Freethought NOW!

The rise of sexism

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Studies in both mythology and anthropology show that mothers, not fathers, were the original authority figures in human societies.

Paleolithic and neolithic humans were no more aware of fatherhood than any other primate species; the connection between sexual activity and conception was not understood until quite late in human history. Most early peoples attributed pregnancy to mysterious magic that made only females able to create life. Thus the popular notion of “cave men” dominating women by physical strength is quite erroneous. Women were generally respected in primitive cultures. Musclemen don’t rule, but rather serve the rulers. Social power comes not from physical strength but from psychological, emotional and/or financial authority. Like all other mammals, early humans knew they owed their existence only to their mothers. As a Native American chieftain once explained, “Of course we listen to and obey the women. They are our mothers.”

Men did envy women’s ability to produce and nourish new life, and wanted a part in it. In some South American tribes, during childbirth a woman’s mate would lie down and moan and groan, pretending to produce the baby, and even pretended to nurse it afterward, recalling the bible’s rather absurd mention of a “suckling child” being nourished “in the bosom of Abraham.” In the original baptism ceremony of ancient Egypt, a mother gave her child a name while anointing it with her milk. There’s a strange recollection of this in the French term nom de lait, “milk name,” meaning one given by the mother.

One fact about reproduction that was obvious to primitives was that, during pregnancy, women kept within their bodies that mysterious blood that was shed in harmony with the phases of the moon. Thus it seemed clear that menstrual blood was the substance of which babies were made. We still speak of “blood” relationships because of the classical belief that all tribes were made of what the Egyptians, Babylonians, Greeks and Romans called the mother’s “heart’s blood.” Aristotle said every human life is made of a “coagulum” of menstrual blood. According to Pliny, each baby is formed of a “curd” of menstrual blood. Plutarch said the power that made a human body came from the moon, source of menstrual blood. Indians of South America said all humanity was made of “moon blood” in the beginning.

In ancient Mesopotamia, women practiced a standard conception charm, shaping babies of clay and anointing them with menstrual blood, to make a real baby by sympathetic magic. This charm was so widely used that the word adamah, literally “bloody clay,” was the basis of the name Adam, which bible translators delicately re-rendered as “red earth.”

Because of its wondrous power, menstrual blood was also regarded with holy dread. The bible calls it “unclean,” which is a vague mistranslation of the word meaning “taboo, sacred, untouchable.” The bible also calls it the “flower,” meaning the forerunner of the “fruit” of the womb: i.e., a baby. Men came to fear this “flower” so much that during the Middle Ages, when patriarchy finally ruled supreme, menstruating women were forbidden to enter churches.

Despite their fear, men often tried to imitate motherhood-magic by some form of genital bloodshed. Pubescent boys of the Arunta tribe suffered subincision, called “man’s menstruation,” and the wound was referred to as a vagina. In ancient Egypt, circumcision for the assurance of future fertility was practiced on 13-year-old boys, who were dressed in girls’ clothing for the ceremony. The Jews copied circumcision from the Egyptians but transferred it to infancy, a practice objectionable to the women, according to the story of Moses’ Midianite wife Zipporah, who opposed the mutilation of her infant. After the operation, she flung the foreskin at Moses, calling him a bloody husband (Exodus 4). The ceremony for adolescents remained, however, and evolved into the bar mitzvah.

Observing that death meant no more breathing, some early peoples came up with the idea that breath was synonymous with soul. In early Hindu mythology, would-be father gods said a man must give the breath of life to each baby, so their custom maintained that a man had to make a “soul” in a newborn child by breathing into its face. This method of fathering was later adopted by the biblical God, who “breathed the breath of life” into the nostrils of Adam to make him a “living soul” (Genesis 2:7).

But the biblical description of God as “all that has been, that is, and that will be” was copied from an Egyptian inscription first applied to the Great Mother. It was written on her ancient temple at Sais, where she was also described as “the greatest power on Earth, who existed when nothing else had being, who commandeth all that is in the universe.”

Once fatherhood was discovered, patriarchal cultures began to insist on monogamy, so a man could be sure that every child came from his own “seed.” The bible is stuffed full of “begats,” which never mention mothers; and it says over and over, “He went in unto her, and she conceived, and bare a child,” to drive home the same message that the Christian church later insisted on: the soul of a baby comes not from the mother’s “heart’s blood” but from semen; and a mother’s body is simply the inert soil in which the “seed” can grow. Of course the human ovum remained completely unknown until it was finally discovered by Edgar Allen in  the 1920s.

Patriarchal religion brought about history’s most radical changes in human social organization. Over the next millennia in many cultures, men became more warlike and aggressive; they claimed property rights and ancestral naming customs; they established male “blood” lines even when magical moon-blood was no longer involved. Judeo-Christian tradition began to insist that all evil came from woman, due to the sin of Eve. St. Paul said, “Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was the transgressor” (1 Timothy 2:14), which seems to indicate that the real original sin was gullibility.

The Catholic doctrine of original sin was established by St. Augustine, who said the sin is transmitted to every child by its passage through the female body. Any male child that died before the requisite 40 days before baptism would suffer forever in hell; and a female child could not even be brought into a church for 80 days. This cruel doctrine was not modified until the church relented enough to invent a Limbo for the innocent ones — who still had to suffer a little.

St. Thomas Aquinas said every woman is defective from birth, begotten only because her father was ill or in a state of sin at the time of her conception, and she must be treated as “lower than a slave, wholly in subjection to her husband.” Martin Luther considered himself an unusually kind husband because he didn’t beat his wife with a stick, but only punched her in the head “to keep her from getting saucy.” A 15th-century church publication on the Rules of Marriage said a husband should “soundly” beat his wife; it would redound to his credit in heaven.

In the 1890s, the president of a leading theological seminary wrote: “The Bible commands the subjection of women forever.” A 19th-century document of the Anglican church said, “Women are intrinsically inferior in excellence, imbecile by sex and nature … and imperfect and infirm in character.” Quite recently, Rev. Pat Robertson told women: “If you get married, you have accepted the leadership of a man. The husband is the head of the wife, and that’s the way it is, period.”

The point is that over the centuries, the primary fountainhead of sexism in Western civilization has been religion. It was religion that obliterated the mother goddess in favor of the father god. It was religion that transferred the supposed essence of human life from mother-blood to semen. It was religion that insisted on patriarchal rules of marriage and inheritance. It was religion that sanctioned abuse and enslavement of wives. It was religion that so despised women as to torture and burn countless among them during five centuries of dominance by the Inquisition in Europe. It is religion that still supports sexist doctrines.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote: “The church has done more to degrade women than all other adverse influences together. Out of the doctrine of original sin grew the crimes and miseries of asceticism, celibacy, and witchcraft, woman becoming the helpless victim of all the delusions in the brain of man. There is nothing more pathetic in all history than the hopeless resignation of woman to the outrages she has been taught to believe are ordained by God.”

Though many believers insist that God has no physical being, they fail to make the logical conclusion that “he” would lack the proper genitalia and hormones that define maleness. We do know from mythology that in Graeco-Roman times, gods routinely impregnated large numbers of virgins, even though nonphysical beings would necessarily lack any form of spermatozoa.

In truth, however, our only proven source of life is Mother Earth, who is more than just an imaginary concept devoid of physical being. “She” symbolizes an essential reality — one that deserves much more of our attention, because our lives depend on it every day, and for all the foreseeable future.

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3 Responses

  1. EC Stanton quote: “There is nothing more pathetic in all history than the hopeless resignation of woman to the outrages she has been taught to believe are ordained by God.” Wow, could not agree more. SO many women willingly accept their own doom in order to please a non-existent god weaponized by men.

  2. I am so grateful to Barbara Walker for her informative well-researched articles!

    Thank you!!

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