Feminists and the kerfuffle over communities that abide

renaissance childbirth

Dimitry Orlov recently published his second in a series of posts about communities that abide; i.e., subcultures within a larger culture that have maintained their distinctive character for hundreds or, in some cases, thousands of years. Apparently he was castigated by at least one and possibly more feminists who were present at a talk he gave on the same subject recently, because the cultures he used as examples happened to be patriarchal and very male-dominant woman-subservient types of communities.

James Howard Kunstler has also been castigated multiple times for asserting that in the future, things will go back to how they ‘should be’ (at least that’s how I take his rhetoric) and women will be in the home, and men will be the dominant sex.

Well, I hate to break it to the women of the modern world, but the only reason women have been able to assume any kind of economic or social equality while still marrying, having sex, and having children, is thanks to the fossil fuel era. It’s what has made research into the menstrual cycle possible; it’s what has made birth control possible (I remember hearing about “The Pill” on the news as a very small child). The consequences of sex, throughout history, have always been borne by the women. Only industrial products courtesy of fossil fuels have made that no longer so.

Think about it: historically speaking, women had 5 to 7 children (or more) during their married life, if (and that was a big IF) they didn’t die in childbirth, from postpartum infections, or from some other sickness. The only forms of birth control were abstinence and breastfeeding; since if you were at all wealthy you didn’t breastfeed because you had wet nurses, you didn’t even have access to that.

Because abstinence tended to work then about as well as it does now, most adults were as sexually active as finances and access allowed them to be. Many men didn’t make enough money to marry. They might have made enough money to support themselves and a wife, at least as regards food, but that wouldn’t have included money for even replacements for the clothes on their backs nor for the cost of children, nor for the cost of housing. Since, if one married, one assumed children were going to ensue, that was not even an option for many men particularly in the Elizabethan era.

If you consider this in light of what is going on in Egypt regarding the incidence of sexual assault of women who go out in public, it is obvious that the lack of access to economic opportunities and therefore marriage is at the root of much of this violence and unrest.  The high cost of bread is one of the things that began the protests that ended up as the Arab Spring.

I don’t presently know where I read this statistic, but fully 25% of all men born throughout time did not leave progeny behind. This doesn’t mean they weren’t having sex at all, it just means they didn’t impregnate a woman, or their progeny didn’t survive to adulthood if they did. I suspect homosexuality was at least as common historically as it is now, and I also suspect many of those men were sexually active, just not in a man/woman relationship.  And of course, there is always the “world’s oldest profession” as well as outright rape.  Which is often nothing more than frustration over lack of power and lack of access.

And for the women who did marry, they were considered property, legally speaking, not equals in a contractual relationship. And it *was* a contractual relationship, albeit not one easily broken. Their responsibilities related very much to the home: bearing children, managing the household, putting up stores for winter, laundry, cooking, spinning, weaving (both of these were for home use only as the guilds controlled products sold to the public at large), caring for the gardens, and much more I’m not even touching on. This took time – modern women, particularly those who have a ‘high powered’ lifestyle such as a lawyer or upper level manager (or even the school teacher or local store clerk)– have absolutely no concept of how much labor and time managing a household consumes, let alone a household where there are no modern food processors, no supermarkets at which to pick up ready-made food, and take outs in every city and town of any size at all. The monetary costs are staggering compared to doing it all oneself, but the time costs of doing it oneself are similarly staggering. And the reason women were responsible for all of that is for the simple reason that they had small children around; most of these tasks can be picked up and put down at will to tend to a hungry infant or small child.

This isn’t to say that women weren’t treated well by some men; many were quite adored. But in the public sphere, they were not in any way equal to men. I tend to think this has something to do with the fact that men can leave. They are freer in every way: freer to abandon their wives, freer to go to war, freer to interact in public, freer to travel. In a time and a place where being an adult woman meant that, except for rare cases, you had children at your side, there is not much freedom for women at any time in their lives.

Now, yes, there are cultures that endure even today that DO view women as equals, where the women are as free to engage in relationships with men other than their spouses, but those are few and far between, and are mostly hunter gatherer societies. That is not a sustainable model for the vast majority of humans, even should the population drop drastically to the 250 million number I’ve seen bandied about. It bears keeping in mind that human nature being what it is, those who have power tend to want to retain it…and in most of the world, even today, it isn’t women who have the power.  And it helps to keep in mind, too, that rigidly defined roles – even when it means women are not considered equal, means society understands what is expected of each and every person, and helps keep it stable over the long term.  I don’t like that, but I know it is so.  My husband has said on more than one occasion that I’m too smart for my own good.  I can assure you that being intelligent is not always a good thing.  It would be much, much worse if I lived in a time when women had no ability to even have a public voice.

Kunstler has referred to much of modern thinking as “magical thinking” because it seems in many circles that thinking about something, focusing on an as yet imaginary solution, will make it so. I think that the feminists who are so stridently calling out men like Kunstler and Orlov are engaging in magical thinking about this issue themselves. The facts about living in the times before birth control stand. Only birth control enables women to engage in sexual relations like men – without considering the possible costs to themselves and their future, in terms of stress on the body and in terms of the financial, emotional, and temporal costs. As we cycle down to an energy scarce future, both because of peak oil and because of financial constraints, I do not see birth control as being a high priority for our society to maintain – though it should.

This hasn’t been an easy post for me to write, because I am a woman.  It needed to be written though.  As a woman who has three children, all of whom are the result of birth control failures, I know the consequences of sex.  I know how it changes your options and your future.  And I live in the modern age, which means that the social and legal consequences, not to mention the economic consequences, were negligible compared to what might have happened 100 years ago.

I love my children dearly, but life would have been much easier for all of us had I been able to choose the time to have children.  It is what it is though, and while I regret many things, having my children is NOT on the list of regrets nor on the list of poor decisions.

The ability for a family to choose when to have children, and how many to have, is vital to making sure that the family has enough to eat, whether it’s a family in the urban core or a family on a small holder farm. I would like to see less diatribe aimed toward the “chauvinistic” males who are honestly bringing up this issue and more dialogue about how we will preserve common sense access to birth control, among other modern day technologies. It would be time much better served than railing against the inevitable.  It would behoove feminists to examine how the separate roles in those communities that abide could be used to better the lives of women, men, and children in an age of resource – including birth control access – scarcity.  It would behoove them to examine how women will be able to retain their voice, to retain a say in what and how life happens to them, in the coming age.  Because this *is* coming.  No amount of magical thinking will make it not so.  It would be sad to see much of the last 50 years become merely a momentary blip on the timeline of the human race, because choices are good for everyone, even men, though they may not think so….

16 responses

  1. Much of what made pregnancy as life-threatening as it has sometimes been — was the intervention of male doctors, particularly before they’d learned — and finally were able to admit to themselves — how many women they’d been killing simply by disregard of the simplest sanitary measures. I don’t know what the precise statistics have been at different times and places — except that life expectancy depended a great deal on the quality of diet available, which seems to have marked the watershed between periods when people lived with a significant risk of dying from infectious diseases at an early age,’ and the modern period in which we don’t. (The evidence of historical timing says that this change set in before antibiotics or modern sanitation came into use.) Before that, many people died in childhood, but the population continued to increase — which implies a tragic way of life, but also suggests that death in childbirth wasn’t the normal expectation.

    I think we can reasonably expect a future of reduced expectations, with a lack of large urban areas where anyone might enjoy a way of life free of the neighbors’ scrutiny.

    Whether birth control would be much in use…? You’d have groups struggling pretty hard merely to feed themselves year-to-year; would they be more concerned with increasing the population or with keeping it within viable limits?

    Social skills and intelligence might be far more needed that brute — ugh! — muscle power. So, while individual freedoms would probably be limited, so would time & energy for policing anyone else’s behavior (aside from cooperative efforts to put down dangerously violent individuals, which seem to date back even into early Biblical customs…) It isn’t clear that women would come off badly in whatever lifestyles such groups would eventually arrive at. Cultures that already oppress women would probably continue to do so; but the actual power in a group — would almost certainly come down to “Who is doing the work most critical toward keeping us alive here?” And, who, without knowing further circumstances, can really predict that from here?

    • Historically speaking, the greatest boon to human civilization was the recognition of the importance of sanitation. It was so in the Roman Empire; it was so in the Arab Empire, and it was so in the European Empire before it became the American Empire. Every time a culture loses the importance of basic sanitation it falls into mass death from easily preventable causes.

      Interestingly, the shift from squatting to have children to ‘lying in’ massively increased the number of women bleeding to death peripartum. Birthing chairs arose as a partial recognition of this, but they are not as helpful in avoiding partuition hemorrhage as squatting. And you are correct that allowing doctors that were male to wrest control of the birth arena from women contributed massively to the increase in peripartum deaths.

      The other greatest boon was the access to a minimum level of nutritious food and basic health care for even the poorest. And this comes down to ‘loving ones neighbor as oneself’ i.e., taking care of each other. It benefits everyone. But it requires seeing even the poorest as being equally worthy of basic access, an outlook that may just be a luxury in an age of scarcity. If one cannot pull one’s weight, what value does one have? It will take creativity to recognize the value each person can contribute.

      • It depends very much on what you mean by “sanitation.” ‘Clean water supplies’? Sewage treatment? No, urban populations customarily drank watered alcoholic beverages — or boiled tea — and while this might not have been a conscious choice, it seems to have been the invariable practice of people who survived ancient urban conditions. Quarantine measures? Very important, but not practiced nearly so much, aside from taboos against sharing bodily fluids too widely. ‘Keeping out the night air’? For malaria & such, probably helped!

        Adequate nutrition was the only major social change that had taken place when the modern decline in public death rates set in. How much of this reached “the poor” — I don’t know, but suspect that poor people remained poorly nourished and, as doctors were still saying in the early 20th Century, not benefiting much from medical treatment when it was food they needed.

        To what extent the better-off populations were ‘pulling more weight’ than those on the fringes, hmmm; to me it seems likely than quite a few were actually producing less social benefit. Certainly so in this rentier-ridden period of degeneracy.

        In a future, scarcity-driven society? Low-life customs are likely to be advantageous for individual survival… and these do include the habit of sharing one’s windfalls when times are good — with the expectation that such favors will be reciprocated when conditions reverse. [One feature of peasant villages that have endured — was that anyone enjoying unusual good fortune would customarily be pressured into funding the village’s next major feast. Peasants seldom accumulated enough to escape such a village; but most residents could eat well enough, barely often enough, to keep the place going.] Decisions as to who ‘deserves’ a share of food might sometimes need to be made in a very practical way… but such practicalities include the fact that if too many people are getting excluded, the next person out might be oneself… There was a recent Morris Berman talk, alluding to reactor crew members trapped one night a Fukishima, with one bowl of ramen available. He thought it remarkable that everyone got exactly one bite… but that kind of attitude might help very much in group survival.

  2. You bring up some thoughtful ideas on the future for women in the post-industrial world. The problem, as I see it, is that the feminist movement was co-opted by the corporatists (Ms. Magazine, et al) to morph into feminism as meaning women should be free to work and act like men. Now, we are “free” to be combat soldiers, lawyers, police, firefighters, gay, yada, yada, yada. So, now it takes two paychecks to maintain a household where it used to take one. But, originally, the movement was attempting to place more recognition and compensation for the contributions that females make toward their households and society. The concept of “mother right” was offered. Women should have more power over their offspring and their reproductive decisions. There was a beginning study of the “feminine face of God” and the associated history in “The First Sex” of women’s pre-history where the goddess ruled and females were healers, shamans, mid-wives, wisdom keepers, leaders and mothers. There was a movement to recognize and appreciate the males as physically stronger in order to better protect and defend their female partners and children from harm – not to dominate and abuse them.

    If the women’s movement had stayed on course, we would now be much better off with mitigating the effects of resource decline and financial collapse. Women would have developed more knowledge of their bodies (remember “Our Bodies, Ourselves”?) and how to take control of our reproduction through natural means, rather than relying on Big Pharma. We would have created new methods of dealing with trauma, such as rape, with ceremonies and rituals that restore and heal, rather than accept injury that “will never heal.” We would be familiar by now with methods that empower us, not create a greater sense of victimization. We would have developed women’s collectives where a woman who was physically abused by her husband could appeal to and the response would have been that the collective would call out the offender, beat him, and tell him that if he did it again, they’d kill him. That’s what they did in Maoist China, and it worked. Nobody seems to remember that.

    I think that the future is unwritten. But, in order to protect ourselves from restoring the old male-dominated story, we have to begin again to re-define ourselves, our religions, and philosophies to more balanced and egalitarian forms that reject the stereotypes of industrial societies. We need to explore what, indeed, are our strengths, and begin again to take great pride and joy in ourselves. Sexist and elitist pricks like Kunstler be damned.

    • Great discussion. I vividly remember the earliest issues of Ms magazine. In those early days the movement clearly had two aspects. On the one hand, there was the desire for access to the larger world, especially by middle class educated women. On the other hand, there was the desire to recognise the unpaid work done by women. Does anyone remember the ‘click’? There is a reason why the first aspect met with more success than the second. It did not in itself demand much change from the existing power structure. It was like allowing more players into an existing game. But recognition of the burden of unpaid care work requires changing the game itself, and that is much harder.

      • My first husband was ranting at me while I was pregnant with our second child about how worthless I was toward supporting our household. I cooked, cleaned, did the laundry, ironed his clothes, made his lunch, did the shopping, had entire care of the children. I did some research via the newspapers and the library about housekeepers/nannies. It took several weeks; this was before the internet. The next time he brought it up I told him he couldn’t afford me and told him exactly how much it would cost if he had to hire someone to do exactly what I did every day. He never said another word. But I thought he was going to have a stroke, he turned so purple. The marriage was not long for this earth after that.

    • I don’t actually think Kunstler is sexist or elitist. I think he is a product of his generation. And while he may not phrase things in a manner I find palatable, he is nonetheless correct in many of his assertions.

      I’m not old enough to remember “Our bodies, Our Selves” except as a book my mother read and gave to my grandmother. While my parents hung out with hippies, my grandmother was more of a hippy and I was lucky enough to spend summers with her, fraternizing with jazz musicians in the back rooms of bars where I really didn’t belong and in theaters with people no true middle class grandmother would have exposed their grandchildren to…but my grandmother wasn’t average, thankfully. I saw my first burlesque show with my grandmother. At 10.

      I have read Merlin Stone, and I have read “The Chalice and the Blade” but I read them 30-40 years after they were published and much of their conclusions had been debunked. I do wish that their conjectures were accepted and valued, but I think it’s somewhat like climate science — even the CEO of Exxon has said it’s real, but it makes no difference to those who choose to be deliberately ignorant of the facts. Or in this case, deliberately ignorant of the injustice done to 1/2 the human race for centuries.

      The issue for me is the Eurocentric assumption that what has been in the past will continue to be — I find it refreshing that Dimitri is looking to other places for answers. I would definitely class myself as living in the American culture, but not a participant in it.

  3. I appreciate you taking on the future of women’s issues with such honesty. I’ve read what Kunstler and Dmitri have said, and grudgingly have to admit that they have some points. It would be a shame, though, for women to sink back into the status of chattel again. As I see it, the only hope we have would be to investigate matriarchal societies for useful tools to salvage. If we adopt a matriarchal society, we can separate authority from strength. Women suffered in many societies because men had both authority and strength. While women cannot have strength, perhaps they can have authority instead. Kind of like Montesquieu’s separation of powers. Concentrations of power seem to necessarily lead to oppression. I’m not sure how to go about implementing a matriarchy; it’s not something we can write to our congressman about. I do see a glimmer of hope in the fact that more women than men are getting college degrees. That’s not a solution in itself, but if women attained and refused to relinquish all positions of authority, perhaps we could carry this with us through the cultural shifts ahead of us.

    • I don’t think you want a ‘matriarchy’ per se; you want something a bit more matrilineal: Anything getting inherited comes through mothers, not fathers. Land belongs to women; men get to use it but if we screw up we find our shoes outside the door and we don’t get to bust in; it’s not our door. That kind of arrangement has worked for many different peoples — and can compete just fine so long as physical-strength warfare doesn’t become a major element in the competition. (When warfare gets more prevalent, women are likely to start raising their sons to be jerks, which makes them better warriors & worse human beings… but it looks like the right thing to do, at the time. In hindsight — There goes the society!)

  4. Thank you, thank you for writing this. I was at the event where Dimitry was roundly criticized by women who were quite unhappy with the examples he used of abiding societies. I came up to him afterwards to let him know that I appreciated hearing him report on the facts of those cultures as he found them.

    I agree with what you’ve bravely stated here, and would also add that the current, oil-filled age has allowed Western culture to become quite generous in spirit to its members overall (continuing battles over rights and share of national wealth notwithstanding). When survival becomes more tenuous and life and death issues a matter of daily attention, that egalitarian veneer may wear thin and simple expediency, efficiency, and drive to power for those able to seize it may rule the day. Women, as well as others, have worked tirelessly for the gains we have made – but there is no guarantee that those will last, no matter how much we wish they would.

    I would also like to make the point that success for women in this culture has a masculine face. The feminine energies innate in all people, but that women embody, may not be best expressed in the “procession of professions,” although I personally am doing my best to exercise those in my career. We are very fortunate, indeed, to be able to make such choices for the time being.

    I hope to see more of this kind of discussion in the future. You and Carolyn Baker seem to be the only women delving into this tinderbox. Thank you again.

  5. Thank you, tinfoilhat person 🙂 for continuing with the issues the kerfuffle opened up. I
    But the issues he raised, unwittingly, well, it’s way overdue we should be looking at them and with care. I suppose they were first raised by Kunstler, but his take made me feel baffled, whereas with Orlov it was a shock followed by an ongoing rethink. Again, thank you! Glad I found this place. 🙂

    • It seems part of what I wrote got cut off… I think I meant to say that I followed Orlov’s blog and the various side conversations with dismay. Would you be so kind and fix it?

      • Sadly, I’m not that computer savvy, but both of your posts are there 🙂

        I wouldn’t even have a blog if it weren’t for the fact I married a computer nerd. He has dragged me, kicking and screaming, into at least parts of the 21st century.

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