Centuries of Oppression

Apparently I’m a deluded conspiracy nutjob. So Alex Proud believes. It’s a little disappointing. After several years immersing myself in oceans of data before forming my opinions, based on at least a modicum of factual knowledge, I had thought perhaps common politeness might be appropriate. There was a time when journalists were well informed and would pride themselves on confronting received opinion. Recall Orwell’s “journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed: everything else is public relations”. But Mr Proud is not such a journalist. So why do I draw your attention to his unimportant little hit piece in The Telegraph? I do not. I will say nothing of it. It is such an embarrassing display of ignorance. I draw your attention to the on-line survey which follows it. The results on 30th May at 14:15, seven days after the initial publication, were as follows,

MRAs are utterly deluded and obviously wrong. 21%
MRAs are basically just trolls. Deep down they know its just nonsense. 8%
MRAs do have a point but they express it too aggressively. 20%
MRAs have taken the Red Pill and know The Truth 51%

I do like the phrasing of the last option. Not trying to convey that this is the option for deluded conspiracy nutjobs at all? We all know that Only Nutters Use Capitals. I’m not so silly as to regard such a poll as terribly scientific, though the number of responders was substantial (8,200). But I admit to considerable satisfaction in seeing the public explain to Mr Proud that he could just be wrong.

Are you sure, Mr Proud, you are accusing the right people of being conspiracy nutjobs? For starters, I am not moaning and I do not regard myself as a victim. I’m OK, thanks for asking. My concern is for other people – and not only males. This distinguishes me from feminists, even well educated, middle class, high earning, feminists, who do regard themselves as victims. As Mr Proud says himself, “if you’re in a privileged position and you start moaning about how hard you have it, you look like a crybaby“. Indeed, and what an accurate description of modern feminists.

Just look at how much of modern feminism is nutty conspiracy delusion. Rape culture? Ubiquitous harassment? The need for safe spaces? Manspreading? Benevolent sexism? Fear of clapping? Unconscious sexism? The stereotyping conspiracy? The conspiracy to prevent women enjoying engineering? Not forgetting the evil male conspiracy to over-tax tampons.

But the daddy of them all – if you’ll excuse the expression – must be the “centuries of oppression by the patriarchy”. Finally I get to my theme. Behind so much of feminism lurks the conviction that women spent centuries, if not forever, under the boot heel of oppressive men. It is the conviction which unites the various tribes of feminism. Yet it is a conspiracy theory. I suspect the mental image that these women entertain is of an upper crust Victorian man, standing with his back to the fireplace, one hand in his tail-coat pocket, twirling his mustachios as he commands his wife and daughters with the same imperiousness as he commands his servants. No doubt there were such men. How many? A small fraction of one percent of the population perhaps?

The belief that women were subject to centuries of oppression is encouraged because it appears to give moral legitimacy to present day feminist demands. In truth, even if the ‘centuries of oppression’ meme were true, it is ethically illiterate to visit the sins of the father unto the son. But feminists are not strong on ethics. Such considerations as ethics provide no advancement along the road to power. The ‘centuries of oppression’ meme does not only provide spurious legitimacy to individual feminists. It also features in legislation, such as the Istanbul Convention, in the form of ‘historically unequal power relations and similar expressions.

Distressingly, almost everyone believes the ‘centuries of oppression’ meme, even those who are not feminists. For example, in an otherwise very good article, Sarah Vine falls into the trap, writing (as devil’s advocate), “What right have men to whine? For centuries they had the upper hand – surely it’s only fair now that they get a taste of their own medicine? Shouldn’t they just – if you’ll pardon me – man up and accept that all this has been a long time coming? Part of me rather agrees with this view. There was a huge imbalance in society and it needed to be redressed.”

Oh, we had a gendered society, right enough. But is the presumption that this constituted male advantage and female disadvantage factually accurate, or mythology? To address this question it is of interest to examine history for evidence of the claimed hegemonic patriarchy in the common people. I confess, to me this exercise does seem like being obliged to prove that the moon is not made of green cheese. But let’s do it. Please forgive my little (well, large) history essay.

How far back need we go? My blog pieces do tend to be rather long, and this one will be no exception, but even I am not going to attempt a complete history of the human race. We could start with the evolution of the characteristic traits of Homo sapiens, such as pair bonding (as attempted, badly, in The Empathy Gap). Here, we might argue, is the origin of the social contract: the trade deal involving resource provision and protection in exchange for access to gestation and child nurturing facilities (if I can express it so brutally).

Or we could start by considering the social structures of hunter-gatherer societies, as revealed through anthropological studies. If my miniscule knowledge of anthropology is correct, this would reveal that human societies with clearly differentiated gender roles were always the norm, to the point of universality. Human societies have always been gendered. But ‘gendered’ does not imply oppression of one sex by the other. It merely means distinct roles, an outcome dictated by biology.

Or we could start with the Neolithic agricultural revolution, when the importance of hunting, and hence the male role, diminished. Feminism is not the first time the male role has been challenged. History has repeatedly challenged and changed the male role.

So, did gendered societies give rise to hegemonic patriarchy? To examine this it is most secure to confine attention to the historical record. Surely a thousand years will be enough. Conveniently, it is after 1066 that the written record starts to improve, though historical details of the intimate life of the common people is sparse. But let’s start there (and concentrate on England).

We find that there were indeed centuries of oppression, but not the kind that feminists claim. History is the story of the struggle by the many to overcome tyranny by the few. In this struggle, men and women were as one. Both were in the same boat. The grinding poverty and incessant hard labour endured by most people were too overwhelming for internecine tensions, if any, to be of great significance. These centuries of oppression were punctuated at intervals by uprisings of one sort or another, invariably led by men, sometimes more deadly than others, but always striving for justice for themselves and their families against the true hegemony – the landowning classes and their apparatchiks of State or Monarchy. Many of these uprisings or movements appeared to achieve nothing at the time. But over the centuries there were gradual gains. The greatest gains, though, occurred only when technology led to improving economic prosperity. Finally, in the twentieth century, huge advances in technology finally created conditions in which the grinding poverty of earlier centuries became a rarity.

The political movements for the people’s emancipation in earlier centuries were male-led, but always on behalf of all. And the scientific and technological advances which ultimately created a far better world were also a male achievement. True, this was a consequence of the gendered society, in which it was men’s role, not women’s, to undertake such endeavours. No one doubts women’s intellectual abilities. Nevertheless, it is true that the modern technological world is a male achievement, despite feminists’ vigorous re-writing of history to pretend otherwise. What treachery it was for the feminists to turn on men at just this point, when the big battles had been won. Too little is made, I think, of the timing of feminism. Women were not so keen to increase their involvement in paid work prior to the twentieth century when paid work was generally brutally laborious (though, before the pill, pregnancy would have frustrated it in any case).

So, to my brief history lesson…(I acknowledge J.F.C.Harrison’s The Common People as the source of much of the material)…

Life in post-conquest England was dominated by agriculture, controlled by the Manor. The feudal system reigned. Control of the land was presided over by the Lord of the Manor, who owed feudal fealty to his noble masters. 86% of the people, the villeins, cottagers and serfs, were not free. They were chattels of the Lord, legally bound to the Manor, they could not leave without permission. They could not even marry without permission of the Lord – and had to pay a ‘fine’ to do so. On death, the Lord took the deceased villein’s best beast or chattel (“heriot”), and the Church took the second best (“mortuary”). Poverty was hereditary and inescapable. Villeins had to pay rent for the land they worked. They were also required to provide labour on the Lord’s own land, the Home Farm, without pay. The obligation to work the Lord’s land was their chief burden. In short, the majority of people were little better than slaves.

Today we are critical of third world countries whose populations have become embroiled in the production of cash crops for export, to their own detriment. This was the endemic practice in the feudal era. Whilst wheat was a common crop, you would not find fine wheaten bread on a villein’s table. Hard, dark bread of oats or barley was their lot. Their protein was obtained largely from peas, beans, even acorns, and a few eggs. Meat was a luxury. This diet would not improve for many centuries to come.

It was inevitably a man who was “head of the household” because this position was defined by the necessity to provide labour, both to his own holding and that of his Lord. It would make little sense to place a woman in a position defined by the obligation to provide labour of which she was not physically capable. Thus, being “head of the household” represented an obligation, not a patriarchal privilege.

It is hard for the modern person to grasp just how grindingly hard was the life in medieval times. Oppression there was in spades under the feudal system. But it was not the common man oppressing his wife. Both were crushed together by feudal over-lordship.

A woman could not have survived alone in this rural economy. It was not mere social convention that forbade female independence. The sheer manual labour demanded by this primitive agriculture required male muscle. On heavy soils a team of eight oxen in four yokes might be required to pull a plough. It is not for nothing that, for many generations, the phrase “holding plough” was used to denote doing a man-sized job.

The only thing worse than having an obligation to work the land was not having such an obligation, and therefore having no land to work. Such was the lot of serfs, who were abject slaves. The right to work a certain portion of land was hereditary. Since social status was predominantly defined by such rights, one’s social status was generally also hereditary. A villein being bequeathed a right to work a parcel of land also inherited the linked obligation to provide labour on his Lordship’s farm. This is why it was inevitably a man who inherited (primogeniture), unless there was no male heir, because what was inherited was actually an obligation to provide labour.

The position of younger sons, who did not inherit, was essentially the same as that of daughters. Both might receive a portion of their father’s goods and chattels on his death (after the Lord and the Church had taken their cut), but otherwise they would have to make their way separately, either through marriage or by lending their labour, or domestic service, to another household. Until a man had a holding of some sort he would not be able to support a wife and family, so custom dictated that he would not be able to marry (and recall that, as a non-free man, he could not do so without the Lord’s permission). Many men, therefore, did not marry until their father died and they inherited. When feminists accuse men of having controlled their fertility in historical times, recall that, in truth, both men’s and women’s fertility were controlled by poverty and directly by their overlord.

Consequently, men tended to be considerably older than their wives. As a result, widows were common. Where widows had inherited due to lack of a male heir, marrying a ‘landed’ widow would provide another route for a young man to obtain a holding, an arrangement benefitting both parties (because the widow would otherwise have needed to hire a man to fulfill her labour obligations).

To regard the common man as privileged, or exercising patriarchal hegemony, in such a system would be perverse to the point of delusion. There were no “fulfilling careers” for women to envy in this system.

Crushing though the economic circumstances of men were under feudalism, the chief yoke under which the villeins, cottagers and serfs toiled was being unfree. A struggle for emancipation was inevitable. The demand was to be freed from the degrading personal aspects of serfdom and the right to recognition as a full human being, not a chattel. Feminists might like to note just how fundamental was this struggle – by men – and how crucial it was to the later freedoms they now enjoy.

Before moving on from the feudal period, there are some linguistic phenomena which are very revealing. “Villein”, of course, has become transmogrified into “villain” and hence come to mean someone wicked or criminal. “Naif” was synonymous with villein or serf, but has come to mean someone amusingly simple. And “boor” in Old English also simply meant “peasant”, but now means a tedious or bad mannered person. It is interesting that the servile class, upon whom the economy of the country depended, have become denigrated linguistically. One might think they were more properly owed an apology, or thanks, than denigration. Perhaps the denigration is a psychological defence mechanism against any obligation to feel guilty being recognised by the ruling class? The reader might be tempted to draw an analogy with present day misandry. Could it be that the mantra of toxic masculinity serves to distract attention from historic gynocentricity? Just as villeins have become villains, so masculinity has become toxic. It’s so much easier on the ego than to admit obligation.

From the twelfth century, the importance of towns increased though the bulk of the population would remain in the country for many centuries to come. The main business of the towns were trades and crafts and commerce. Such endeavours did not fit naturally into the feudal system. However they were initially spawned from it, the Lord (or Monarch) within whose domain the town lay would grant civic charters for townsfolk to conduct their business in return for payment. As the multiplicity of concerns of the townships were too involved for the Lord to take a detailed interest, it became the norm for the Lord to accept a single lump sum in return for granting wide ranging powers to the local burgesses, Aldermen, Mayors, etc. This gave these local dignitaries the right to levy tolls, to distribute urban lands, and to impose local monopolies. They also acquired the right to oversee their own local justice, through local bye-laws and local courts.

Even under feudalism the unit of production was the household. Each freeman, villein or cottager was really a family business, aided by wife, sons, daughters and possibly hired hands if the headman’s holding was large enough. From the twelfth century an increasing proportion of economic effort was contributed by the trades. These largely followed the same pattern: the dominant structure of such endeavours was basically domestic. Indeed, this would continue to be the case until the industrial revolution in the mid-eighteenth century.

But these domestically-based businesses were conducted under sufferance of the town’s Aldermen, and hence were early subject to protectionism. The mechanism by which this was imposed was the Trade Guild. One could not simply open shop in a given trade. The operation of the civic charter, via the Aldermen and Mayor and thence through the guilds, was to control entry into the trades. Thus, the guilds controlled not only the quality of workmanship but also who was permitted to trade. The guilds were a closed shop. Consequently, a man moving from the feudal countryside to pursue a trade in town would not find himself entirely free, but still controlled to some degree by the Aldermen and the guilds. Nevertheless, such a tradesman was far freer than a villein.

The guilds introduced the first elements of social security, recognising that the pursuance of a trade was a family business. This cannot be emphasised too much. The trade guilds enforced a structured apprenticeship system, and this took place within the master’s house. Just as a feudal villein might be running a small family business, involving wife, sons, daughters, hired men and serving girls, so a town-based master tradesman would be operating a household business with the assistance of his wife and comprising not only their children, but also apprentices, journeymen and domestic servants – all housed in the master’s house. And if the master was the Chief Executive Officer, his wife was the rest of the executive Board.

It is too little appreciated now that apprentices were not just apprenticed to the master. Because they were to live in the master’s house for seven years or more, in a situation of domestic subservience to the master’s wife, an apprentice’s indenture was also to the master’s wife. Here is an extract from the indenture of one John Goffe to learn the craft of fishing, from 1459,

The aforesaid John Goffe has put himself to the aforesaid John Gibbs to learn the craft of fishing, and to stay with him as apprentice and to serve from the feast of St Philip and James next to come after the date of these presents until the end of eight years then next ensuing and fully complete; throughout which term the aforesaid John Goffe shall well and faithfully serve the aforesaid John Gibbs and Agnes his wife as his masters and lords, shall keep their secrets, shall everywhere willingly do their lawful and honorable commands, shall do his masters no injury nor see any injury done to them by others, but prevent the same as far as he can , shall not waste his masters’ goods nor lend them to any man without his special command. And the aforesaid John Gibbs and Agnes his wife shall teach, train and inform or cause the aforesaid John Goffe, their apprentice, to be informed in the craft of fishing in the best way they know, chastising him duly and finding for the same John, their apprentice, food, clothing, linen and woollen, and shoes, sufficiently, as befits such an apprentice to be found, during the term aforesaid.”

Whilst one might refer to such domestic trade arrangements as ‘patriarchal’ in the sense that the man was the accepted master of the trade and figurehead for the business, this can hardly be interpreted as an hegemony, still less as oppressive to the wife – who was second in command in such a business. Instead, it provided a means by which the wife could contribute substantially to their joint enterprise without compromising her ability to bear and raise children. The conflict between paid work and family duties, which features so prominently in modern gender politics, was avoided under these arrangements because the business was so inextricably linked to the domestic in any case.

I should not give the impression, however, that the trade guilds achieved a halcyon bliss of egalitarianism. Behind it all still lurked the power of the Monarchy, which could make itself felt at any time it wished. For example, despite the power of the Guild of Masons, when the king decided to build Windsor castle in 1360, he obtained the vast number of masons needed for the enterprise by the simple expedient of ordering press gangs throughout the land. It was not only the Navy which was staffed in this manner.

In 1300 the majority of people were servile; by 1500 only a few were still. Two events contributed significantly to this sweeping change: the Black Death and the Peasant’s Revolt. One of the weaknesses of depending upon a servile class is that the master is, in a sense, a slave to the servant. Feudal Lords were entirely dependent upon their villeins’ labour. This gave the Lords the whip hand when people were plentiful. But between the mid-fourteenth and mid-fifteenth centuries the Black Death reduced the population to less than half. The balance of power changed – or, at least, the peasantry now had some power – those that survived.

Now labour was scarce the people could demand higher wages, both artisans and agricultural workers. The State responded by passing legislation to define pay rates and other terms of employment. But the landowning class was to learn a lesson in supply and demand – which could not be defeated by Statutes. Agricultural workers would up sticks and move to another area if their demands were not met, whether the landowners approved or not. This technically made them outlaws. It may be no coincidence that it was about this time that the legend of Robin Hood arose.

The matter was brought to a head by the English kings’ insistence on pursuing a cripplingly expensive war with France, funding the same with successive waves of taxation. At this point the Peasants truly did become Revolting. Enter Wat Tyler, John Ball, Jack Straw, et al. But we’ll not go there, fascinating though it all was. The message is simply this: freedom was in the air; the people’s political consciousness had been raised.

The message for feminists is that history is the story of the struggle of the mass of common people for better conditions of life. Men and women were as one in this, though it was men that led when things turned nasty. But the battles were waged for the benefit of the whole family against the landowning classes. Although intimate details of the goings on between man and wife are unknown, there is no obvious patriarchal oppression to be found here. Poor families were too busy desperately trying to survive to be in internal conflict.

Who knows how many minor skirmishes there were between the peasant and landowning classes in the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries. One particularly significant movement started in 1549 near Norwich. By then, with the help of educated men, the peasants were able to draw up lists of grievances to be addressed. And by this time a religious tone was beginning to enter their rebelliousness. Here are just a couple of the 29 articles which the peasants were demanding,

We pray that all bond men shall be made free, for God made all free with his precious blood-shedding.

We pray that no person, of what estate, degree or condition he be, shall from henceforth sell the wardship of any child, but that the same child, if he live to his full age, shall be at his own chosen concerning his marriage (the King’s wards only except).

This peasant uprising was initially met with a force of 1400 soldiers, but the soldiers were defeated. Then the Earl of Warwick threw 12,000 English troops plus 1,200 German mercenaries at them and the peasants were slaughtered at the battle of Dussindale. Some 3000 peasants were killed. At least fifty more were subsequently executed for treason.

This is just one illustration out of many of the price paid – invariably by men – for the incremental approach to the freedoms we now enjoy. Pay attention, feminists. And as for universal suffrage…

Perhaps emboldened by their defeat of the Monarchy, some members of Cromwell’s parliamentary army had the temerity to support calls for universal (male) suffrage. What cheek – in 1647! These were The Levellers. Their significance lies in their attempt rather than their success, continuing the struggle begun by the fourteenth century peasants’ revolt and continued by the Dussindale martyrs, but becoming bolder still in their demands. Perhaps their greatest significance lay in their continuance of the theme of increasing political awareness. To quote Harrison,

The Levellers subscribed to a simple labour theory based on the natural right of every man to the fruits of his own labour; with the corollary that to take it away was theft….They scorned and resented the classes above them who did not work but who arranged the world for their own convenience and profit….They wanted an effective say in the making of decisions which closely affected them, and they saw that they would never achieve that without political power. Hence their concern for democratic government at the local and national levels.”

Obviously radical nutjobs! The Levellers had a theory that, because all their woes were caused by the landowning nobles, their troubles all originated with William the Bastard who installed his Normans as Lords throughout the land. There are some who think that is still the case today.

None of The Levellers’ demands were met in their own day, and their practical achievements were negligible. Ostensibly, much the same can be said of the Chartists in the nineteenth century. And yet would greater democracy and freedom have ever been achieved without earlier unsuccessful attempts?

Villeinage finally came to an end with the 1601 Poor Law, an Act which applied until the Victorian era and transformed provision of poor relief. Each parish was made responsible for its own poor relief, funded by local rates and administered by locally elected officials (many of whom were women – see Universal Suffrage in the UK).

For all the revolting peasants and reforms, through the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries it was still only an extremely tiny minority who owned virtually everything. A remarkable survey of the wealth of the nation was carried out by Gregory King in 1688. This revealed that the majority of people were in poverty, in the sense that their annual expenditure exceeded their income – so were presumably receiving some degree of poor relief or charity. King’s survey was based around the family, confirming this remained the unit considered most appropriate for economic purposes. England was considered to comprise 1,350,000 families, or 5.5 million individuals. Bearing in mind that ‘family’ meant household, we find that the average size of a Lord’s ‘family’ was 40; that of a Knight or Baronet about 15, a gentlemen’s ‘family’ was typically 8 people, and the average for the nation just over 4 people per family. Although 110,000 families were classified as shopkeepers, artisans, tradesmen or craftsmen, it was still agriculture that accounted for three-quarters of people’s occupations.

Towards the end of the seventeenth century mortality rates were still very high. One-third of apprentices were fatherless and one-third of children were orphans. At marriage, nearly half the grooms were fatherless, and more than half the brides. However, young men at that time had no shortage of male role models, being within a male working environment from a very young age.

The conditions for apprentices in the trades had, by the early eighteenth century, changed little from those of the fourteenth century. Harrison records an account by one William Hutton of his apprenticeship with a weaver between 1737 and 1744. In truth, few trades truly required seven years to learn. But the apprentice received little or no remuneration. So, once he was proficient, he would spend the later years of his apprenticeship being as productive as his master, and hence earning well for his master but little or nothing for himself. “The master’s wife still figured large in an apprentice’s life. Hutton’s master’s wife was dominant, hypocritical and mean, and grudged him every bit of food he ate: ‘It was considered by the mistress almost a sin to eat“. The Hutton family was not blessed with supportive wives. His father died following six years of agony from “bladder stones, severe poverty and the greater severity of a cruel wife“. At the completion of his apprenticeship Hutton asked his master if he could set up a ‘frame’ (a weaving loom) in his room, paying as appropriate, in order to qualify himself as master. His master cheerfully agreed, only to be over-ruled later by his wife. There is plenty of evidence here that women were anything but doormats. Harrison notes that,

Hutton’s autobiography serves to remind us of the centrality of the family as a social unit. The extent to which everyday living and working were dependent upon family relationships comes out clearly in its pages. Through the eyes of one who was born and bred an artisan and who later prospered as an entrepreneur we can observe the life cycle of a family of small Midland tradesmen and domestic workers in  the first half of the eighteenth century. Hutton’s story unfolds round the great life experiences of birth, marriage and death, each of which was in the anthropological sense a crisis producing disturbance for the individual and the family. The complexities of growing up, making a living, becoming literate, finding sexual fulfilment, and passing into old age are all touched upon to a greater or lesser extent.

The industrial revolution of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries has been credited with the most significant social change since the Neolithic. Rightly so, for it broke family-based industry which had been the norm hitherto, both in town and country. By the industrial revolution, the population of England was several times larger than it had been, say, at the time of the civil war. And the rise of factory-based industry drove the rise of the towns and cities, causing mass migration from the countryside. In the mid-eighteenth century, barely a quarter of the adult population of Manchester, Glasgow, Bradford and Liverpool had been born there. Despite these mass migrations, the hunger of the giant mills for workers resulted in widespread child labour – slave labour, in truth – often taking pauper children from the workhouses of London for the purpose.

Feudal landowners had been replaced by mill owners, the main difference being that their wealth was not always hereditary. Conditions for factory workers were notoriously harsh. The working day would start at five am and not end until 7 pm at the earliest. Some reports of the treatment of 10 year old ‘apprentice’ boys, ex-workhouse, had them working as late as 9 or 10 pm, having had just one lunch break in a 16 hour working day. Even by the early Victorian era, average life expectancy was appallingly short: for a gentleman or professional, perhaps 44; for tradesmen or farmers, perhaps 27; but for mill workers a staggering 19. The average was brought down by extremely high rates of infant and child mortality.

Is the most significant feature of this time “patriarchal oppression”, do you think? Only if the patriarch in question was the mill owner, I suggest.

It should be apparent from the preceding accounts that women and children had always, from feudal times onwards, contributed to the remunerated work, albeit subsidiary to men. This became even more the case under the factory system. Whilst the working unit was no longer the family, the earning unit was still – for a man’s wage alone would not be sufficient. As powerlooms took over in the cotton mills, it required no great strength nor any great trade skill to operate them. Consequently, it was women who were employed as powerloom operators. Those whom they put out of work were the skilled hand-loom weavers – men. As Harrison puts it, “The plight of the weavers was a vivid illustration of how helpless a section of labouring men could be when caught between the relics of the domesticated system and the full force of competitive industrial capitalism“. You might be tempted to translate that to the present day: how helpless a section of labouring men might be if caught between the relics of the industrial era and the post-industrial modern world. Presuming an obligation on men to be the principal provider, it is inevitable that men must be most vulnerable to change. The highest earners are necessarily most at risk from employers’ economies.

The increasing population, together with the decreasing proportion of the population involved in food production, could be supported only by greater agricultural efficiencies. This came in the form of enclosures of former common or waste land for cultivation, and consolidation of small holdings into better managed farms. Essentially this was capitalism of the countryside, rewarding the enterprising but leaving the less able, or less lucky, in pauperism. Both in the town and the country there was increasing pressure on poor relief – still funded locally by parish rate-payers. As the pips began to squeak, reform of the old 1601 Poor Law led to the building of the Workhouses, places which were deliberately made grim as a deterrent. I recall my wife’s grandmother, who was born in 1894, still having a visceral fear of the Workhouse, despite never having been under threat of entering one. [Incidentally, said lady started work in a Lancashire mill at the age of 12. I was appalled when she told me that she received no pay for the first year – such a probationary year simply being required to obtain a paid job. Thank goodness those days are gone, I thought….that was 1980, but it would be only a couple of decades later that unpaid ‘intern’ positions became common again].

Unsurprisingly, working conditions led to a sequence of protest movements in the early nineteenth century. Infamously there was the Peterloo massacre in Manchester (1819). Some 60,000 men and women had gathered to hear a speech as the culmination of a reformist campaign. It was entirely peaceable – until the yeomanry’s attempt to arrest the speaker led to them charging the crowd with sabres swinging. Over 400 people were injured and 11 killed.

The Luddites, famous for their ‘unprogressive’ attitude towards factory machinery, were in many cases actually protesting for better pay, rather than to remove the machines. The machine smashing was simply their form of protest. Similarly, the demands of ‘Swing’ were mostly around pay, and also threatened machine breaking and other violence. But the ‘Swing’ riots began following some terrible treatment of those on poor relief, including the harnessing of men – and women – to carts, and the discovery of harvest labourers starved to death in a ditch. Nearly 2000 rioters were brought to trial in 1830/31. 252 were sentenced to death, 481 were deported to penal colonies in  Australia, and 644 were imprisoned. They were overwhelmingly men, many young married men whose execution or deportation left families destitute. This draconian treatment was meted out despite no one, other than one rioter, having been killed in the riots.

I invite you to contemplate how apposite is the feminists’ “patriarchal oppression of women by men” perspective of history when the dominant theme is actually male struggle against the true oppressors? And why is it that left-leaning people today, no doubt weaned on the events described here, have become so keen to espouse the feminist cause and so confused about their own history?

In contrast to the Swing rioters and Peterloo victims, the more famous Tolpuddle martyrs (1834) were insignificant in number, six, but significant in regard to the growing political awareness. They were transported for the crime of forming a trade union. Their bible was Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man, and they called for universal male suffrage. Enter the Chartist movement, the first truly mass movement of the common people with primarily political objectives.

The main policy of the Chartists was to achieve universal male suffrage. In their early days they were so radical as to propose universal suffrage for both sexes, but quickly retrenched on the grounds that votes for women was rather too far to go all at once. In the end, of course, universal male suffrage was barely achieved before that of women. The history of universal suffrage is completely misrepresented to the public, and feminism is mostly responsible – but I have addressed that previously.

The Chartists were far better organised than earlier working class political movements. The depression of 1841–1842 led to a wave of strikes in which Chartist activists were in the forefront. Hundreds of Chartists were arrested and either imprisoned or transported to
Australia. Their high point was a three-and-a-half million signature petition in favour of their People’s Charter which was presented to Parliament in 1842. It failed, and the proportion of adult men who had the parliamentary vote remained at around 10%. The sacrifice of a mere few hundred men by the Chartists was insufficient. It would take the deaths of 880,000 men and boys in World War 1 to finally buy the working class vote. The egregious misrepresentation of the true history of universal suffrage promulgated by the feminists is the most disgusting political deceit. Despite its failure, the Chartist movement further raised working class political consciousness – and also provided a model of how the working class could be effectively organised politically. Arguably this provided the model for the later rise of the Trade Unions and the Labour movement.

With the industrial revolution came the rise of the middle class, or bourgeoisie. In gender politics this is crucial, because it is in respect of women that class distinctions are most emphatic. Whilst the mill owner could hardly be compared with his workers, he was, at least, involved in running his business. The hallmark of the middle class wife, on the other hand, was complete disassociation from the world of work and public affairs. At this point one might be tempted to refer to it as “the male world of work”, but, of course, it wasn’t. The mills were full of women. And women had, as we have seen, been closely involved in remunerated work all along. From the feudal system and domestically based trades through to the industrial era, women (and children) had worked alongside men. Sure women’s working years, and hours, were constrained by childbirth and childcare, and also limited to areas not requiring great physical strength. Nevertheless, in 1850 to 1900, 30% of the workforce were women (the largest number being in domestic service). The perception that “men did paid work, women did not” was never the correct story for the working class. And the perception that “men went to work, women stayed at home” was only universally the case for middle class woman.

Whether women’s historical involvement in the workplace was a great boon to them is another matter. It wasn’t, of course. It was economic necessity. The feminists insist that work is liberation, because financial independence means – well, freedom from a  nasty abusive man is the implication. But what nonsense this is when placed up against historical reality. Working class women could not have survived, financially, on their own at any time before the twentieth century. Once children enter the picture, even most working class men could not earn enough to support a family – until the twentieth century. The picture of life against which feminists rail had barely existed before the 1940s or 1950s, and by then the working class was beginning to enjoy ever greater prosperity.

The burden of my tirade has been the falsity of the mantra of “centuries of oppression” of women by men. The overwhelming theme of history is centuries of oppression of virtually everyone by a few. Emancipation from this true hegemony was partly by wave after wave of male-led political movements (involving, as usual, male deaths), but ultimately by the triumph of male-driven technology. From this, everyone has benefited.

So, who are the deluded conspiracy nutjobs?

14 thoughts on “Centuries of Oppression

  1. Pingback: Pay and Employment by Sex | mra-uk

  2. William Gruff

    Or we could start with the Neolithic agricultural revolution, when the importance of hunting, and hence the male role, diminished.

    The late Neolithic, and it was not a revolution, if I recall correctly. That aside, I read, long ago, that someone had calculated the respective investments, in terms of hours per week for the return of food obtained, of hunting and farming. As I recall, hunting provided food for a week in just twelve hours while farming required sixty hours labour, without any consideration of the effort exerted in those hours (occasional for hunting, constant for farming?) Since no sensible man makes more work for himself than is absolutely necessary, I wondered at the time why men gave up hunting to farm. The thought has only just occurred to me, after all these years, a red pill moment long ago and your essay, that the demands of the women they hoped to inseminate overcame their innate love of liberty and the fruitful companionship of their fellows, for that is what a hunting trip is, away from the red tent environment of the home fire.

    We live as we do because our ancient ancestors were as incapable of saying no to a woman as we were until very recently, and then just a very few of us. We’ve a long way to go but no shame attaches to any man for being what his ancestresses demanded in his ancestors in exchange for an uncertain shot at immortality.

  3. Mykter

    William’s research and erudition remains as good as ever, so I need not reach for the superlatives yet again in the vain hope of finding a new one!
    The question ” who are the deluded conspiracy nut jobs” is surely rhetorical as we all know their allegations are knowingly false cultural Marxist agitprop designed to deceive and mislead, the better to pass off their photoshopping of the past in order to misrepresent the present.
    They realise exactly what they are doing, & don’t actually believe their propaganda themselves.
    The young, the stupid and gulible are their main targets – making them even more culpable.

  4. Craig Martin


    The so called ‘Patriarchy’ was, and always was, the Feudal system.

    Feminists refuse to look beyond their stereotyped images of the Suffregettes and into the true history of Britains social development. And in doing so unforgivably ignore the genuine struggles and sacrifices of the women and the men and the children that have, over the years, brought us forward socially.

  5. Daddy Bones

    Historic oppression of the female by the male does seem to be an invention manufactured by the likes of Communist Party beneficiary, Betty Friedan, who provided the literary bedrock for the Marxian feminist broadsides of the 1960s “Second Wave” era. Feminism is a disease of privilege; hence why you always see it boom in times where women, or at least those of a certain class, have it good. People have, as you say, been oppressed by ruling élites, but never have women truly had it as bad as their menfolk. Men would not stand for that. Sadly, our protective and servile instincts toward the female is exactly why feminism flourishes so easily.

  6. Groan

    Exellent as always. Having recently re-read Engel’s writings about my Manchester it is clear that he noted the changes wrought by the organisation of work by machine time . It is interesting because he comments extensively on the “new” , compared to his home town a typical regional market town. He notes the length of the working day, the regimentation, absence of stable family formation and so on. In a number of passages he discusses the brevity of time of for birth, clearly indicating that he was coming from a society without so complete a separation of work and life. By the middle of the century powerful associations of upper middle class ladies pressured for and got women banned from working in many dangerous industries (and indeed husbands made responsible for debts so women could not go to debtors prison). So the society we know has features that were entirely novel with novel responses, in many cases the laws repealed in the 60s and 70s as sexist were less than 100 years old!
    Just to say that the evidence from Anthropology is that having gendered roles appears universal, and there have been desperate searches to find otherwise. These roles appear to be almost universally similar though there are variations particularly in crafts , agriculture and other economic activity.

    1. William Collins Post author

      Thanks, Groan, informative as usual. There are many aspects of the interplay between the standard history of working class emancipation and the rise of feminism, and its association with the creation of the middle class, which need a thorough piece of scholarship – not just my amateur skim-over. As you hint, I suspect there was much the second wave feminists took as ancient which was, in truth, of relatively recent origin.

      1. Groan

        Thank you. By coincidence my bed time drink was accompanied by a programme about Aphra Behn and other restoration period prominent women. This probably over emphasised the role of women in the ferment of 17th Century England however it is a reminder that in western aristocratic societies women were frequently able to play prominent roles. In a sense Wollstencraft was the last of the aristocratic milieu. In fact of course only interested in “society” rather than the condition of ordinary folk, In the nineteenth century the explosion of population, urbanisation machinery produced a reaction in a huge religious revival led by the burgeoning middle class. This produced the whole “weaker vessel” legislations that protected women from the harms of the new society , there were protests from groups of working class women who relied on work, however harsh. Perhaps the final phase of this process was in fact the conviction of Oscar Wilde, the last aristocratic scalp for indulging in unusual behaviour . His arrogance that led to his fall is perhaps more understandable as the law was in fact brand new.
        Sadly I have long since lost the references but in the late seventies there was a strong strand of feminism interested in this development of “women on a pedestal” and Victorian enthusiasm for enshrining this in law pushed on by influential women’s societies. Even within the suffragettes and within the Pankhurst family there was a split between a small socialist all are equal strain and a “women will bring virtue” strain . Not sure what wave this was but it clearly ebbed in favour of the “all men are rapists” teamed with fanciful readings of history.
        One can’t help but see echoes in the obsession with women on Boards , Lad Culture, speech codes, manspreading and distaste at white working class men (and disinterest in working class women). I noticed that recently the NUS decided gay men are no longer oppressed but the enemy. Perhaps we are simply repeating the pedestaling of women.

        1. William Collins Post author

          Funny you should mention Wollstencraft. I might have something to say about her daughter shortly. It is odd that, given that feminism emerged in part out of Eng.Lit. (think Germaine Greer) feminists seem to have read no books. Women such as Lady Katherine de Burgh and Miss Haversham, not to mention all those politically controlling society women in War & Peace, are just ignored.

          As for the Pankhursts, it was Emmeline and Chistabel who were adherents of “on a pedestal”. Chistabel, in addition to writing tracts denouncing men as mere carriers of disease, after the war became a religious fundamentalist and lived most of her life in the USA after 1921. She returned to Britain long enough to be made Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1936, but that did not stop her fleeing back to the USA at the outbreak of WW2.

          Sylvia was the socialist whom Emmeline threw out of the WSPU for that reason. Both Emmeline and Christabel were Tories. They never campaigned for votes for working class women – another fact that has been buried by the feminists.

          The youngest daughter, Adela Pankhurst, so embarrassed Emmeline that she was given a one-way ticket to Australia. There she first founded the Communist Party of Australia, was expelled from it, and then became an anti-communist. She was a co-founder of the Australia First Movement, a proto-fascist movement. Clearly a woman of firm principle.

    2. Spinflight

      Was reading a book about the ‘Souls’, an upper class cohort of extremely bored and wealthy people who were noted for their parties, political power and social status in the late 19th century.

      From the pen portraits, or hagiographies, it becomes quite evident that they were drawn together by psychological similarities. Basically very agreeable people all agreeing with each other.

      It seems though that this bred some amazingly naive and yet destructive ideas which carried a great deal of weight politically. Thoroughly idle men and women convinced that everyone should be thoroughly idle.

      I suspect this group and others may be what you are referring to above. Though interestingly their offspring seem to crop up a lot as being radicals of one type or another in the inter war years… Communists, feminists and fascists. Politically connected ones too. For instance Churchill’s oft quoted verbal sparring with Lady Astor is often used by feminists to claim he was a sexist monster etc. In fact Astor was a committed fascist.

  7. Michael Wilcox

    Many thanks William – this will, like so many of your posts, form the basis of a personal ‘crib sheet’ and The Common People goes on the reading list.

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