Patriarchal Attitudes by Eva Figes

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Patriarchal Attitudes Analysis

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Figes phrases her arguments in universal terms, speaking categorically of “A Man’s World” and “A Man’s God,” but it is important for the careful reader to note that she examines only Western culture, Judeo-Christian religion, and literature that was written in or translated into English. Thus, while she makes no note of the cultural biases of her study, some generalizations may not apply to cultures that are based in different texts and traditions.

Figes begins her examination of the question, “What makes a woman a woman?” by acknowledging the basic biological differences between the sexes. Most women can bear children; men categorically cannot. Women tend to live longer than men, their blood carries a different mixture of hormones, and generally their muscles are less well developed. The first two differences appear to be unalterable; the last depends very much upon the activity in which the individual engages, as Figes proves by quoting anthropologists who have studied many cultures. If musculature is alterable by usage and custom, what other supposedly innate characteristics can be similarly affected? Boys and girls enjoy largely the same hormone balance prior to puberty, yet behavioral differences emerge far earlier in their lives. Education is responsible for these differences, Figes demonstrates; in fact, it is responsible for virtually all human responses—physical, emotional, and intellectual—to the world of stimuli.

In her chapter “A Man’s World,” Figes asserts that the cultural environment has been defined by male eyes. Language, mathematics, music, and art have all been delineated by male scholars. The world they have mapped excludes women’s perceptions. In fact, woman’s identity is entirely a male construct; women are taught to want and to be the things man wants in a woman, not the things that would fill their own lives with meaning. Through art, history, and literature, men perpetuate the image of themselves as the doers of all heroic deeds, as the embodiment of all greatness, as the face of God, and as the defenders of a self-created moral code. They impose this worldview by sheer physical power, by economic exclusion, and by granting themselves unequal rights under the law.

The concept of God may once have included women, Figes notes in “A Man’s God,” but if people once believed it was Eurynome who laid the world egg, they have now converted to a religion that is almost exclusively male in both its icons and its aims. Childbirth appeared to ancient humanity, she argues, as an incontrovertible sign of women’s divinity. Once man realized the connection between sex and childbirth, however, he understood how to co-opt woman’s power for himself. By claiming ownership of a woman and ensuring that the only man who touched her was himself, he could guarantee the legitimacy of his offspring. Man then began to construct his own immortality based on long lines of descendants; the endless genealogies of the Old Testament give witness to this preoccupation.

Man’s religion proclaimed his control over women essential. Men fear being manipulated by sexuality, a fear that Figes finds throughout literature. They fear being emasculated, as Samson was, and they fear women’s supposedly endless sexual appetite, which threatens to suck men dry. Therefore, religion portrayed woman as responsible for humankind’s fall from grace. Celibacy was promoted, and woman was depicted as an evil temptress who would lure man into sin, but lust repressed does not disappear, it merely changes form. Figes cites the witch burnings of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, which annihilated up to one-quarter of the population in certain areas, as an example of male lust projected onto women. Just as God controls man, so man must control woman, even if that control takes the form of mass murder.

It has been a slower process for men to dominate women’s economic status, yet Figes claims that here, too, women have...

(The entire section is 1,264 words.)