Rereading de Beauvoir 8: History, Ch. 4

Part Two, History. Chapter 4 (107-127): God the Father Edition

This chapter opens with the shift to Christianity and, yes, another litany of quotes from the men who would rule over us. A brief selection:

St. Paul: “Neither was man created for the woman; but the woman for the man.”
Tertullian: “Woman! You are the devil’s gateway. … It is your fault that God’s Son had to die.”
St. Ambrose: “Adam was led to sin by Eve and not Eve by Adam. It is right and just that he whom she led into sin, she shall receive as master.”
St. John Chrysosotom: “Of all the wild animals, none can be found as harmful as woman.”
St. Thomas: “It is a constant that woman is destined to live under the authority of man and has no authority of her own.”

IMG_0358You get the picture. SdB juxtaposes the burgeoning Christian laws with Germanic traditions in barbarian-occupied territories, which despite the modern-day connotations of the word “barbarian” were certainly not as “barbaric” for women as a lot of the Christian laws (but, yeah, still pretty barbaric). She describes this world as “midway between matrilineal filiation clans and patriarchal gens”.

Next up in this uplifting romp through the Top 1000 Ways of Oppressing Women: feudalism. From woman’s perspective, this period was marked by confusion because of a conflict “between sovereign and property law between public and private rights” (109).As a result “woman is both put down and raised up by this system” (109-110). She has no private or political rights, but there’s an uptick (for some) with the arrival of female succession (only, of course, in the event of no male heirs, and still, of course, she requires a male guardian).

Things deteriorate, however, as woman becomes finally categorised as a kind of property, and as such a slave, who is to be traded in marriage in order to secure land.

“This warlike civilisation has only scorn for women. The Knight is not interested in women: his horse is a treasure of much higher value to him.” (111)

Idle thoughts pop into my mind at this point about the tasteless historical distortion of all those ghastly TV series epics set in imaginary feudal times. Is it a good thing that they feel obligated to not depict anything close to reality with respect to women – or anything else for that matter – or is it a bad thing in that it helps blind us to the truth of our history? And I should point out that these idle thoughts are based on seeing only the promos for said epics, and on fast-forward, since I haven’t actually watched any. The heaving décolletage and cast of 21st-Century looking models are enough for me, even at 2x speed.

SdB actually mentions the “epic” tales (not the TV series’ obviously!) and rare female heroic deeds, but emphasises the rare, since

“Ordinarily, the lady spent her time spinning, praying for the dead, waiting for her spouse, and being bored.” (111)

Next in this dismal account of our continued decline in the rankings comes the rise of “courtly love” in, particularly, 12th century southern France which while it might have eased (some) women’s lot, “does not modify it substantially” (112).

The increasing focus on property (man’s need to get it, hold on to it, hand it down, etc.) helps keep woman in a subservient position as the centuries pass until:

“The sixteenth-century sees the codification of the laws perpetuated throughout the ancien régime; by that time feudal habits and customs had totally disappeared, and nothing protects women from men’s claims that they [women] should be chained to the household. The influence of Roman law, so condescending for women, can be perceived here.” (114)

She also discusses prostitutes, who filled an important role while “hypocritically” being kept on society’s fringes. Here’s St. Thomas (probably): “Prostitutes are to a city what a cesspool is to a palace: get rid of the cesspool and the palace will become an unsavoury and loathsome place.” (116) And so this continued. She quotes the king of the grumpy, Schopenhauer (commenting much later of course): “Prostitutes are human sacrifices on the altar of monogamy”, and goes on to explain that:

“In Paris, loose women worked in pens where they arrived in the morning and left after the curfew had tolled…Like Jews, they had to wear distinctive signs on their clothes.” (116)


SdB also discusses something I’ve often idly wondered about: if marriage is so sacred in the eyes of the church — a sacrament, in fact — how come clergy aren’t supposed to do it? i.e. “Why did God create woman if there is this incompatibility between marriage and clergy?” (119). She doesn’t offer up a clear answer (not that I found, anyway), though goes on to point out that Luther “settles this conflict by rejecting the celibacy of priests”. (120) I think the answer will come later in the book (there’s a whole chapter on “The Married Woman”), but if one keeps in mind the motivation for much of the structuring of society: power, wealth, control (including over women), it seems likely marriage is seen as one of the ways the clergy can keep control over the populace: over non-clerical males to some extent, and, of course, over women. One cleric of the time, Jean de Meung, hints at this, arguing that marriage reduces a man to slavery (and who cares about the woman). And, if this is true, no representative of God on Earth is going to want to engage in it. So why did non-clerical males “submit” to this “slavery”? Again, property rights (through succession), control, power. Those “below” the clerics need someone to dominate, after all. (But that’s my rambling, not SdB’s.)

For her part, SdB moves on to discuss the myriad attacks on love, woman, marriage (by men like de Meung), which gets so heated that, yes, finally “a woman takes up her pen to defend her sex”. That woman is Christine de Pizan, who attacks the clerics in her “Epistle to the God of Love” (120). Through this period and beyond, there are some particularly notable exceptions to the status of women – “women whose rank or fortune liberates them from common morality” (121) – but in general, she says, that status and “common morality” “remains as strict as in the Middle Ages.” This section is well worth reading for the long lists of exceptional women, many forgotten, and what they managed to achieve – but equally too long a list to summarise here. (Here’s a fascinating tidbit: “The presence of a woman on stage is noted for the first time in 1545; in 1592 there is still only one.” This section also reminds me of Dale Spender’s 1982 book Women of Ideas (And What Men Have Done to Them) which blew me away when I read it in the 80s.)

By the time we reach the 18th Century, “woman’s freedom and independence continue to grow” (122) with the breaking up of the nobility. (More lists of more women!) And here comes that classic quote on women writers, from Dr. Johnson, who compared them to: “a dog’s walking on his hinder legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all” (124). And here’s the big picture about all that: Even among those women writers who, as Dr. J puts it, “do it well” (124):

“…none reached the summits of a Dante or a Shakespeare; this can be explained by the mediocrity of their condition. Culture has never been the privilege of any but the feminine elite, never of the masses; and the masculine geniuses often come from the masses.” (123)


[This is part of a chapter by chapter re-reading of Simone de Beauvoir’s “The Second Sex”. You can find all the posts here.]

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