Friday, November 4, 2011

Patriarchy’s Winners and Losers

by Samuel Thomas

When we think about the relationship between men and women in the pre-modern world, the word “patriarchy” often springs to mind. Whether it is a daughter forced into a loveless marriage by her father, a wife beaten by her husband, or a maidservant seduced (or, more accurately, raped) by her master, it seems clear that early modern society favored men over women. The idea that Patriarchy = Men’s domination of women is appealing for a number of reasons – it is clear, uncomplicated, and easily demonstrated from the historical record. (For a historical work that describes in detail the various abuses suffered by women over the course of their lives, see Mendelson and Crawford, Women in Early Modern England.)

While this picture of gender relations is reassuring in its simplicity (we know who the bad guys are), and comforting to view from the present (we know we live in a better time), in recent years historians have offered a much more complicated picture of early modern life. What I’d like to do in this post is lay out some of these findings and ask whether and how they should change the way in which we read and write about the past.

One historian who has blurred the lines of patriarchy is Alexandra Shepard, author of Meanings of Manhood in Early Modern England. Here, Shepard makes the crucial point that the benefits of patriarchy were not enjoyed by all – or even most! – men. Whether they were apprentices, journeymen, servants, or students, the vast majority of men lived and worked under the authority of a patriarchal figure. Servants and apprentices had virtually no autonomy, few legal rights, and were frequently beaten by their masters. Students fared no better – at Cambridge University, students under the age of eighteen who violated college rules were thrashed on a weekly basis in front of the entire student body. The profits of patriarchy would certainly have seemed elusive in the midst of such humiliating treatment.

Shepard goes much further than this, but one point is clear: The fruits of patriarchy were limited to men who were married, earned enough to support a family, and behaved in a way society deemed appropriate. If a man were young, unmarried, or impoverished, patriarchy brought few discernable benefits; indeed, it placed him at the mercy of his social superiors. In other words, patriarchy did not just allow men power over women (though it did that); it also allowed a minority of men power over the majority.

So if we accept that patriarchal rule subordinated men as well as women, could women benefit from it? The answer here is an unequivocal Yes. The most obvious example of women who thrived in a patriarchal society is, of course, the monarchs. Certainly no right thinking person would claim that a male beggar could claim authority over Queen Elizabeth I. In this case, Elizabeth’s social status trumped her gender. While such an example is extreme, if we lower our gaze from the kingdom to the household we see the same dynamic on a smaller scale. Just as the queen had authority over her subjects, the mistress of the household had power over her servants, both male and female.

But to my mind, a more interesting figure is the midwife. Contrary to modern stereotypes of midwives as poor, ignorant crones, early modern midwives were respected members of society, and often came from the middle class. In addition to this, midwives were willing participants in enforcing patriarchal rule. This participation is most visible when we look at their place in the legal system, for they played a vital role in investigating and prosecuting cases involving women who had violated the patriarchal order.

To cite just a few examples, midwives were responsible for reporting illegitimate mothers to parish officials, which could result in a public whipping, and they searched women accused of witchcraft for the “devil’s mark,” which could lead to their burning. Midwives also took the lead in investigating cases of infanticide, and it was they (rather than the constable or Justice of the Peace) who wrested a confession out of female suspects. In short, if an unruly woman went to the whipping post, the stake, or the gallows, in most cases a midwife led the way.

It is tempting to view these women as crass opportunists, seizing power at the expense of their hapless sisters. But this perspective mistakenly presumes that the “femaleness” that women had in common was more important than the factors that divided them. Midwives were never just women. They were wives, mothers, and mistresses, and in most cases these identities were more important than their “femaleness.” (Note that this is also true of men, whose shared “maleness” did not prevent vicious behavior towards one another.)

Despite its name, patriarchy was never about the control of women by men. It is a social system that allows (some) men to exercise power over both men and women. And the same is true of women and patriarchy: it allows (some) women to exercise power over both men and women, and midwives were an important part of the maintenance of patriarchal rule.

The question raised by this more complicated understanding of gender relations raises is how authors should react when writing about a society dominated by values that we do not share. We (and our readers) like clean lines; we like to know who is good and who is bad. But the reality is that early modern people were a collection of prejudices and opinions we would find loathsome. From the time of Elizabeth I, the English were rabidly anti-Catholic, and considered the Irish a particularly savage people, deserving no better than Cromwell gave them. They raised few objections to the rise of slavery. Men and women both agreed that wife-beating was not necessarily a bad thing, so long as it was done in moderation. And I know deep down that my protagonist would consider whipping an unwed mother until she bled to be good public policy.

So what do we do when history requires a main character to act in a way that modern readers will find distasteful? How do we balance the need to remain faithful to the historical record to the need to create characters the reader will find appealing? Do we finesse the issue by avoiding controversy as best we can? Bow to our readers and make our characters more modern than they could have been? Or bite the bullet and risk alienating our readers?

Spoiler alert – faced with this issue, I bowed to my readers. I’m not proud, and I kept it to a minimum, but I did it.

Sam Thomas's debut novel The Midwife's Tale: A Mystery will be published in 2013 by Minotaur/St. Martin's press. He can be found on Facebook, Twitter, and his very own website.


  1. I have never looked at the old system in that light. Well thought argument! I look forward to seeing your book in print- mystery and history sounds great.

    Thanks for posting!

  2. Very thought-provoking and challenging. I never considered the effect of the patriarchal system on men. Thank you!

  3. This astounded me. I never thought of patriarchy as having so many facets! I would say that you can hardly even call it patriarchy in this system, just more of a class structure domination. In the family, the man was the head, and not necessarily a considerate head having great power to dominate his family, but the national arrangement was obviously class structured. Though it is said that women could not inherit property, a woman from a wealthy enough family could receive a settlement property that was her own. So, once again, class was involved in that arrangement.

    Thank you, Sam!

  4. Interesting and insightful. I agree that men certainly fell into the class structure where the more powerful, upper crust-type ruled those who were less educated and menial servants. But don't forget that Great Chain of Being where men of all strata were considered closer to God (more divine, more moral, etc) than women, regardlss of the woman's status. Even Queen Elizabeth had to deal with the idea that she was a weak, frail woman--which really didn't speak to her physical abilities but to her spiritual, moral and intellectual abilities. So, there definitely was a patriarchy going on right alongside class structure. Great piece--thanks. This is Anne Barnhill, by the way--couldn't figure out how else to comment. :)

  5. Yes, Anne, thank you. And of course, an entailed estate could not be inherited by a woman. It went to the nearest male relative no matter how many daughters a man had.