JEFFREY MISHLOVE, Ph.D.: Hello and welcome. I'm Jeffrey Mishlove. Today we will be exploring "Women and History." This is the second of a two-part program with Professor Gerda Lerner, the author of The Creation of Patriarchy and The Creation of Feminist Consciousness. Welcome again, Dr. Lerner.
GERDA LERNER, Ph.D.: It's a pleasure to be here again.
MISHLOVE: In Part 1 of this program we explored how patriarchal society and the values of patriarchy were created by human beings in the millennia before the Christian era. Perhaps we could begin this part of our program by summarizing some of the high points.
LERNER: Well, the main ideas of patriarchy are, in a simple form, that men and women were created differently and for different purposes, and that men have rational mind and superior intelligence and the capacity for leadership. Therefore they are destined to represent the polity and to rule; whereas women are inferior intellectually, they are more emotional, they are nurturant, and they sustain society with their nurturance, but they are not capable of reasoning and organization. Therefore they are to be subordinated and dependent on men. Further, that because of that, women do not need any education except to prepare them for this nurturant, supportive role. And finally, perhaps the most devastating aspect of this idea scheme was that God does not speak to women, and women cannot speak to God, and women reach God only through the mediation of men. And in the period of the two thousand years of the Christian era, these ideas were taken as though they actually were commands from God.
MISHLOVE: Rather than commands from the earlier cultures of the Middle East.
LERNER: Right; and they were incorporated into every institution of society. That is, the family, the workplace, the educational institutions, the political institutions, and the churches all preached the same thing. And the result was that women suffered under a great many disadvantages that men did not have. They were in fact considered to be dependents, first of their fathers and then of their husbands, and in case of widowhood, dependents of their sons, if they had any, or of any surviving male relatives. We have a great, long record of all these discriminations. But what I found in my investigations and my historical work was that perhaps the greatest disadvantaging of women has been the least observed, and that is that women were systematically educationally disadvantaged for over two thousand years, when you compare them to their brothers.
MISHLOVE: Because of course women of higher classes would receive more education than women of lower classes.
LERNER: Well, education was for both sexes a class privilege. Lower-class people received a totally different education than upper-class people. But in each case women received less education than men, and this, by the way, is actually internationally true, and it can be shown by literacy studies. In every known society in the world down to the twentieth century, women are longer illiterate than men, and only when a society reaches about 93 percent of literacy does that equal out. So women are educationally disadvantaged.
MISHLOVE: I suppose the interesting thing about our present age is that you can sit here and make that statement. It's perhaps for the first time in human history that we have this kind of perspective on such a deep, endemic kind of oppression.
LERNER: And the reason that is so is that for the past 700 years women have fought very hard for access to education, and have finally won it in the last century, and finally in this century, in just a few countries in the world. Not by any means in all countries have women won educational equity in terms of access to education. We still do not have equity in terms of the content of education. Now, the result of this educational deprivation has been that women, for far longer than any other group in history, could not come to any consciousness of their own situation, and they could not transmit their own history over time. And that is a devastating deficit.
MISHLOVE: I think it's worth mentioning to our viewers and listeners that you yourself have been a pioneer in developing the field of women's history. In Part 1 of this program you mentioned that when you first explored it some thirty, forty years ago, your professors told you there was no such field.
LERNER: That's right, and I never in my graduate study had a woman professor. With one exception -- a man who himself is a pioneer in women's history, who did teach about women -- with that one exception, women were hardly mentioned in the history books. And now people may think that's not so very important, but the fact is that our ideas about what is possible for the future are formed out of our knowledge of what was possible in the past. And if we have no past, if a group is deprived of its past, it cannot imagine a future for itself. It can only imagine a future for the people that it thinks have done the historic work in the past, and that's men.
MISHLOVE: One of the things that you highlight are the contradictions that are inherent in patriarchy itself. For example, in the Christian era the religion teaches values of love and forgiveness, and at the same time women are systematically excluded from positions of privilege.
LERNER: Well, the relationship to religion is not simple. On the one hand institutionalized religion -- churches of every sort, when they become institutionalized, become hierarchical, and subordinate women in their roles, in the roles they can play. That's on the one hand. On the other hand, religion itself has been one of the main avenues by which women have liberated themselves. That brings me to the main subject of the second volume, The Creation of Feminist Consciousness, and that is I wanted to find out how women intellectually, as thinking persons, survived patriarchy. Were they capable of finding alternate ways of thought that proved to themselves that they were human beings just as men, that they were not inferior? And the answer to that is emphatically yes. In every century there were women who went that route, and who created important works and important systems of ideas that were really liberating.
MISHLOVE: Some of the earliest examples undoubtedly are the female mystics who proclaimed for themselves a direct connection with the divine.
LERNER: Right. They contradicted that teaching that God does not speak to women, and they contradicted it in the most emphatic way by saying, "God spoke to me." And they made their contemporaries believe that. And what's more, and I think perhaps even more significant than data, is the fact that they transformed that fact into creating new roles for women. So for example, Hildegard of Bingen, an eleventh-century nun, became a public figure of enormous importance; five Popes, three emperors, and all kinds of kings and abbots and bishops asked her advice, and she gave it freely. She spoke in public. She preached in churches. She was the abbess of two abbeys that she founded and managed, and so she created the new public role in which many other women mystics followed her. And I trace these women mystics not just in Catholicism, but also Protestant mystics, down to the nineteenth century, a group of African-American spiritualists who had mystical visions and preached in public in the cities of the Northeast.
MISHLOVE: Now, I'm pretty sure that these mystics were not primarily feminists, but it strikes me that what they're getting at is essential to perhaps even deeper than feminism, because it relates to the unfolding of consciousness itself.
LERNER: Well, nobody would call them feminists, and I certainly don't, but I'm saying that they authorized themselves to transcend patriarchal doctrine about the subordination of women, and that is an act of liberation.
MISHLOVE: I like that phrase -- they authorized themselves.
LERNER: They did that. Now, other women authorized themselves by other means. There was a whole group of women who authorized themselves because they were mothers. They said, "I'm a mere woman, and as such I cannot preach or teach. But I am a mother, so I can teach my child." And then they proceeded to write books of theology that by any other name you would call philosophical, but that was their way of getting around the constraints of patriarchy.
MISHLOVE: Well, the most ancient of cultures have always had the feminine aspect of the divine, and as much as the patriarchal society might have tried to suppress the feminine form of the godhead it seems to be in some ways irrepressible.
LERNER: I think that's so, and my research certainly shows that. I have documented in my book 1200 years of feminist Bible criticism prior to 1900, so it's almost 1300 years. Women read the Bible; it was the only book that they were allowed to read for many centuries. They were always told that the Bible was the cause of their position. They were supposed to be subordinate to men, they were supposed to be confined to the domestic circle, because of what the Bible said. And what women did was they criticized that text in the Bible, on their own. And I have documented, as I said, in every century there were some women who did this. This is extraordinary, because we didn't even know that that existed.
MISHLOVE: And each generation was unaware of what the previous generation had done.
LERNER: That's the terrible part. As you put it together like that, if you look at it historically, you will notice that these women all went over the same texts, and they didn't know that another woman before her had done this already, and they oftentimes arrived at the same argumentation without having the slightest notion that any other woman had thought that before her.
MISHLOVE: There was at that point no conscious tradition of feminist criticism.
LERNER: That's right. The only thing there was, was an effort by women and some men to make lists of famous women, which is always the beginning of history. You know, male history started too with lists of kings and famous men, and so women made lists of famous women. But again, I have taken those lists and compared them, and I have compared them with the lists of men, and by the computer I am able to see, where did they get their lists from. And the tragic fact is that, while all men knew of famous women in the past, and cited other men as their sources, no woman ever cited another woman as a source. They all cited men as their source. So that shows to me that the absence of a historical tradition, so to speak, confined women to -- the best of the women had to use their energies to reinvent the wheel every century all over again, and therefore they could not to the same extent participate in creating new ideas, in thinking their way to new solutions. So it's a tremendous waste of human talent that patriarchal tradition has imposed on us, and I think both men and women have suffered the results. It's as though we were working with one hand tied behind us at all times.
MISHLOVE: But something has changed in the last fifty years or so. Your research -- although you were a pioneer in the field, you certainly don't stand alone at this point.
LERNER: No, but -- now, my book goes only to the end of the nineteenth century. With the coming of organized feminism, everything has changed, and what we call progress today, the great progress that women have made, came as the result of the organized effort of women. And one of the first things that women in the feminist movement struggled for was to create a women's history, and the earlier feminists, the ones that won the vote, also collected a history of their movement. They were aware of that. They made a conscious effort to create a women's history. I think that we are for the first time now at a point where both men and women are beginning to see that the world was not just made by men, that civilization was not just made by men, and that women are as capable as men of giving leadership, innovating social ideas and solutions.
MISHLOVE: And always have.
LERNER: Always have, that's right.
MISHLOVE: And yet one of the definitive feminist works of the twentieth century, Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex, sort of defines women as people who have no history.
LERNER: She says that, and while she repudiated some of the things she said in that book -- twenty years later, in the light of the modern feminist movement -- she has never repudiated the statement that women have no history. She was in error on that, and it was an error that was very naturally the result of this long tradition, of women, of the most brilliant women being forced to, quote, "think like men." That used to be said as a compliment to a woman: "You are smart. You think like a man." I think it was a terrible denial of the actual creativity of women, to think that you can only think well if you think like a man. We are now rediscovering what it is like to think like a woman, and one of the wonderful things that happened to me as a result of working on this book is that I began to really appreciate and understand, and I hope bring to the reader, a group of extraordinary women thinkers.
MISHLOVE: You've mentioned the birth of feminism, which took place in the late part of the nineteenth century, and yet the oppression of women by the patriarchal system ran for millennia prior to that. Why did it take this long?
LERNER: Well, that's just the point. By the way, the organized feminist movement started in the middle of the nineteenth century, but by the end of the nineteenth century in all the countries of Western Europe and the United States the feminist movement was well established, and that's the reason I ended my book at that point, because I was interested in the prior period. The reason it took so long is that women had no history to draw on; they were not taught that other women before them had made enormous contributions to human civilization, and therefore they couldn't think of themselves as belonging to anything but an inferior group. They were struggling and groping in the dark, blindfolded, so to speak, deprived of their own history, and that held them back. And educational deprivation held them back, because if you don't know anything it's very hard to invent something new in physics or science or mathematics, if you're ignorant. And women were kept in ignorance much longer than men, as a group. And that is very tragic, and I have come to the conclusion that of all the things that were wrong with patriarchy this was probably the greatest wrong.
MISHLOVE: But one of the things that you have written about, and I think quite emphatically, is that it's wrong to see women as victims in all of this.
LERNER: That's right. And the women that I write about in The Creation of Feminist Consciousness -- I write about fifty or a hundred women -- they all liberated themselves in one form or another. There was a group of women who relied simply on their talent, and when they were challenged: "How can you . . . You can't do this; you can't be a poet. You're a woman." They said, "Yes, I'm a woman, but I have this talent, so I must use it. There's some reason why I have this talent. I have to listen to my inner voice." And they created systems of ideas; they created liberating thought, which we are now looking on correctly as a form of female philosophy. But we never -- I mean, have you ever heard of a female philosopher, in your training? Nobody has.
MISHLOVE: No. But it does seem, when we think of philosophy, the thought patterns of women are often dismissed as women's intuition. And I think now we are coming to take a whole new view of what intuition is, and to understand the power of that.
LERNER: Yeah, that's so, but I am not here substituting intuition for thought. Not at all. I am talking about women who thought their way out of their own subordinate position, who thought about society, who thought about arrangements for men and women, and how to make a better society -- women who really tried to create systems of thought. Now, interestingly enough, one of the outstanding of these is Emily Dickinson. Now, we think of Dickinson as an extraordinary poet, as she was. But if you study Dickinson's work in detail, not just for its form as poetry, but for the content of what she is saying, she creates a different view of the world, an alternate vision which is very strongly grounded in a female perception of reality which she elevates to something beyond merely the domestic.
MISHLOVE: I think of Emily Dickinson as a visionary myself -- someone who understood the immense power of the human mind, in ways that linear, logical, male-dominated types of thinking haven't typically done.
LERNER: You're quite right. But she didn't just work there with feeling. She worked with thinking. One of her biographers said she had wrestled with God. She asserted the right to define her relationship to the metaphysical, and that we commonly call philosophy. But we have not thought of her that way in general.
MISHLOVE: I enjoy one of her poems in which she writes that the brain is larger than all the oceans and all the stars, because it contains them all.
LERNER: That's typical Dickinson. So I think the message of my book is twofold. It details the intellectual price that both men and women have paid for the subordination of the female mind in the past, and then on the other hand it restores a female tradition of thought.
MISHLOVE: Well, I think this is quite significant, because as our society invests emotional, mental energy, economic energy in the suppression of women, or of any people -- and certainly women are sort of archetypal in terms of human suppression in general -- we are denying ourselves that energy that might be used for more nourishing, enriching, higher purposes.
LERNER: I couldn't agree with you more. It's also that because women have been kept out of political power longer than any other group, by and large -- with a few exceptions; there are always the stand-ins, right? But those stand-ins are so exceptional that they are almost -- they mark the degradation of the other group more. Now, because women have been in that position, they have a much more critical way of thinking about power, and I would maintain that today, where our biggest problem in society is the abuses of power by those who hold it in various forms, that we need the thinking of women. We need the thinking of people who have been kept out of power to restore ourselves to a more balanced view. Now, I don't want to be understood as saying that women are morally better or superior; I don't hold that view at all. Women, like men, come in all kinds of shapes and forms, and all kinds of moral values. But we have had a different historic experience, and it seems to me, for this particular period in history, when the world is no longer capable of being ruled by militaristic elites, because we have gotten too powerful -- weapons of war can only destroy us and not win anything for us --
MISHLOVE: Hopefully we are in a postwar age.
LERNER: We are in a postwar age, whether we want to acknowledge it or not. We need to mobilize new thought.
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