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….