course there will be #MeToo, and cancel culture, and men complaining about both of those things. Of course there will be douchey podcast guests snickering about the word “non-binary.” This is all to be expected, in the transition to post-patriarchy. It’s messy. And it’s hard to talk about, because what if we say the wrong thing? But that makes talking about it—and writing about it—all the more important.
What we can’t do is go backwards. We cannot allow hard-earned rights to be relinquished at the whim of some radical Catholic misogynists in medieval robes—for women, for the LGBT community, for minorities, for anyone. The Dobbs decision is an attack on women—that’s how it’s being framed, at least, even by the president. It’s a mistake to look at it that way. As Burleigh writes, “advocacy solely for women is always easier to defeat than advocacy for issues that also involve men.” Men have to see the overturning of Roe for what it is: an attack on democracy, and therefore an attack on all of us.
Elections are a zero-sum game. Society is not. Granting women rights long enjoyed by dudes is not an “attempt to give us a world beyond men,” as Josh Hawley benightedly asserts, but rather a long-belated endeavor to secure the Blessings of Liberty for everyone—not just straight, wealthy cis-male white guys. You know, like the Constitution was ordained and established to do.
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Photo credit: painting of Zenobia by Herbert Schmalz.
Excellent read! I often think the far right Evangelical GOPers are similar to the Taliban. Both are terrified of losing their masculinity (sexual privileges). Using religion as a cover, they hope to fool women into submission.
So good...sending to my daughter. Thank you!