Have you ever heard the phrase “hoist by his own petard”? As in the sentence “Newt Gingrich was hoist by his own petard: his general douchebaggery has probably cost him the presidency”?
Do you have any idea what a petard is?
Seriously. I have talked to dozens of people who have used the phrase, and not a single one of them knows what a petard is. The meaning is understood, but the words might as well just be a bunch of random syllables for all the meaning we’re getting out of them. According to Wikipedia, “hoist by his own petard” means “blown up with his own bomb,” that it derives from Hamlet, and that it was originally a fart joke, because Shakespeare.
You know what that means? The phrase “hoist by his own petard” has stuck around approximately three hundred years after anyone knew what the hell it meant.
The same thing is true with the patriarchy.
We’ve discussed in this blog before the practical problems with the term ‘patriarchy,‘ but I absolutely refuse to write an entire article using the phrase “the institutional, societal system of sexism” every two sentences, so we’ll just have to live with it. Just to be clear about my terminology use: “patriarchy” does not mean a gender system that benefits men, it means a gender system which benefits patriarchs. Men who are not hegemonically masculine get fucked over– whether they’re feminine, gay, unsuccessful, young, poor, of color, unathletic, or what.
Here’s the thing: our gender assumptions are not old. The whole “man goes to work outside the home, woman stays home” thing is not more than a few hundred years old at best– it got its start with the Industrial Revolution. Before that, the majority of people worked within the household, even if men and women tended to have different tasks; for most people, there wasn’t really an “outside the home” to go work at. (Note: I am generalizing over thousands of years of history here. The generalization usually holds true, but I don’t want to make the mistake of painting The Past as this homogeneous entity. It’s not.)
Even after the Industrial Revolution, a whole fuckload of people didn’t get to participate in the “domestic angel too pure for this sinful earth” separate spheres bullshit. Poor women, for instance, always worked. Women of color always worked. And I’m pretty sure there were a fuckload of slave women who would be quite surprised to discover how much their masters respected and honored women.
And then the Second Wave happened. I think it’s really difficult for those of us who grew up after the Second Wave to realize how much fucking changed because of it. When my mother was growing up, her teacher assigned her class to write an essay on what they wanted to be when they grew up, and told the female students they could write about how they wanted to be a teacher, nurse, or housewife. (My mother, being my mother, said that she wanted to be an acrobat.) When I was growing up, my teacher arranged for a female scientist to speak to us about how we could grow up to be whatever we wanted to be. It’s a completely different situation.
And then we get into the Petard Problem. Even though no one remembers what a petard is, we keep saying the phrase “hoist by his own petard,” because Tradition! Even though no one remembers why we’re supposed to believe all this crappy, patriarchal shit, we keep believing it, because Tradition!
Take the whole “golddigger” concept. The idea that men should pay for meals (to show off that they have money and hence are desirable). The Harlequin Romance guidelines that basically require that the hero be a member of the 1%. My grandmother’s advice that it’s as easy to fall in love with a rich man as a poor one. My father’s advice that, if I intended on being a writer, I ought to marry someone rich. I don’t think men get half this shit.
And the thing is, it makes sense! If, as a middle-class woman, you are not going to be able to work outside the home, it makes sense to select your husband as much for his earning capability as his personality, character, or forearms. Your economic stability for the rest of your life is going to depend on whether he has money. Whether you marry a rich man means the difference between going on nice European vacations and having to choose between food and rent.
But the thing is, now women can earn their own money. We don’t have to marry men to support us! We can marry men (or women, or miscellaneous) with charming personalities, good character, and nice forearms, who also happen to make poverty-level wages, and then support them! Or, more realistically, given the levels of assortative mating, make poverty-level wages together.
And the weirdest part is that as I write this I feel a kind of… instinctive revulsion. On an intellectual level, I know that a poor woman is exactly as desirable as a poor man, and yet I cannot help but think that the waitress swept away by a dashing entrepreneur is a romantic heroine, and a waiter swept away by a dashing entrepreneur is kind of a loser. This shit is buried down deep.
But that doesn’t change the fact that all this “women should marry a rich man” stuff is just… hangovers. Random detritus left over. Strategies that, in their time, were logical and helped people, but have long outlived their usefulness– just like “hoist by his own petard” was once a vivid image and apparently a fart joke, but has long outlived its meaningfulness.