The Creation of Feminist Consciousness by Gerda Lerner

These notes about The Creation of Feminist Consciousness from the Middle Ages to Eighteen Seventy by Gerda Lerner were made by one of the members of the LFN Book Group.

Through a meticulous and inspiring look at the writings of women from the middle ages, Gerda Lerner traces the emergence of feminist consciousness. She apologises for looking mainly at Western Europe but explains that is a reflection of her expertise and wish to make the project manageable more than anything else.

These are the main general themes that I noticed:

1. From the beginning of patriarchy, every philosophical system has defined women as inferior and marginal. For thousands of years women’s subhuman-ness was taken as a given without question or any need for explanation.

She illustrates this powerfully with her account of the development of the American Constitution, which included much debate about the issue of Indian men, male indentured servants, etc. but maintained utter and total silence on the issue of women (p8-9). Aristotle used the marriage relationship to justify slavery and she says “more remarkable than Aristotle’s misogynistic construction is the fact that his assumptions remained virtually unchallenged and endlessly repeated for nearly two thousand years.”

2. The culture of subordination of women and misogyny had a terrible impact on women and their struggle for emancipation. She shows how women internalised their inferiority and superhuman efforts were required to overcome it; how it forced thinking women to waste enormous amounts of time and energy on defensive arguments; how there was a fundamental tension between the male-sanctioned view and their own experience.

3. She answers the question of why it took so long for women to identify as a group that is oppressed (as sisters). It was a combination of the systematic educational disadvantaging of women, the male definition of culture, which was “androcentric, partial and distorted”, and an environment where it was impossible for most women to survive except through male patronage, which together caused a female psyche that made women collude in “creating and generationally recreating the system which oppressed them”. (p6).

(And still do, as documented eloquently in the Guardian article “No wonder men treat us as sex objects if we act like this” by Decca Aitkenhead. See: http://www.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,,2167736,00.html.)

4. Women’s progress into historical consciousness was delayed not only by their systematic educational disadvantaging but also by a lack of knowledge of the work of their predecessors. Unlike men who were able to build on the cultural achievements of previous generations, women lacked knowledge of the work of previous (and contemporary) women and therefore continuously cover the same ground. This lack of continuity and absence of collective memory on the part of women is perhaps the most terrible disadvantage and tragedy of all.

5. Men have fought to maintain the status quo and have resisted women’s attempts to correct the imbalance. “Even the concept of ‘learned women’ was seen as dangerous to the unity of the home and with it the community.” (p 213). It was in men’s interest to keep women in the place they defined for them. Men understood this. Men needed women to believe in their inferiority.

(I see a parallel with today’s use of porn and the mass trivialisation of women by the media as a way of perpetuating the status quo which is based on the assumption of women as second-class citizens, and which requires most women to have this assumption as well as men.)

6. She examined women’s writings across many cultures and historical periods and found much commonality, which “speaks strongly for the existence of a female culture modified by factors of race and ethnicity” (page 110).

7. For women to develop a feminist consciousness, they need support networks of like-minded women and this required substantial numbers of women to be able to be economically independent of men. For most of patriarchy, the vast majority of women depended on male patronage for survival for themselves and their children.

8. She looks at the fight for the right to learn, teach and define the content of what is to be taught (which has still not been achieved except in quite marginal ways). She notes that “Women-as-a-group have made intellectual and educational advances only as a result of organised struggle.” (p272) This is an important point and probably explains the lack of progress towards e.g. equal pay – because of women’s isolation in so many workplaces and the male control of most of the institutions that control the workplace.