Monday, November 28, 2016

Have You Stopped Beating Your Wife?

Now that Thanksgiving is over:  I wrote this at the end of September and then put it aside.  I just read it again today, and I still think it's worth saying.  I did decide it was unsuitable to post it on Thanksgiving Day.

KALW's Your Call, once again, had a segment that got me thinking.  Today's program was a review of a new dance program, Grace and Delia are Gone, performed over this weekend at Fort Mason in S.F.  (Ed. note:  Sorry, this broadcast was aired on September 29, 2016, so you can't catch the dance program tomorrow.  Click the link to listen to the broadcast.)

I'm sure it's a great program, but what startled me was the earnest conviction - from the choreographer, from at least one caller, and in some sense from Rose Aguilar herself - that violence against women is a new, modern problem, aggravated by men who've spent 5 tours in Iraq/Afghanistan, and all the guns we now have around.

You folks all need to read more history - a problem I've noticed before.  For those horrified by multiple tours in Afghanistan, read the history of World Wars I and II, when soldiers spent months or years on the battlefield, or on a ship at sea, alternating between brief periods of extreme danger and weeks or months of total boredom.  You probably never heard this personally from your grandfather because the WWII vets didn't discuss what they went through.  Some of them beat up their wives; some of them killed themselves (I went to school with a young man whose WWII vet father killed himself); most of them just went on with life.  And never talked about the war.

Violence against women has gone on for centuries.  Medieval women weren't educated, and they couldn't choose whom they married.  Aristocratic women were married off to further the family's political connections.  Married women were chattel property to their husbands, and the husbands were allowed to do whatever they pleased to their property.  Moralists might object, but beating the crap out of your wife was NOT illegal through most of European and American history.  The Victorians take a lot of flack for their views on morality, but they did start the idea that maybe wife-beating was a bad idea.

The primary difference between history and now is that over the last 40 years or so, American society has concluded that it's a bad idea for one spouse to beat up on the other (and don't think it only happens to women, or for that matter only to straight people).  We actually have laws against it, and support groups for victims - this is a tremendous improvement. It hasn't stopped the practice, but don't assume this is the worst of times.  And if the situation in the U.S. disturbs you, Google "wife beating" and take a look at the headlines on current practices in Islamic countries.

There's something in the human race that makes certain members of it make themselves feel better by beating up on people, or creatures, they consider their "inferiors" - wives, pets, children.  (Also, people of other races or religions; but we're talking about family violence here).  People who do this are usually but not exclusively male.  Until and unless this changes, we're unlikely to get rid of spousal abuse entirely.

Footnote:  in the 2 months since I wrote this, Donald Trump was elected President of the United States, to take office in January.  In a country as in an organization, the tone comes from the top.  Given Trump's rhetoric on the campaign trail, and the fact that he's on his third wife, I can't judge right now whether his presence in the White House (assuming he stays in the White House) will enable spousal abuse or not.  He's enabled a lot of gratuitous violence, but I haven't heard much about Trump-caused domestic violence, so maybe not.


  1. I think that women's subservient position throughout history remains a huge subject, maybe the biggest elephant of all in the history of mankind.

    I've always thought (and I assume this is a kind of unavoidable cliché) that women were treated this way because they had to carry children and care for them, while the men "went into the world" to get food and claim and defend territory. There is also a strong tradition in many cultures of honoring women as the progenitors of life, of sustaining life by fostering it.

    Notions of the organization of society around the nuclear family grew out of this core relationship. When we ceased being nomadic and settled down in habitation, the family became the central basic unit of civilization. (In a sense, I think much of Islamic culture harkens back to a "nomadic" society in which women were so repressed that they were like domesticated animals. Islam is deeply nostalgic for the "order" and rigid structure this implies.)

    We're still in the midst of a great wave of change with respect to female independence and respect. It's a long struggle, and won't be completed in our lifetimes, if ever. As women achieve mastery over their physical bodies, and child-rearing becomes more shared, it may be possible to envision a new role for women in the world. On the other hand, there are those who see this as a mixed blessing. I was raised in a traditional nuclear family household, one in which my mom was subservient, but certainly an equal partner in many respects, including breadwinning.

    My wife is a successful software engineer in Silicon Valley, earning several times more than I ever did as a government bureaucrat. That doesn't make me jealous at all.

    Family violence is symptomatic of insecurity and frustration. For some few men, it may simply be cruelty of nature--the extremity. But at its root, it's about power, the loss of it, and the working out of the changing nature of the relations between the sexes. There is nothing simple about any specific instance.

    Trump's relation to women seems primarily pornographic: That is, he sees women as sexual mannequins, to be seduced and propped up, then discarded when they no longer have their youth and beauty to offer to him. I have no doubt he was an obsessive masturbator as a youth, fantasizing about endless conquests, and the glorification of his cock. His political identity seems as much an expression of that tendency, as anything in his motivation.

  2. Curtis, thanks for a very thoughtful comment. I don't see anything I would seriously disagree with, except that I recall reading that in hunter-gatherer societies, while the men are out hunting, it is the women (with the children along) who "gather," collecting wild fruits, herbs and other edibles. I think among hunter-gatherers the relationship is more equal than it became when humanity developed agriculture.

    Could not agree more that the basis of violence against women is about power.