In creating the myth of Zeus as their supreme deity, ancient Greek male politicians attempted to naturalize misogyny. Misogyny, “dislike of, contempt for, or ingrained prejudice against women,” from the Greek root “hatred [of] women,” centuries later found full-throated expression in U.S. politics through the hearings and eventual confirmation of the misogynist Kavanaugh for a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court. In this “Case Study in GOP Misogyny” where a majority of the nation opposed Kavanaugh’s appointment, a majority of Republicans supported Kavanaugh – even if the assault charges were true.
When misogyny is placed within the pervasive culture of patriarchy, the political economy of misogyny, like racism, is revealed as a core principle throughout U.S. history. At the time of the Declaration of Independence, the wife of future president John Adams, Abigail Adams, sought incorporation of her full rights as a woman into the revolutionary principles of liberty and freedom. In 1776 Abigail wrote her husband, “I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors.” Abigail may have been recalling the previous two centuries when women could be tortured and murdered by the ruling church leaders in Europe and the British colonies of North America for simply being labeled a “witch.”
Abigail Adams continued in her letter: “Do not put such unlimited power in the hands of the Husbands…Remember all men would be tyrants if they could.” As Jill Lepore explains in her massive new history of the U.S., Abigail was calling on her husband to provide freedom of “representation” to women, in line with the ideals expressed against British rule. And Abigail foresaw a future in which women would be a political force if ignored: “If perticuliar care and attention is not paid to the Ladies we are determined to foment a Rebelion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.”
Abigail’s patriarchal husband John Adams responded as if his wife’s concerns were just a joke: “As to your extraordinary Code of Laws, I cannot but laugh…We know better than to repeal our Masculine system.” Contending that “natural law” made women inferior to men, Adams and his elitist cronies made sure that their basis of social order was premised on male superiority and female submission to male authority.
John Adams reaction was the norm of the day and based in a long legacy of women and children viewed as merely property of their fathers and husbands. I draw in part (see 2015 publication) from the work of feminist economist Nancy Folbre and summarized,
“Like slaves, married women could not legally claim a right to the product of their labor. Both slaves and women under patriarchy were unable to make a lawful claim to their own children. With religious approval and a patriarchal rule of law, White men could legally separate children from their mothers under slavery and during marriage. A sexual double standard existed for White married men who raped slave women or sought sex through prostitution whereas a woman adulteress faced punishment. In regards to the care of their slaves and wives, legally ‘slave owners and patriarchs were required only to meet the subsistence needs of their dependents and could administer physical punishment without the close supervision of the law.’”
In this context John Adams’ patriarchal mindset could not conceive of representation and equality for women.
After decades of battles against male dominance in all aspects of government and 144 years after the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution was amended so that women in the U.S. could vote in all elections. Yet, women remained second class citizens in regards to employment and property rights. For example, historian Alice Kessler-Harris notes that in the U.S. from the 1890s into the 1980s “special considerations of all kinds could prevent women from being persons under the law.” Although statutes would use the word person, the legal interpretation was man. Courts deferred to states to determine personhood on the basis of patriarchal custom that could exclude women from serving on juries and qualifying for traditional male careers and jobs.
From 1972-82 an Equal Right Amendment (ERA) for women was never passed by the required number of states. The ERA was simply seeking Constitutional codification of the following: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.” It was during this era that second-wave feminism faced extreme resistance from a patriarchal culture, backlashes that continue to this day as evident in the Kavanaugh nomination by an openly misogynist president who relishes in his venom against women.
Trump, Kavanaugh, Clarence Thomas – and the list goes on – hold a legacy that dates back to the ancient Greeks. The Founders were fond of harkening back to the Greeks as an example of a democracy – that embedded slavery and misogyny in a Grecian form of “democracy.” With their god Zeus, or Jupiter as the Romans called Zeus, male dominance and violence was divinely ordained. Decades prior to the contemporary #metoo movement, women were organizing to protect women through the development of undisclosed shelters for battered women, shelters and protection that was never available to Greek women, to Abigail Adams’ generation, nor to many women today.
But back when shelters for victims of domestic assault were just beginning, laws and police practices allowed men – just like Zeus – to physically brutalize their wives and children. I was toward the end of graduate school at Michigan State University when feminists in Lansing, the state capital, organized the Council Against Domestic Assault (CADA – today it goes by the acronym EVE, End Violent Encounters). Nearly 40 years ago in 1979 as a “friend of CADA,” I wrote a piece for their newsletter in which I included references to Jupiter aka Zeus:
“Indeed, today’s public and its civil servants, living amidst the problem of domestic violence, often behave as if they were operating under the rule of Jupiter and Juno, mythical Roman deities. As the story goes, the god Jupiter raped a young wood nymph. This ‘nymph,’ a woman, was then not only rejected by her female companions, but also became the object of the terrible rage of Juno, Jupiter’s wife. The young women was transformed into a hunted forest animal. Comfort and support were nowhere in sight. A ‘she-got-what she deserved’ attitude prevailed.”
Through Juno’s example women, too, can enable patriarchy. Today, just think Susan Collins and the 67% of Republican women who supported Kavanaugh.
Nevertheless, women remain our most significant leaders of social movement for liberty and justice for all. In particular, we have the historical and contemporary leadership of Black women, including the founders of the #metoo movement. To this point, in my “Afterword” chapter in a book published this year, I noted,
“Despite a history of discrimination, African American women have been central to the theory and practice of Black resistance and civil rights activism. During the late 1800s and into the 20th century, for example, ‘Colored Women’s Club’ formed in every state in the western U.S. to create supportive environments in hostile societies. These organizations often were specifically created in response to lynchings. The Civil Rights Movement of the Second Reconstruction era was propelled by the nearly invisible but tireless work of African American women in the relative freedom available through Black churches. More recently, it was three Black women who created the Black Lives Matter movement that spurred a movement toward a Third Reconstruction– and a formerly incarcerated 65-year old Black woman has become a leading advocate for incarcerated women.”
In these continuing misogynistic times, it is to women and their leadership against patriarchy that we men and women need to gravitate toward if we ever expect to unravel a system built around male elitist privilege.