Did Fear of Women's Power Spark the Rise of the Patriarchy?

Motherhood is the result of a powerful ability: the power to give life. Could that be one of the foundations of patriarchy? Did the oppression of women throughout history stem, among other things, from the fear this power arouses among men?

Tsafi Saar
Tsafi Saar
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Tsafi Saar
Tsafi Saar

It is hard to find many Israeli women today who, after giving birth, return to their careers without pangs of conscience while their husbands take on the job of child care. This is despite the idea that the maternal instinct, in whose existence many of us believe, is a relatively new concept that was born about two centuries ago.

“It was only 200 years ago that motherhood became the role of women,” says Dr. Tamar Hager, a senior lecturer in the Department of Education and Gender Studies at Tel-Hai Academic College in the Upper Galilee. She adds that beyond the role of motherhood, it is a matter of identity. “Women today are seen, and see themselves, as potential mothers before anything else. Even if they refuse that role, they must still discuss it. Before that, women were primarily wives. A woman was not at all obligated to raise her own child, and women from the higher classes sent their children to wet-nurses and later on to governesses.”

According to Dr. Hager, the ideological war that turned women into the main, if not the sole, rearers of their children began in the late 17th century and grew stronger in the early 18th century. “It was an intensive war, and it worked. It led to a strong psychological link between a woman’s identity and motherhood,” she says. “That is why women who do not want children are considered to be defective. So according to this very strong world view — in which women operate, including those who challenge it, like myself — leaving the child with his or her father constitutes abandonment. That does not mean there aren't any women who do so, but those who do risk being socially marked as deviant, narcissistic, cold and suffering from other emotional disturbances.”

She claims that the basic assumption that all women are the same is utterly false. “I am sure that some women would like to give up first prize in childrearing, while others would not. The fact that every woman is expected to want to raise children and enjoy it is the main problem. Since masculine roles are more valued, and maintenance work is more boring, there is less chance that men will want to take a larger role in childrearing. But there certainly are men who feel that they’re missing out by being forced not to participate in it.”

Orna Donath, the author of the book "Making a Choice: Being Childfree in Israel," says that throughout history, not only did men raise both boys and girls and involve themselves in their education, but also the separation of mothers from their children was never condemned. “During the Middle Ages, Christian mothers left their homes and their children to devote themselves to chastity and the service of God in convents — which was seen as evidence of their greatness and holiness,” she says.

Donath says that today too, such separation is not necessarily seen as problematic, and might even be seen as obvious when it serves interested parties. She mentions the acceptance of migrant-worker mothers in Western countries who leave their children behind in their home countries. “The way we observe and judge mothers also depends on history, culture, and political and economic interests, and lies at the intersection of the power relationship between socioeconomic classes and ethnic groups,” she says. Donath adds that we live in a society that is afraid to ‘say' and recognize that men too, can rear children and care for them, just as it is afraid to ‘say' and recognize that there are women who do not wish to do so, or are incapable of doing so. “Recognizing that will be seen, among other things, as breaking all the gender rules in a way that undermines the world order,” Donath says. “We are so busy defending the fortified walls of gender roles that we ignore the fact that women, men and children could be saved a good deal of misery and suffering if we were to reshuffle these cards. If we were to do so, involved relationships with daughters and sons would become a possibility for many men, not just after divorce and separation, but from the very beginning, without it being perceived as a ‘lack of masculinity.’”

Dr. Zvi Triger, a professor of family law at The College of Management Academic Studies, believes that were men to become more involved in childrearing, the results would reach far beyond the family sphere. “The politicians who decide to send the army out on some operation are not the same as those who raised their children themselves,” he says. “If men were involved in raising children and stayed at home with them as women do, it’s possible to say, roughly, that maybe there would be fewer wars — or, to put it more delicately, that human life would be more precious. It is no accident that all the big anti-war movements are led by mothers, not fathers. And that has nothing to do with biology. It’s the bonding with the child. It’s not because they are women, but because of the norm dictating that this is what women do.”

Actually, there are a few small societies with different norms — for example, in matrilineal societies, where lineage and inheritance are determined by the women in the family. Examples are the Mosuo of China and the Zuni in America. Among the Aka — hunter-gatherers of Africa — fathers are more involved in childrearing than in any other known society. They are as good at childrearing as the mothers, and sometimes they even suckle their babies.

In Europe, it also happened that fathers in the past began to fill roles that had been considered feminine until then. In the late 16th century, men began doing work that before was considered the province of women, such as sewing, cooking and midwifery. “I think there are significant differences between the sexes, but we must not exaggerate what is fixed. Just like a woman can change and become more assertive, and learn that she is not only pretty but also intelligent, a man can also become more feminine. We can be either one, masculine and feminine at the same time,” says Professor Yaara Bar On, a historian and the president of the Oranim Academic College of Education.

Fear of the power to give life

It is important to remember that motherhood is the result of a powerful ability: the power to give life. Could that be one of the foundations of patriarchy? Did the oppression of women throughout history stem, among other things, from the fear this power arouses among men? Professor Bar On says that the power to give life comes with sexuality. “Men feel dwarfed next to the image of a great woman, inside whom the man is swallowed, like the sperm is swallowed by the ovum,” she says. According to her, the fear, envy and self-effacement that men feel next to the image of a great woman is nothing but a mythology whose purpose was to achieve one thing: control. “It’s all rationalizations to explain why they oppressed women and gave them inferior status,” she says. “Why is women's role as mother deified? It's an attempt to push woman into a place where she will not keep us from running the world. They said: You must devote yourself to motherhood, and that ensures that she will not keep us from doing more important things. And she will ask: Why is there no place for me? Then they will tell her: You frighten us and make us jealous.”

The sociologist Professor Sylvie Fogiel Bijaoui, a lecturer and founder of the master’s degree program in Family Studies at the School of Behavioral Science at The College of Management Academic Studies, emphasizes the social aspect of the issue. “There are very clear mechanisms here of gender division, and that is also a way to remove women from the job market,” she says. “It is not an argument about relationships between men and women. Rather, it is about the structure of the job market. In the Netherlands, for example, the job market is structured to allow work and family life, which is one of the major challenges in developed industrialized societies today.”

When it comes to change in the family structure and the division of roles within it, the new families are the best way to test the old views. Zvi Triger, who, together with his male partner, is raising their 11-month-old daughter, says “Nothing is taken for granted. We have no script that has been set in advance. We are both working people. Fortunately, since I work in academia, I can be at home with her more during the summer.” He adds “Many times, the job market is what dictates the decision as to who will stay at home, and then a gender division really is created without there being a man and a woman.” He adds, “The fact that men’s longing to become parents — no matter whether you agree or disagree with the way it is done — and the great investment involved — sometimes it takes one’s entire life savings — disprove the idea that it is an instinct that belongs only to women.”

Publicity photo from Charlie Chaplin's 1921 movie 'The Kid'Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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