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 with them today too. Now for Veblen:
In such a community [of barbarians] 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.
Veblen, then, in his odd style, explains that women are considered lesser than men because they can’t fight. What they do around the house is fine, but the really important stuff, like hunting and protecting the group, is the purview of men and that type of activity becomes entrenched as the value standard by which to judge all action. So, men, powerful men, manly men, become the standard by which to judge all of humankind.
Veblen’s explanation, then, remains at the level of performance. The tabu on women is a result of their ‘infirmity’, their inability to pursue the hunt and to fight. Because this ‘infirmity’ is infectious, men must avoid women, especially at certain times of the year and when women’s infirmity is most obvious during their time of her ‘customary impurity’ otherwise they risk losing their prowess. There have been obvious residual instances of this proscription when it’s been made clear to professional athletes by coaches and others interested in winning. So I googled: Is it ok to have sex before a high level athletic competition? There were enough ‘hits’ to suggest that its still on people’s minds, mindless though that is. After all when the French refer to orgasm as ‘la petite mort’ what they are referring to is the overwhelming bodily release of tension and semi-immobilization that comes with it. One dies a little upon ejaculation. At least that’s my interpretation and I’m sticking by it. Others have suggested that ejaculation and orgasm give up a little of a man’s ‘life’ every time it happens. I don’t think so, but it does bring up the notion that bodily functions in general, especially those that involve orifices, ejaculates, evacuations and such are subtle little reminders of our mortality. Why else do Catholic priests and others vow to be chaste? Why else would people (men, that is) in certain societies wear butt plugs? Well, both practices deny the body and its downright nasty habit of getting ill, diseased and eventually dead. Men can delude themselves into thinking that if they just abstain from bodily stuff and stick to the symbolic, spiritual side of life then they can live eternally. Yeah, right.
Next class, we visit the Freudians via Norman O. Brown and Ernest Becker. It might be fun later to look at Greek philosophy and myths to get a sense of how they see this stuff.