Hilary Mantel reviews a new four volume set, “A History of Women”, by Marilyn French, with a foreword to the set by Margaret Atwood.
Mantel and Atwood work hard – very hard – to balance their reservations with compliments (‘balance’ and all that), but their polite, subdued ‘professional’ language does not hide the problems.
Let’s start right off by saying that a four-volume undertaking totaling 1800 pages is a major project indeed. William McNeill’s hefty histories of civilization and William Shirer’s “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” and “The Fall of France” come to mind, but they focused more tightly on a specific time or theme.
The history of the female gender throughout the course of human history (as best we know it) and thus across numerous civilizations and societies and over millennia of time … that’s a lot to handle.
Myself, I can’t imagine a professional scholar undertaking such a project as anything less than a decades’-long project, if it’s to be done usefully and accurately. But French is not a scholar; she got her start in fiction and has taken to writing these books for a purpose clearly other than scholarly achievement.
The first thing that strikes me is that in limning the history of women’s oppression at the hands of men across civilizations, the books quietly undercut one of the prime directives of multiculturalism: that other societies and especially in other eras are not to be ultimately judged by modern Western standards. This gently reminds one of the incoherence at the heart of the conventionally imagined nexus between ‘feminism’ and ‘multiculturalism’: they are almost by definition bound to diverge, and even oppose each other. Multiculturalism seeks at its best to understand other cultures; gender-feminism seeks to impose its vision of utopia on all cultures.
‘Multiculturalism’ (at its best, as an intellectual enterprise, not as a cat’s-paw for campus and national politics) seeks to understand societies and cultures on their own terms. ‘Feminism’ as it has established itself here in the US is not so much an intellectual enterprise (although there are some very impressive feminist scholars out there) but rather a political force heavily influenced by a revolutionary – almost utopian – agenda.
It’s difficult to know when in a particular society ‘woman’ is cast as weak, as chattel, as pollutant – and when ‘woman’ is cast as powerful, influential, and resilient. And unless one is profoundly versed in a society in a particular era, it’s cheating a bit to assume that ‘women’ were always ‘oppressed’ simply for the hell of it or out of some dark male purposes. Some civilizations more or less divvied up the chores of work and raising the long-immature young of the human species, a task that in humans requires far more time and complex effort than among the more instinctual animal species. In others, women were given special status in ways not sought by women (in the conventional wisdom) today.
We do not often respect, I think, just how complex a being the human is – and therefore how awesomely demanding human parenting has to be if it is to adequately prepare the infant-human for life in adult human society, however that society is organized. Cutting corners in child-raising, for any reason, will have serious consequences later on, for the developing child and for the wider society.
Additionally, in ages of human history where life was for so long “nasty, sharp, brutish, and short”, it fudges things a bit to presume – and without saying so – that males were not also subjected to tremendous trials and tribulations in the ages of time before, say, the 19th century AD. She mentions that in the 19th century women’s brains and heads were measured – as if men weren’t also subjected to phrenology and the criminologists looking for biological or skeletal indicators of this or of that. It was sometimes degrading, but it wasn’t visited specifically upon women; and some folks really wanted to have their ‘head-bumps’ examined the way many like to have their palm read today.
This is not to say that ‘women’ over time did not wind up being too-easily categorized as ‘merely’ the virtuous raisers of children and preserver of the graces. A particularly gifted woman would be held back by such a common general societal and cultural assumption. Many men over the eons, however, have also been unable to fulfill their gifts, and not for reasons of personal failure. It’s never a good thing for a society or a culture or a civilization to waste the gifts of those among its citizens who have something very special to offer. Although, it has to be said, not everybody is clearly gifted in such a way as to justify being deposited on the faculty of a university ‘just because’.
The home is seen as “women’s natural territory”. The conventional gender-feminism explanation for this is that committees of men over the ages met in secret convocation and so decreed it, and somehow enforced it. But surely there are other, more organic explanations that also have the advantage of not demonizing an entire gender and asserting its conspiratorial hostility sustained over millennia and across cultures and civilizations.
Who is to say that the benighted folk of an earlier era could not possibly intuit that the female, giving birth, seemed also emotionally attuned to her child? French will go on in a later volume to insinuate that mothering is a learned skill. Well, perhaps the finer points, yes. But I find it hard to accept that Nature – with or without a male sky-god presiding – would entrust the utterly essential and primal task of nurturing the young who will continue the species to the ‘chance’ that a particular mother had read the book or gotten the lecture from her mother. It’s just not the way evolution and Nature work: the really important stuff is very carefully and distinctly provided for. And that doesn’t change whether your overarching or underlying First Principle is a sky-god or Gaia the World-Mother.
It is becoming increasingly clear how neuro-biologically and neuro-chemically ‘prepared’ a woman is for bearing children, even to the point that deep and beneficial transformations within her do not take place unless she bears a child. And this is all taking place at a level deeper than what is clear to simple observation: that most females are attuned to their children and seem to want to have them; and this includes many who in the past few decades started out wanting to give the ‘work’ or ‘career’ thing a try. (Which required a whole lotta nannys, which had an interesting impact on elite support for immigration, and the heel-bone’s connected to the ankle-bone and the ankle-bone’s connected to … and so on.)
And while in the human species males are predisposed to violence and are provided with physical strength that the female is not, this has a clear basis in evolutionary arrangements, approved no doubt by Gaia or Zeus or Nature or what-have-you. Nor has any society on record considered it a good thing – or legal – to simply whale upon one’s wife. (No, the ‘rule of thumb’ stick story is a myth.)
The greatest challenge for any developing culture would be: How to organize itself such that the clear evolutionary ‘facts’ of predisposition and biology could be best employed for the good of the common flourishing. Fine-tuning - where a specific individual in a gender displays gifts more generally placed with the other gender – may or may not have been well implemented. But the overall plan quite possibly had a rational and reasonable symmetry, based on the overall skill-sets brought to the general table by most of the females and most the males.
Nor can it be ignored that there is no workable explanation for just how – let alone why – a purported ‘gynotopia’ was suddenly and utterly and successfully overthrown or discarded. In this gender-feminism offers not a historical explanation but rather a foundational myth: once upon a time women were in charge and gods were female and it was all good and then suddenly violent, evil, brutish males wrecked everything; and only now a heroic cadre of those who ‘get it’ are returning Life and History to their proper course. (Cue the heroic brass.)
Ominously, this gender-feminist gambit is very similar to Marx’s “primitive communism”, a (conveniently) prehistoric period when the workers were not alienated or repressed. Such a ‘lost paradise’ provides at least a vision – if not a coherent blueprint – of what the Movement is aiming for in its revolutionary struggle. And, they hope, a justification for all the ‘eggs’ that will have to be ‘broken’ to make the Grand Omelette. Eggs, lives, myths, facts – let’s not split hairs and spoil the Moment by ‘thinking vertically’.*
A millennia-long ‘conspiracy’ that now justifies an all-out ‘war’ against an entire gender … that’s not only going to be a hugely damaging civilizational option even if it were an accurate assessment of the historical truth, but it certainly has no claim to accuracy on the basis of simple assertion. Nor would it seem to be a wise evolutionary move for Nature to set up a war of one gender of a species against the other.
But Atwood notes perplexedly that this is precisely what French calls for in her history. “Men who read it might be put off by the depiction of the collective male as brutal psychopath, or puzzled by French’s idea that men should ‘take responsibility for what their gender has done’ (How responsible can you be for Sumerian monarchs, Egyptian pharaohs, or Napoleon Bonaparte?)”
This idea of collective guilt is something hell-and-gone from Western civilization and the ‘genius’ of Western culture. It took a long time to purge the virulent strain out, but it was achieved. Hitler’s ‘race guilt’ assigned to the Jewish people, justifying his Reich’s effort to obliterate all of them, was a monstrous regression and seen as such, when the whole blasphemous project was finally exposed to the light. It is, however, something that constituted an important part of the Soviet utopian dream of thoroughly remaking Russian society: the educated and successful peasants known as kulaks were as a class declared ‘guilty’ of being parasites upon the masses, and – in a remarkably demonic but unfortunately familiar gambit – Soviet jurisprudence held that if you could string together enough words to actually defend yourself before a tribunal then that proved beyond a doubt that you were not one of the masses, and to the nearest wall you went, followed by the always-available firing-squad. Long live the revolution.
Nowadays, upon the demands of a bunch of folks who read a little too much (or too little) in Marx and Lenin and Mao, We here in this almost-chosen Republic are called upon to engage in a great patriotic war based on ‘gender guilt’. Well, half of Us are – the other half are to be sent to the wall. It is a brutal imbecility on its face, a treacherous political lunacy for any Party or government to abet it against half of its own citizenry, and a conceptually incoherent scheme for bringing about what has proved impossible even for the most ruthless of the bloody-souled revolutionaries of yore: a totally transformed ideal society.
And lest We forget: it was precisely in the 1990s, as the grandpappy of all bloody revolutionary utopian States, the USSR, imploded with a whimper, to the jubilant cheers of its former inmates, that this lethal whackery was deliberately enshrined in American law and jurisprudence, its proponents lionized by the Beltway elites of Washington City. The USSR – the Frankensteinian monster stitched together according to the self-assured messianic stylings of Lenin, Stalin, and their numberless minions – wasn’t even cold in its grave before the Beltway was setting up labs to recreate it according to the old diagrams and notebooks. Except ‘class’ was now ‘gender’ – and let the revolutionary ‘justice’ flow like a flood, and rain down like acid. Selah. And so it has.
In a weirdly familiar and faux-intimate self-dramatizing moment French admits – mes enfants – that “these 3000 years were hard for everyone”. Meaning every female. But if the revolution is faithfully and loyally supported, it will make the next 3000 hard for ‘them’ (meaning the guys). Which will keep the revolution in business and in perks for quite some time indeed. What’s not to like?
Mantel gamely tries to make the best of it, or at least appear not too negative: “French has been supplied, her introduction tells us, with a mass of material by specialist scholars; a reviewer can only stand in place of the general reader and ask, is this interesting, is this convincing, does this seem true? Every page has something fascinating to tell; the credibility of these fascinating things varies; the reader is often uneasy, without being able precisely to pinpoint an error.”
Nicely put. A sentence like that on your old professor’s job-recommendation for you shouldn’t have you popping a bottle of bubbly.
And if you’ve read Christina Hoff Sommers’s chapters (in her 1994 “Who Stole Feminism?”) on gender-feminist ‘scholarship’, you suddenly realize that French’s assurance is hardly sufficient as a basis for waging a full-scale ‘war’. You wonder, as well, if Bush the Egregious wasn’t told by his oh-so-with-it Beltway advisers that any old thing is enough justification to start an invasive, preventive war in the Middle East because Look what the (gender-)feminists have put over on the American people for the past bunch of years.
That’s another bad thing about a baaaad idea: If it’s not exposed quickly, it ‘migrates’ – especially in the damp, moist hot-house of the Beltway. And what started off as a domestic ‘thing’ becomes the basis of a foreign policy from Hell.
“The war against women … the long battle to control their sexuality, which necessitates control of their bodies and minds.” But surely one of the great charges gender-feminism has laid against Dead White Males is that they spent wayyy too much time trying to master themselves, and even strive to gain control over their own sexual appetites (with greater or lesser degrees of success, to be sure). And this is the charge laid against “white male morality” and against Christianity: that it was too wrapped up in trying to control everybody’s sexual activity. “Mastery”, if I recall Sommers’s quoting some gender-feminist illumination, is a “male” thing, a “vertical” thing, like “rationality” and “thinking”.
But where would any society be if its members were allowed to wildly indulge the primal and oh-so-basic human urge to ‘do’ sex, just for the great pleasure Nature arranged for the procreative act to yield as sort of an inducement to keep the species going? Sex doesn’t require the old frontal-lobes, those remarkably and uniquely human brain-parts that seem to hold the programming for the specifically and uniquely human elements of the species. Indeed, the running joke, since recorded history began, is that one precisely does not ‘think’ when one is indulging the sex-urge. Nature gave the original advice: Just do it.
French will also claim that on the one hand “mothering was taken to be an innate, an instinctive activity”, which she (and the gender-feminists) say isn’t so. Men can apparently be great mothers (if they just wanted to) just like females can be great you-name-its (if they want to). But on the other hand, naming a child after the father is “intrinsically an act of force; it reverses natural mother-right”.
How can it be both? If a woman is 'just' the bearer of the child, the delivery truck as it were, then from what basis does any ‘natural mother-right’ arise? After all, a FedEx truck has no proprietary rights over a package it's about to deliver. And a civilization that plans to get big and complex and wants to take notice of the uniqueness of each individual needs some system of identification more precise than ‘second daughter of the fishing-net maker’ or ‘he who tames eagles’.
Why, if there was a well-established matrilineal society before there ever was a patrilineal society … why did it change? Nobody seems to know much about this. None of the ‘scholarship’ goes into it very deeply or relevantly. Did some males just decide to ‘change’ things out of pure cussedness or just for laughs or for the purpose of instituting some dark scheme? How did they get the change instituted? After all, look what happened to that kid-Pharaoh who just wanted to change worship totally to the Sun God: he died kind of early even for those days, and then they dumped him in a hidey-hole, scratched his name off all the stonework, and went back to the old ways. It’s not easy to change something folks are used to – so how did these pre-Pharaonic tribes-guys pull it off? Or is that thinking too much?
For that matter, since it all happened at or shortly after the dawn of the human species, it has to be at least theoretically possible that after experimenting with matrilineal societies - if not indeed some form of gynotopian paradise - the various tribes and nascent societies came to the conclusion on their own that it wasn't working out so well. Surely, surveying the damage caused by gender-feminism in the past 35 years, We can admit the possibility that the 'primitives' of yore might have been very wise indeed. And it makes a hell of a lot more sense than the assertion of an inchoate, hardly conceivable planet-wide 'conspiracy' of males that suddenly arose and succeeded in establishing "patriarchy" and kept it going for all of recorded human history. It's much less useful for justifying a revolution though, and a war; conveniently, "facts don't matter". Too conveniently. As, later, Bush the Egregious would realize when his advisers pointed to the map of the Middle East.
French accuses the female soldiery of Dahomey’s army – back in the day – of self-betrayal by proclaiming that “we are men, not women”. Well, it’s a thought-provoking scenario, even for genuine scholarship, but who is French or anybody of this age to declare the Dahomian soldiery gender-traitors?
But like all revolutionaries, the gender-feminists presume that they know, that they ‘get it’. As it did with Lenin and Stalin and Mao, feeling like you know more than anybody else makes it a lot easier to get up in the morning and face the day. The day full of wrack and ruin that you’re planning to inflict upon anybody your regime can get its bloody paws on. Ack! (as Albert the Alligator would pray).
This brings Us back to “facts don’t matter” and the whole idea of ‘revolutionary truth’.
Revolutionary truth is not simply a specific form of actual truth. The ‘truth’ of any revolution is actually comprised of A) an unshakeable assumption that its vision is the right vision, its belief is the right belief, and its ‘reality’ is the only ‘true’ or ‘real’ reality (even though it is just a vision that hasn’t yet come about); and B) a mandate assumed to be given to you on the basis of your ‘getting it’, whereby the revolution’s ‘truth’ must and can be imposed upon others by any means necessary (or by any means you can get away with). This is why Goebbels observed that “Truth is what the German government thinks is good for the German people”. This is not ‘truth’ (let alone Truth) in any way, shape or form that the average citizen would understand it. This whole thing is also hell-and-gone from democratic politics and a Constitutional polity.
Mantel notes that French is “irresistibly anecdotal”. She tells lots of stories. Very nice – just like in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. But that’s not enough to claim ‘scholarship’. Just like it isn’t enough to provide unquestionable evidence in a court of law. A ‘story’ is an interesting start, but there’s a lot more to it; a ‘story’ is the first step on a journey of ten-thousand steps. Short-cuts will bring their own punishment.
And Mantel touches upon French’s take on the plight of workers in the Industrial Revolution. It begins to shade into the historically and morally obscene, to suggest, infer, or state that ‘women’ were the only ones oppressed in those hell-hole factories and mills, as if ‘men’ were all Robber Barons riding in carriages and wearing silken hats. The Industrial Age was hell on earth for every human being caught in its toils as a worker. If ‘men’ had planned a patriarchal ‘war’ on ‘women’ (to which, conveniently, the gender-feminists are now justified in responding by waging ‘war’ of their own), then in the Industrial Age patriarchy turned upon itself with an awful vengeance. How is that handled in ‘gender studies’ these days, at 60K per annum for tuition, room and board?
The danger of any revolutionary enterprise in the mass-societies that have evolved since the dawn of urban, industrial mass-civilization is that the cadres, those who ‘get it’, must adopt a cartoon view of life and people. This smooths out the always-obstructive complexities and clears the track for the Utopia Revolution Express. Mantel puts it nicely: “The inner landscape of human beings is not on display in these volumes.” Bang.
And then she reloads and fires again, quoting French to the effect that “We do not know the facts of behavior” in all the historical examples she uses, but – Mantel drily notes – “the admission doesn’t move her to scrutinize her own examples more skeptically.”
And why should they? “Facts”, famously, “don’t matter”. They don’t matter in a world where the only ‘truth’ is what is ‘constructed’ by those who ‘get it’ and they don’t matter in a revolution where the objective isn’t to discover the truth you don’t know but rather to impose the ‘truth’ you’re convinced you do know. And to effect the imposition of that truth upon pathetic lumps who ‘just don’t get it’ by waging war against evildoers who question your truth. What’s not to like?
French concludes her history by calling the 21st century “Dawn”. That’s convenient, since the century does not actually exist – most of it – and so there’s no way of checking her facts (which don’t matter anyway, neatly). But of course, she’s in the spin business here, not the history business.
I suppose this set of books will be required purchasing for large numbers of libraries and gender-studies students. It can be used – as so often is the case nowadays – as ‘scholarly work’ to buttress this or that gender-feministical assertion, and much of the media will dutifully scribble it down and many pols will nod their heads solemnly for the camera.
As one German ruefully remarked, listening to Goebbels's glowing propaganda reports of Wehrmacht victories: we shall win and win and win until we lose.
Gender-feminism’s propaganda has won a great deal, and caused much damage – more than We actually realize. Their war in pursuit of a dubious utopia has created far more destruction than it has built anything worthwhile or preserved what already was worthwhile.
It’s time to call off the gender-feminist ‘war’ and restore the country to a decent balance; Republics shouldn’t have to host revolution – they aren’t built to withstand such stress and bear such a load.
And there’s enough of a load to carry now.
*In another remarkable symmetry, Alan Dershowitz, in his 2006 book "Rights from Wrongs", tries to ground 'rights' not in the individual's dignity but in the group's having experienced grievous wrongs (which justifies the group taking whatever actions it feels it wants to). 'Rights', therefore, according to Dershowitz, "come from wrongs" (and not from a soul, a God, a Beyond, or any human dignity).
This, you might observe, is a classic tenet of 'victimism', the American quasi-legal concept that the victim's feeling of outrage trumps all other 'quaint' considerations (justice, equality before the law, integrity of judicial process, the Constitution, evidence and proven facts); that the victim's 'story' cannot be questioned or doubted; that the victim is fully justified in feeling as vengeful as he/she desires; and that the government's and the courts' only role is to act as the arranger of the victim's 'satisfaction' and 'closure'.
Which, if you look at it, is precisely what the Israeli realm has been trying to arrange for itself all along: there has been an outrage, we represent the victims, our version of what is going on is the only version that can be legitmately listened to, nothing in heaven or on earth has the right to stop us from seeking what we seek to achieve, nor can we be judged.
That's got to be more than a coincidence. It's a terrible synergy, a classic example of the 'migration of concepts' that then goes on to create an awful and lethal synergy.
You might also note that in making rights a creature of group and politics, and stipping 'rights' of their Western 'Ground' in the dignity and nature of the human being, the entire moral Ground of a democratic politics and culture and - indeed - civilization is swept away.
That may be the Israeli assessment of what has to be done to "do whatever it takes", but We cannot stand for their doing it to Us. Even if the Aldermen of the Beltway, on the mob's payroll in this matter, harrumph and bray and refuse to defend Us from this insidious but lethal attack.