Throughout western history, have white women been the primary agents of oppression?
by Bill McDonald
Copyright © 1993 by Bill McDonald
About 1960 a favorite joke went something like this: "My wife and I have a clear understanding. I make all the important decisions. I decide what the family position is on the recognition of Red China, how many wings of B-52s the Air Force needs, and what to do about the federal debt. She makes the more routine decisions; where we live, what schools the kids go to, and who we invite to dinner."
That joke got a good laugh in an era before Women's Lib; it captured the essence of women's power. Women control the social agenda. Since Women's Lib, however, the only politically correct position is that women have no power. Moreover, it insists that we men, at least those of us descended from dead white European males, are the root of most evil.
This guilt trip comes mainly from radical feminists who lead the "politically correct" movement. While few in number, they seem to have seized control of most of the media and much of academia. As the joke suggests, however, women have always had power to set the social agenda, and for both sexes. The constant complaint that women are powerless victims of a male dominated world is not and never has been true.
Just look at history. The strict Victorian middle class moral code was imposed by women on both sexes. That code was designed to protect women's social power which comes from controlling male access to sex. Never mind that women could not vote and held no political office. They could still induce male politicians to enact laws or support customs which protected women's power and control over the social agenda.
That Victorian agenda had enormous social and political consequences later on. Consider racism as illustrated in India during the British Raj. Before the memsahibs (Victorian British women) began arriving in numbers after about 1840, British men generally treated Indians as social equals. They consorted with Indian women and often took them as wives. They regularly invited Indians into their homes.
Once the memsahibs arrived, however, male social openness came to a screeching halt. It was just too threatening to British women. They did not want to compete sexually with Indian women unencumbered by the Victorian moral code. Mostly Protestants, the memsahibs were potentially vulnerable to divorce. Accordingly, they quickly managed to impose a code which branded all Indian nationals, of both sexes, as social inferiors and banned them from all British social functions. Likewise, the memsahibs banned British men who had Indian wives or openly consorted with Indian women. They saw to it that these outcasts were also ostracized from British men's clubs or other all male social functions. Such men had virtually to "go native" where they posed no "role model" threat. A 150 years tradition of social equality practiced by British men went out the window. That memsahib social code soon became the standard throughout the British empire.
In the American slave-holding South, something similar happened much earlier. It would have been terribly threatening for white women if slave-holding men could fall in love with, then free, and later marry their former slaves who would then have rights of inheritance and such. So the white women quickly put a stop to that. The tactics were the same as the memsahib's. They branded black slaves as social inferiors, even subhuman, and then ostracized white men who openly consorted with them. The ethic remained in effect long after the North freed the slaves and we are still coping with its aftermath.
The Protestant Reformation played a role here, of course, because it opened up the right of divorce. On that issue we can compare what happened socially to ex-slaves in the U.S. with those in Brazil which remained Catholic and outlawed divorce. White women thus enjoyed much more protection. Even if their husbands took concubines from among the slaves as many in fact did their property was safe. Thus white Brazilian women did not feel the necessity to denigrate the social worth of slaves nearly as much as Southern American women did. Hence, when Brazil ended slavery in 1888, the former slaves socially integrated into Brazilian society much more quickly than in the U.S.
We can make almost precisely the same comparison of the Amer-Indians. On both sides of the Rio Grande white males, when alone, quickly accepted Amer-Indian women as social equals, hence as wives or open consorts. But, North of the Rio Grande, when the white settlers showed up with white wives, it was memsahibism all over again. The white women felt threatened and reacted by making the natives into social inferiors and ostracizing white men who consorted with them.
South of the Rio Grande in Mexico, the story was much different. It was a repeat of Brazil. Anti-divorce laws protected Spanish white women. So they did not feel so impelled to impose a social code which demeaned the native Americans or to ostracize Spanish men who consorted with them.
In none of these examples did women hold formal positions of power. Still they had no trouble getting those who did to enact women's self-protective social agenda which then did much to create the tradition of racism found in the U.S.
I won't condemn, years later, what women did to protect themselves. They were vulnerable and faced real threats. They had limited options. So they did what they felt they had to do. I understand that and don't presume to judge them. I mainly want to point out that they had real power and they used it, ruthlessly if necessary, to protect themselves. Not that men don't have much to answer for, they do. But I do wish people of radical feminist persuasion would quit blaming our WASP great grandfathers for the whole legacy of racism inculcated in our culture when our WASP great grandmothers in fact played a central role.
Meanwhile it amuses me to hear radical feminists whine about how little power they have. But the fact that they wallow in collective self pity and a well cultivated and highly politicized sense of victimhood is mainly a political tactic. It sets the stage for their key weapon, mainly the bum guilt trip. If only grudgingly, however, I must conceded the effectiveness of that weapon; they have used it like a flame thrower to frighten a nearly all white male Congress and White House into enacting much of their current social agenda. But in my view they have gone too far. Men are waking up to the fact that it is a bum guilt trip. Our culture, for better or worse, was created by both sexes. If in different ways, with different kinds of power, both sexes participated in forming our culture and both must work together to change it. Scapegoating one set of ancestors or another can only delay the changes we want to make.
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