In a post a few months ago I posed the question, Does patriarchy traumatise the feminine? At the time, I was pretty certain that it did—that patriarchy arose through the institutionalised denigration of the feminine:
It’s hard to imagine how the goddess-worshipping hunter-gatherer cultures of the Neolithic period gave way to patriarchy. What was that actually like? How did women become completely downtrodden? The Babylonian Marriage Market [a painting by Edwin Long] provides what writer Bobette Buster calls a ‘gleaming detail’, a vivid, heart-wrenching moment that pierces the fog of emotionally distant abstraction.
I must have had my doubts: I phrased the blog title as a question, rather than a statement. Fast-forward through a few months of emotional excavation and I’m now certain it’s the other way round.
I want to make it clear I’m not saying this to shift any blame onto women; I’m trying to unpick the sequence of events to help unravel and end patriarchy.
Climate change in a belt from North Africa to Central Asia led to desertification (fertile land turning to desert), famine, and a fight for shrinking food and water sources.
This had a double-whammy impact on the human psyche that has been seen in recent instances of environmental stress and eco-anxiety, such as droughts in East Africa in the 1970s:
- An all-consuming obsession with food whereby strength, capacity for violence and intelligence conferred an evolutionary advantage
- A breakdown in emotional cohesion that diminished, denigrated and traumatised everything feminine, emotional or sexual
This traumatisation included the feminine aspects of men.
Patriarchy emerged as a socio-political structure to reflect, contain, and normalise the violent masculine and the traumatised feminine.
Patriarchy then emerged as a socio-political structure to reflect, contain, and normalise the violent masculine and the traumatised feminine. Over time, laws and customs emerged which effectively reduced women to chattels.
The Slave Market
This post’s gleaming detail comes from another 19th century artwork, Jean-Léon Gérôme’s 1866 painting The Slave Market, where a potential male buyer inspects a naked slave woman’s teeth.
If Gérôme’s painting seems voyeuristic to modern sensibilities, remember that in his day paintings of Classical or Oriental themes were the only socially approved forms of nudity; that which is traumatised within us always exerts a subtle pull.
The female body could be exposed only when clothed in suitably moral cloth, such as the humiliating inspection of the woman at the heart of the painting. (It was the Impressionists—whose work Gérôme derided—who shocked art with representations of the nude figure without any morally overarching context.)
Keep them for yourselves
Bible quotes confirm that such inspections—including virginity checks—became normalised, part of the social fabric of the early patriarchies:
“But if the man was right and there is no proof that his bride was a virgin, the men of the town will take the woman to the door of her father’s house and stone her to death.” (Deuteronomy 22.20-21)
Sexual inspection extended to brides, slaves and captives: “You must put to death every boy and all the women who have ever had sex. But do not kill the young women who have never had sex. You may keep them for yourselves.” (Numbers 31.17-18) The scale of this can be gauged from a later verse where the spoils of war include “32,000 young women who had never had sex.”
Publicly denigrating and humiliating women in the most intimate part of their anatomy sent a powerful psychological message about their status in society.
This served to reinforce and perpetuate patriarchy over the centuries—yet the understanding that the traumatisation of the feminine contributed to the rise of patriarchy shows us that, through emotional healing work, patriarchy can at last be brought low.
Image: detail from The Slave Market by Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1866