DOWN WITH CHILDHOOD
who will outgrow childhood before it is eliminated
Women and children are always mentioned in the same breath (“Women and children to the forts!”)* The special tie women have with children is recognized by everyone. I submit, however, that the nature of this bond is no more than shared oppression. And that moreover this oppression is intertwined and mutually reinforcing in such complex ways that we will be unable to speak of the liberation of women without also discussing the liberation of children, and vice versa. The heart of woman’s oppression is her childbearing and childrearing roles. And in turn children are defined in relation to this role and are psychologically formed by it; what they become as adults and the sorts of relationships they are able to form determine the society they will ultimately build.
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I have tried to show how the power hierarchies in the biological family, and the sexual repressions necessary to maintain it—especially intense in the patriarchal nuclear family—are destructive and costly to the individual psyche. Before I go on to describe how and why it created
a cult of childhood, let us see how this patriarchal nuclear family developed.
In every society to date there has been some form of the biological family and thus there has always been oppression of women and children to varying degrees. Engels, Reich, and others point to the primitive matriarchies of the past as examples, attempting to show how authoritarianism, exploitation, and sexual repression originated with monogamy. However, turning to the past for ideal states is too facile. Simone de Beauvoir is more honest when, in The Second Sex, she writes:
The peoples who have remained under the thumb of the goddess mother, those who have retained the matrilineal regime, are also those who are arrested at a primitive stage of civilization. . . . The devaluation of women [under patriarchy] represents a necessary stage in the history of humanity, for it is not upon her positive value but upon man’s weakness, that her prestige is founded. In woman are incarnated all the disturbing mysteries of nature, and man escapes her hold when he frees himself from nature. . . . Thus the triumph of the patriarchate was neither a matter of chance nor the result of violent revolution. From humanity’s beginnings their biological advantage has enabled the males to affirm their status as sole and sovereign subjects; they have never abdicated this position; they once relinquished a part of their independent existence to Nature and to Woman; but afterwards they won it back. (Italics mine)
Perhaps however, if productive work had remained within her strength, woman would have accomplished with man the conquest of nature. . . through both male and female. . . but because she did not share his way of working and thinking, because she remained in bondage to life’s mysterious processes, the male did not recognize in her a being like himself. (Italics mine)
Thus it was woman’s reproductive biology that accounted for her original and continued oppression, and not some sudden patriarchal revolution, the origins of which Freud himself was at a loss to explain. Matriarchy is a stage on the way to patriarchy, to man’s fullest realization of himself; he goes from worshipping Nature through women to conquering it. Though it’s true that woman’s lot worsened considerably under patriarchy, she never had it good; for despite all the nostalgia it is not hard to prove that matriarchy was never an answer to women’s fundamental oppression. Basically it was no more than a different means of counting lineage and inheritance, one which, though it might have held more advantages for women than the later patriarchy, did not allow women into the society as equals. To be worshipped is not freedom. For worship still takes place in someone else’s head, and that head belongs to Man. Thus throughout history, in all stages and types of culture, women have been oppressed due to their biological functions.
Turning to the past, while it offers no true model, is, however, of some value in understanding the relativity of the oppression: though it has been a fundamental human condition, it has appeared to differing degree in different forms.
The patriarchal family was only the most recent in a string of “primary” social organizations, all of which defined woman as a different species due to her unique childbearing capacity. The term family was first used by the Romans to denote a social unit the head of which ruled over wife, children, and slaves—under Roman law he was invested with rights of life and death over them all; famulus means domestic slave, and familia is the total number of slaves belonging to one man. But though the Romans coined the term, they were not the first to develop the institution. Read the Old Testament: for example, the description of Jacob’s family train as after a long separation he travels to meet his twin brother Esau. This early patriarchal household was only one of many variations on the patriarchal family taking place in many different cultures up to the present time.
However in order to illustrate the relative nature of children’s oppression, rather than comparing these different forms of the patriarchal family throughout history we need only examine the development of its most recent version, the patriarchal nuclear family. For even its short history, roughly from the fourteenth century on, is revealing: the growth of our most cherished family values was contingent on cultural conditions, its foundations in no sense absolute. Let’s review the development of the nuclear family—and its construct “childhood”—from the Middle Ages to the present, basing our analysis on Philippe Aries’ Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life.
The modem nuclear family is only a recent development. Aries shows that the family as we know it did not exist in the Middle Ages, only gradually evolving from the fourteenth century on. Until then one’s “family” meant primarily one’s legal heredity line, the emphasis on blood ancestry rather than the conjugal unit. With respect to such legalities as the passing on of property, its primary function, there was joint estate of the husband and wife, and joint ownership by the heirs; only toward the end of the Middle Ages, with the increasing of paternal authority in the bourgeois family, was joint estate by the conjugal couple abolished, with joint ownership by all the sons giving way to the laws of primogeniture. Aries shows how iconography reflected the current values of society in the Middle Ages: either solitary compositions or large convivial groupings of people in public places were the standard; there is a dearth of interior scenes, for life did not take place inside a “home.” For at that time there was no retreat into one’s private “primary group.” The family group was composed of large numbers of people in a constant state of flux and, on the estates of noblemen, whole crowds of servants, vassals, musicians, people of every class as well as a good many animals, in. the ancient patriarchal household tradition. Though the individual might retire from this constant social interaction to the spiritual or academic life, even in this there was a community in which he could participate.
This medieval family—lineal honor of the upper classes, in the lower nothing more than the conjugal pair planted in the midst of the community—gradually developed into the matchbox family that we know. Aries describes the change:
It was as if a rigid polymorphous body had broken up and had been replaced by a host of little societies, the families, and by a few massive groups, the classes.
Such a transformation caused profound cultural changes, as well as affecting the very psychological structure of the individual. Even the view of the life cycle of the individual has culturally evolved, e. g., “adolescence,” which had never existed before, came in. Most important of these new concepts of the stages of life was childhood.