Most men are not Kants

The title of this post isn’t a misspelling, but an early attempt at answering an important question: why do patriarchal systems change? If a patriarchal social system supports male dominance and is therefore in turn endorsed and supported by (elite) men in that society, how do changes that either benefit women or limit male privileges occur? The obvious answer is through female pressure, but given that we can’t see organised action by women in the West before first-wave feminism, that’s not a good answer for periods before the eighteenth century.

An alternative answer for earlier change is based on the fact that men don’t always share the same interests. So if you have “class warfare” between different economic classes, then women may be the beneficiaries (sometimes inadvertently) of gains won by subordinate groups. And you can see many of the limited Western attempts at restrictions on male sexual licence as the results of conflicts between “religious men” (ascetics, monks and priests in the late antique and medieval periods, zealous Protestants in the early modern period) and their more secular counterparts.

But I also want to argue that there are conflicts even within secular elites themselves. I first noticed this with respect to Carolingian attitudes to raptus (marriage for the purposes of abduction). Strict prohibitions on this benefited one group of noblemen (fathers of marriageable daughters), while blocking the strategies used by young noblemen to gain further social advantage via a marriage that otherwise wouldn’t be socially acceptable. In my book, I went on to argue that the extensive restrictions on consanguineous marriage developed in the early Middle Ages also benefited noble fathers arranging marriages at the expense of young men of marriageable age.

More generally, I want to argue that in most cases some elite men have interests that are not served by restrictions on women’s rights. Fathers, sons, husbands and brothers all at various times have either material or emotional interests in ensuring rights and fair treatment for their daughters, mothers, wives or sisters. (For an interesting recent example of this, see Julian Fellowes complaining about his wife’s failure to inherit a peerage). A woman’s natal family may want her to be able to leave a particularly unhappy marriage; a father with only daughters may want them to inherit. A man may want his wife to be able to carry out a lucrative occupation if she has the skills for it.

This is where Kant comes in. I’ve talked before about the anti-Kantian nature of most of us: we want rules, but we don’t want them always to apply to us. For a classic example of this, see The Only Moral Abortion in My Abortion; women can be anti-Kantian as well. In a similar way, I think men in patriarchal systems have tended to support restrictive rules on women generally while opposing some specific examples of this applied to the interests of their family/womenfolk.

This inevitably blunts the political force of opposition to patriarchal structures: influential men have been looking for exceptions and loopholes rather than opposing restrictions generally. But I also think it accounts for some of the peculiar quality of patriarchal systems: that within seemingly very restrictive frameworks, there is often an awful lot of leeway. There’s been a lot of work on coverture for example, showing how married women in early modern England who supposedly couldn’t trade on their own account actually did.

This doesn’t stop patriarchy being oppressive: women were (and are) still dominated by men in the sense of being subject to arbitrary interference by them. But it gives a different texture to this dominance than that of class or racially-based oppression. The majority of families now, and even more so in the past, contain only one race and one class. There’s less scope for elite men to have conflicted interests in the matter. The very intimacy of patriarchal oppression, which could be its horror (being tied permanently to a man who wants to hurt or bully you), could also be a reason for men mitigating such oppression or occasionally even attempting to change it.

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