Dancing with the Patriarchs

 History Matters: Patriarchy and the Challenge of Feminism

By Judith M. Bennett

Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006, 214 pp., $49.95, hardcover



Reviewed by Karen Offen


            Speaking of patriarchy, Judith Bennett employs “a metaphor of ballroom dancing” in which

women and men—many different sorts of women and men—move across the room, alter their steps, movements and rhythms, even change partners or groups, but always the men are leading.  In this patriarchal dance, there has been much change in women’s lives, but little transformation in women’s status in relation to men.


For Bennett, this “dance” provides strong evidence of the continuity in women’s history of what she calls “patriarchal equilibrium.” Unlike Bennett, most historians, especially those who study Europe and the United States, look for evidence of change rather than continuity.  Change stimulates people intellectually and provides affirmation and hope—for feminists, in particular.  But campaigns to change marriage laws, promote women’s education, improve women’s economic situation, and—in democratic regimes—attain the vote, not to speak of reproductive freedom, have taken place only during the last two centuries. Bennett is interested, as concerns women, gender, and feminist history, in the long-term, big picture.

Bennett is a historian of medieval England and, in particular, of women’s economic participation and sexuality.  Her earlier books—Women in the Medieval English Countryside: Gender and Household in Brigstock Before the Plague (1987); Ale, Beer, and Brewsters in England: Women’s Work in a Changing World, 1300-1600 (1996); and (with Amy Froide), Singlewomen in the European Past 1250-1800 (1999)—are smart and original.  In addition to the books, she has published many important essays, such as “Confronting Continuity” (Journal of Women’s History, 1997), that raise questions about how women’s history is written.  There, she drew “a critical distinction between change in women’s experiences and transformation in women’s status,” proposing that “historians of women have often confused one for the other.”

When I agreed to review this book, I half expected it to be a collection of Bennett’s previously published essays, assembled under a clever double-entendre title. What I found was far better: a cohesive, well-articulated, beautifully crafted and provocative series of reflections on the practice of feminist history.  Her earlier publications inform these essays, but these go much further.  Bennett makes excellent use of her expertise in medieval English women’s history and her interest in gendered economic history and sexualities to demonstrate her points.

The book’s chapter titles give a sense of its scope and style:” Feminism and History,” “Feminist History and Women’s History,” “Who’s Afraid of the Distant Past?,” “Patriarchal Equilibrium,” “Less Money Than a Man Would Take,” “The L-Word in Women’s History,” “The Master and the Mistress,” and “For Whom Are We Doing Feminist History?”

Bennett begins by addressing the rocky relationship of historical work to activist feminism and then shares her insights into the historical operations of patriarchy with respect to women.  One observation, which she places in her conclusion, provides a pithy summary of her concerns: 

Patriarchy talk might be unfashionable in some circles, but it is essential to the future of feminism, essential to historical research on women and gender, and essential in our teaching.  We still have many things to learn about patriarchal power in the past as well as in the present, but one thing is certain: sexual equality will not be advanced by wishing away patriarchy, trivializing its effects, or ignoring it in feminist classrooms.


Feminist historians, she insists, must continue to make explicit and confront patriarchy, in all its historical guises.  She insists that “patriarchy” connotes a system and not merely a condition.  She strongly prefers the concept of patriarchy to “male dominance” or “male supremacy” on the grounds that the latter terms lead to unclear thinking. 

Bennett also insists that we must study history, especially the history of women, over many centuries, and not just since 1750 or 1800. (And even if her subtext is “Why don’t historians of the modern period read more of other feminist historians’ output?” this is a good question—although the simple answer is probably that so many fine studies are constantly being published in one’s own historical field that it’s nearly impossible to make time to read outside it.) In other words, there is a continuum between the “premodern” and the “modern” that requires bridging and exploration over the long term.   To be sure, in the US we have a tendency to pay attention to the last two centuries almost exclusively, and we have carved up our teaching and research into short, specialized time periods.  A few of us who do European history try both to bridge the epoch of the French Revolution and to study the whole of Europe, just as a few historians of the US try to bridge the "before and after" divides of the American Revolution and the Civil War (though they don't often peek over the borders). But we are the exceptions; for the most part, national history and chronological segmentation prevail, and  few US historians even look at North America as a whole.  


I agree with most of Judith Bennett’s points, and she and I share a belief that studying women’s history is important to the realization of feminist goals.  We differ, however, as to what these goals should be, which strategies are most likely to achieve them, and which aspects of women’s history are most important.  I was surprised, to say the least, that motherhood, an institution so often the objective of patriarchal control, hardly figures in Bennett’s account. She highlights instead the history of medieval English women’s paid employment and of single women, with a nod to what she baptizes “lesbian-like” behavior.  In an era when the vast proportion of women became mothers this seems like an amazing oversight.  Patriarchal aspirations over time and place (especially in the Western world) have included “representing” women’s bodies, taking control of birth, and making decisions concerning children themselves—not to mention appropriating women’s capital, labor, and ability to inherit and pass on both landed and moveable property. In the English case, these constraints took specific and highly oppressive forms well into the nineteenth century, when child custody laws were revised and married women’s property laws took hold.

            Judith Bennett seems to be advocating for women’s freedom to become honorary men.   But is this all we want—and is this fair?  The constraints placed on women by their fecund bodies seem absent from her view.  Even if ten percent of women in early modern England never married (including some who engaged in “lesbian-like” behavior), the other ninety percent entered wedlock with men and bore and raised children, honoring both biblical prescriptions and, no doubt, their parents’ wishes.  Their experiences and stories must also be a focus of women’s history—especially of feminist women’s history.  Earlier generations of feminists insisted on the “rights of women,” equal and parallel to the “rights of men.”  Honorary manhood was not their primary goal.  They wanted “equality in difference” and did not see this as paradoxical.

            Like other North American historians of England, Bennett tends to conflate England with Europe, and Europe with the West.  This kind of overreaching identification would be highly objectionable to most French, German, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, Polish, Czech, Norwegian and other historians of the numerous and culturally diverse peoples who inhabit the European continent. 

            In her introduction, Bennett alludes to a problem that confronts those who, like she and I, believe that “history matters”: the involuntary, or perhaps willful historical amnesia among young people. Actually, this loss of memory seems to be growing even among educated members of the older generation.  This phenomenon poses enormous challenges for those of us who still “think” in text, in an increasingly “mediatized” century.  How can we convey the complexity of history, including feminist history, in evocative, soundbite-size modules?  Filmmakers have had this problem for decades, but we historians must face it too.        

            Because today’s feminist activists need history. They must learn how feminists of both sexes in earlier times have thought about the force of patriarchal ideas and institutions in shaping their own lives. They need to understand how, during the last three centuries, many women and some men moved from trying to alleviate women’s problems to investigating their causes. They must become acquainted with the political and intellectual strategies and tactics that feminists have used to press for change and to critique the politics of male knowledge and institutions, and how these strategies and tactics led them to make some choices and not others. Earlier feminist projects were often easily derailed by the force of male backlash, yet feminist claims kept resurfacing in new times and places, though without memory of prior campaigns.  For example, in the 1970s, young feminists thought they were beginning from the Year Zero and wasted a great deal of energy reinventing the wheel. The knowledge uncovered by feminist historians is essential for strategizing new ways of working for women’s rights and freedoms in a wide variety of contexts.  Activists can learn from history about what has worked, what hasn’t, and why.  They can learn something about how to secure the gains that they have made but that remain tenuous in the face of revived patriarchal onslaughts.

In conclusion, let me cite Bennnett: 

I remain as confident now as I was then [in the 1970s] that history is critical to the feminist project, that history provides feminist activists and theorists with long-term perspectives essential to building a better long-term future.


On this point we totally agree. Despite my caveats and criticisms, Bennett’s book is essential reading for anyone interested in women’s history, history in general, how historians think, and what they do.  I hope this book is reviewed in the historical reviews  of other countries as well as in a variety of Anglophone reviews. Readers of Women’s Review of Books will come away from this thoughtfully argued book with a clear sense of how very much history matters to the future of feminist activism.  Without it, the men will continue to lead the dance.

  Karen Offen  is a historian and independent scholar, affiliated as a senior scholar with the Institute for Research on Women and Gender at Stanford University.  She is a founder and past secretary-treasurer of the International Federation for Research in Women's History, and currently serves on the board of directors for the International Museum of Women (San Francisco).  Her most recent book is European Feminisms, 1700-1950: A Political History (2000).   
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