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Privatized violence against women: from Zeus to Kavanaugh

Ancient Greeks revered Zeus as their supreme deity.  Greek politicians publicly sanctified and naturalized the patriarchal practice of misogyny as an aspect of their democracy. The dictionary definition of misogyny is “dislike of, contempt for, or ingrained prejudice against women” from the Greek root “hatred [of] women.”

Centuries later this conception found full-throated expression in the recent Senate hearings and eventual confirmation of misogynist Bret Kavanaugh of lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court. Despite a majority of the nation opposed to Kavanaugh’s appointment, a majority of Republicans supported Kavanaugh—even if sexual assault charges were true.

Trump, Kavanaugh, Clarence Thomas, Harvey Weinstein—and the list goes on—represent a legacy that dates to the ancient Greeks. The Founders were fond of evoking the Greeks as an example of a democracy – one built on slavery and misogyny. Through Zeus, male dominance and violence were divinely ordained. Justification for misogyny and violence against women rests on the long debate over the role of the state in publicly providing safety and protecting individual rights.

Historically, patriarchal rule-of-law has constructed male control of girls and women as the domain of the private sphere of life not subject to public scrutiny. Feminist political economist Nancy Folbre compares the condition of females to that of slaves. Like slaves, married women had no right to the product of their labor. Both slaves and women under patriarchy were unable to make a lawful claim to their own children. White male slave owners could legally separate children from their mothers. A double standard existed for White married men who raped slave women or sought sex through prostitution whereas a woman adulteress faced punishment.

In regard to the care of slaves and wives, Folbre notes that legally “slave owners and patriarchs were required only to meet the subsistence needs of their dependents and could administer physical punishment without the close supervision of the law.” Whereas male children could anticipate someday becoming independent of their families of origin, female children were forever constructed as male property. A daughter transitioned from the status of her father’s property to her husband’s literally upon being given away. Restricted from the public sphere of life under patriarchal arrangements, a woman was to submit to her husband’s sexual demands and not attempt to avoid conception.

“If perticuliar care and attention is not paid to the Ladies we are determined to foment a Rebelion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.”

Despite John Locke’s influential advocacy of individual liberty and equality, he made an exception for women. Writing about a century before the ratification of the US Constitution, Locke intellectually separated the public domain from the private sphere of marriage: “the power that every husband hath to order the things of private concernment to his family, as proprietor of the goods and lands there, and to have his will take place before that of his wife in all things of their common concernment.” Women who deviated from such patriarchal norms often faced psychological and physical abuse.

Like racism, the political economy of misogyny within the pervasive culture of patriarchy is revealed as a core principle throughout US history. At the time of the Declaration of Independence, Abigail Adams, the wife of future President John Adams, sought incorporation of her full rights as a woman into the revolutionary principles of liberty and gender equality.

In 1776 Abigail wrote her husband, “I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors.” Abigail may have been recalling the previous two centuries when women were tortured and murdered as “witches” by ruling church and secular leaders in Europe and the British colonies of North America.

Abigail Adams continued in her letter: “Do not put such unlimited power in the hands of the Husbands…Remember all men would be tyrants if they could.” Historian Jill Lepore explains that Abigail was calling on her husband to provide freedom of “representation” to women, in line with the ideals colonists expressed. Abigail foresaw a future in which women would be a political force if ignored: “If perticuliar care and attention is not paid to the Ladies we are determined to foment a Rebelion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.”

Abigail’s patriarchal husband John Adams responded as if his wife’s concerns were just a joke: “As to your extraordinary Code of Laws, I cannot but laugh…We know better than to repeal our Masculine system.” Resting smugly in a smog of patriarchal certainties that placed women as inferiors, Adams and his elitist cronies made sure that their basis of social order was premised on male superiority and female submission to male authority.

After decades of battle against male dominance in nearly all aspects of the public sphere the US Constitution was amended so that by 1920 women in the US could vote in all elections. Yet women remained second-class citizens in this newly enlarged public sphere, especially in regard to personal safety, employment, and property rights. For example, labor historian Alice Kessler-Harris notes that in the US from the 1890s into the 1980s “special considerations of all kinds could prevent women from being persons under the law.” Although statutes might use the word “person,” the legal interpretation was “man.” Courts deferred to states to determine personhood on the basis of patriarchal custom that in practice excluded women from participating in the public sphere through, for example, serving on juries and qualifying for traditional male careers and jobs.

An Equal Right Amendment (ERA) for women has never been passed by the required number of states. From 1972 to 1982 advocates for the ERA were simply seeking Constitutional codification for full political and civil rights of women in the public sphere: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.” It was during this era that second-wave feminism faced extreme patriarchal resistance. To bring light to the tyranny the patriarchy imposed on women in the private sphere, feminists insisted that “the personal is political.” In other words, a woman’s personal experience of domestic assault in a dorm room, hotel, or bedroom is not a private act. Instead, protection from such violence needs public protection. Nevertheless, legal repercussions for assaulting women rarely exist as evident in the Kavanaugh nomination process by an openly misogynist President who relishes denigrating women.

Decades prior to the contemporary #metoo movement, feminists were organizing to protect women through the development of undisclosed shelters for battered women—shelters and protection unavailable to Greek women, to Abigail Adams’ generation, nor to many women today. In the 1970s when shelters for victims of domestic assault were just appearing, laws and police practices allowed men – just like Zeus – to brutalize their wives and children as a private act beyond the scrutiny of the public sphere.

While I was living in Michigan during this era, it was young feminist activists who helped me better understand the political tensions and ramifications for women between the private and public sphere. Under the auspices of the Council Against Domestic Assault (CADA), these courageous women were part of a cadre that, against all odds, organized shelters for women seeking to escape misogynistic violence.

Nearly 40 years ago in 1979 as a humble “friend of CADA,” I wrote an invited piece for their newsletter in which I included references to the Roman deity Jupiter aka Zeus:

“Indeed, today’s public and its civil servants, living amidst the problem of domestic violence, often behave as if they were operating under the rule of Jupiter and Juno, mythical Roman deities. As the story goes, the god Jupiter raped a young wood nymph. This ‘nymph,’ a woman, was then not only rejected by her female companions, but also became the object of the terrible rage of Juno, Jupiter’s wife.  The young women was transformed into a hunted forest animal. Comfort and support were nowhere in sight. A ‘she-got-what she deserved’ attitude prevailed.”

Juno’s example tells us that women, too, can enable patriarchy. Think of Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine) and the 67% of Republican women who supported Kavanaugh. Political ambiguity swirls around whether it is in the state’s interest to protect the mental and physical health and overall well-being of all of those who live within its borders. This uncertainty raises several questions:

  • Should all people have public access to healthcare, including protection from psychological and physical violence, as a basic right?
  • Is the well-being of individuals a private matter beyond the scope of the state?
  • Are some aspects an individual’s overall health a matter that needs public intervention?

The well-being of women falls in the middle of these issues. At one extreme, patriarchal politicians and right-wing religious groups contend that public laws should limit women’s control of decisions about their own bodies. On the other hand, the violence girls and women experience generally occurs in the patriarchal shadows of society, where it is constructed as a private matter supposedly lacking “proof” or legitimacy.

Yet, in some cases the state does make health decisions that affects its populace. Most notable is access to affordable vaccinations, long been considered necessary for the health of the country and, hence, recognized as a public good. Most recently, Congress has deemed eliminating opioid addiction within the private sphere as a public good that requires public funding. Yet, violence against women is cast by ruling elites and their evangelical supporters as still existing primarily in the private sphere. Hence, women too often remain excluded from the public good of governmental safety and health protection due to practices and policies that enable misogyny. Meanwhile, patriarchs continue to equivocate about the extent to which having a healthy citizenry is in the state’s public interest.

In our current historical moment women remain our most significant leaders of social movements for liberty and justice for all. For example, we have the historical and contemporary leadership of Black women, including Tarana Burke, founder of the #metoo movement. In western states during the 19th century “Colored Women’s Clubs” formed to create supportive environments in hostile societies, especially in response to lynchings. The Civil Rights Movement was propelled by the nearly invisible and tireless work of African-American women in the relative freedom of Black churches. And most recently, Susan Burton, a formerly incarcerated 66-year old Black woman, has become a leading advocate for incarcerated women.

In these continuing misogynistic times, allies will need to gravitate toward progressive women and their leadership against patriarchy,if we ever expect to build a viable movement to unravel a system built around patriarchal supremacy.

Michael Vavrus is co-editor of the 2018 book “Intersectionality of Race, Ethnicity, Class, and Gender in Teaching and Teacher Education: Movement Toward Equity in Education” (Brill Publishers, Netherlands).


It was 1988 and I was working out of the…