This series focuses on the region from where the roots of Western Judaic and Christian civilization of today are traced: the northeastern, eastern, and southeastern region surrounding the Mediterranean from Greece, Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Iraq, (western) Iran, and Egypt to Europe and then to the Americas.
PART XXI: PUNISHING EVE
Not only did the barbaric feudalistic European Christian culture—patriarchy ruled by force or threat of force—transplanted to America destroy everything in its path, it brought its common law governed by religion in respect to women with them. Hence women literally were property. They had many duties but no rights. They belonged to their fathers until marriage, and to their husbands once married. And culture and religion dictated that women should marry.
Modern-day American Christian conservatives hysterically warn about Sharia law infiltrating their land of “freedom” and pass laws against this Islamic scourge. They ignore that their own Christianity was very similar to Islamic Sharia law—certainly Christianity has been very barbaric and brutal (stoning, burning, hanging, and beating) its women. They especially ignore that many of these same soul-killing attitudes of women’s inferiority, and beliefs that women need to be “controlled and owned” in order for society to be kept “moral” are still alive and well in today’s double standard when it comes to relations between men and women, and women’s reproduction.
From the 1500s when the first Europeans set foot on North America until the end of the 1800s a woman, once married, suffered “civil death” having no right to own property; any that she held at the time of her marriage became titled to her husband. She had no legal existence apart from her husband. To a married woman, her new self was her superior, her companion, her master. Married women could not sign contracts. Women’s wages were owned by her husband to do with as he pleased. Women had no child custody rights. So, in the case of divorce, a mother had no right of custody over her children; she had no right to joint wealth—even if it was wealth or property she brought into the marriage. Divorce, when granted at all by the courts or by legislative action, was given only for the most flagrant abuses: adultery, desertion and non-support, and extreme cruelty. The law allowed that men could (and should) chastise their wives; the only constraint was that they could not cause lasting damage or death. In other words knife cuts, welts, bruises and broken bones heal, so that damage was not lasting. Wife beating (and death from husband abuse) was common. She had no rights under the law personally or politically—she had no voice in the forming or governing of community, state, or nation. Woman was intimate to the interior nucleus of the family, but isolated within it. “Her physical characteristics were a convenience for men, who could use, exploit, and cherish someone who was at the same time servant, sex-mate, companion, and bearer-teacher-warden of his children.” This was the structure of the family and the condition of women’s lives taught and enforced by culture, law, and by the all-powerful Church. Even single women’s property through inheritance was, by law, overseen by a male guardian. And although she, as a single woman, might by law, be required to pay taxes on her property, unlike male property owners, she had no representative voice in government.
Next to common law, the most potent force in maintaining woman’s subordinate position was religion. The colonists might have been dissenters of one kind or another against the Church of England, but they were at one with it in believing that “woman’s place” was determined by limitations of mind and body, a punishment of original sin of Eve. However, in order to fit her for her proper role of motherhood, the Almighty had taken especial pains to endow her with such virtues as modesty, meekness, compassion, affability, and piety. The “Lady’s Books” of colonial days spelled out in detail a woman’s responsibilities—and limitations. They also dwelt on the desirability of her virtue, in contrast to the latitude permitted her husband. She was advised to keep any knowledge she might have of his extramarital activities to herself.
Societies based on private property and competition, in which monogamous families became practical units for work and socialization, found it especially useful to establish this special status of women, something akin to a house slave in the matter of intimacy and oppression, and yet requiring, because of that intimacy and long-term connection with children, a special patronization, which on occasion, especially in the face of a show of strength, could slip over into treatment as an equal. Thus, an oppression so private would turn out hard to uproot.
Although women had been regarded inferior since the birth of Christianity, thus for 1600 years by the time the colonists came to America, and would continue to be seen in that light for the next few hundred years, forces were at work undermining such attitudes from the earliest colonial days. It was not merely that Protestantism held idleness to be a sin, and therefore required of women that they spin, weave, make lace, soap, shoes, and candles, as well as bear many children and care for their families and households. The economy itself demanded such a division of labor because at first there was no other source for these goods and services. Nor did all women work within the sheltering confines of the home. The toll which exploration, hunting, fishing, Indian wars and migration to the West took of manpower, left many women widowed, often with small children to provide for. Frequently they carried on a former husband’s business, such as inn-keeping, printing, managing a store or even a newspaper; sometimes they struck out for themselves in such endeavors, or they became milliners, seamstresses, house servants, etc. In a society struggling under harsh conditions and limited infrastructure in which there was a continuous labor shortage, no social taboos could keep a hungry woman idle.
Yet, from the establishment of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and the Virginia plantations, for the next three hundred years, women’s traditional relationships to men within their families constituted the essence of dependence. When John Adams considered the question, “Whence arises the right of men to govern women without their consent?” he found the answer in men’s power to feed, clothe, and employ women and therefore to make political decisions on their behalf. So the circle was self-completing; it cycled through women being prohibited from owning real property or controlling wealth, law and custom granting the husband ownership of the wife’s labor power and wages earned from it, and her physical person as well in the sexual rights of the marriage relationship (the law did not recognize rape within marriage), back around to men’s power (and control) over feeding, clothing, and employing women was the justification of his right to do so, and to deny her the right to consent—she was not considered a citizen in her own right and could not vote.
It was John Adam’s wife Abigail who we have on record in a letter to her husband dated in March 1776, even before the Declaration of Independence, who wrote: “… in the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies, and be more generous to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power in the hands of husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention are not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound to obey the laws in which we have no voice of representation.”
John’s reply was to laugh off Abigail’s request with patronizing wit. Calling her “saucy,” he wrote in reply, “We know better than to repeal our Masculine systems…” and then went on to say that besides, you women know you have the real power anyway by how you “manage” we men (in private). It would be another half a century before the women’s movement that Abigail spoke of would begin. For after all, women had been living under oppression for millennium; their psyche was well-inured by Church and culture, no matter how horrific their situation—it was, after all, what the male God and ordained. It was what they deserved because of original sin, and culture and the stern pulpit of the Church hierarchy were in constant readiness to remind, chastise, and chain.
Between the American Revolution and the Civil War, so many elements of American society were changing—the growth of population, the movement westward, the development of the factory system, expansion of political rights for white men, educational growth to match the new economic needs—that changes were bound to take place in the situation of women. In preindustrial America, the practical need for women in a frontier society had produced some measure of equality; women worked at important jobs—publishing newspapers, managing tanneries, keeping taverns, engaging in skilled work. In certain professions, like midwifery, they had a monopoly. Since education for the most took place inside the family home, women had a special role there. There were complex movements in different directions. And women were being pulled out of the house into industrial life, while at the same time there was pressure for women to stay home where they were more easily controlled. The idea of the “woman’s place” promulgated by men, was accepted by many women.
As the economy developed, men dominated as mechanics and tradesmen, and aggressiveness became more and more defined as a male trait. Women, perhaps precisely because more of them were moving into the dangerous outside world, were told to be passive. Clothing styles developed—for the rich and middle class of course, but, as always, there was the intimidation of style even for the poor—in which the weight of women’s clothes, corsets and petticoats, emphasized female separation from the world of activity. It became even more important to develop a set of ideas, taught in church, in school, and in the family, to keep women in their place even as that place became more and more unsettled. A man writing in The Ladies’ Repository: “Religion is exactly what a woman needs, for it gives her that dignity that best suits her dependence.” Mrs. John Sandford, in her book, Woman, in Her Social and Domestic Character, said, “Religion is just what woman needs. Without it, she is ever restless or unhappy.”
When Amelia Bloomer, in 1851, suggested in her feminist publication that women wear a kind of short skirt and pants (the bloomer) to free themselves from the encumbrances of traditional dress, this was attacked in the popular women’s literature as a manifestation of a wild spirit of socialism and agrarian radicalism. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Most historians attribute the anti-slavery movement that emerged in the northern states as being the catalyst that also sparked the first feminists to begin to dream of a different reality, including legal and political rights, for women. Ellen Carol DuBois writes, “The abolitionist movement provided the particular framework within which the politics of women’s rights developed. From the 1837 clerical attack on the Grimke sisters, through the 1840 meeting of Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton at the World’s Anti-Slavery Convention in London, to the Civil War and Reconstruction, the development of American feminism was inseparable from the unfolding of the antislavery drama. Mistaking political rhetoric for historical process, historians commonly identify the connection between the two movements as women’s discovery of their own oppression through its analogy with slavery. Certainly women’s rights leaders made liberal use of the slave metaphor to describe women’s oppression. Yet women’s discontent with their position was as much cause as effect of their involvement with the anti-slavery movement. What American women learned from abolitionism was less that they were oppressed than what to do about it—how to turn discontent into a political movement”.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who was destined to emerge as the leading intellectual force in the emancipation of American women was born in 1815—the eighth of eleven children; her mother suffered depression from having so many children, only to have five of them die in infancy and childhood and a sixth before the age of twenty. Her father, a prominent Federalist attorney who had served one term in the United States Congress, was a circuit court judge, and the Cady home in Johnstown, New York (near Albany) was of the best. Elizabeth received the best available education. Unlike many women of her era, Stanton was formally educated; attending Johnstown Academy, she studied Latin, Greek, mathematics, religion, science, French, and writing until the age of 16. More compelling, in the long run, were the hours she spent as a child, crouched in a corner of her father’s office, listening to the people who came to him with their legal problems. Many were wives and daughters of farmers; often the husband had disposed of their small property, or taken their earnings for drink, or, in the event of a separation, had the sole right to guardianship of the children. Judge Cady was kind and frequently dipped into his own pocket to help the women; but he reiterated patiently and endlessly that they had no legal redress. His daughter was marked for life by that knowledge. As well, as a young girl, she enjoyed perusing her father’s law library and debating legal issues with his law clerks. It was this early exposure to law that, in part, caused Cady Stanton to realize how disproportionately the law favored men over women, particularly over married women.
She would later marry Henry B. Stanton, an abolitionist leader, and would go on to have seven children, learning first hand, the drudgery of a woman’s life—and which she writes about in her letters to her friends, Lucretia Mott and Susan B. Anthony. It was, in fact, her isolation in the home and life in a small town, when her family moved to Seneca Falls, New York, her husband often away on business, and being left with the growing family and all the intolerable chores necessitated in caring for each new baby, the baking, cooking, washing and sewing that served as the catalyst for her planning a public meeting with other women for protest and discussion. That meeting would become historical as the first Women’s Rights Convention of 1848. But that would come later.
As would have been true of most all women of her time, Cady Stanton had felt the guilt of wanting to break free from the bonds of “women’s place” taught and reinforced by the restraining power of the clerical authority. But then she met William Lloyd Garrison, who would form the Garrisonian wing of the abolitionist movement. Abolition had originated as an evangelical Protestant reform. Unlike other pious activisms, however, abolition had an unavoidably political thrust and outgrew its evangelical origins; it became secularized. In 1837, Garrison was converted to the doctrine of perfectionism, which identified the sanctified individual conscience as the supreme moral standard, and corrupt institutions, not people, as the source of sin. In particular “Garrisonians” turned on their churchly origins and attacked the Protestant clergy for its perversion of true Christianity and its historical support of slavery. The clergy was the major force that controlled women’s moral energies and kept pietistic activism from becoming political activism. Garrisonian anticlericalism was therefore critical to the emergence of abolitionist feminism and its subsequent development into the women’s rights movement.
Against the power of the clerical authority, which had long restrained women’s impulses for a larger life, Garrisonian abolition armed women with faith in their own convictions. Although restrained by the fact that her husband was a political abolitionist, Cady Stanton’s allegiances were with the Garrisonians. In a speech she delivered many years later to the 1860 Anniversary of the American Anti-Slavery Society, she said, “In the darkness and gloom of a false theology, I was slowly sawing off the chains of my spiritual bondage, when, for the first time, I met Garrison in London. A few bold strokes from the hammer of his truth, and I was free! Only those who have lived all their lives under the dark clouds of vague, undefined fears can appreciate the joy of a doubting soul suddenly born into the kingdom of reason and free thought. Is the bondage of the priest-ridden less galling than that of the slave, because we do not see the chains, the indelible scars, the festering wounds, the deep degradation of all the powers of the God-like mind?”
In addition to the influence of Garrison on the early feminist leaders, other historians point out that it was their acquaintance with the Iroquois in northern New York that gave these women an image of a different cultural model. For if you and your female ancestors have lived under oppression, and for time-immemorial been perceived to be limited in mind, body, and soul, having been formed from Adam’s bent rib, to go on to be impure and unclean because of original sin, how can you imagine and dream of what you have never seen? To what can you aspire—from where does that image form? While Andrew Jackson had been busy becoming a “hero” for breaking treaties and slaughtering Indians to push them off the lands in the southern states, making way for the plantations to spread inland, the Iroquois in northern New York were still yet on their lands—their lands near Seneca Falls, as a matter of fact.
Stanton and Mott organized the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention for the cause of women’s rights. Matilda Joslyn Gage, another highly educated woman, joined the movement in 1852 along with Susan B. Anthony. Though Gage is less recognized by many historians as a member of the triumvirate (along with Stanton and Anthony) she was a major theoretician of the woman’s rights movement. (More on how history revisionists—both Stanton and Anthony as well as male historians purposefully minimized her important contribution and influence on the women’s movement after her death, and why, is yet to come.) Certainly, Joslyn Gage was the most advanced in deep, rationalist thought and analysis of the history of the Church and of women, of natural rights, and of the law and the Constitution. In A Biographical Dictionary of Modern Rationalists, Joseph McCabe (1920) described Joslyn Gage as “one of the most advanced of the Rationalist women who were the soul of the movement in America.” (p. 275). The Dictionary of American Biography provides a similar view: “Intellectually she was without a doubt among the ablest of the suffrage leaders of the nineteenth century. An excellent speaker and capable organizer, her greatest strength apparently lay in a thorough grasp of the historical status of women through the ages” (Johnson & Malone, 1931, p. 87).
“More than a leader and activist, Joslyn Gage was involved in shaping women’s rights and woman suffrage arguments. Joslyn Gage opposed the popular view that women needed to prove their worthiness for equal rights and suffrage. From her research, she concluded that women had proven their worthiness throughout the ages but had been written out of history by men. Similarly, to support her view that women already had the right to vote but that men denied them it, she researched the matter and formulated complex legal arguments to make her case. Over the years, she focused more and more on the causes and forces contributing to women’s oppression. In her book, Woman, Church, and State, Joslyn Gage postulated that the church and state colluded in a system of patriarchy, what she called the “patriarchate,” and that was the fundamental cause of woman’s oppression.”
Through her connection and friendship with Stanton, Gage became not only acquainted with the Iroquois, she was adopted into the Wolf Clan of the Mohawk nation, and wrote extensively about the Iroquois Confederacy, especially the position of women in what she termed their “Matriarchate” or of “mother-rule.” While president of the National Woman’s Suffrage Association, Gage wrote a series of articles on the Iroquois which illustrated the contrasts between the equality between women and men in the Iroquois Nation and that of the white patriarchal Christian culture that likened themselves to be civilized, while characterizing the Indian culture as that of savages. Among her findings:
Social: Children of the Iroquois are members of the mother’s clan, while children of EuroAmericans are the sole property of the father. Violence against women is not part of the Iroquois culture and is dealt with seriously when it occurs; EuroAmerican husbands have legal right and religious responsibility to physically discipline their wives. Iroquois clothing for women fosters health, freedom of movement and independence; EuroAmerican clothing for women is restrictive, unhealthy, and dangerous. Iroquois women’s responsibilities have a spiritual basis; EuroAmerican woman’s subordination has a religious foundation.
Economic: In the Iroquois Nation, women’s work is satisfying and done communally; in the EuroAmerican system, woman’s work is drudgery and done in isolation. Iroquois women are responsible for agriculture as well as home life; EuroAmerican women are responsible for the home, but subordinated to the husband. Iroquois women’s work is done under the direction of the women, working together; EuroAmerican women’s work is done under authority of the husband. Iroquois women each controlled her own personal property; EuroAmerican women have no rights to her own property, body, or children.
Spiritual: Iroquois “Sky Woman” is the spiritual being—the catalyst/creator for the world we see; in the EuroAmerican spiritual beliefs, there is no female godhead. The Iroquois Mother Earth and women are spiritually interrelated; in the EuroAmerican system, spirituality is not connected to the earth. Iroquois women have responsibilities in ceremony; EuroAmerican women are forbidden to speak in churches. Iroquois women’s responsibilities are in balance with those of men; EuroAmerican women are subordinate to men’s authority.
Political: Iroquois women choose their chief; it is illegal for EuroAmerican women to vote. Iroquois women hold key political offices—e.g. clan mothers; EuroAmerican women are excluded from political office. Iroquois Confederacy law ensures woman’s political authority; in EuroAmerican common law, married women are defined as “dead in the law.” Iroquois decision making is by consensus where everyone has a vote; EuroAmerican decision making is by men only, with majority rule.
Howard Zinn quotes other historians’ writings on other Native American tribes, whose work tells us that what Gage found in the Iroquois Confederacy in gender equality, profound justice within law, theories and practices in child-rearing, reverence for nature, and the universality of a female god-head, was found by those historians, with minor variations, to exist among the indigenous of the Americas throughout.
As Joslyn Gage’s writing demonstrates, she already had in-depth knowledge of the history of women under the Judaic Christian Church, and as well, how women’s status changed under Christianity from earlier Greek, Roman, and Egyptian societies. Becoming acquainted with the Iroquois, as well as being informed through other writers’ work of the time of the Iroquois, provided Joslyn Gage with a model on which to base her vision of an egalitarian world. One only needed eyes to see.
What Joslyn Gage discovered and wrote about was the witnessing in real time about how a society similar to that of the ancient Neolithic goddess-worshipping culture of the Mediterranean that had been stamped out by these same (Indo)Europeans between 4000 to 600 B.C.E., but still existed in the Americas, contrasted with European-Americans in the 1850s A.D. For while the indigenous of the Americas were Asiatic and had crossed the Bering Strait during the Paleolithic and were then isolated by the rising waters over the land bridge which they had used from the other continent, and their societies evolved differently–architecture, the wheel, script—there were remarkable similarities. The god-head prominently included the mother; the serpent and the butterfly were evident in their symbology and represented renewal of life; they did not believe in the ownership of land, rather that it was theirs collectively to revere for its sustenance of life and the burial grounds of those who had come before—they took only what they needed and they gave back for seven generations into the future; and the relationship and balance between men, women, children and nature in their laws and practices was the most just, beautiful, and harmonious ever known to modern man. So while we only have archaeological digs of the Neolithic communities of the southern and eastern European Mediterranean crescent, and the evidence from their artifacts and ancient script to give us clues, Joslyn Gage saw those contrasting societies: the justice of the matriarchate versus the injustice of the patriarchate; the female godhead culture’s connection and reverence to and for the earth versus the male monotheistic godhead’s dominance over the earth—the raping and slaughter of people, animals, and the earth for immediate profit with no care or thought for future generations. She witnessed first-hand the status of women among the indigenous people (whose evolution retained similarities to the ancient Neolithic cultures destroyed by the Indo-Europeans in the valleys of the Euphrates, Tigris, and in the Levant) and how it contrasted to that which evolved from those Indo-Europeans–the European Christian patriarchy that spread via war and destruction throughout Europe and to the Americas.
 Eleanor Flexner, Century of Struggle: The Women’s Rights Movement in the United States, (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1959) p 8.
 Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States: 1942 — Present, (Harper Collins, New York, 1999) p 103
 Flexner, Ibid., p 8
 Ibid., p 103
 Ibid., p 9
 Ellen Carol DuBois, Feminism and Suffrage: The Emergence of an Independent Women’s Movement in America 1848 – 1869, (Cornell University Press, Ithaca, p 45
 Zinn, ibid., p 110
 Ibid., p 112
 Ibid., p 112
 Ibid, p 113
 Sara and Angelina Grimke were the daughters of a South Carolina slaveholding family; from earliest childhood they had loathed slavery and all it entailed. Unable to close their eyes and live with it, they moved to Philadelphia and joined the Quakers. In 1836, their abolitionist friends encouraged them to speak out (women did not do that at that time in history.) They became well-known and well-regarded in the anti-slavery movement. A storm erupted in the churches denouncing their behavior as unwomanly and unchristian.
 DuBois, Ibid., pp 31-32
 Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Eighty Years and More: Reminiscences 1815-1897 (Women’s Studies) (Humanity Books, an Imprint of Prometheus Books, New York, 2002 edition) pp 33-48
 Flexner, Ibid., p 72-73
 Ibid., p 73
 DuBois, Ibid., p 33
 Ibid., p 34
 Ibid., p 34, referencing Elizabeth Cady Stanton papers
 Leila R. Brammer, Excluded from Suffrage History: Matilda Joslyn Gage, Ninteenth-Century American Feminist, (Greenwood Press, Westport, Connecticut & London, 2000) p xiv.
 Ibid. p xv
 Sally Roesch Wagner, Sisters in Spirit: Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Influence on Early American Feminists, (Native Voices) Summertown, TN, 2001) pp 28-29
 Ibid., pp 30-31
 Zinn, Ibid., p 104