Ben Desai Maintaining Inequalities in Modern Society "We hold these truths to be self-evident", Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence, " that all men are created equalÃ¢ÂÂ¦" Jefferson's words still have the power to stir us, so much so that we often fail to notice what he left out! What the first line of the second paragraph of the famous Declaration should say is: "We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men and women are created equal, and that they are endowed by their creator with the rights of life liberty and pursuit of happiness." How many of us have read the first of the two statements quoted here and never thought that one of the conclusions that can be drawn from it is that half the population are not created equal? The answer is that most of us have always taken this statement for granted and have, therefore, failed to notice the automatic dominance of men over women that it implies.
The power of language to assist in maintaining gender inequalities cannot be underestimated. During the feminist movement of the 1960s and 70's many women and some men struggled against the ability of language to maintain dominance of one sex over another. This was an important effort, but such effort might have been more productively spent by looking at the institution of the family which is an even more powerful machine for maintaining the inequality of the genders. In the following essay we will look at the ways in which the daily realities of family life maintain the inequality between the genders and also between races, economic groups (class), and sexual preferences.
There are many types of family structure but the dominant form in North America is the nuclear family with a mother and father and their children in the same household. In the typical nuclear family the father is the breadwinner. His control of money places his wife in a subordinate position because she always has to go to him to ask for money for family needs. In two income families, the wife's income is almost always lower so that the wife still has to go to the husband to ask for money for certain expenses. The father is also the authority figure for disciplining the children. This means that the mother must go to him to report problems with the children. This is all very well when father has to set standards of behavior for the children or when punishment is required, however it also means that the mother is really the second in command. In some societies (eg, Pakistan) women still may not own property. This means that the father has title to everything the family owns, and, once again, if mother wants to sell the house and buy another, or to move into an apartment, she must go to father to seek permission. Not too many years ago the dominant position of the father was supported by popular culture. It was acceptable and considered amusing to tell wife jokes that made a target of the woman of the family.
A similar device was once in widespread use to justify and maintain the inequality of the races. Jokes that targeted the supposed characteristics of African-Americans were circulated among bigoted white people. Laughing at the supposed short-comings or odd behaviors of the oppressed race helped to maintain equality by making the oppressed race look silly, poorly educated, oversexed, and so on. The use of language was also part of the oppression of African-Americans and other minorities as well as the oppression of women by men. For example, in the American South it was common to call a Black male "boy" instead of using his name. An older Black male could be called "Uncle" and an older Black female could be called "Auntie" in the same unpleasant way. We notice here that referring to people in this way makes it appear that they are part of the same "family" as the speaker which was not, of course, true. The use of language to maintain women in dependent status includes the boss who calls his secretary "Honey" instead of using her name. The same boss may refer to the women working in his office as "the girls." These uses of language pretend to an intimate or family connection to maintain the hierarchy of class (employer v. worker) in the office. In this context the boss plays the fatherly ("patriarchal") role and hopes to be rewarded with obedience and profit.
Control of sexuality is another way in which power relations are maintained in the society and this practice is based on the structure of the family. Under the rules of the strong father figure the females in the family may only make sexual decisions with his permission. Young females may not have sex until marriage under the system as practiced in many countries around the world today including in the United States. Control of female sexuality in the family is the role of the father (the patriarch) and the society as a whole is one that the patriarchy struggles to control. Abortion on demand violates this patriarchal principal, so there is a vigorous anti-abortion movement. This is believed to be about the "rights of the fetus", but the arguments on this score are emotional and sensationalistic and not logical or convincing ones. The real force in the anti-abortion movement is the continuing desire of the father, ie, "the patriarchy" to control female sexuality. If females could have abortion on demand they would make sexual decisions on a different basis and escape control of the strong father figure who rules the family and who, as a collective movement, also want to control all of society.
The authority structure of the family has been used to maintain inequality in societies in many ways. This is true historically and is also true right now in some societies in which women may not walk out of doors without the "escort" of a male member of the family. Historically, the rule of Whites over Blacks in the American South was also modeled on family practice in which subordinate blacks were treated as if they were the "children" of the same family. The father of the family controls the sexuality of the females. This is true not only in the individual family but in the laws. Not only abortion laws, but also property laws, marriage laws, divorce practice, and many other things are used to enforce the subordination of women in the family and of minority groups in society.