Misogyny and Relationship Inequality

I’m taking a class on Women in Antiquity, and the other day we had a very interesting discussion on why ancient men were so misogynistic– so much so that one author wrote, “Women are children who never grow up.” Some in the class offered the simplistic “men are pigs” response, or the less simplistic but still simplistic “they were raised that way” repsonse. But that wasn’t really enough, others argued; it had to come from somewhere, some societal root. At the same time, mothers– even young mothers– were not considered so close to children. Mothers were considered quite wise in certain matters, strong symbols of religious piety and strength. Why the difference?

My professor then offered a fascinating explanation, heavily supported by the literature. Men in Ancient Greece and Rome were usually 30ish at the time of marriage, while women were actually girls– they were between twelve and fifteen at the time of their first marriage. They would usually have several marriages, as their husbands died, but after the first they were firmly “mothers.” They would still usually be younger than their husband by a significant amount, even in their later marriages– by the time they surpassed the age of the pool of potential suitors, their sons or sons-in-law would have taken up their care.

So these men thought women were like children because they married children. A twelve year old girl acts like a child in many ways, even if she’s raised to be a wife by then; her judgement center is less than that of a grown woman, she needs guidance, and if her husband was good to her, she would often idolize him. Greek and Roman poets describing relationships with their wives talk of how she hangs on to their every word, worships them, idolizes them, think everything they say is right. That sounds less like a marital relationship and more like a fawning student with a popular and brilliant teacher. A man whose personal experience with women was limited to his own mother and then such a fawning, childlike, immature young girl would of course create a false division between the aging matronly mother figure, and other women, who would be childlike.

Even educated girls had this problem– even if you can read Homer, if
you’re half the age of your husband and not even mentally mature you
will seem childlike to him, especially since he’s probably been to war,
written several books, served in the Senate, or built a fortune in
business by then. While some women eventually came to impress their
husbands enough to help with finances and give political advice, they
were a small minority, and usually only gained this once they were
thought of less as a “woman” and more as a “mother.”

We know
why this age difference existed. Men needed to be able to support their
wives and children before they married, both so her father would agree
and so she wouldn’t starve or divorce him for neglecting her and her
children’s care. So they would wait until they were financially
established, either after their father had died and they inherited, or
after they had had time to distinguish themselves and make a small
fortune. Wives, meanwhile, had to be young– high death rates from
childbirth and the need to have many children in case most of them died
neccessitated they start as soon as possible. Since the age difference
existed already, it was natural that the misogynistic society came to

This discussion started me thinking. While we have seen
increasing numbers of equal-age marriages since those times, for most
of history that was the norm in Western society, and in many Eastern
societies as well (I am not well versed in Amerindian, Australian
Aborigine and sub-saharan African societies to comment there). And
indeed, that misogyny has always been the pattern. Yet in modern times
and Western cultures, it is rare to marry someone significantly older
or younger than yourself– five or six years, maybe, but not much
greater than that– and we have outlawed the practice of marrying
twelve- to fifteen-year-olds in most jurisdictions. We also ostracise
such relationships… and as a result, while we still have a ways to
go, we are far more egalitarian and rare is the person who describes a
grown, adult woman as equivalent to a child and unable to keep track of
any property worth more than “a bushel of barley” (food for a week).

Yet in other societies, such as everyone’s favorite whipping boy Japan,
relationships with fifteen-year age gaps are still perfectly socially
acceptable, as are relationships with girls as young as 14 and men as
old as 40. And Japanese culture is, objectively, less egalitarian than
the West. Women are still expected to stop working when they marry and
the society has levels of socially acceptable sexual objectification
that far surpass what the West produces (the West can be very
objectifying. But rarely on the level of Japan, not as commonly as
Japan, and not nearly with the social acceptance Japan has for it).

Now, this is not the sole factor in modern misogyny; it’s too
historically based and too deeply entrenched to be solved just by
saying “Marry someone your own age.” However, it’s an interesting
trend– I can’t think of any culture where the older male/younger
female dynamic was common and encouraged that doesn’t deal with severe
misogyny, or societies where marrying someone your own age and marrying
later is preferred that are not comparatively egalitarian. And it makes a lot of sense.

Thus, I do wonder if statutory rape laws could be veiwed less as a
protection for an individual girl– who may or may not understand her
consent and may or may not regret it later– and more as a tool of
societal change. If we consider that ostracizing these relationships
and making some of them illegal encourages people to marry their equals
in age, or at least individuals who are old enough that the differences
in experience become less significant, perhaps it will also mean that
we can continue to push public opinion towards equality by discouraging
relationships with such significant age disparities.

It’s interesting to contemplate, anyway.

Disclaimer: This post was written by a Feministing Community user and does not necessarily reflect the views of any Feministing columnist, editor, or executive director.

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