Chains and Slavery

In an article on “Marital Authority” in Le Correspondant, Mme. COLETTE YVER tells us that —

Feminine obedience and masculine authority, belonging to the very nature of men and women, imposed themselves, despite of everything, on the human pair. Civilization and politeness have weakened them in practice, without altering their mutual reactions. In vain will feminism rise like SPARTACUS against this eternal slavery. A freeman could be made of the ancient slave. Never can a woman be made a man.

The accuracy of the last statement nobody can deny. In regard to the “authority” of the husband and the “obedience” of the wife, opinions will differ. It may be maintained plausibly, as a result of observation and experience, that feminine obedience is largely a convention, a ceremony, a form of politeness rather than fact; and that any clever woman can lead a man by the nose, making him do what she wants him to do, persuading him that his was the idea and initiative. At any rate, the authority and position of the husband are historically usurpations. “Mother-right,” still existing in considerable regions of the world, seems once to have prevailed all over it. Today among the Fantis of the Gold Coast of Western Africa, mothers have the exclusive care of the children and are tenderly loved by them. The husband is of no account in the family, even though he be rich and powerful.

If a Maori child dies or is injured, all the mother’s relations join in an attack on poor papa, who must defend himself until he is wounded. Then his house is pillaged. By a big feast he finally satisfies the mother’s clan, to which he is a stranger, and whose motto is “All for one and one for all.” All the old hero-tales of father and son as enemies, of which, “Sohrab and Rustum” is the most famous, are reminiscences of mother-right. In the State of Selengor, in the Malay Peninsula, the happy bridegroom has to stay “under the roof and eye of his mother-in-law for about two years.” Even a royal bridegroom’s time of supervision and subjection is forty-four days. Observe, if you please, “marital authority” among the Bangais on the Zambesi. If you marry a girl in the next village, you have to work for your mother-in-law, split and carry her firewood. If you sit in that august presence, bend your knees carefully. “Put out your feet toward the old lady” and you will be put out of the house. If you are sick of this servitude, all you can do is to flee, leaving your children behind. Take the unjustly despised and infamously treated Hottentots. “Their women,” Mr. E.S. HARTLAND says, “were treated with high respect. The most binding oath a man could take was by his eldest sister; his wife ruled supreme in the house; and she possessed her own separate property.

Among our American Iroquois the wife “was considered the mistress, or at least the heiress.” In the “long houses” of the Senecas, holding sometimes twenty families, the women of the clan lodged their husbands and ran the house. If any husband was a slacker, he was told to pick up his blanket and be off. A Cherokee mother-in-law and daughter owned the house. If Red Eagle or Red Fire Water didn’t behave himself, he was driven off the premises. The domestic harmony of the Zunis has often been admired. From ages beyond memory the wife has ruled the home. The father is only a boarder. The Hopi woman owns the stock, the orchards, everything. The woman proposes. And so on.

So, “marital authority” is a comparatively new invention. The shackles were once on the men’s legs. It may be suspected that they are there still.
(Published May 23, 1920; The New York Times)

6 thoughts on “Chains and Slavery

  1. The Bible is all about men’s problems, I must admit. I find “obedience” to masculine authority to be exemplified by the story of the Jewish handmaid in Namaan’s family. She calls him “father” and asks him to do the simple thing requested by Elijah, and so to be cured of his leprosy. A wonderful strategy for guiding men past our pig-headedness; the alternative (confrontation) tends to goad men to violence.


    1. Notice, however, she was lowly ranked. You see plenty of examples of manipulation in scripture because a person of lesser status wants something a person of higher status refuses to give. It’s not something you see a lot of where two equals who respect each other deal with each other fairly.

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      1. Oh, you’re absolutely right. Men in primitive societies often found power through violence. The entire problem was to figure out how to get them to act in the common interest.If I recall correctly, Namaan went away not to honor the king of Israel (through whom he sought Elijah’s ministrations), but God and his prophet.

        I think that Jesus manifested when he did in part because the political and institutional sophistication of the common citizens was sufficient to allow them to organize for the common good without needing to seek the support of the authorities (whether religious or civil). He taught them to “Love God…and your neighbor.”

        Prior to that, of course, we had the patriarchs and prophets: men often ostracized for playing the role of the father figure for people not yet mature enough to act independently. I am certain that women had their own exemplars – it’s just that women in their power don’t need to write things down. They hand the thread of history from mother to daughter.


      2. They lived in a world of gender segregation, as much as was possible. Men and women didn’t interact as freely as we do today. It’s yet another reason why applying their cultural norms on us doesn’t exactly fit quite right. Historians largely thought of women as unimportant and unworthy of writing down; that’s why we know so little for certain about how they lived or how they were educated or even how they fulfilled their role in Scripture and beyond into the early church. The bits and pieces we do know don’t amount to all that much.

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      3. If you read the works of Hildegarde of Bingen, you’ll find a complete medical practice and theology that parallels the sophistication of the Greek humors and papal dogma. My assessment was that it was received from the nun that she was cloistered with in the monastery before she established a convent. There was no evidence of independent research, so she must have been recording wisdom brought forth from the past. My sense is that women considered this knowledge to be sacred, and did not write it down before then because they feared what men would do with it. You also see some evidence of this in the testimony of Greek philosophers discussing their mystic experiences, which often include encounters with queens and muses that provide them special knowledge. I know that I have benefited from such gifts on my own journey.

        The symbolism of Revelation in this regard is interesting. I believe that the Tree of Life in the new Jerusalem is the Divine Feminine, with the twelve tribes on the walls representing the Divine Masculine standing in guard of her virtues. When that occurs, I think that, as was expressed in Daniel’s Dream of the Four Beasts, the “books will be opened,” and the beauty of the feminine past will be revealed for all to appreciate.


      4. Interesting. It’s reminiscent of a book that I read, it talked about men as the borders and the women as being fenced in. A woman without a man to protect her was as as safe as a city without walls. But that was how the ancient world understood men and women. Today, men and women aren’t seperate, but live and work together. One cannot border the other in, one isn’t content to remain inside and look out on the world at the other living life. I think that’s the tension these days, finding a balance where women aren’t shut in and men aren’t shutting women out.


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