As Ive discussed in previous posts about Judith Bennetts History Matters: Patriarchy and the Challenge of Feminism (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006), continuity in womens history, particularly continuity with the present, is both an important political principle for Bennett, and an empirical historical fact. One problem is that in contrast to her vision of medieval-modern continuity, in the commonplace everyday world, men and women have seen many things change for women in Western societies (and mostly change for the better) (p 70).
Bennett responds to this by stressing continuities in the experience of women (p 71): inferior pay and job segregation, the continued existence of the glass ceiling and violence against women. One explanation of these different feminist views is to contrast them as glass half-full/glass half-empty responses, another is to say that the degree of patriarchy has changed (the intensity of womens oppression) (p 58). But if were talking about real changes, is the idea of the patriarchal equilibrium still valid for the twenty first century (even if its a useful tool for analysis of previous periods, as Bennett convincingly shows)?
I was arguing on Another Damned Medievalists blog that you dont necessarily have to show very long-term continuity of any particular elements of a patriarchal system to have continuity of the system of a whole: every component can gradually get changed, while the overall effect of the system remains the same. But Im increasingly wondering whether there is still a patriarchal system in the modern West (in the sense of mutually reinforcing and interlocking restrictions on women), or whether we need to conceptualise things differently. If you want to see a patriarchal system in action, then the Victorian era provides a clear case (Ive just been reading East Lynne, which is why I think of this). If a Victorian woman was in an unsatisfactory marriage then she couldnt get a divorce because of legal restrictions, she couldnt change the law because she had no vote, her religion told her not to divorce, she was a social outcast if she did divorce and she would struggle to support herself economically anyhow, because womens work was badly paid. Everything pushed her in the same direction.
In contrast, Id say that there are now two patriarchal systems in the West, which are increasingly separating from one another. One is a traditional one, focusing on a primarily domestic role for women, the other is globalised turbo-capitalism.
The traditional patriarchy is associated with a Christian and nuclear household, (although religion isnt strictly essential to it). Its economically based on a male breadwinner and a wife whose paid work is either more marginal (although possibly still vital) or else non-existent. Instead her main role is to be responsible for household management and care of children, and she is expected to be both financially and sexually prudent (while more leeway is allowed for her husband). Although this model tends to get associated either with the 1950s US suburbs, or the Victorian angel in the house, I think its actually more historically widespread than that. Martha Howell, The Gender of Europes Commercial Economy, 12001700 Gender & History 20 (2008) pp. 519538, argues for a much longer-term development, in which commercial activity was legitimised via (p 519) a gender binary that positioned the sober housewife as partner to the honest and ambitious man of the market. In this ideology middle-class women were the wise domestic consumers to middle-class mens wise market producers. Meanwhile, the union movements focus on wages for the working class man extended this pattern down the social scale to the early twentieth century working classes (as described by e.g. Richard Hoggart in The uses of literacy).
For a long time capitalism has co-existed quite happily with this traditional model, but the increasing voraciousness of turbo-capitalism is no longer satisfied with this. The traditional household doesnt offer enough wage labour, with women not participating fully in the labour market, and it therefore also doesnt consume enough, because it doesnt have two main incomes. Instead there is a new gendering of production and consumption.
In terms of production, work is increasingly separating out into good jobs and bad jobs. Good jobs are prestigious, well-paid, high-skilled, relatively secure and more than full-time (requiring extreme commitment in terms of hours/ethos). Bad jobs are, well, most of the rest: often part-time and hourly paid, insecure, undervalued in all senses. Such bad jobs immediately bring to mind Bennetts characterization of womens work over long historic periods (p 95): it tended to be low-skilled [in contemporaries eyes]; it usually yielded low remuneration in terms of either wages or profits; it was regarded with low esteem; it was work that combined easily with a wide variety of other tasks or remunerative work. Bad jobs do still tend to be held disproportionately by women (mainly due to job segregation and womens greater roles in unpaid care work). However the gender boundaries are now more permeable than earlier times. A woman with marketable talents who is prepared to commit herself to work and nothing but work can have a mans job. A man who doesnt have the skills, or the commitment or the opportunities to get a good job, becomes economically akin to a female worker. (This change is increased by the decline in jobs that demand mainly physical strength: capitalism doesnt really need working-class men in the way it used to).
In terms of consumption, meanwhile, it is becoming clear that turbo-capitalism has no inherent interest in maintaining traditional gender roles. It sees no ethical difference between using scantily clad women to sell goods to straight men, scantily clad men to sell goods to straight women and scantily clad men to sell goods to gay men. (Its probably still working on the lesbian and transgender market). Feminists have often rightly raged against the commercial exploitation of womens insecurities (on appearance etc). But increasingly, markets are also developing ways to make money from male anxieties. The most potent (literally) symbol of this is Viagra, which has simultaneously created and addressed the previously underexplored sexual worries of middle-aged men (who, conveniently for drug companies, are generally prosperous as a social group). Overall the world of the consumer is still sexist, because men on average have more money than women. But its sexism isnt ideologically necessary in the same way it was 100 years ago. Together, the biases of the capitalist system produce a form of patriarchy which is optional for some favoured women: they can effectively become successful men (as can gays, in a way not possible in the West for the last 2000 years.)
These two forms of patriarchy co-exist, but the contradictions between them are increasing: even US Christianists cant really combine the two. (Purity rings simply dont sell us well as revealing T-shirts). Im not sure whether what were in is a transitional stage and the moral household is on a slow way out, or not. Culture cant simply be reduced to material circumstances, after all, or American, Scandinavian and Japanese women would all be experiencing very similar kinds of patriarchy. But I think one thing that feminist historians might be able to do is provide a longer-term perspective on how these two current patriarchal systems work or dont work together. Whether feminists can take advantage of the contradictions between the two systems to benefit women is a different matter.