When I was a teenager, my Uncle Tony* told me that the devil was a woman. Later, when I was in college, my other uncle, we’ll call him Gino, told me during a discussion of whether or not a woman could be president that this “is a man’s world” – so no, a woman would never be president. Both of those uncles have since passed away (my mother is the youngest of six), neither uncle having had good relationships with my Mom and her two sisters before passing. I have one uncle, we will call him Rocco, who is alive and still has a functional relationship with my mother and her two sisters, who we will call Elena and Sophia. My Uncle Rocco, unlike my other two uncles, had changed as demanded by his wife, while my Uncles Gino and Tony lived and died still clinging to the system of patriarchy from which they benefited. My Uncle Tony died an embittered man, one who abused his mother, my Grandma Costello, and his ex-wife, and his youngest son whom he didn’t consider man enough – and he died continuing to blame women for all of his ills.
My family’s history is marked by the oppression of women, a history reflected in the story about another Sicilian family. I have been reading the book “Unto the Daughters: The Legacy of an Honor Killing In a Sicilian-American Family” by Karen Tintori (2008). It is a story that begins with Tintori’s grandmother’s childhood in rural Sicily, and is the tale of her grandmother’s sister Francis, who was killed by her father and brothers at 16 when she ran away and married a barber to avoid an arranged marriage with a mafioso.
Ultimately, “Onto the Daughters” is a tale of women grappling with the violent, patriarchal history of their family. Karen did not know of her murdered Great-Aunt Francis until she was an adult. It took about two years for her to finally drag the story out of her female relatives, as no one wanted to talk about this particular aspect of their family history. And although it was her Aunt Francis who was murdered, ultimately all the women in her family suffered under the reigns of patriarchy.
Tintori describes a particularly violent episode back in Sicily in which, angry that his sisters were playing outside the home with newborn puppies and not tending to the needs of the men, one of Tinori’s great-uncles killed the puppies in front of his sisters as punishment, ordering the females back into the house. After emigrating to America, Tintori’s grandmother and her grandmother’s sisters were barely allowed to leave the house, while her grandmother’s brothers – her great-uncles – were allowed the freedom to work, have sex with whomever they wished, and basically lord over their sisters. Tintori’s grandmother and then mother were not allowed to attain an education, having been removed from school in order to care for the family.
Although there was no honor killing in my family, there are many, many similarities between my family and Tintori’s, and no doubt with other Sicilian-American families (and other cultures). My grandmother and grandfather both came over to Sicily when children. Like Tintori’s relatives, my grandmother was pulled out of school (in eighth grade) to help with her five younger siblings. Her mother, my great-grandmother, once beat my grandmother in public, and my three uncles were allowed to rule supreme over my mother and her sisters as they grew up. My mother once said she never understood this, but this is commonplace in many patriarchal cultures. Brothers as watchdogs to their sisters was (is) an effective way to ensure control over women, and mothers allowed (allow) this because they themselves had been so oppressed through their lives that their survival depended on complacency within the patriarchy. Denied an education and allowed only household skills, women like my grandmother had no choice but to appease the men – otherwise, they could find themselves out of house and home with no support system. Or, in the case of Tinori’s Aunt Francis and thousands of modern victims of honor killings, dead.
At the very core of patriarchy lies the cult of virginity, to which Francis and many other women fell victim. In Sicilian families, like other patriarchal families, the honor was tied up in the chastity of the women. My mother once told me that my grandmother told her that if she got pregnant to never come home. I actually think that as time went by my grandmother evolved because she accepted my cousin’s out-of-wedlock child. But Grandma Costello herself suffered from enforced virginity and reproduction. At around 40, right after giving birth to my mother, my Grandmother told the priest she didn’t want any more children, that after birthing six, she was through.
The priest told her this was a sin.
My Grandma Costello recognized her oppression to a certain degree, I believe. She told my sister and I that the most important thing was to get our education; at one point she even called me concerned about reports of rape on the University of Pittsburgh campus, to which I applied and ended up attending. My Grandmother’s story is heartbreaking as are the stories of Karen Tintori’s grandma and great aunts.
“Unto the Daughters” is a phrase that goes beyond Tintori’s family history and can be applied to all women who live within the legacy of patriarchy. This is a legacy that includes an intense hatred of women and speaks to the root of patriarchy: men controlling women for their reproductive labor. The cult of virginity is born out of this control, and it is a legacy we still live with as powerful elements of society gain success in restricting women’s reproductive freedom – and thus our bodies.
It is a legacy I witnessed first hand through my uncles’ words and actions described in the first paragraph. My Uncle Tony lived with my grandmother until she died, and expected both her and his adult sisters to serve him. He demeaned and insulted them, and when my Grandmother died at 92, my Aunt Sophia said “At least she won’t have to put up with Tony’s shit anymore.”
I’m not kidding.
Living with this patriarchal legacy is not talked about much in society. We talk about living with the legacy of racism and slavery, of antisemitism and the Holocaust – but little is said about the psychological toll on women haunted by the legacy of enforced reproduction and virginity, of denial of any future other than wife and mother, and in the case of Tintori’s family, honor killings.
We are just now beginning to talk about the toll of sexual harassment in the workplace as the “#MeToo” gains traction. But even within this discussion, we are having trouble putting the harassment fully into the context in which it lies: historical patriarchy. Even as we talk about these experiences, we are reminded by others that this happens to men and individuals of all gender. I have listened to women on podcasts discussing the issue and being sure to mention how this can happen to men. I have seen friends on Facebook use phrases such as “those of us perceived as women and who identify as women.”
But male victims and gender identity politics have no place in this particular discussion because the sexual harassment and rape of women currently being described in the workplace is directly tied to the very concrete legacy of patriarchy under which so many women – i.e. FEMALES – continue to live. It began in their families with enforced virginity, early marriage, domestic violence, marital rape, shaming of out-of-wedlock pregnancies, honor killings, etc., and was simply applied to the public sphere as women ventured into the work force. Such sexual harassment has nothing to do with “identity” or “perception” – it is directly related to men’s control of female bodies in the patriarchy. This violence is part of a “herstory” that cannot be understood by males because it is tied to the structural oppression of women and the patriarchal control of women’s bodies – by men. And the actions of Harvey Weinstein and similar men are part of a system of male privilege non-existent for women.
Tintori’s male relatives enforced their female relative’s chastity while sleeping with women whenever they pleased, and punished her Aunt Francis when she attempted to exert control over her own body and future while they had other plans. She committed the ultimate sin by breaking her chastity. This whole ideology, that of the chaste woman and available prostitute, is what we refer to as the “virgin/whore” complex or dichotomy. In order to keep your females relatives virgins while upholding male sexual privilege, society needs prostitutes and other women specifically to supply men with sex. This is part of the reason why it amazes me that any feminist can believe prostitution can be empowering for women. Prostitution is one of the foundations upon which male sexual privilege lies – so when you normalize prostitution, you are cementing male privilege into the structures of our society.
In fact, despite the recent attention sexual harassment is receiving in the media, our society is in many ways sliding backwards into some of the most heinous trappings of patriarchy as described in “Onto the Daughters,” particularly the powerful dichotomy of the “virgin/whore” used to box in and oppress women’s bodies and lives. The neo-liberalism and consumerism of the 1980s served as an effective backlash against the gains of feminism, and this backlash is manifesting against women from both the Left and the Right.
On the Left, the “whore” is winning as more and more violent pornography and legalized prostitution proliferate (despite gains being made with the Nordic model), and society celebrates the life of men such as Hugh Heffner – and stamps the Playboy icon on consumer goods aimed at young girls. Female pop stars present caricatured, over-sexualized, porn-influenced personas and call it empowerment. Teen Vogue writes articles explaining anal sex to teen girls – not mentioning that heterosexual teen anal sex has been arisen almost solely due to boys watching violent porn at younger and younger ages and demanding such acts from their girlfriends. And the hook-up culture within which women were promised sexual freedom equal to men has mainly benefited men. Thus, leftist men can espouse female empowerment through porn and what they call “sex work” while these institutions keep women from becoming truly threatening to their male privilege.
On the Right, the “virgin” is winning as birth control and abortion are slowly being restricted – despite teen birth rates decreasing because of access to birth control, and despite the high numbers of women who in reality use birth control. In the last decade purity rings and purity balls in which daughters pledge themselves to virginity alongside their fathers have increased seemingly exponentially. In other words, honor in the chastity of women is making a come back in the United States. And sex education continues to be under attack in favor of abstinence education, while maternal healthcare coverage is continually under the threat of the ax by conservative, right-wing men.
And of course women continue to be victims of domestic violence (up to and including murder), rape, lower pay, unequal access to economic resources, continued belief of sexist brain differences, rampant sexual harassment in every part of society, etc, etc., etc.
The legacy of patriarchy remains intact and continues to gain strength.
This is why feminism must never forget the past, must never stop examining patriarchy from a female viewpoint – as a pressure exerted up women and female bodies. This is why feminism must be extricated from the neo-liberal, individualistic “empowerment” rhetoric with which it has been infected since the 1980s. There was a time, during “second-wave” feminism, when prostitution and porn were recognized for what they were – violent control of women’s bodies to uphold the patriarchy, and male allies recognized this, too. Second-wave feminists understood the importance of bodily and reproductive autonomy of women and never lost site of this goal. Despite all of its shortcomings, second-wave feminism provided an actual liberating model of feminism for women. And let’s not forget, that although there were issues with racism and classism within second-wave feminism, without this particular movement in time, we would not have Audre Lorde or bell hooks or the concept of intersectionality (which has been completely distorted).
Women’s liberation goes beyond equal pay, body acceptance, and individual feelings of empowerment. Women’s liberation depends on deconstructing patriarchal institutions such as the porn and “sex work” embraced by liberal feminists as a means of sexual liberation. You cannot team up with rape culture, as Slut Walk did when holding a rally at a strip club, and expect to overthrow it. You cannot minimize reproductive freedom, as was demanded after the women’s march, to protect the feelings of male-bodied individuals, and expect women to retain control of their FEMALE bodies. Nothing matters more in patriarchy than biology.
You cannot expect to actually overthrow patriarchy if the structure is left intact.
We must examine such legacies as “Onto the Daughters” and the histories of women in our own family to remember not just how far we have come – but how much we have to lose. There is, after all, just one generation between myself, a woman in her mid 30s, and my grandmother. And as the gavel goes down on reproductive rights in Washington, as prostitution and porn continue to be normalized – women are losing fast.
*first names have been changed in case my mother reads this and worries….
Illustration: The Rape of Persephone, daughter of Ceres, by her uncle Pluto. A major Greco-Roman myth, and a major Greco-Roman theme is men violating women. My ancestral mythology I both love and hate.