Thursday, April 30, 2009

Book Review: Who Cooked the Last Supper? The Women's History of the World

Previously, I wrote about a men's rights activist who boasted that "almost everything good" in our lives "has been invented, discovered, created, or built by men." Appropriately, I happened to have been reading Rosalind Miles' Who Cooked the Last Supper? The Women's History of the World at the time that I read his statement. Miles' important book helped inform my argument that this MRA's claim grossly ignores the historical context that enabled men to dominate the creation of Everything Good (and Bad). Namely, as I wrote, "in order for men to monopolize the field of Human Endeavor, it was necessary for them to restrict women to the home and erect No Girls Allowed signs on every door that mattered in the public sphere."

History, Miles' writes in her introduction, has long belonged only to men. Or so it is written. According to predominant accounts of history, "'Man,' it seemed, had single-handedly climbed down the tree of evolution on behalf of the rest of us. No one ever suggested that women might have had anything to do with it" (1). As such, Miles found the challenge of writing women back into history "irrestistible;" for, "[i]n history, there were women too" (Ibid.). Not that one would know it by reading mainstream accounts of history. (All quotations from Who Cooked the Last Supper? unless otherwise stated).

1. The Fall of the Goddess and the Rise of the Phallus

I have previously explored Merlin Stone's book When God Was Woman, and, like Stone, Miles delves into the "prominence and prevalence of the Great Mother Goddess" that later advocate of male-centric religions suppressed (35). While monotheistic male-worshiping religions dominate today, Miles considers evidence showing that "the sacred status of womanhood lasted for at least 25,000 years" (36). The root of Goddess worship and the relatively high status of women, as Stone also noted, rested in the ability of women to produce new life. Men were believed to play no part in procreation and "[s]o arose the belief that woman was divine... and so was born the worship of the Great Mother" (37).

Unlike Freud's belief that all women harbored envy about man's penis, Miles suggests that, due to what they believed to be their insignificant role in procreation, men developed uterus envy. So, "[r]esentful of he women's monopoly of all nature's rhythms, men were driven to invent their own" through their own religious traditions (56). In inventing their own "natural rhythms," men did nothing more than "mimic the biological actions of women's bodies" (Ibid.). Even today, for instance, we see this mimicry in the male appropriate of procreation in the concept of being "re-born" through Christ.

Then, once the role of men in reproduction was understood, women were knocked off their divine pedestal to make way for the Power of the Phallus. Miles writes, "[w]ith its rise to sacred status, the phallus increased in significance.... From this epoch onward, male superiority becomes vested in and expressed through this one organ, as an ever-present reminder of masculine power" (60). Roughly coinciding with the veneration of the phallus was the shift from women's horticulture to men's agriculture, the purposeful taming and domination of nature "to make it deliver what they determined" (62). Like the field, women were now conceptualized as "the passive field, only fertile if ploughed, while man, drunk with the power of his newfound phallocentricity, was plough, seed, grain chute, and ovipositor all in one" (Ibid.).

In short, with the discovery of the role that men play in reproduction, new creation myths killed the Goddess Mother, thereby shifting power to the male. Men began to be thought of as inherently "active," and women inherently "passive." Most importantly, men created new gods of power unlike prior monotheistic gods, "each one insist[ing] that he alone was God- he was the One God, the only God, and no one else could play" (80). And, "as a power-relation, then, monotheism inevitably creates a hierarchy- of one god over others, of stronger over weaker, of believer over unbeliever" (91). So, while it is true that some men persecuted other men, being a woman by virtue of their womanhood was "a life sentence of second-order existence.... If God was male and woman was not male, then whatever God was, woman was not.... As man stands beneath God in the heirarchy, so the woman, as further removed, comes below him" (Ibid.). Furthermore, as we all know, not only is woman not man, and therefore, not like God or Jesus, all women must pay for Eve's mistake in the Garden of Eden by remaining subservient to their husbands. In all, I'd say it's a pretty sweet deal for men.

Perhaps the largest achievement of monotheist male-centric religions is the concept of gender complementarity:

"All monotheisms are built on the idea of men and women as two complementarity opposites, forming two sides of one coin. In this lies the very root of women's inequality- for if males embody one set of characteristics, and if with characteristic modesty they arrogate to themselves all the strengths and virtues, then women are necessarily opposite and lesser creatures: weak where men are strong, fearful where men are brave, and stupid where men are intelligent" (98)."

We still see this attitude today. Conservatives, especially Christians and "marriage defenders," insist on gender complementarity via their endless "Marriage requires a man and a woman" campaigns. These so-called male and female characteristics are really nothing more than ancient stereotypes that have been used to perpetuate male superiority for thousands of years. Isn't it time we think a little more critically about these things?

2. Family Structure, Work, and the Control of Women

Unlike the popular myth (especially among conservatives), the mother-father-child nuclear family has not always been the nucleus of society. Rather, Miles presents evidence that "tribal hunting societies were centered on and organized through the mother.... In the woman-centered family, males were casual and peripheral.... The germ of social organization was always the woman and her children and her children's children" (23). Yet, after the so-called Rise of the Phallus, women were denoted as inferior via a bombardment of "religious, social, biological, and more recently psychological ideology to explain, insist, that women are secondary to men" (103).

Believed to be nothing more than mothers and sperm depositories, women became "defined and confined by their sex" and sexuality (111). Because of their wombs, "passivity," and general overall frailty, women were told that they had innate mental inferiority and were restricted from education and "denied the right to public space" (133, 141). Their lack of education led to lower wages (when they were allowed entry into the public sphere). Their lack of education, in a Catch-22, also "gave men a reason for refusing women political rights; and the lack of political rights made it impossible for women to legislate for any reforms, or to obtain the right to education, wage parity or equality before law (182). In the this context of deprivation, men today, as I alluded to above, sometimes boast that "everything good in [our lives] was invented, discovered, created or built by men." Upon hearing such statements, with the history of women informing me, I can only shrug and say, Well, I would certainly hope they have been able to, given the ginormous affirmative action program they afforded themselves.

Most provocatively, the development of feminism arose when women began looking around and noticing that "they lived in a society that was no more than 'a system of sex-slavery for women'" (252). Men granted themselves "free right" to women's sexuality and insisted that a woman's reproductive capacity was her most defining feature (Ibid.). In theory, without the right or access to use birth control, a woman could live nearly her entire reproductive life bearing children. While motherhood is surely admirable in its own right, women- being as unique creatures as men- should have more than this one option in life.

Constantly being pregnant and having children is sure to put a damper on one's career. Thus, "the struggle by women to break or even lessen men's power over female bodies, came to a head in the fight for contraception.... Modern 'birth control'... became the symbol and center of the campaign for physical emancipation" (257). By 1970, millions of women were using birth control that they could control and women were given the ability to control their bodies and reproduction. "For the first time in history, Western societies found themselves grappling with a situation that would have seemed an unthinkable blasphemy to earlier ages, the prospect that a woman could use and take sex in exactly the way that men had always been able to do, casually, at will, without premeditation and- perhaps worst of all- without consequences.

Sometimes, I think that last bit is what really rankles some of those who oppose birth control. Why would a woman, who was naturally "designed" to "complement" a man, ever want anything other than (perpetual) motherhood? When I am reminded of the history of patriarchy and ancient notions of gender complementarity, I am reminded that the battle for LGBT rights and marriage equality is much larger than the gay rights movement. I am reminded that in, eradicating the notion that marriage is for one man and one woman only, we are getting rid of pathological notions of women's natural inferiority as well. I am reminded that it is part of the larger struggle to acknowledge the full humanity of all men and women by allowing us all to be more than a "complementary" half to someone else's yin (or yang).

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You're just a woman in denial. Men contributed more, period. - a woman who just doesn't give a shit about this ridiculous "battle of the sexes"