Questioning the Patriarchy from Within

Until relatively recently, the history of writing has been overwhelmingly a history of men’s ideas. (One need only compare the number of known ancient women writers to the number of known writers in the ancient world to get a sense of the gender disparity.) Ancient literature represents plenty of misogynist attitudes (looking at you, Hesiod, Euripides, et al), but I’m intrigued by the fragments of ideas left by other male authors — writing in hyper-patriarchal societies — who ventured to second-guess the inequality or assigned roles of the sexes.

An interesting theme in the so-called tradition of ‘Western literature’ is reconsidering the role and place of women through the observing women’s roles and places in other cultures.

For example, Herodotus, the fifth century BCE historian, informs his Greek audience about a Libyan tribe that turns the masculine narrative of sexual conquest and the stigma of promiscuity on their head:

Next come the Gindanes. The women of this tribe wear leather bands round their ankles, which are supposed to indicate the number of their lovers: each woman puts on one band for every man she has gone to bed with, so that whoever has the greatest number enjoys the greatest reputation because she has been loved by the greatest number of men. (Herodotus 4.176, trans. Selincourt 2003[1954]:301)

The 1st-century reconstruction of letters by Crates of Thebes to Hipparchia of Maroneia (third century BCE) build on the Cynics practice of emphasizing nature above social convention:

Women are not naturally the weaker sex. Look at the Amazons; they were as physically tough as any man. (Letters 28) … You are no weaker by nature, any more than bitches are weaker than male dogs. Female liberation will then be justified on the grounds of nature, since it is acknowledged that slavery in general, not based on proven inferiority, exists by mere convention. (Letter 29) [trans. Dobbin 2012:70)

Passages like these raise an interesting question: what are the earliest texts you have encountered in the timeline of history that critique the de facto supremacy of the patriarchy?

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