The Barbarian Status of Women


http://socserv2.mcmaster.ca/econ/ugcm/3ll3/veblen/women

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.  Of course we know what the data say about women’s inferior rates of pay, high poverty rates, etc.  Well, when Veblen was writing this article probably 120 years ago, there were the beginnings of an organized women’s movement in the US expressed partly in the suffragette movement.  Women were yet to be ‘allowed’ to vote.  The suffragette’s demanded it. In a real way, I think that Veblen tacitly associated himself with this movement. I’m not going to go on about this here;  what I want to deal with here briefly is Veblen’s use of the term Barbarian Status of Women.  

For Veblen, the status of women in his day could easily be traced back to primitive times when men were hunters, developed hunting and exploitative skills whereby they got their status in the group.  Because women could not develop those skills being burdened down with pregnancy and domestic activities, etc., they were denigrated and considered ‘infirm.’  Soon enough that way of seeing things got pretty well entrenched in culture.  Marx had earlier suggested that there was a state in primitive society when there was equality between the sexes.  Men were in charge of the hunt, women were in charge of the home and nobody argued about it (too much).  Veblen didn’t buy that argument.  He found no evidence for it.  He saw the relations between the sexes as essentially predatory.  In fact he concludes that women were not only treated as inferior because they could not compete in the hunt, they were often the ‘prize’ gotten in raids on other groups.  Women ‘gotten’ in this way became the property of men and only the toughest, meanest men in the Valley actually had wives, many if they could sustain them.  This arrangement, Veblen argues came down in history and was the norm still in his day in his culture which he describes as predatory.  Eventually he argues, men had a harder and harder time finding women in their pillaging trips and so had to settle for incorporating predatory institutions in marriage with their ‘own’ women, women in their own tribe.  It wasn’t that long ago – actually it still happens everywhere – in marriage ceremonies and their aftermath that the groom was required to carry the bride to the bridal bedroom.  His property, his prize.  Marriage in our culture is still pretty much a patriarchal affair.  Men are still the ones expected to seek out a bride.  Men, to prove their manliness, must somehow control access to sex either through marriage or by buying it.  Prostitution is not about women selling their bodies for the pleasure of men.  It’s much more about men buying sex, going out and getting it, not unlike in earlier predatory times when ‘buying’ meant capturing in a raid.  Money is a symbol of power in our culture.  If a man has enough of it to buy women, then he can consider himself manly; he can consider himself successful in the raid.

That explains how women became the property of men and still are to a large extent in cultural terms, but it doesn’t really explain how women have come to be plagued with so many negative associations even today.  Veblen had something to say about this too and I’ll address his views on this in my next post but for now, you can think about all the things women are associated with and the things men are. Women are culturally associated with the body, men with the spirit.  Women with the moon, men with the sun.  Men with the right, women with the left. A woman who has sex is promiscuous, a ‘dirty’ whore.  A man who is promiscuous is a stud.  How did those associations come about?  That’s the subject of my next post.  

6 thoughts on “The Barbarian Status of Women

  1. Roger, I discovered my father’s family tree (actually a volume dating back to 1495 when the Anthony’s arrived in New York city. My dad’s mom told me that Susan B. Anthony was in our family tree and last year I found out that this is a fact. Just a point that might be of interest.) I read your entire post above and look forward to the next instalment).

  2. I am always curious as to the factors that come into a man being different from most other men in these ways. I know some follow dad’s example and societal attitudes, but I also realize that some men simply make up their minds about their personal values (possibly in part for watching their own dad deal with challenges in marriage successfully) and treat their wives and families with love and respect. It’s the nature/versus factors. For me this topic isn’t cut and dried. Wish I had more time and energy to do more reading on these topics, but I seem to be doing a little of this and a little of that (on top of daily responsibilities) these days. Keeping an eye on mom’s personal needs and monitoring her bank account as well as mine etc etc can seem like small things, but they all take up time.

    1. What I’m writing about here isn’t as much about personal characteristics as about morality and deep-seated institutional prescriptions. It’s difficult sometimes to understand individual differences in behaviour because there is a lot of diversity in the population. By the way, I don’t know of any topic that’s cut and dried.

  3. Post Script: When I think of “nuture” I think if in the wider aspect as in “it takes as village to raise a child”. The nuture of children doesn’t just come from the parents and immediate family members, if often comes from the institutions that you refer to as being entrenched in myths and belief systems.

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