Oppression of Woman Hasn’t Always Been the Norm

I’m taking it easy today after a long, tough hike over Vermont’s highest peak yesterday. I’m sore, sunburned, and tired, so the best place to be is on the couch. I’m not good at downtime. I always feel the need to be productive, so it’s hard for me to spend a day in front of the TV without feeling guilty. Not that I don’t Netflix binge all the damn time, but I usually feel guilt about it later. Today I decided my day of rest and recuperation would be best spent watching all the women centered documentaries I had on “My List” in Netflix. I found some gems, all of which I’ll write about soon, but the one that really caught my attention today was a miniseries called “The Ascent of Woman”.

The premise of the miniseries, narrated by Dr. Amanda Foreman, is that even though systems of oppression have been created to hold women down, they manage to rise up and achieve amazing things generation after generation. The show combines inspiration with a staggering amount of interesting historical information, making it the perfect show for my consumption. It’s like the History Channel when they used to actually have historical programming.

The first episode I watched today, called “Civilisation”, went all the way back to the first recorded societies to see how gender relations functioned at the dawn of time. Dr. Foreman explains that archaeological digs of the Sumerians, the first recorded society, provide ample evidence that there really weren’t gender roles in the earliest societies. Work was divided among all citizens of a settlement. This is evidenced by the way they buried their dead. Graves were adorned with things that were important to the deceased when they were alive. Graves of women were adorned with tools of trade just as often as the graves of men. Evidence indicates that women participated in the economy the same way men did. Evidence also shows that child rearing was a communal activity, including men as equally as women.

Statues of deities from Sumerian communities appear to show that their primary deities were women. Fertility and nature were worshipped and associated with female deities. The most famous carving of a Sumerian deity depicts a voluptuous, naked woman seated on a throne, each foot on a human head, one alive and one a skull, representing her control over life and death. She is surrounded by cats, representing her control over the natural world. She is an all powerful goddess.

Dr. Foreman examines other early cultures and then nomadic cultures, all where women seemed to be treated as equals. This was not isolated to any one geographical area either. Evidence shows that nearly all early and nomadic civilizations had little gender division. Women learned their own trades, owned their own property, controlled their own bodies, and were not considered property of men. This certainly contradicts the idea espoused by the patriarchy that male domination is “the natural order of things”.

So what changed? The Sumerians were conquered by more militaristic societies. Even in ancient times it seems that the military was a male institution. There a ton of theories about why this is the case. A quick Google search produced a plethora of academic papers about the connection between militarism and male dominance. Suffice it to say, they’re connected. So, when an egalitarian society gets conquered by a militaristic society it seems that patriarchy starts to creep in and take control.

The most interesting thing I learned from the documentary was that the first written laws, called the Code of Hammurabi, largely concerned rules about families, households, and relationships between the sexes. The first written laws were already working to establish the patriarchy. Some women’s rights were still protected under these laws: women were allowed to leave their husbands and maintain their dowries, keep their children, and sometimes even maintain property. Marriages were still arranged by families, but it seemed that women had a say in their choice of partner. However, women were no longer allowed to participate in the economy as they had in earlier societies. The Code also established the idea that women were subservient to men once married and could be punished severely for adultery. It also outlined expectations for childbearing, which was considered a woman’s primary function.

It’s very interesting to me that the establishment of the patriarchy seems to go hand in hand with the establishment of codified laws. Earlier societies were small and community based. Violations against the community were handled by the community and laws were not necessary to control the public. Devotion to the community served as social control. As militaristic societies conquered larger and larger populations it became necessary to document laws that all should follow. Since these militaristic societies were dominated by men, they wrote the laws, and women become second class citizens, their status written in stone, literally.

The connection between oppression and codified law has been evident, it seems, since laws were first written. This is not a problem we have solved. Unfortunately, all over the world, the legal system is still used to oppress people and laws are used to make people second class citizens. Laws, by their very nature, allow the dominant systems to control the oppressed. This manifests in discrimination against women, people of color, LGBTQ people, and people of different gender identities.

The systems of oppression that dominate people throughout the world will not be dismantled until we fight the legal structures that keep them in place. That’s why it’s so important to protest laws limiting access to abortion. That’s why we need to have all the bathroom bills that have been passed repealed. That’s why it’s crucial that Religious Freedom Act laws get shut down. That’s why it’s so important that each state pass anti-discrimination laws that include protections for all types of people. Laws are powerful and we need to take them out of the control of the oppressors.


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