Misogyny: What the Hell? Okay, Let’s Do This.

So, I’ve been putting off writing this post. The reason is that I’ve been reading, reading, and reading some more. There are hundreds if not thousands of books on misogyny and countless more scholarly articles, never mind the (probably) millions of newspaper, magazine, websites, blogs, and other sources I can’t think of right now, that try to understand misogyny or point out it’s catastrophic consequences especially for women, but also for all of us. And there are original sources to be evaluated including religious texts, philosophical works, and ethnographies. I’ve barely scratched the surface of the literature in reading and teaching a course on love and sex, but there are themes that re-occur again and again so it’s not necessary to read every piece of writing on the topic. What I have read is depressing enough.

I want to say that I have no intention of offending anyone by writing these words today, but some people will inevitably take exception. That I cannot control. Like Copernicus, Galileo, and the more contemporary Charles Darwin (although I’m not in the same category of eminence as they are), I must write what I see as the truth based on decades of study and reflection. That said, let’s do this.

As I wrote in my last post, misogyny started when the animal became the human. Of course, we’ve always been animals, subject to all the vagaries and uncertainties that that entails including the challenges associated with survival, including getting enough to eat and drink, protecting ourselves from threats (floods, droughts, volcanoes, rock slides, predators etc.,) as well as replenishing the species by making babies. However, when we evolved sufficiently to become self-aware, which took millions of years, we were able, with our now bigger brains, to try to deny that we were ever animals in the first place. Or rather, we didn’t specifically deny our animality, we just tamed it by making it subject to control by our ‘self’.

Language has long fascinated me and there is plenty of evidence in our languages of the attempted denial or taming of our animality. If I say to you: “My body is really sore from that workout yesterday,” to what does the ‘my’  in that sentence refer? What is it that can claim ownership of the body? This linguistic turn had profound impacts on humanity long before English evolved. Virtually everywhere I look in the anthropological ethnographic literature, we’ve determined that ‘we’ are in fact not just our bodies, but ‘we’ are much more than that. We’ve managed to convince ourselves via our dreams (awake and asleep), our growing imaginations and probably through trances brought on by drugs, dancing or fasting) that we must be a very special animal indeed. This process led Ernest Becker to argue that it’s our ingenuity and not our animality that “has given [our] fellow creatures such a bitter earthly fate.” (EFE, p.5) As we developed selfhood and  our brains grew bigger and more capable, we convinced ourselves through ritual that we were able to control heaven and earth. We invented rituals and projects like the zodiac to convince ourselves that the heavens were in constant intimate relations with us and we read chicken entrails and runes to determine how we might control natural forces that threatened us. We created culture to oppose nature, as Becker argues, and our cultures are more or less elaborate and sophisticated projects to deny our animality and, consequently, our death.

We always knew that animals died and we were not oblivious to the fact that we all eventually meet the same fate. What to do? Oh, what to do? Well, the ‘forces of nature’ were always overwhelming and difficult to handle but we determined that if we pursued the right rituals, we could affect the course of our lives and of nature. We began to bargain with the forces of nature. “You back off and give us good crops and we’ll sacrifice a bunch of sheep to you. Sound fair?” But the forces of nature (gods) were never satisfied and needed constant reassurance that we would feed them. Kingship developed as a way of having a god present at all times to take our gifts and keep us safe. We, however, the weak, vulnerable species that we are also needed constant reminders that we mattered and that the gods were paying attention and were on our side. So, we split our societies into ‘moieties’ or (literally) halves so that we might have someone to compete against to show the gods how worthy we were. That process is still extant in modern society. We tirelessly set up competitions to prove our worth, our value and we do it most frequently for the glory of our God (gods) or, now, our secular god, our country, that institution that ensures us survival beyond our animal lives. Religion has always promised us eternal life. Why else would it exist? Thousands of religions over the course of history have given people thousands of ways of gaining eternal life. Problem is, in a competitive world, if my way to eternal life promised by my religion is the right way, your’s cannot be. Sorry about that.

Now comes the part where the most momentous invention ever to come from the human species was wrought. That’s the notion that if our bodies are mortal, then the only thing we can do is deny them their due. Because we were now connected to the forces of nature we could pretend that we had an inside track on immortality. Gods were immaterial and immortal, we could be too. If we performed the rituals just the right way, we could ensure our eternal survival. Our rituals became increasingly aimed at chastising the flesh, piling corpses upon corpses to assuage the gods. We needed to put emphasis on our selves, our souls, that immaterial aspect of ourselves that would not die if we performed the proper rituals at the proper time. Our bodies became our enemies. The body became associated with death, the spirit with life. Norman O. Brown states that in fact, the earth is the devil’s domain. Disease and death became the twin pillars of evil for us. Life on this earth was transitory, just a preparation for the immortality we could achieve upon our corporal death if we lived right, did the right things. Our denial of death led to our denial of our bodies and our lives. So, in order to live eternally, we were prepared not to live fully in our animality.

So, why do we associate faeces with dirt? Why must we avoid getting dirty? “We read that the men of the Chagga tribe wear an anal plug all their lives, pretending to seal up the anus and not to need to defecate…The body cannot be allowed to have the ascendency over him.” (Becker, The Denial of Death, p. 32) The Chagga men’s denial is our denial. In another post, I address this fact more fully, but for now, what of women?

Well, women were never the primary class of people who presided over ritual. They were much too busy having babies and being domestic. The first class divide then is between men and women, a mostly natural divide to start with, but with time, the most important class divide was between most men and the priestly class. Women need not apply. Not then, not now. (Yes, you can contest this point if you want.)

In fact, for men, their bodies are traitors to them because of their animal nature, their death instinct. When men and the priestly class came to dominate human societies, women were increasingly seen as the epitome of animality. Men ‘othered’ women for their sexuality, their attractiveness to men, for dragging men into a depraved and animal world. Sex became dirty unless it was sanctioned by the priestly class using the proper rituals. Sexual attraction had to be denied at all costs so that it couldn’t infect men’s spirits, their souls. Problem is, of course, we are a species that reproduces sexually so there was a need for a massive investment in ritual to ‘cleanse’ women especially during menstruation and in the regulation of the female being, of the female world which by it’s very nature condemned men to death. Sins of the flesh are a great way to eventually find yourself in hell. (Of course, things are changing and I’ll deal with that too in another post.) Dante’s hell isn’t as present as it used to be in Abrahamic consciousness but we have other ‘hells’ to replace it.

Enough for today. I will follow this set of blog posts with a list of the materials I used in researching this topic, at least the most important ones.

Without getting into too many specifics, my next post is about how women have been treated throughout history and labelled unclean and a threat to men’s ascension to eternal life. For that we need to visit the Old Testament, especially Leviticus, but other sources as well, including Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas and others partly through Jack Holland’s work, but also through many others including Ernest Becker, Norman O. Brown, Otto Rank, Umberto Eco, Uta Ranke-Heinemann and Carol F. Karlsen. Simone de Beauvoir also figures prominently here.



Misogyny: What the Hell?

On this International Women’s Day, it’s a good time to introduce my next series of blog posts. I don’t intend these short posts to exhaustively cover the topic, but to serve as an introduction and to stimulate discussion and dialogue. In a future post I’ll explain the title above. Much of the significance of this post and those that follow on this topic is summarized in the title.

I’ve scanned a significant sample of the anthropological, historical, sociological, philosophical and theological literature and I’ve done so over decades and there is this stark truth that consistency reveals itself therein: There is no time in history that I can uncover when women were not treated as inferior to men. There is no time, nor place. Oh, there have been matrilineal, matrilocal, and matrifocal societies, but no matriarchal ones, nor have there been ones where women and men have shared power equally other than in Marx and Engels’ concept of primitive communism wherein women had supremacy over domestic life and men over social life, hunting and defence. If it did exist, it didn’t last long.

In response to the pervasiveness of this uneven relationship between men and women, some people might argue (and have they ever) that women are naturally inferior to men and should just accept their place in creation. In fact, this notion has dominated many treatises on the nature of humanity over history. It’s probably more common, even today, than some of us would like to admit.

I reject this notion out of hand, of course, because it’s patently false and the evidence is before our eyes every day. Constitutionally, women are not inferior to men any more than poor people are inferior to rich ones. Differences between the sexes exist of course but they are not grounds for discrimination or prejudice. As Simone de Beauvoir writes in The Second Sex, women have been ‘othered’ not because of any inherent weakness, but because of what they represent to men.

Women have inordinately suffered at the hands of men in history, of that there is no doubt, but many men would argue that women have inflicted their share of suffering onto men too. I’ve known some men who have expressed a profound hatred of women. They seldom can give reasons other than that they were treated unfairly, taken advantage of, abused and rejected. Still, it’s rare to read that a woman has killed her husband or partner during outbursts of domestic violence, while it’s common to read of men killing their wives or partners in the same situations. Men kill women much more frequently than women kill men.

However, for this blog post, I’m not primarily interested in exploring the individual, idiosyncratic expression of misogyny. Rather, I want to explore misogyny as an ideology of very deep-seated human institutional experience, experience that rules our lives as humans of whatever sex and determines to a large extent how we relate to one another in groups throughout history.

Misogyny is defined, for the purposes of this post, as a systemic, overarching and deleterious characteristic of human relations. It divides us. It denies us. It obviously has consequences for all individuals. None of us can escape it’s reach. Women can even be as misogynistic as men (for reasons I will explore later). Men who resist misogyny have a tough go of it because it reaches into every pore or our cultures. It will not be ignored. Still, for humanity to enter a new phase of history, one not characterized by brutality and ignorance, misogyny will have to give way. In the next few thousand words, I explore why that’s the case.

From the time the animal became the human, women have been paying dearly for our flight from death and our longing for immortality. This idea is from Norman O. Brown’s Life Against Death, but it is repeated by other authors in various publications. It’s not often stated in these terms and some explanation of what Brown means here is necessary. Strangely, women are seldom included explicitly in analyses of the human condition and the statement by Brown above is unusual. For Brown, to be human means to be an animal that knows death in a way that no other animal does. Of course animals have a fear of death, that’s very easy to ascertain from simple observation, but animals, unlike humans, don’t make a fetish of it. If they face death as in a predator bearing down on them with intent to kill, they experience fear and flee. If they survive, it takes them very little time to go back to their routine life and the threat to their life is forgotten. Not us humans. No, we carry that fear around, relive it, dream about it, let our imaginations expand on its every detail and we, above all, need to explain it. So far, we haven’t done a great job explaining it. Instead, we’ve spent a great deal of our collective energy denying it, ‘it’ here meaning the death that inevitably catches up to each and every one of us and we’ve been very creative in our denials.

So, at the moment (maybe it took thousands of years) when our ancestors finally ‘became human’ and became self conscious, they realized that their wonderful tummies and the amazing sensations that they felt could not possibly come to an abrupt end. They faced danger on many fronts from predators, natural disasters, feuds and illnesses. They found their loved ones crushed by boulders during a landslide or drowned during a flood. Their bodies were obviously their weakness. They needed a way of transcending their main weakness, their bodies, to convince themselves that they, in fact, did not die although their bodies obviously did. Oh, their bodies might be toast, but not ‘them.’ So they set about creating any number of fantastical immortality-projects to convince themselves that even if their bodies rotted away that ‘they’ would not because they were not just their bodies, not even essentially their bodies, that they had within themselves an immaterial self that survived the end of their bodies. The anthropological literature is replete with descriptions of the incredible number and richness of ways in which peoples have imagined their immaterial selves. These imagined selves are the Yanomamo hekuru and our common variety soul. “Sure, body, you go ahead and rot. I’ll be around forever though. I don’t need you.”

So, what this leads to is essentially and inevitably the systematic cultural denial of the body. As Becker says in Escape From Evil, disease and death are the twin pillars of evil for us. Disease prevents us from enjoying life fully and death cuts it off permanently. Now, that’s no fun.

But what of women in all of this? Well, I’ll get to that in my next post. Suffice it to say here that a major part of our bodily lives is our sexual lives, procreative or not. For men who want to emphasize their immaterial, immortal selves, sex represents a big problem for them. It’s all about body, the great traitor to our immortality strivings. Men could eventually convince themselves that women were essentially body but that they were essentially soul. Now what are the consequences of that?



On my way to my Misogyny post: A Note

So, I’ve been reading tons in preparation for writing my post on the roots of misogyny. One thing I’ve done is re-read for the 20th time, I’m sure, Ernest Becker’s Escape from Evil. I have also re-read his Denial of Death again. This time, I read them with a different eye. I was looking specifically for a direct mention of women, or rather of how a woman might experience the creation of immortality-projects and such things. Actually, I found precious little, and it was disappointing.

In terms of bartering with the gods and creating institutions that are there to deny death and promise immortality, women are nowhere to be seen. Men are the priests, men are the leaders, men are everywhere. Women are nowhere. Granted, it’s complicated and to a large extent men took the bulk of the power in society and have since the beginning as best we can guess, although there is some interesting speculation otherwise.

To me, the interesting question is this: in a species that reproduces sexually, both male and female are required to make babies. There is no inherent reason why males should have all the social power and women have so little. So, why and how did men ever get and hold so much social power? That is the question I will address in my next post. There’s no way I can answer it definitively, but I can make an educated stab at it using all the power of research that I can muster. By the way, I’m not suggesting that women are powerless. In fact, in some ways, women are more powerful than men. It is in the realm of the spiritual and in terms of the creation and sustenance of immortality projects that my interests lie. Many women have written about the inferior status of women. I will address some of their thoughts in upcoming posts.

Another disappointment for me in re-reading Becker, something I hadn’t really paid enough attention to before is his insistence that our immortality projects are now secular. According to him, we’ve moved beyond the magic and promises of religion but our new ‘gods’, money and the nation-state cannot promise us immortality. That is a basic lie although they don’t hesitate in pushing that idea. Nation-states have sold themselves as important sources of meaning in our lives, meaning that seems to be worth dying for given the evidence from the carnage of the wars of the 20th Century. Max Weber, the German sociologist, argued that we live in a demystified world. I think that magical thinking is still very powerful in the world today. We are terrified of death and are willing to attach ourselves to whatever scheme we find plausible enough to lead the way into immortality. In many instances, those schemes are passed down through the generations, but new schemes pop up all the time outside of family and often in opposition to traditional familial values.


What’s So Scary About Women? Introduction

In my last few blog posts I promised I would tackle a most difficult topic and that’s the misogyny embedded in many of our institutions. Well, that’s what I will do over the next few blog posts.

I’ve always liked to try to figure out how things work. When I was a kid I used to dissect and disassemble things all the time. I was forever curious about how things were made, especially mechanical things. Taking them apart was not usually too much of a problem, but to my father’s dismay, putting them back together was sometimes not so easy. My favourite targets were toys and motors but clocks really topped the list. As I got older and went away to a Catholic boarding school in Edmonton for high school, I still had a live curiosity but the priests were not too keen on seeing things taken apart and strewn here and there on campus. They were especially protective of the lab equipment. Looking back on it, I remember also having a keen interest in why people did things the way they did them. I had a hard time making sense of what I came to know as institutions (crystallized habits of thought and life). And, of course, figuring out why I had a penis and my sisters didn’t was top of mind. That said, I would never have dared, after turning 4, to bring up such a subject at dinner time. The disapproval would have been swift and sometimes mildly violent. I felt very early on that certain subjects were absolutely taboo. Still, lots of sniggering went on because we children weren’t yet completely indoctrinated. Of course, we learned a few anatomical things by playing doctor but it wasn’t easy to figure out the moral issues involved. The questions definitely outnumbered the answers in my first two decades of life on earth.

In my early twenties, after a serious sawmill accident, I had back surgery and wondered what to do next. Well, I went a little crazy for a while, smashed up a few cars, got drunk and stoned frequently but I had a couple of mentors that made a huge difference in my life. They prompted me to go to university. I applied to Simon Fraser University (SFU), but was rejected because my grades in high school were lousy so I attended Douglas College in New Westminster for two years, got an A average, had some great teachers and decided at that time to study sociology. On I went to SFU. That time of my life was super exciting and difficult too because of money, to be certain, but also because of sex. I couldn’t seem to get enough of it and too much of my energy went into pursuing it or worrying about not getting any. The sex drive for me was very powerful. It’s hard to concentrate under these conditions. I was clumsy and ridiculous like most of my friends and acquaintances around the subject of sex, but this was the early seventies for god’s sake. We would have been into some promiscuity and there was definitely some loosening of mores but we were mostly unsatisfied. But when all else failed, we always had some beer and weed to make us feel better. Still, I couldn’t help thinking about sex and women. I should now say sorry to all the women I was a dickhead to in those days. It wasn’t me, it was my gonads. Now that I’m 71 that drive, thankfully, is largely attenuated. Frankly, I don’t know how most of us get through our teen years. Our bodies are yelling at us YES and our damned superegos are blocking our genital paths to glory. Oh well, such is life. Eventually, I met Carolyn and that was that. We fit together nicely.

It took me a while to get settled into the academic life. For a long time I called myself a Marxist but I stopped doing that for the same reason that Marx pointed to French syndicalists in the late 1870s saying that if these people are Marxists then I’m not. I still find Marx’s analysis of history very compelling, but I I strayed from looking only at economic matters to studying schizophrenia (R.D. Laing, Thomas Szasz, etc), mental illness, depression (with which I’ve been on intimate terms with), crime, deviance, social solidarity, morality, Norbert Elias and other things. In my last couple of years teaching I taught a sociology course on love and sex. Given what I wrote above, this fit right to my curiosity bag. I got interested in pornography. What is it about porn that makes it such a lucrative business? It’s one of the top internet money makers( yes, people sniggered.) And, of course, I had a long standing interest in Ernest Becker’s work. You just have to check the archives on this blog to ascertain that. Becker’s book Escape From Evil has a lot to say about sex and about misogyny. In fact, Becker’s work is the foundation of my views on this topic.

So, in the next few blog posts I will address Becker’s work to start with, especially his emphasis on evil, animality and our institutional denial of death. Then I want to look more specifically at woman as temptress, as devil. I will follow that up with a look at language and women before turning to marriage and some of the other cultural institutions of sexual relations. Things may evolve as I go along. The order I present issues may change. Your comments might modify my approach too.

I must say, in concluding this introduction, that I, by no means, intend to glorify women and vilify men. We are all ‘guided’ in our actions by our social relations, our language, our sex, our gender, our economic interests, our egos, and a myriad of other factors. Morality plays a huge role although we barely ever mention it. We swim in a moral world but we seldom recognize it. Like fish who don’t know they swim in water, we are the last to recognize that we swim in a moral world. In this series of posts I’ll try to open up that moral world a bit so that we can see more deeply into want makes us tick as humans.

Women as weak and unclean!

Veblen’s The Barbarian Status of Women, Part two.

Roger Albert - Always a Sociologist

Barbarian Status of Women, Part 2:  Women as Weak and Unclean.

To start, I include here a sample of Thorstein Veblen’s writing to give you a sense of what it would be like to read a more substantial piece of his work, like his book The Place of Science in Modern Civilization.  Of course, this long quote is relevant to what I want to pursue in this post, that is, the general cultural institutional perception of women as weak and unclean, associated with the earth, dirt, blood, the night and death.  After all, Gaia, the first of the gods in Greek mythology was female, she was the earth. [She wasn’t personified as later Greek gods were, but she is a god helping to bring order into a chaotic universe.]   Veblen doesn’t go in all of these directions, but others do, including the Freudians.  We’ll have a little visit…

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Interlude: Veblen’s The Barbarian Status of Women: an accessible file.


Click on the link above and I guarantee you that you can read Veblen’s The Barbarian Status of Women, published in 1898. This file is in the public domaine and is available in the internet archive.

I think WordPress hates me. I put up the BSW link above thinking everything is going to go fine because I actually uploaded the file to WordPress. Well, when I click on BSW above, my computer tells me it’s downloading the file….but when I go looking for the damn file, I can’t find it. So I copied the whole damn thing below. 

The Barbarian Status of Women

by Thorstein Veblen

American Journal of Sociology

vol. 4, (1898-9)




It seems altogether probable that in the primitive groups of

mankind, when the race first took to a systematic use of tools

and so emerged upon the properly human plane of life, there was

but the very slightest beginning of a system of status, with

little of invidious distinction between classes and little of a

corresponding division of employments. In an earlier paper,

published in this JOURNAL,(1*) it has been argued that the early

division of labor between classes comes in as the result of an

increasing efficiency of labor, due to a growing effectiveness in

the use of tools. When, in the early cultural development, the

use of tools and the technical command of material forces had

reached a certain degree of effectiveness, the employments which

occupy the primitive community would fall into two distinct

groups – (a) the honorific employments, which involve a large

element of prowess, and (b) the humiliating employments, which

call for diligence and into which the sturdier virtues do not

enter. An appreciable advance in the use of tools must precede

this differentiation of employments, because (1) without

effective tools (including weapons) men are not sufficiently

formidable in conflict with the ferocious beasts to devote

themselves so exclusively to the hunting of large game as to

develop that occupation into a conventional mode of life reserved

for a distinct class; (2) without tools of some efficiency,

industry is not productive enough to support a dense population,

and therefore the groups into which the population gathers will

not come into such a habitual hostile contact with one another as

would give rise to a life of warlike prowess; (3) until

industrial methods and knowledge have made some advance, the work

of getting a livelihood is too exacting to admit of the

consistent exemption of any portion of the community from vulgar

labor; (4) the inefficient primitive industry yields no such

disposable surplus of accumulated goods as would be worth

fighting for, or would tempt an intruder, and therefore there is

little provocation to warlike prowess.

With the growth of industry comes the possibility of a

predatory life; and if the groups of savages crowd one another in

the struggle for subsistence, there is a provocation to

hostilities, and a predatory habit of life ensues. There is a

consequent growth of a predatory culture, which may for the

present purpose be treated as the beginning of the barbarian

culture. This predatory culture shows itself in a growth of

suitable institutions. The group divides itself conventionally

into a fighting and a peace-keeping class, with a corresponding

division of labor. Fighting, together with other work that

involves a serious element of exploit, becomes the employment of

the able-bodied men; the uneventful everyday work of the group

falls to the women and the infirm.

In such a community the standards of merit and propriety rest

on an invidious distinction between those who are capable

fighters and those who are not. Infirmity, that is to say

incapacity for exploit, is looked down upon. One of the early

consequences of this deprecation of infirmity is a tabu on women

and on women’s employments. In the apprehension of the archaic,

animistic barbarian, infirmity is infectious. The infection may

work its mischievous effect both by sympathetic influence and by

transfusion. Therefore it is well for the able-bodied man who is

mindful of his virility to shun all undue contact and

conversation with the weaker sex and to avoid all contamination

with the employments that are characteristic of the sex. Even the

habitual food of women should not be eaten by men, lest their

force be thereby impaired. The injunction against womanly

employments and foods and against intercourse with women applies

with especial rigor during the season of preparation for any work

of manly exploit, such as a great hunt or a warlike raid, or

induction into some manly dignity or society or mystery.

Illustrations of this seasonal tabu abound in the early history

of all peoples that have had a warlike or barbarian past. The

women, their occupations, their food and clothing, their habitual

place in the house or village, and in extreme cases even their

speech, become ceremonially unclean to the men. This imputation

of ceremonial uncleanness on the ground of their infirmity has

lasted on in the later culture as a sense of the unworthiness or

levitical inadequacy of women; so that even now we feel the

impropriety of women taking rank with men, or representing the

community in any relation that calls for dignity and ritual

competency,. as for instance, in priestly or diplomatic offices,

or even in representative civil offices, and likewise, and for a

like reason, in such offices of domestic and body servants as are

of a seriously ceremonial character – footmen, butlers, etc.

The changes that take place in the everyday experiences of a

group or horde when it passes from a peaceable to a predatory

habit of life have their effect on the habits of thought

prevalent in the group. As the hostile contact of one group with

another becomes closer and more habitual, the predatory activity

and the bellicose animus become more habitual to the members of

the group. Fighting comes more and more to occupy men’s everyday

thoughts, and the other activities of the group fall into the

background and become subsidiary to the fighting activity. In the

popular apprehension the substantial core of such a group – that

on which men’s thoughts run when the community and the

community’s life is thought of – is the body of fighting men. The

collective fighting capacity becomes the most serious question

that occupies men’s minds, and gives the point of view from which

persons and conduct are rated. The scheme of life of such a group

is substantially a scheme of exploit. There is much of this point

of view to be found even in the common-sense views held by modern

populations. The inclination to identify the community with its

fighting men comes into evidence today whenever warlike interests

occupy the popular attention in an appreciable degree.

The work of the predatory barbarian group is gradually

specialized and differentiated under the dominance of this ideal

of prowess, so as to give rise to a system of status in which the

non-fighters fall into a position of subservience to the

fighters. The accepted scheme of life or consensus of opinions

which guides the conduct of men in such a predatory group and

decides what may properly be done, of course comprises a great

variety of details; but it is, after all, a single scheme – a

more or less organic whole so that the life carried on under its

guidance in any case makes up a somewhat consistent and

characteristic body of culture. This is necessarily the case,

because of the simple fact that the individuals between whom the

consensus holds are individuals. The thinking of each one is the

thinking of the same individual, on whatever head and in whatever

direction his thinking may run. Whatever may be the immediate

point or object of his thinking, the frame of mind which governs

his aim and manner of reasoning in passing on any given point of

conduct is, on the whole, the habitual frame of mind which

experience and tradition have enforced upon him. Individuals

whose sense of what is right and good departs widely from the

accepted views suffer some repression, and in case of an extreme

divergence they are eliminated from the effective life of the

group through ostracism. Where the fighting class is in the

position of dominance and prescriptive legitimacy, the canons of

conduct are shaped chiefly by the common sense of the body of

fighting men. Whatever conduct and whatever code of proprieties

has the authentication of this common sense is definitively right

and good, for the time being. and the deliverances of this common

sense are, in their turn, shaped by the habits of life of the

able-bodied men. Habitual conflict acts, by selection and by

habituation, to make these male members tolerant of any

infliction of damage and suffering. Habituation to the sight and

infliction of suffering, and to the emotions that go with fights

and brawls, may even end in making the spectacle of misery a

pleasing diversion to them. The result is in any case a more or

less consistent attitude of plundering and coercion on the part

of the fighting body, and this animus is incorporated into the

scheme of life of the community. The discipline of predatory life

makes for an attitude of mastery on the part of the able-bodied

men in all their relations with the weaker members of the group,

and especially in their relations with the women. Men who are

trained in predatory ways of life and modes of thinking come by

habituation to apprehend this form of the relation between the

sexes as good and beautiful.

All the women in the group will share in the class repression

and depreciation that belongs to them as women, but the status of

women taken from hostile groups has an additional feature. Such a

woman not only belongs to a subservient and low class, but she

also stands in a special relation to her captor. She is a trophy

of the raid, and therefore an evidence of exploit, and on this

ground it is to her captor’s interest to maintain a peculiarly

obvious relation of mastery toward her. And since, in the early

culture, it does not detract from her subservience to the life of

the group, this peculiar relation of the captive to her captor

will meet but slight, if any, objection from the other members of

the group. At the same time, since his peculiar coercive relation

to the woman serves to mark her as a trophy of his exploit, he

will somewhat jealously resent any similar freedom taken by other

men, or any attempt on their part to parade a similar coercive

authority over her, and so usurp the laurels of his prowess, very

much as a warrior would under like circumstances resent a

usurpation or an abuse of the scalps or skulls which he had taken

from the enemy.

After the habit of appropriating captured women has hardened

into custom, and so given rise on the one hand to a form of

marriage resting on coercion, and on the other hand to a concept

of ownership,(2*) a development of certain secondary features of

the institution so inaugurated is to be looked for. In time this

coercive ownership-marriage receives the sanction of the popular

taste and morality. It comes to rest in men’s habits of thought

as the right form of marriage relation, and it comes at the same

time to be gratifying to men’s sense of beauty and of honor. The

growing predilection for mastery and coercion, as a manly trait,

together with the growing moral and aesthetic approbation of

marriage on a basis of coercion and ownership, will affect the

tastes of the men most immediately and most strongly; but since

the men are the superior class, whose views determine the current

views of the community, their common sense in the matter will

shape the current canons of taste in its own image. The tastes of

the women also, in point of morality and of propriety alike, will

presently be affected in the same way. Through the precept and

example of those who make the vogue, and through selective

repression of those who are unable to accept it, the institution

of ownership-marriage makes its way into definitive acceptance as

the only beautiful and virtuous form of the relation. As the

conviction of its legitimacy grows stronger in each succeeding

generation, it comes to be appreciated unreflectingly as a

deliverance of common sense and enlightened reason that the good

and beautiful attitude of the man toward the woman is an attitude

of coercion. “None but the brave deserve the fair.”

As the predatory habit of life gains a more unquestioned and

undivided sway, other forms of the marriage relation fall under a

polite odium. The masterless, unattached woman consequently loses

caste. It becomes imperative for all men who would stand well in

the eyes of their fellows to attach some woman or women to

themselves by the honorable bonds of seizure. In order to a

decent standing in the community a man is required to enter into

this virtuous and honorific relation of ownership-marriage, and a

publicly acknowledged marriage relation which has not the

sanction of capture becomes unworthy of able-bodied men. But as

the group increases in size, the difficulty of providing wives by

capture becomes very great, and it becomes necessary to find a

remedy that shall save the requirements of decency and at the

same time permit the marriage of women from within the group. To

this end the status of women married from within the group is

sought to be mended by a mimic or ceremonial capture. The

ceremonial capture effects an assimilation of the free woman into

the more acceptable class of women who are attached by bonds of

coercion to some master, and so gives a ceremonial legitimacy and

decency to the resulting marriage relation. The probable motive

for adopting the free women into the honorable class of bond

women in this way is not primarily a wish to improve their

standing or their lot, but rather a wish to keep those good men

in countenance who, for dearth of captives, are constrained to

seek a substitute from among the home-bred women of the group.

The inclinations of men in high standing who are possessed of

marriageable daughters would run in the same direction. It would

not seem right that a woman of high birth should irretrievably be

outclassed by any chance-comer from outside.

According to this view, marriage by feigned capture within

the tribe is a case of mimicry – “protective mimicry,” to borrow

a phrase from the naturalists. It is substantially a case of

adoption. As is the case in all human relations where adoption is

practiced, this adoption of the free women into the class of the

unfree proceeds by as close an imitation as may be of the

original fact for which it is a substitute. And as in other cases

of adoption, the ceremonial performance is by no means looked

upon as a fatuous make-believe. The barbarian has implicit faith

in the efficiency of imitation and ceremonial execution as a

means of compassing a desired end. The entire range of magic and

religious rites is testimony to that effect. He looks upon

external objects and sequences naively, as organic and individual

things, and as expressions of a propensity working toward an end.

The unsophisticated common sense of the primitive barbarian

apprehends sequences and events. in terms of will-power or

inclination. As seen in the light of this animistic

preconception, any process is substantially teleological, and the

propensity imputed to it will not be thwarted of its legitimate

end after the course of events in which it expresses itself has

once fallen into shape or got under. way. It follows logically,

as a matter of course, that if once the motions leading to a

desired consummation have been rehearsed in the accredited form

and sequence, the same substantial result will be attained as

that produced by the process imitated. This is the ground of

whatever efficiency is imputed to ceremonial observances on all

planes of culture, and it is especially the chief element in

formal adoption and initiation. Hence, probably, the practice of

mock-seizure or mock-capture, and hence the formal profession of

fealty and submission on the part of the woman in the marriage

rites of peoples among whom the household with a male head

prevails. This form of the household is almost always associated

with some survival or reminiscence of wife-capture. In all such

cases, marriage is, by derivation, a ritual of initiation into

servitude. In the words of the formula, even after it has been

appreciably softened under the latter-day decay of the sense of

status, it is the woman’s place to love, honor, and obey.

According to this view, the patriarchal household, or, in

other words, the household with a male head, is an outgrowth of

emulation between the members of a warlike community. It is,

therefore, in point of derivation, a predatory institution. The

ownership and control of women is a gratifying evidence of

prowess and high standing. In logical consistency, therefore, the

greater the number of women so held, the greater the distinction

which their possession confers upon their master. Hence the

prevalence of polygamy, which occurs almost universally at one

stage of culture among peoples which have the male household.

There may, of course, be other reasons for polygamy, but the

ideal development of polygamy which is met with in the harems of

very powerful patriarchal despots and chieftains can scarcely be

explained on other grounds. But whether it works out in a system

of polygamy or not, the male household is in any case a detail of

a system of status under which the women are included in the

class of unfree subjects. The dominant feature in the

institutional structure of these communities is that of status,

and the groundwork of their economic life is a rigorous system of


The institution is found at its best, or in its most

effectual development, in the communities in which status and

ownership prevail with the least mitigation; and with the decline

of the sense of status and of the extreme pretensions of

ownership, such as has been going on for some time past in the

communities of the western culture, the institution of the

patriarchal household has also suffered something of a

disintegration. There has been some weakening and slackening of

the bonds, and this deterioration is most visible in the

communities which have departed farthest from the ancient system

of status, and have gone farthest in reorganizing their economic

life on the lines of industrial freedom. And the deference for an

indissoluble tie of ownership-marriage, as well as the sense of

its definitive virtuousness, has suffered the greatest decline

among the classes immediately engaged in the modern industries.

So that there seems to be fair ground for saying that the habits

of thought fostered by modern industrial life are, on the whole,

not favorable to the maintenance of this institution or to that

status of women which the institution in its best development

implies. The days of its best development are in the past, and

the discipline of modern life – if not supplemented by a prudent

inculcation of conservative ideals – will scarcely afford the

psychological basis for its rehabilitation.


This form of marriage, or of ownership, by which the man

becomes the head of the household, the owner of the woman, and

the owner and discretionary consumer of the household’s output of

consumable goods, does not of necessity imply a patriarchal

system of consanguinity. The presence or absence of maternal

relationship should, therefore, not be given definite weight in

this connection. The male household, in some degree of

elaboration, may well coexist with a counting of relationship in

the female line, as, for instance, among many North American

tribes. But where this is the case it seems probable that the

ownership of women, together with the invidious distinctions of

status from which the practice of such an ownership springs, has

come into vogue at so late a stage of the cultural development

that the maternal system of relationship had already been

thoroughly incorporated into the tribe’s scheme of life. The male

household in such cases is ordinarily not developed in good form

or entirely free from traces of a maternal household. The traces

of a maternal household which are found in these cases commonly

point to a form of marriage which disregards the man rather than

places him under the surveillance of the woman. It may well be

named the household of the unattached woman. This condition of

things argues that the tribe or race in question has entered upon

a predatory life only after a considerable period of peaceable

industrial life, and after having achieved a considerable

development of social structure under the regime of peace and

industry, whereas the unqualified prevalence of the patriarchate,

together- with the male household, may be taken to indicate that

the predatory phase was entered early, culturally speaking.

Where the patriarchal system is in force in fully developed

form, including the paternal household, and hampered with no

indubitable survivals of a maternal household or a maternal

system of relationship, the presumption would be that the people

in question has entered upon the predatory culture early, and has

adopted the institutions of private property and class

prerogative at an early stage of its economic development. On the

other hand, where there are well-preserved traces of a maternal

household, the presumption is that the predatory phase has been

entered by the community in question at a relatively late point

in its life history, even if the patriarchal system is, and long

has been, the prevalent system of relationship. In the latter

case the community, or the group of tribes, may, perhaps for

geographical reasons, not have independently attained the

predatory culture in accentuated form, but may at a relatively

late date have contracted the agnatic system and the paternal

household through contact with another, higher, or

characteristically different, culture, which has included these

institutions among its cultural furniture. The required contact

would take place most effectually by way of invasion and conquest

by an alien race occupying the higher plane or divergent line of

culture. Something of this kind is the probable explanation, for

instance, of the equivocal character of the household and

relationship system in the early Germanic culture, especially as

it is seen in such outlying regions as Scandinavia. The evidence,

in this latter case, as in some other communities lying farther

south, is somewhat obscure, but it points to a long-continued

coexistence of the two forms of the household; of which the

maternal seems to have held its place most tenaciously among the

subject or lower classes of the population, while the paternal

was the honorable form of marriage in vogue among the superior

class. In the earliest traceable situation of these tribes there

appears to have been a relatively feeble, but growing,

preponderance of the male household throughout the community.

This mixture of marriage institutions, as well as the correlative

mixture or ambiguity of property institutions associated with it

in the Germanic culture, seems most easily explicable as being

due to the mingling of two distinct racial stocks, whose

institutions differed in these respects. The race or tribe which

had the maternal household and common property would probably

have been the more numerous and the more peaceable at the time

the mixing process began, and would fall into some degree of

subjection to its more warlike consort race.


No attempt is hereby made to account for the various forms of

human marriage, or to show how the institution varies in detail

from place to place and from time to time, but only to indicate

what seems to have been the range of motives and of exigencies

that have given rise to the paternal household, as it has been

handed down from the barbarian past of the peoples of the western

culture. To this end, nothing but the most general features of

the life history of the institution have been touched upon, and

even the evidence on which this much of generalization is based

is, per force, omitted. The purpose of the argument is to point

out that there is a close connection, particularly in point of

psychological derivation, between individual ownership, the

system of status, and the paternal household, as they appear in

this culture.

This view of the derivation of private property and of the

male household, as already suggested, does not imply the prior

existence of a maternal household of the kind in which the woman

is the head and master of a household group and exercises a

discretionary control over her husband or husbands and over the

household effects. Still less does it imply a prior state of

promiscuity. What is implied by the hypothesis and by the scant

evidence at hand is rather the form of the marriage relation

above characterized as the household of the unattached woman. The

characteristic feature of this marriage seems to have been an

absence of coercion or control in the relation between the sexes.

The union (probably monogamic and more or less enduring) seems to

have been terminable at will by either party, under the

constraint of some slight conventional limitations. The

substantial difference introduced into the marriage relation on

the adoption of ownership-marriage is the exercise of coercion by

the man and the loss on the part of the woman of the power to

terminate the relation at will. Evidence running in this

direction, and in part hitherto unpublished, is to be found both

in the modern and in the earlier culture of Germanic communities.

It is only in cases where circumstances have, in an

exceptional degree, favoured the development of ownership-marriage

that we should expect to find the institution worked out to its

logical consequences. Wherever the predatory phase of social life

has not come in early and has not prevailed in unqualified form

for a long time, or wherever a social group or race with this

form of the household has received a strong admixture of another

race not possessed of the institution, there the prevalent form

of marriage should show something of a departure from this

paternal type. And even where neither of these two conditions is

present, this type of the marriage relation might be expected in

the course of time to break down with the change of

circumstances, since it is an institution that has grown up as a

detail of a system of status, and, therefore, presumably fits

into such a social system, but does not fit into a system of a

different kind. It is at present visibly breaking down in modern

civilized communities, apparently because it is at variance with

the most ancient habits of thought of the race, as well as with

the exigencies of a peaceful, industrial mode of life. There may

seem some ground for holding that the same reassertion of ancient

habits of thought which is now apparently at work to disintegrate

the institution of ownership-marriage may be expected also to

work a disintegration of the correlative institution of private

property; but that is perhaps a question of speculative curiosity

rather than of urgent theoretical interest.




  1. “The Instinct of Workmanship and the Irksomeness of Labor,”

September 1898, pp. 187-210.


  1. For a more detailed discussion of this point see a paper on

“The Beginnings of Ownership” in this JOURNAL for November, 1898.


The Barbarian Status of Women

Me too…for thousands of years.

Roger Albert - Always a Sociologist


Click on the above link to read an article published in Volume 4 of the American Journal of Sociology in 1898/9 by Thorstein Veblen who at the time was teaching at the University of Chicago where the Journal was created by Albion Small who was the first scholar to actually hold a chair in sociology in the US.  The article is entitled The Barbarian Status of Women.  It’s written in a typical ‘Veblenian’ style which for people now makes it almost unreadable.  Still the message is sharp and clear if you can decipher it.  if you read it you might want a dictionary handy.  Now, into the fray. 

So, in this day and age, we’re used to hearing about patriarchy, the oppression of women, feminism, the glass ceiling, the double ghetto, etc.  In other words we’re acquainted with the notion that women are not the equals of men…

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