Marginalization of Women: A Socio-Economic History | Summer School of Women’s Activism (SSOWA) NYC Session One

NEW YORK CITY–To the skepticism of most and to the dismay of some more, there are quite a few matrilineal societies existing today. The most publicized of all can be traced to the Khasi tribe in India, in the state of Menghalaya, wherein children take their mothers’ last names, the youngest daughters inherit the family’s wealth, and newly married men move in with their wives’ families under the guidance of their mothers-in-law. It’s a society that has not fought a war in 2000 years, and yet its strong women-centered tradition is pushing some Khasi men to rebel against it and assert their ‘natural right’ as men, as providers and protectors.

If a society such as this exists, and if such is possible, how come half of the world’s population, women, the source of humankind’s continuity, have become marginalized and oppressed, and had, only a little more than a 100 years ago, started to fight for their rights and claim their place in the world?

The first session of AF3IRM’S Summer School of Women’s Activism held on July 11, 2015 in Manhattan, tackled this question and discussed the history of how women have been subjugated, albeit in an insidious manner, through the advent of surplus production, leading us to where we are now socio-economically– the poorest of  the poor being women.

AF3IRM member and renowned novelist Ninotchka Rosca, who led the discussion, introduced the participants to the Goddess, who, for 250, 000 years, had ruled people’s spiritual activities as opposed to the male-dominated religious and spiritual dominations of today. The goddess was a fixture in ancient societies and was suddenly erased from history. This phenomenon stemmed from an overwhelming insecurity enveloping men during the time women invented agriculture, gaining the knowledge to grow and produce food, which had not been attainable before.

According to Rosca, approximately 10, 000- 15, 000 thousand years ago, “human beings bonded together mainly for the preservation of the species.” It was a binary setup: men hunted and women stayed home, not just to raise kids, but to domesticate plants and animals to supplement the food supply. These Neolithic communities reaped the benefits of this skill, women, the farmers, gained value “as they learned to exercise further control of nature.”

It was the invention of the plow in 4500 BCE, however, that led to the marginalization of women from food production. Women did not have the upper body strength to plow the land. This advancement gave birth to surplus food, which meant something of value, a commodity, giving birth to the concept of private property and hierarchy within these communities. Men who acquired the most amount of surplus food, in turn, acquired power. Though sidestepped by the plow, women still possessed valuable farming knowledge, and along with circumstances establishing the accumulation of food, they, unknowingly, also assumed the shape of property and commodity. Thus, the establishment of patriarchy.

The implementation of hierarchies in these societies resulted in restrictions on women’s sexuality and reproductive rights. Alliances were forged through arranged monogamous marriages and men were suddenly making decisions on how to utilize women’s bodies for child-bearing, pleasure, etc.  Rosca added that women as currency and as tribute became a prevailing perception that it led to a vicious and inhumane transaction that we now call trafficking.  Consequential to the establishment of private property, Rosca reinforced, “was violent restrictions on women’s rights.” No one could have predicted that “women’s work and women’s bodies could be disposed of by others,” Rosca said.

Justine Calma, also from AF3IRM, opened the discussion on sexism and intersectionality with activities that depicted how women are constantly portrayed as property- being sold, married off to men they hardly know-  even in popular media.  Calma pointed out that women-of-color’s struggles always come in intersections of gender, race, and socio-economic status among others.

Guest facilitator Veronica Agard  of Sister Circle Collective, discussed in-depth how intersectionality works.  “Intersectionality,” according to Agard, was coined by African-American feminist Kimberly Williams Crenshaw, bringing to light various factors affecting women-of-color’s everyday life.  Citing examples of how she personally encounters intersectionality in the form of cultural patterns and stereotypes, how discreet black women are accused of talking white, how her being a fan of the show Game of Thrones, known for sexist content, makes her navigate between resistance and innocent admiration, Agard succeeded in contextualizing intersectionality for those new to the concept.

Agard went on to touch on the ongoing violence against black women, of which police brutality is a main agency. AF3IRM NYC and Sister Circle Collective (SCC) joined the Millions March NYC a few months ago, following the deaths of two black men at the hands of the police. Chanting the names of the fallen black trans and cis women, whose names and the tragedies that befell them, have not been reported in the media, SCC and AF3IRM NYC were able to veer the discourse towards black women who also perished at the hands of authorities. AF3IRM NYC and SCC led #FeministsOnTheMove, an online and offline campaign that broke this disturbing silence. #FeministsOnTheMove helped turn the spotlight to these hundreds of women, to whom cultural stereotypes, gender and race had been a fatal mix.

The session closed with a workshop on documenting everyday sexism and other signs of patriarchy, which was facilitated by Calma, who is also a journalist. The participants were asked to answer the WHO, WHAT, WHERE, WHEN, HOW and WHY of their personal experience with sexism.