A brief history of ‘marriage,’ part 19

Women were the first slaves

Part 18 of this series dealt generally with the historic innovation of private property, specifically with the treatment of human beings as property, and alluded briefly to the use of marriage as a political and economic tool in the interests of maintaining ruling-class political and economic power in societies based on slave and serf labor.

This installment will focus on a frequently ignored aspect of the institution of slavery: its origins and economic basis in the exploitation of women. In Gerda Lerner’s fact-filled book, “The Creation of Patriarchy,” she devotes a whole chapter to “The Woman Slave.” Her general assessment of slavery coincides with that of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. She writes: “However oppressive and brutal it undoubtedly was for those victimized by it, it represented an essential advance in the process of economic organization, an advance upon which the development of ancient civilization rested.” The sources of slave labor that she lists are “capture in warfare; punishment for a crime; sale by family members; self-sale for debt; and debt bondage.” (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986, p. 76)

With regard to the handling of war captives, Lerner notes the historical evidence contrasting the treatment of men and women. Male captives were most often put to death. “Even where the economic need for a large slave labor force existed there was not enough male labor power available among the captors to watch over the captives day and night and thus ensure their harmlessness. It would take different peoples different lengths of time to realize that human beings might be enslaved and controlled by other means than brute force.” (p. 79)

Captured women suffered a cruel fate

The subjugation of captured women through rape and the severing of their family ties was another matter. “Since their male kin had been slaughtered, these [women] captives could have no hope of rescue or escape. Their isolation and hopelessness increased their captors’ sense of power. The process of dishonoring could in the case of women be combined with the final act of male dominance, the rape of captive women. If a woman had been captured with her children, she would submit to whatever condition her captors imposed in order to secure the survival of her children. If she had no children, her rape or sexual use would soon tend to make her pregnant, and experience would show the captors that women would endure enslavement and adapt to it in the hope of saving their children and eventually improving their lot.” (p. 78)

While Lerner has elaborated here a credible basis for the historical precedence of female enslavement before that of men, what is missing is any acknowledgment that, just as some women and groups of women must have resisted as best they could the imposition of patriarchal marriage relations, there must have been many examples, unfortunately lost to history (a record, we need to remember, written chiefly by men), of women, individually and in groups, rebelling against their enslavement.

As Lerner notes, the institutionalization of female slavery had meaning above and beyond its value as a source of unpaid labor power. It also impinged as a social/sexual factor on the gender asymmetry of monogamous marriage: “Historians writing on slavery all describe the sexual use of enslaved women. … The Babylonian slave woman could also be hired out as a prostitute for a fixed price, sometimes to a brothel owner, sometimes to private clients, with the master collecting her pay. This practice was pervasive throughout the Near East, in Egypt, Greece, and Rome of antiquity, in fact wherever slavery existed.” (p. 87) Further along, she adds, “There are, of course, in more highly developed slave systems many instances of male slaves being sexually used and abused by master or mistress, but these are exceptions. For women, sexual exploitation marked the very definition of enslavement, as it did not for men.” (pp. 88-89)

Women’s oppression institutionalized
in early state societies

With slave women viewed as commodities, it required no great transformation in social values for wives and women in general and their children to be viewed similarly. In the chapters following her exploration of female slavery in early class society, Lerner analyzes at length the Mesopotamian and Hebraic laws accompanying the rise of state-based class societies in Southwest Asia and, in particular, the meaning of these laws for women in the context of patriarchal marriage. She summarizes: “We see then, in the thousand-year span we are discussing, how patriarchal dominance moved from private practice into public law. The control of female sexuality, previously left to individual husbands or to family heads, had now become a matter of state regulation. In this, it follows, of course, a general trend toward increasing state power and the establishment of public law.” (p. 121)

The laws, of course, were drafted by the slave owners and landlords, potentates of the Middle Eastern city-states and warring empires. The laws legitimized the political power of the rich and shackled their subjects, women and men, slaves and nonslaves alike: “In the lower-class family, where property was insufficient or nonexistent, persons (children of both sexes) became property and were sold into slavery or degraded marriages. … All women are increasingly under sexual domination and regulation, but the degree of their unfreedom varies by class. … The married wife is at one end of the spectrum, the slave woman at the other, the concubine in an intermediate position.” (p. 112)

Elaborating on concubinage, Lerner writes: “Obviously, the increasing importance of keeping private property within the family spurred the development of concubinage as an institution for the preservation of patriarchal property relations. A couple’s childlessness, with its implications of loss of property in the male line, could be remedied by bringing a concubine into the household. … What is of particular interest here is that the concubine serves a dual function: she performs sexual services for the master, with the knowledge and consent of the wife, and she is a servant to the wife. This differs greatly from the relations between first and succeeding wives in many polygamous societies, in which the status of second and third wives is co-equal with that of the first wife.” (pp. 91-92)

What about marriage among slaves? Orlando Patterson describes its tenuous character in his book, “Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study”: “The refusal formally to recognize the social relations of the slave had profound emotional and social implications. In all slaveholding societies slave couples could be and were forcibly separated and the consensual ‘wives’ of [male] slaves were obliged to submit sexually to their masters; slaves had no custodial claims or powers over their children.” (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1985, p. 6)

We might note here, as one of the most outrageous and repugnant of the “marriage” practices of slave and feudal society patriarchs, the imposition of “the right of first night.” This “custom,” whereby the slave owner or feudal landlord could demand and receive sexual access to a subject bride on her wedding night, was dramatically portrayed in Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein’s epic, though never completed, film “¡Que Viva México!” Outraged by the affront to their comrade’s wife, Mexican peasants living under the feudal dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz organized an armed uprising against the hacienda’s owner.