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The Creation of Feminist Consciousness: From the Middle Ages to 1870.

Here is a fascinating and liberating account of how women came to feminist consciousness over the last 2,500 years. It was not easy or straightforward, according to Gerda Lerner. Instead, the efforts of individual women to recognize the injustice of patriarchy and to organize against it foundered repeatedly as women were isolated from each other and kept in the historical dark.

"Women were denied knowledge of their history, and thus each woman had to argue as though no woman before her had ever thought or written. Women had to use their energy to reinvent the wheel, over and over again, generation after generation."

Lerner cleared the way for this study with her 1986 pathbreaking work, The Creation of Patriarchy, which argues that patriarchy, far from being a natural or eternal condition, was a historical construct that came into being "over a period of nearly 2,500 years, from approximately 3100 B.C. to 600 B.C.," when societies moved from hunting-gathering to agrarian systems.

To justify itself, the patriarchal system propagated a set of sexist ideas that relegated women to inferior status. These "metaphors of gender" insisted that men were by nature more rational than women. It was therefore up to men to "explain and order the world," while women were left to "sustain daily life and the continuity of the species."

This, then, is Lerner's starting point: How did women overcome these patriarchal metaphors, break out of "the cage of restraints," and assert their equality?

The first hurdle was asserting the mere right to express themselves intellectually. "Each thinking woman had to spend inordinate amounts of time and energy apologizing for the very fact of her thinking," Lerner laments.

Throughout history, women asserted this right, or, as Lerner puts it, sought "authorization," by several means. Female mystics claimed divine inspiration; mothers grounded their right to think on their responsibility for educating the young; women reinterpreted religious texts to show their intellectual legitimacy in what Lerner describes as "one thousand years of feminist Bible criticism"; women of great talent and creativity pointed to their genius as justification in itself.

One of the great virtues of Lerner's book is her archeology: She discovers hundreds of courageous women battling throughout the last thousand years for the right to be treated as equals. These little profiles not only buttress Lerner's argument, but they are inspiring in themselves.

Here is Sarah Grimke (1792-1873(, the daughter of a leading South Carolina planter, who was a pioneering feminist Bible critic. "I ask no favors for my sex," she wrote. "All I ask our brethren is, that they will take their feet from off our necks and permit us to stand upright on that ground which God designed us to occupy. ... All history attests that man has subjected woman to his will, used her as a means to promote his selfish gratification, to minister to his sensual pleasures, to be instrumental in promoting his comfort; but never has he desired to elevate her to that rank she was created to fill. He has done all he could to debase and enslave her mind; and now he looks triumphantly on the ruin he has wrought, and says, the being thus deeply injured is his inferior."

But it is bittersweet for Lerner to find these feminists and recount their struggles, because they fall into a depressing pattern: They are ignorant of previous feminist efforts, and until the Nineteenth Century, their own efforts made no historical ripples.

"What we need to note is the discontinuity in the story of women's intellectual effort," Lerner writes. "Endlessly, generation after generation of Penelopes rewove the unraveled fabric only to unravel it again."

The unraveling ends in a two-step process, Lerner argues. First, women needed to gravitate toward "female clusters, female networks, social spaces" to be able to break free from patriarchy. But ultimately, this was a necessary but not sufficient condition for creating feminist consciousness. The crucial step, she argues, is to recognize and act upon the need to organize for themselves. "Only women organizing on behalf of women could generate truly liberating thought."

There is a certain circularity about this argument: If women cannot achieve feminist consciousness until they organize for feminist causes, how do they have the consciousness to do the organizing? But Lerner points to the late 1960s as an example of how women organizing for themselves can create a dynamic of intellectual growth. This dynamic has led to the proliferation of women's history and the undermining of patriarchal thought.

Toward the end of her important work, Lerner seems to get carried away. "Once the basic fallacy of patriarchal thought--the assumption that a half of humankind can adequately represent the whole--has been exposed and explained, it can no more be undone than was the insight that the Earth is round, not flat."

Unfortunately, it may be too early to toll the bell for patriarchy. While discredited, patriarchy still lives. Biases persist; violence against women is epidemic; power remains in male hands.

But Lerner is right that the ideology of patriarchy has been unmasked, and she has done more than her part in the unmasking.
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Author:Rothschild, Matthew
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 1993
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