Tuesday, November 23, 2010

More on the marriage of oppressions...

As I mentioned in a previous post, I'm making my way through the book, Southern Women: Black and White in the Old South, to aid my genealogical research. It's really a great book. I recommend it for its insights into the history of both racism and sexism in America and how these things intertwine. And they do intertwine. (Here is the point where I usually link to Sudy's excellent post "Accepting Kyriarchy, Not Apologies")

Anyway, I stumbled upon this passage the other day and thought I would share. It highlights again for me why activists and allies can't just be up on their favorite "isms," but aware of how Privilege leverages all "isms" for its benefit.

Note, as you're reading, that "women" should read "white women." Southern Women is good about highlighting the unique ways that sexism impacted black and white women. This passage comes from a section specifically on white women and laws governing their marriages and property rights.
Stephanie McCurry, in Masters of Small Worlds, offers a provocative interpretation on the importance of the southern family and its hierarchical relationships, helping to explain why divorce was so difficult in the South and forbidden in South Carolina. She detects a parallel between the struggle to maintain slavery and efforts to preserve gender hierarchy within the family. McCurry finds that proslavery defenders equated the subordination of women with that of slaves, investing "the defense of slavery with the survival of customary gender relations." Every white man, whatever his station, had a stake in the defense of slavery. In the South, a woman's natural and social roles assumed political significance. Southern society glorified women's sphere and their secondary position and vilified anyone who stepped beyond its boundaries. "The legitimacy of male authority over women in the household was a cornerstone of the slavery edifice," argues McCurry. Slaves and women had to fit into their subordinate position, and white men had the inherent right to command those presumed to be naturally subordinate. Social relations in the private sphere thus affected political ideas and institutions in the public sphere. Anything, such as divorce, that might upset what seemed to be the natural order of the family threatened the southern social order. In South Carolina, where slaves comprised a majority of the population, this hierarchy was especially important to uphold.
By the by, this is one reason why entrenched sexism among black men bothers me. The idea of man as dominant and woman as subordinate is part of the framework of the system that kept African Americans enslaved and underprivileged for centuries. You cannot be about the uplift of the black race while working to perpetuate the subordination of women.

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