Patriarchy versus liberalism, a war of tradition and reason

by John MacBeath Watkins

The most remarkable thing about patriarchy is that after millennia of organizing societies around it, we have now become uncomfortable with it.

A remarkably large number of human societies treat people as things. It is a foundation  patriarchy, a system in which dominant males treat women and children as property. There is even a debate about whether such behavior is innate or socially conditioned (full disclosure, I come down on the socially conditioned side of the debate.)

Abraham Lincoln was rented out as a laborer by his father for 10 cents to 31 cents an hour, and wages earned by him were paid to his father. "I used to be a slave," is the way he described the situation in an early political speech.

The legal situation that allowed this was part of what we now call patriarchy. While American society never allowed men to buy and sell children or wives, fathers and husbands have long held a dominant property position in the family. Under the doctrine of coveture, when a woman married a man, they became, for purposes of property, one person, and that person was the man. Any property the woman had passed to the man, and in event of a divorce, would remain property of the man unless there were an ironclad prenuptial agreement. This meant that for a very long time, divorce meant ruin for a woman.

Being, essentially, property, meant that you were not treated as fully human. Neither slaves nor women got to vote until they got property rights, and the first property right is to own yourself. And who would not want to own themselves? I'm not aware of any slaves that wished to remain a thing used by others. I am aware that a few women prefer traditional gender roles. Perhaps it is comforting to know your place and not have to invent your own place in the world, but it seems to be a comfort few wish to avail themselves of.

Patriarchy played a role in the justification of monarchy, and is perhaps part of what attracts people to all autocratic forms of government. No one needed to justify the right of kings to rule until it came into question, but when it did, some of the justifications founded the king's authority in parental authority. In fact, a book some considered the definitive defense of the divine right of kings was titled  Patriarcha, or the Natural Power of Kings. In it, Sir Robert Filmer argued that Adam had complete power over his descendants, including the power of life and death, and it was from this basis that kings could trace their power. Filmer had a son, who seems to have survived his parenting.

John Locke, who never married or had children, seemed to have a better understanding about how families work. He pointed out that the father shares his authority over the children with their mother, and his power is not absolute. Locke argued that we are all born owning ourselves, and that fathers do not have the power of life and death over their children, because such authority is not needed for the purpose of the relationship, which is to care for and nurture children until they reach the age of reason, and can be responsible for themselves and embrace their freedom.

It is fashionable to study the ethics John Stuart Mill and Immanuel Kant, who addressed the question of how we may know right from wrong directly, attempting to codify behavior that was already accepted. But Locke's ideas changed the way we conceive of people, and changed the way we treat them. He changed what we regard as ethical in a way no ethicist could.

Once we encounter Locke's idea that we are all born owning ourselves, and cannot sell the rights to ourselves as property, it seems intuitively obvious. A pot has no mind to care who cooks with it, or whether the food is good or bad, a chair cannot resent the weight it bears, but we cannot help but care how we are used. Once we understand this about ourselves, we cannot escape a natural human empathy to others who are used as objects are used, and we sympathize with their plight. Slavery, an institution probably as old as war, becomes an abomination. Coveture, and parallel institutions in other patriarchal cultures, becomes absurd.

The process of the logic of liberalism spreading through human institutions has not been terribly rapid, but it has been inexorable, and the effects of its logic continue to change traditional elements of our society.

Consider Locke's theory of property. We apply our labor to nature, and this makes property. Now consider the patriarchal way of life. A man plants his seed in the land, and makes it fruitful, he plants his seed in a woman and makes her fruitful. In each case, the land and the woman, both the thing he plants his seed in and the fruit of his planting becomes his.

Clearly, this is more a founding myth than how the world has ever worked, but myths are the way we understand the way the world is supposed to work. The patriarch is supposed to build a little world in which he owns the land, governs his family, and provides for all. This is a model for the larger society, as well.

Not all men could do this, particularly in a world where most of the land was already owned. One solution to this was to have disenfranchised men who had little or nothing, and wealthy men with many acres, cattle, chattel, and wives. The entire system was based on perpetuating little empires of property, and the relationship to most of the things in a household was one of the patriarch's ownership. Traditional institutions of law and government existed, to a great extent, to adjudicate and enforce this system of property, and thereby bring order to society. Men of property wielded great power in such societies. Women of property, and therefore women of power, in many societies did not exist. Instead of owning property, they were property.

Not owning yourself, of course, has a spiritual side, but more obviously, it has a physical side. If you do not own yourself, you do not own your body, and you do not control what is done with your body. When Ohio Republicans blocked an amendment that would have made it illegal to rape one's spouse while they are drunk, drugged, or incapacitated, this was part of the same philosophy that caused them to pass a law banning all abortions, even in cases of rape or incest, if a heartbeat can be detected (usually around six weeks after conception, often before the mother is aware of the pregnancy.) In either case, the object is to keep women from having control of their bodies.

I'm not sure to what extent there is a conscious realization among the people doing these things about the connection between women controlling their bodies and and women owning themselves and having agency and power in the world. One would think that people who find abortion abhorrent would favor availability of birth control, which makes abortion less necessary, but this is not the case. Nor is it the case that they consistently advocate for society to provide better prenatal care for the unborn or for children after they are born. The logic of their actions does not support the notion that what they care about is mainly children. However, in matters of birth control, abortion, and marital rape, the same group of people act on a unified theory that women should not control their bodies.

Granting them control of their bodies grants them ownership of themselves, which in turn means granting them agency and power in the world. Changing who owns the woman's womb challenges the entire traditional edifice of a society based on a system in which women and children were property.

And if men of property really should wield great power in a society, power over women, over those who have less property, and over those who previously were property, that at last explains the mystery of why poor whites have been voting for a political party that gives benefits mainly to those who have a lot of property. They are voting for a traditional society in which patriarchs run things, because something deeply embedded in our society tells them this is how it should be.

Locke's idea that we are all born owning ourselves is deeply subversive, even more subversive than he realized in his lifetime (and Locke knew it was explosive enough that it could cost his life or liberty, which is why he never allowed his Treatises on Government to be published under his own name during his lifetime.) Property, after all, is not things, it is the set of rules about how we use things, about our rights and responsibilities in relation to them. When you decide that a person is not property, you change a great deal about how that person is to be treated. And when you do that, you change the very structure of society.

We are in the midst of a slow-motion revolution that is changing first our minds, then changing everything else. We must not underestimate the disruption this is causing, or the resistance it will engender. The imperatives of a society in which we each own ourselves are very different from those of traditional societies, and we will find ourselves reinventing ourselves and our societies.

Liberalism, therefore, is not for the faint of heart. There is no certainty that what the logic of liberalism leads to is even possible. This reinvention of society is a product of the enlightenment, and it will require courage and persistence to avoid sinking back into the dark age in which we were governed by force, faith, and custom.