Gerda Lerner’s The Creation of Patriarchy is an absolutely fabulous text and I highly recommend it. Lerner’s thesis is based on the belief that women’s oppression is based on both women’s potential reproductive ability and their potential as sex objects which occurred before the creation of private property and a class society. This is then institutionalised in practise through the creation of slavery, the codification of laws and the creation of monotheism. Lerner’s thesis is, obviously, far more complex than that brief sentence and her work deserves more thought than I’ve written.
A conversation earlier today on twitter had me thinking in a different direction. The conversation was about recognising women’s oppression as a class due to potential reproductive capacity without excluding those women who are infertile. This is all completely speculative and I’ve done no research and am quite open to being completely wrong on the following (and would love suggestions for books which either prove or disprove my musings).
I agree with Lerner’s thesis: women are oppressed because of reproductive and sexual capacities but I have been thinking about the role of infertile women in the creation of patriarchy. Women’s safety depended on their relationships to men with power. This would have put infertile women in very precarious positions. If they could not bear their husband that much vaunted male heir, how would it impact their safety? Yet, an infertile sister might be of economic boon to their brother’s household if she was deemed unmarriageable (or replaced by another woman).
So, what was the impact of being infertile for women across cultures and history?
- Would women who are infertile be more likely to be used for sexual slavery? At certain points, their infertility could be classed as a positive since the lack of offspring would prevent questions about dynasty, inheritance and power.
- The infertility of first wives could give space for other women to carve themselves a place of safety by bearing a child for a powerful man.
- With the high rate of maternal mortality, the labour of infertile women in childrearing, caring, housework and estate management must have been of economic benefit.
- How often were infertile women used as “bogeymen” as a warning for women to behave lest they too become infertile.
If anyone has suggestions for research which has addressed these issues, please get in touch!