DID MEN OPPRESS WOMEN?
Did men treat women as property?
It is only the understanding that men’s lives were subservient to property that allows us to reconcile women’s combined status as equal to property and on a pedestal. When we hear that men treated women as property, we rarely hear that men were expected to die before their property got hurt – that men’s lives were, in essence, subservient to property. Even in nineteenth-century America, federal law required that if a wife committed a crime, the husband would be tried for her crime and he would be put in prison if she was found guilty.*4 Similarly, if the family went in debt, only he went to debtor’s prison.
Throughout history, both sexes were property in various ways. Mayan boys indentured themselves to their father-in-law; in biblical times, Jacob indentured himself to Uncle Laban; in America, Johnny indentured himself to Uncle Sam… In almost every society that had to defend its land, boys died defending it and, before they were old enough to know better, were socialized to be proud to die.
In America, tens of thousands of immigrants earned passage as indentured servants. More than 90 percent of the indentured servants were men. The men initially assumed slavelike status for a seven-year period.55 Some were single men who hoped to earn enough money to become eligible for marriage. Others had wives still in Europe. Think about this. What could be greater demonstration of love than a man enslaving himself for a woman
without any of the benefits of her cooking, cleaning, or companionship? Many of these men didn’t do this just on Mother’s Day – they did it every day for between seven years and life. Only men – the "unromantic sex" – did this unilaterally for women. But. . .
Many indentured men eventually extended their indenture to fourteen years or a lifetime to bring their families over. These men became, in essence, male slaves.
In Europe, between the time of the Roman Empire and the Middle Ages, it was common for men to need financial protea ion – so they sold themselves to lords. A ceremony developed involving the vassal taking vows, the count asking if the vassal wished to be his man. and both kissing to seal their vows. The vassal, though, was required to do one thing for the owner that women rarely do for their husbands: consider it an honor to die to protect him.**
If men didn’t have the power, why was property often passed down through men? Because men were responsible to provide property. Property was one of men’s contributions to eligibility just as fertility and children were among women’s contribution to eligibility’. Men had property rights to take care of property responsibilities. Social pressure got most men to provide a wife with as much property as he himself had; and the taboo on divorce prevented a woman from losing the property before her husband did.
Women, then, were both equal to property’ and more than equal to men – and, therefore, on a pedestal