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


BSW

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

ownership.

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.

 

NOTES:

 

  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.