Understanding the Structural Aspects of Women’s Oppression Through the Works of Gerda Lerner

Subordinated under the control of men for thousands of years, women today are subjected to various institutions and structures that are implicitly or explicitly under patriarchal dominion. In her work on women’s history, The Creation of Patriarchy’, Gerda Lerner, an Austrian American historian, has talked about these structures in detail.

One of her interesting assertions is that women, since time long, have been subjected to patriarchal structures throughout their lives. These structures include the state, family, marriage, education, etc. While pinpointing these immanent structures, Lerner also mentions the ways in which women can exit these structures in her text.    

Prior to delving into this analysis, let’s first look at the context in which this assertion has been made, i.e., the history of women, which, according to many feminist writers, has never existed in its true form. It’s not like if you Google ‘women’s history’, you’d get a screen saying Error 404, but that the Classic historical works that have been written since the inception of history have in one way or another, side lined the character called woman. And as the voices against patriarchy have not been recorded in history, the women have not been able to find a suitable source of inspiration to initiate their fight against patriarchy. 

However, in the recent past, various scholars have started interpreting these historical works with a feminist approach, and supplementing them with works of women’s history. This writing of women’s past in the nineteenth century, in the words of Gerda Lerner, has begun the transition from Prehistory to History for women.   

The first of these structures is family, which in itself is linked to the institution of marriage, and is the most active oppressor. Other structures that are equally important, but play a passive role in this subordination are ‘Class’ and ‘State’, which influence familial oppression. And at last, the existence of male-dominated-symbolism prevents women from rising against these structures by keeping them aloof from their potential.

In order to examine these structures, we need to firstly look at the concept of ‘exchange of women’ propounded by a scholar named Claude Levi Strauss. According to Levi Strauss, subordination of women has its origins in the agriculturalist societies and hence, it is not natural. In these societies, the high demand for labour led to exchange of women between tribes as a way of dissolving inter-tribal conflicts and to increase the supply of labour. The women of those times were forced by their dependence on men for sustenance to comply by this exchange, which commodified their sexuality and procreativity. 

This dependence and the consequent exchange of women were complemented by humans’ obsession with ‘transferring their genes onto future generations’ and ‘pure bloodlines’. And with these obsessions arose the concept of ‘virginity’, which till date is a major cause of oppression.

When we look at Family, the main driving force of female oppression was their virginity. A theory why this was so was that the men who carried out the exchange of women wanted to have pure bloodlines. And the only way in which they could assure so was by accepting a woman, who hasn’t had any sexual relations prior to exchange, i.e., woman had to be a virgin. And so, the families of women started restricting their movements, keeping them locked up in the houses, etc, all just to protect their virginity. With time, this term ‘virginity’ got synonymous with ‘honour’ and these practices came to protecting the ‘honour’ of the women and the household.

This is also how incest became a taboo in almost all societies. That is, the reason why incest is prohibited is that women of a family were ‘reserved’ for men outside the tribe, as a mode of inter-tribal alliance. And thus, they were not allowed to indulge in intimate relationships with their kinfolk members at any cost.

Another structure that controlled the activities of women was their ‘Class’. The idea of Class differed for a male and a female. For a man, his class was associated with the capital he owned, whereas for a woman, her class was mediated through sexual ties with a man. According to Lerner, this meant that a woman was associated with a man only till the time she could meet latter’s sexual and reproductive needs. Thus, she had to serve as a slave, a concubine and at last a wife, in that order, to attain a certain class, and enjoy the privileges that came with it. But these privileges were conditional. That is, they could enjoy these privileges only till they were under the ‘protection’ of these men. Therefore, the dominated (women) had to exchange submission for protection, unpaid labour for maintenance.

These men were mostly their husbands, who found it their responsibility to protect their wives. But in case of women who did not comply by the institution of marriage, like the nuns, single women or lesbians, it was not that they were given the responsibility to protect themselves, but rather their natal families were made responsible for them. However, in the case of the latter two, they were often ‘declassed’ even while being under the protection of their natal family, while the former was still respected.

An aspect of these class privileges was having some authority over the lower-class men and women. And this authority, even though highly constrained, made these women accept the status quo, thinking of all oppression as a cost for attaining this authority. Thus, instead of rising against the men through their newly received authority, they rather acted as agents of patriarchy and joined men in oppressing the women of the lower class. 

Next, we move on to how the State acts as an institution of patriarchy. The state is also responsible for women’s oppression, and this oppression is channelled through two modes.

The first mode is of direct discrimination and oppression that state inflicts on women through its policies and governance. This is because the state, just like other institutions, consists of individuals, and these individuals are men who are not eager to share authority with the other sex. 

The other mode of oppression is the indirect one, in which it influences the functioning of the family, and thus, the women. In earlier times, men used to be the heads of the public world, whereas the women (particularly wives) had the household under their control. But as power in the public world got narrowed to a few men (kingship), the rest of them took over as heads of their households, thus removing women from the only position of control they ever attained and giving them the role of ‘head servant’. With this, what the state did to men, the men did to their household/women. Thus, all the frustrations that men had towards the state, were channeled into oppression of women of their household, and so the state became the passive flag bearer of patriarchy.

The last but an important structure that Lerner talks about is the hegemony of men over the symbol system. This structure is not an active oppressor of women, but it does encourage the whole idea of male chauvinism. This male dominated symbolism prevents women from realising their true potential. While women do know that they’re being subordinated, they are not able to find any means of fighting against this discrimination. That is, no symbolic representation of women empowerment has been recorded in history written by men.

Many people compare the struggle of women with that of the racially oppressed men. While both sets of groups have faced the brunt of upper-class male dominance, they differ in one significant way. First, the oppressed men still have a hope of change to cling upon, as they know that the status quo is not natural, as proved by men’s history. But such hope or memories do not exist for women, for they do not have any sort of recorded history. This keeps most of the women unaware that their condition is not natural.

These superstructures can be tackled only through a transformation in consciousness which can be brought through education and re-evaluation of all the institutions that are not natural, for they have been built by men who did not want to share power. 


The views expressed in this article are the author's own.

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