Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Zinn, Chapter 6

This chapter is about sexism and the oppression of women. What strikes me first and most deeply is the litany of accounts of women transported from Africa as slaves or from Europe as indentured servants and enduring things like giving birth to a child while chained to a dead body the overseer didn't make time to remove.

Similiarly to (although more severely than) today, women who had children out of wedlock were prosecuted while the men who conceived the children were untouched by the law.

On the flip side, "The father's position in the family was expressed in The Spectator, an influential periodical in America and England: 'Nothing is more gratifying to the mind of man than power or dominion; and ... as I am the father of a family ... I am perpetually taken up in giving out orders, in prescribing duties, in hearing parties, in administering justice, and in distributing rewards and punishments.... In short, sir, I look upon my family as a patriarchal sovereignty in which I am myself both king and priest.'"

Obviously, not all women submitted to subjugation so easily. Many women rebelled in the limited ways they could. Zinn recounts the story of Anne Hutchinson, who claimed that people could interpret the Bible for themselves and became a dynamic preacher on that and other subjects. She was, of course, put on trial for heresy and challenging the authority of men, and she was banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Then, "[d]uring the Revolution [...], the necessities of war brought women out into public affairs. Women formed patriotic groups, carried out anti-British actions, wrote articles for independence. They were active in the campaign against the British tea tax, which made tea prices intolerably high. They organized Daughters of Liberty groups, boycotting British goods, urging women to make their own clothes and buy only American-made things."

A few interesting notes:
  • the women we tend to hear about today are the genteel, beautiful, upper-class, gracious wives of wealthy men; the lower-class activists are belittled, rewritten as prostitutes (some of them were, but many were not), or completely ignored
  • Abigail Adams wrote her husband a letter explicitly asking him to include rights for women, arguing (among other things): "Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could." I don't know if I agree with this, but it tickles me.
  • Thomas Paine called for equal rights for women.
  • Mary Wollstonecraft was awesome. I had never heard of her until now.
  • The 1800s saw many primers and how-tos for women on being docile, virtuous, pious, meek pushovers.
  • But many women, tired of being houseslaves or spinsters, spoke out. In 1819, Emma Willard said "Reason and religion teach us that we too are primary existences ... not the satellites of men."
Women's civil rights specifically are discussed in this chapter. But why did The Powers That Be find such a rigid class and caste structure necessary? For JLC in particular: "The new ideology [of women being domestic, subservient, teaching their multiple children the virtues of individuality, patriotism, and religion] worked; it helped to produce the stability needed by a growing economy."

Feminist Margaret Fuller made explicit the similarities between women and slaves. Indeed, many women were very active in antislavery protest and outreach. "What woman needs is not as a woman to act or rule, but as a nature to grow, as an intellect to discern, as a soul to live freely and unimpeded. . . ." This is true for all human beings, no?

Zinn also touches on Sarah and Angelina Grimke, Dorothea Dix, Frances Wright, Sojourner Truth, and many other feminists and general human rights activists. I recommend reading this chapter for the quotations by these wonderful women.

The chapter ends with a quotation by Sojourner Truth on what it means to be a woman and a human being. The power struggle continued and continued, and Zinn segues into the next chapter with these closing words:

"In the midst of these movements, there exploded, with the force of government and the authority of money, a quest for more land, an urge for national expansion."

More more more. Growth unlimited.

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