I’ve just started reading Judith Bennett’s History Matters: Patriarchy and the Challenge of Feminism (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006), which people interested in women’s/gender history are being encouraged to blog about in March. We’re being encouraged to post our own reflections on 30th March, but I think I may do some additional posts. It’s been a while since I read Bennett, and though I don’t agree with all her arguments, I found myself thinking again just how damn good she is as a historian and writer. One of the things she was arguing for is the need to historicise patriarchy and I have started thinking again how some of my research can be articulated in those terms. My difficulty is how I can best talk about the Carolingian patriarchal system without getting into problematic ideas about intentionality.

One of Bennett’s central ideas is the existence of the ‘patriarchal equilibrium’: that women’s circumstances might change, but their basic subordination to men didn’t. How far you might take her argument for continuity versus change (whether you really can meaningfully compare women’s wages in 1300 and 2000, for example) is something I might discuss in another post, but I’m concerned here with her more plausible version: that the degree of patriarchy may not change much in a few hundred years. How do we best explain that as historians?

As Bennett comments (p 58):

Patriarchy has often been understood in simplistic terms. My students sometimes talk about “The Patriarchy,” which always evokes for me a committee of white-haired men, nastily scheming to keep women in their place.

Bennett’s alternative to this cabal, when exploring the position of brewsters in England in 1300-1700 is to focus on structures (p 77):

at every turn, brewsters found themselves unable to respond as effectively as men to new opportunities...these factors grew from fundamental institutions of English life at the time, patriarchal institutions that were nevertheless much more than mechanisms for the subordination of women. I use “patriarchal institutions” advisedly, defining institutions as “any organized element of a society” and applying “patriarchal” to any such elements that reinforced male power, in part.

Bennett adds (p 178):

In the case of brewsters, I found that almost all patriarchal institutions served other purposes that were not patriarchal in intention or effect, but one of their effects was to assist in the maintenance of a patriarchal equilibrium.

But does talking about institutions just end up with a number of committees of white-haired men, one committee per institution? After all, ‘laws that limited the contractual powers and economic autonomy of women’ and ‘representations of brewsters in poems, plays and other media’ don’t just write themselves. Is there an alternative to either seeing patriarchal effects as a mere unfortunate side-effect of other policies (which raises the question of why the effects always ‘happen’ to impact more adversely on women then men) or going back to the conspiracy theory of the eternal oppression of women by men?

This is a particular issue for me, since in my research I’m faced with one obvious big patriarchal institution: the Carolingian church. (There are a lot of arguments among medievalists about whether you can talk about the ‘Church’ as a whole, but as an institution it clearly exists and one of its roles was to reinforce male power). This has meant that feminist analyses of the religious history of the period often end up back with The Patriarchy as committee. (I’m quoting from Suzanne Fonay Wemple, ‘Women in Frankish Society: Marriage and the Cloister, 500-900’ here, because it’s to hand and her attitude is particularly clear, but similar arguments are still common in medieval feminist scholarship):

Wemple p 141:

Although the [Merovingian] Frankish bishops were effective in excluding women from clerical offices and in barring them from participation in pastoral functions...they did not altogether succeed in discouraging women from claiming active roles in the life of the church.

Wemple p 173:

Even though the Carolingian bishops had managed to eliminate female leadership roles in the church, restricting women to the domestic and private spheres and subjecting them to male authority, they could not prevent women from making their presence felt as contemplatives.

Wemple also shows how the same practice can be interpreted by historians either positively or negatively in terms of patriarchy:

Wemple p 145:

The efforts of the Carolingians to keep women religious locked in convents and clerks segregated from the company of women.

Wemple p 147:

In the seventh century, when the ascetic spirit prevailed, women fared better. Instead of propagating misogynistic sentiments in order to strengthen episcopal domination and to enhance the authority of the male hierarchy, the monastic reformers recognised the spiritual equality of women. Both male and female leaders of monasticism sought to segregate the sexes to improve the circumstances for prayer and contemplation.

I’m still looking for a way to talk about church developments in this period that doesn’t either ignore the patriarchal aspects or foreground them into Eternally Oppressive Bishops. The most promising ideas I’ve had so far (discussed in an earlier post about misogyny) are the concepts of instrumental misogyny, (where accusations about women are used strategically in competitions between men) and institutional sexism (how patriarchal assumptions get ‘built into’ organisations and a corporate culture develops). But maybe Bennett has some more ideas in the parts of the book I haven’t yet read.

[PS: I've now edited the post's title to reflect the fact that this will be one of a series discussing Bennett's book]