"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Patriarchy - Why Women Find It So Hard To Shake

I feel great sympathy for women like Betsy Carter who was born too early to be able to fully enjoy the fruits of feminism.  Had her parents waited just a few more years she would have at least had the comfort of a settled feminism.  As it happened, she came of age when feminism was at its most ragged – bra burnings, stridency, and manifestos – but when women, despite their protests to the contrary, were still Daddy’s girls. As much as her mother encouraged her to be as independent and strong as any man, Betsy first turned to her father and tried to please him before anyone else.

Daddy's girl

Harvey Carter was by no means a sternly patriarchal figure.  He had grown up in a middle-class Iowan family, had no difficulty being accepted at good Eastern university, and had gone on to a prosperous if not exactly promising career as an accountant. He was proud of the fact that he was far more liberal-minded when it came to women than most of his colleagues.

Marcus Baumann, for example, was a first generation German American who had grown up in a strictly Lutheran household.  His father was pious, strict, and unforgiving in matters of faith and morals. His wife, Marcus’ mother, was not just a hausfrau but a chattel slave whom his father punished mercilessly. He had never gotten over the lesson of St. Paul who, he said, was merely tolerant of marriage and women. Stay married if you are married, Paul said; but if you are single, by all means remain so, for the tribulations, demands, and diversions from the spiritual life are not worth the sex.

Martin Luther

How could Marcus have turned out any different from his father given the rigorous application of his strict moral and social code? Women were simply not worth the effort and certainly not success material.

Joe Mantucci’s father  was a first generation Italian who, although he shared none of the elder Baumann’s harsh Christian discipline and rectitude, was a hot-headed wife beater and no different.  Women were there to cook, wash, and clean up

Betsy’s father by comparison was a modest, well-meaning man who respected his wife and her opinions up to a point, but quietly laid down the law when it came to family decisions. He earned the money, managed the accounts, and oversaw everything except the kitchen and the laundry room. He was generous enough, and Betsy’s mother had an open charge account at Woodward & Lothrop, entertained freely at the country club, and drove a fine car.

It was a good marriage, one that would have been considered a respectful and complementary one for the era.  Betsy was happy enough as a child, loved to sit on her father’s lap when he read her stories, waited for him to come and tuck her in; and was proud to walk down Main Street holding his hand. Like most teenagers Betsy struck out on her own, defied her mother and challenged received order; but like her classmates returned to the family fold once she had completed college. She was on a professional track, and both her mother and father were proud of her.

What would seem to most to be the trajectory of a modern, liberated woman, was not.  Although she easily made her way in a profession which favored women – public health – and rose to middle management on schedule, she was held back by her now instinctive deference to men.  The glass ceiling was not their making.  It was hers.

In her personal life, she reverted back to Daddy. She chose men who were smarter and more socially agile than she and fell willingly under their tutelage.  As stereotypical as it sounds, Betsy said to each one, “Teach me things.”

This all would have been nothing new to Sophocles or Freud who would have found Betsy’s conformity to his theories conclusive but not very interesting. Despite post-modernist theories which describe childhood as no more than a product of predictable social, economic, and historical factors, there is nothing so powerfully influential as a child’s parents.  If parents are domineering, belittling, or abusive, children go on to hate men or women in due proportion.  If they are like Betsy’s father – loving, kind, nurturing in a male way, and above all caring – then all men must be judged in reference to them.


As importantly Betsy not only wanted a husband just like her father, but a family like his. There was no question of remaining single or getting divorced for that matter. Her father’s family – her family – was as it should be. A father, mother, and children all living together. Her family shared faith, social respect, and American ambitions and values.  Without her father, none of this could have been possible.

Norman Rockwell thanksgiving

Edward Albee said that family is the crucible within which we finally become adults – that all the predictable jealousies, vindictiveness, suspicions, and resentments are necessary in order for us to work out the traumas, fantasies, and idealism of childhood.  Many other American writers – O’Neill, Miller, Williams especially – wrote about the family in the same way. Mourning Becomes Electra is a grand guignol melodrama of family destruction where essential humanity is displayed.  Greed, sexual frustration and desire, money, power, and position all fuel the murderous intentions of Christine Mannon.

Image result for Image christine mannon mourning

Arthur Miller’s All My Sons and Death of a Salesman are all about fathers and sons and the family hothouse which nurtures deceit and idealism.  Laura, Lady, Blanche, and Alma have all been raised in strict, traditional families; and their fathers and husbands have been both imagined lovers and gatekeepers.  A photograph of the absent father is always on the mantelpiece in The Glass Menagerie and Big Daddy is Tennessee Williams’s final attempt to recreate his own father.

Image result for images glass menagerie

The Oedipus myth is so enduring because of its absolute emotional reductionism.  Oedipus sleeps with his mother and murders his father – exactly what every little boy wants to do.  Hamlet finally, reluctantly, and hesitantly kills the king not because he has killed his father but because he slept with his mother. 

Incest is so universally outlawed because it is so primordial.  What more complete sexual release than to sleep with a woman whom you have chosen because she is your mother?  What emotional finality Betsy Carter had when she married a man who was her father.

In other words when patriarchy is gone and when marriage becomes a purely secular event, recording the dispositions of two randomly-selected partners, it becomes ordinary, prosaic, and almost unnecessary.

Not to worry. Patriarchy is still alive and well for the time being.  It is being threatened by non-traditional marriages between gay partners. There is no way that the ‘daughter’ of such parents could possibly forge the same powerful relationship as Betsy had with her father.  The young woman would marry without the fundamental fantasy that Betsy carried with her her entire life.

Traditional marriage is not about sexual exclusivity, disregard for diversity, or even Christian values.  It is about preserving the sexual dynamics between fathers and daughters and mothers and sons.

Image result for images oedipus rex play

An older friend of mine never married until her late fifties because she had never gotten over her father’s infidelities and was determined never to be the woman left behind. Her bar for honesty was set unreasonably high and she had not one bone of compromise in her body. Men being what they are, she was perennially disappointed.  Another friend who had similarly felt betrayed by the father she dearly loved did all she could to scare men off in the hopes that one would love her despite her antics and so prove himself to be her father.

Betsy, however, was comfortable and at ease.  At some level she recognized her love and profound devotion to her father and felt that he deserved all her love and respect and then some.  If she instinctively deferred to men, so what, if it meant keeping that secret love affair alive? She never articulated any of this to me, and I doubt that she could have.  Relationships that women like Betsy have had with their fathers are too subliminal for expression; and no one likes to admit that they are players in an Austrian psychiatrist’s mental game.

Betsy married (of course) and had children. She and her husband are still married although the children are grown. They had their share of angry, resentful fights – but so did Betsy with her father – but they were all resolved amicably.  Her children are married with their own children, and the tradition of patriarchy continues.  This being 2015 the institution has been somewhat diluted, but a literate observer would say that Albee, Williams, and O’Neill are very much present.

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