Tuesday, December 14, 1993

Female Support Systems: Buffering The Effects of Patriarchal Oppression

An Analytical Paper based on Incidents In The Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Ann Jacobs and Lakota Woman by Mary Crow Dog

Since Europeans first invaded the New World five hundred years ago, America has been a patriarchal society. Men have held most of the strings of true power, occupying central positions in the ownership and management hierarchies of government, business, educational institutions, and the church. The system of patriarchal control derives its greatest strength from the false notion that there are two distinct spheres of human activity. The first is the public sphere of politics, business, etc., which is meant to be the domain of men; the second is the domestic sphere of raising children, cooking, and housework, supposedly ordained to be the domain of women.

Patriarchy thus has served the interests of all males by providing a legitimate social framework for men to avoid primary responsibility for performing some of life's hardest, most repetitive daily work, as well as denying women full access to opportunities that might place them on an equal footing with men in their intellectual, personal, and sexual relations, such as education and economic independence. It has also specifically served the interests of elite males by functioning as a mechanism of social control. Although the majority of men in America and throughout the world are economically exploited by a capitalist ruling class, under the ideological frameworks of male-dominated societies, even the most oppressed males can always feel superior to the women in their lives.

Compelling narratives of resistance to such oppression include works by Harriet Ann Jacobs (Incidents In The Life of a Slave Girl), Mary Crow Dog (Lakota Woman), Charlotte Perkins Gilman (The Yellow Wallpaper and Other Writings), and Agnes Smedley (Daughter Of Earth).

Collectively, these four largely autobiographical narratives reveal how different American women living in different times were forced to confront sharply diverging oppressive experiences under an omnipresent patriarchal system. A close reading of the texts reveals that all four women authors responded to and resisted the individual circumstances of their oppression in often similar ways.

One of the most recurring paths of resistance shared by these women authors was to buffer themselves from the system's most debilitating and dehumanizing effects. This was often done by forming close friendships with others around them who were being similarly oppressed for reasons of gender, namely, other women. By closely examining two of these narratives, Harriet Ann Jacobs' Incidents In The Life of a Slave Girl and Mary Crow Dog's Lakota Woman, I hope to provide an overview of how women's friendships with other women helped create protective social enclaves - female support systems within an overall gender-oppressive social order.

Mary Crow Dog's resistance was shaped from early on by the examples set by strong, independent women in her own family. Her grandmother, although a staunch Catholic and very set in her beliefs that "she was helping me (Mary) by not teaching me Indian ways" (Crow Dog, p 22), was very influential in making Mary aware of her heritage.

"When it came to basics, (she was) all Sioux, in spite of the pictures of Holy Mary and the Sacred Heart on the wall...She also spoke the Sioux language, the real old-style Lakota, not the the modern slang we have today. And she knew her herbs, showing us how to recognize the different kinds of Indian plants, telling us what each of them was good for" (Crow Dog, p 19).

She also learned of traditional Sioux ways from other female members of her family, such as her great aunt, and Elsie Flood, her grandmother's niece. Elsie Flood was a medicine woman, a "turtle woman," and she was very instrumental in Mary's early spiritual development (Crow Dog, p 23-25).

Her mother, although at first adamantly opposed to Mary's involvement with the Native American Church and the American Indian Movement (AIM), later expressed support for the choices her daughter had made. This conversion took place after the birth of Mary's daughter at Wounded Knee and her subsequent arrest and separation from her baby (Crow Dog, p 167). The potential inherent in female solidarity was underscored by this event. It was a time of crisis sparked by the system's injustice and intimately connected to the gender-specific oppression her daughter faced that resulted in this reconciliation.

A fairly well-developed female support system sustained Harriet Ann Jacobs (writing under the pen name Linda Brent) throughout her struggle against the hardships of slavery. Her early life was similar to Mary Crow Dog's in that she was blessed with a family network of close female relatives, several of them strong, independent women who she could model her own behavior after.

Harriet's grandmother, or "Aunt Marthy," as she was known, was the most notable. The daughter of a South Carolina planter who was freed upon his death but then captured and sold back into slavery (Jacobs, p 3), Aunt Marthy was extremely intelligent and hard-working. She hired out her baking services to other households in her mistress' community, saving the profits in order that she might eventually purchase her children (Jacobs, p 4). Upon her mistress' death, it looked as if Aunt Marthy might again be sold, but instead she benefitted from the kindness of another woman. She was purchased for $50 by the seventy-year old sister of her deceased mistress, who then proceeded to free her (Jacobs, p 10).

Through unrelenting toil, Harriet's grandmother was able to purchase her own house (p 15). Later, as Harriet grew older, this would be a place where she would take frequent refuge from her daily routine of servitude to her cruel master, Dr. Flint. When Harriet finally escaped from slavery, at the age of twenty-one (Jacobs, p 100), her grandmother's household became an even more literal place of refuge for her, as she hid in an attic crawl space above Aunt Marthy's shed for seven long years.

Harriet's Great-Aunt Nancy was also one of Dr. Flint's slaves. She provided Harriet with constant support and assistance during the years she spent as a slave, and an important refuge from her master's attempted sexual advances (Jacobs, p 31). She encouraged Harriet in her hopes for freedom, consoled her in times of distress and served as a source of information for her concerning Dr. Flint's doings during the period of Harriet's confinement.

Harriet's relationships with women beyond her circle of relatives and the important roles they played in her fight for freedom reveals the possibilities for struggle inherent in such a female community of resistance. Her close slave friend Sally aided her when she ran away from Dr. Flint's plantation (Jacobs, p 98). During her concealment at the house of a (female) friend of her grandmother's, a slave named Betty assists her repeatedly and conceals her presence from other less trustworthy slaves (Jacobs, p 101-114). Her friend Fanny escapes towards the end of Harriet's confinement in her grandmother's garret, and provides her with much needed company and support during their mutual voyage Northward as stowaways (Jacobs, p 153-164).

In particular, her relationships with white women show how the female solidarity created in response to one form of oppression carried over into another battleground. When Harriet's free-born lover wanted to purchase her, she enlisted a woman friend of her master's to intercede and try to persuade Dr. Flint to sell her (Jacobs, p 37-38). Dr. Flint's great aunt Miss Fanny, the woman who had manumitted Harriet's grandmother by purchasing her for $50, maintained an ongoing interest in the condition of her children and grandchildren (Jacobs, p 91). A friend of Harriet's grandmother who had known her from childhood, whose husband was a slaveholder himself, was the first person to hide Harriet immediately following her escape (Jacobs, p 101). Mrs. Bruce, who employed Harriet in the North after hes escape from slavery, became her close friend and supported her attempts to overcome racial prejudice and discrimination (Jacobs, p 180).

The numerous white women, Southern and Northern, who reached across racial lines to help Harriet at various stages of her struggle is in keeping with the massive female involvement in the anti-slavery petition-gathering movement of the 1820s and 1830s (Zinn, p 121). It suggests that women responded to the patriarchal oppression their sex resigned them to by finding common cause with victims of other forms of injustice.

In contrast, Mary Crow Dog's relationships with white women were fewer and less important to her narrative. When she was seven or eight, she made friends with a little white girl, still untainted by the racism of her parents, whose mother chased Mary out of her house with a butcher knife. (Crow Dog, p 21) When her husband Leonard was imprisoned in a maximum security prison in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, she lived with a white couple in New York order to be near him (Crow Dog, p 112). In 1969 or 1970, Mary met a white girl around eighteen or twenty years old who had hitchhiked onto the Rosebud Reservation from New York.

"She was different from any other white person we had met before...I think her name was Wise. She was the first real hippie or yippie we had come across. She told us of people called the Black Panthers, Young Lords, and Weathermen. She said, 'Black people are getting it on. Indians are getting it on in St. Paul and California. How about you?' She also said, 'Why don't you put out an underground paper, mimeograph it. It's easy. Tell it like it is. Let it all hang out.'" (Crow Dog, p 36).

It was this meeting that inspired Mary and her full-blood friends Charlene and Gina to rebel against their Catholic mission school's power structure by publishing just such an underground newspaper.

For Mary, these white women (and others who she met through movement activities) were the exceptions. Most whites, men and women alike, who she encountered growing up in the Dakotas were racist and incapable of true empathy or solidarity with the battles she faced as an Indian woman. The real source of the strength she derived from her own female support system came from her close relationships with Indian women. Her Catholic school friendships with Charlene Left Hand Bull and Gina One-Star (Crow Dog, p 36-37) helped her to realize she was not alone in her suffering at the hands of the school authorities, and encouraged her to rebel. She became close friends with a Blackfoot woman named Bonnie from Seattle (Crow Dog, p 50) who she shoplifted with and experienced sexual harassment. Her closest friend was a MicMac Indian named Annie Mae Aquash, who Mary met at the occupation of Wounded Knee, and who was later killed under suspicious circumstances. "She (Annie Mae) was a remarkable woman, strong hearted and strong-minded, who had a great influence on my thinking and on my way of life." (Crow Dog, p 138-139).

On one level, Mary Crow Dog faced more hardships than Harriet Ann Jacobs in her struggle against sexism because patriarchy was also present in her own culture. This is not to suggest that male domination was absent in the slave community Harriet sprang from, simply that under slavery, male domination in the form of unequal division of physical labor and sexual exploitation between male and female slaves was imposed from above, an injustice inherent in the slave system itself. For Mary Crow Dog, the broader white society was patriarchal, but in some respects, so was her own culture. The traditional Sioux view of women's role in society and religion was somewhat more open and accomodating than white society's, but there were limits.

"Just as men competed for war honors, so women had quilling and beading contests. The women who made the most beautiful fully beaded cradleboard won honors equivalent to a warrior's coup. The men kept telling us, 'See how we are honoring you...' Honoring us for what? For being good beaders, quillers, tanners, moccasin makers, and child bearers. That is fine, but..." (Crow Dog, p 66).

She articulated her own rejection of this ideology. "Some of those old macho Sioux proverbs like 'Woman should not walk before man' I did not think were meant for me" (Crow Dog, p 200). However, it deprived her of a cultural support system that would have complemented the relationships that comprised her female support system.

Despite what the corporate-owned media would like us to believe, the fight for equality between the sexes is hardly won. American women still face sex discrimination at nearly every level of society, and still must struggle daily against the all-pervasive patriarchal mythology which would resign them to lives spent barefoot and pregnant in the bedroom and the kitchen, forsaking education and employment to focus on wifehood and motherhood. This ongoing struggle has characterized American women's history since our country's inception, and in the process has crippled many women's lives and minds.

However, as happens so often when the indomitable human spirit is faced with oppression, some women have always endured, fought back, and triumphed against the patriarchal system bent on destroying them. We can find extensive evidence of this resistance in the lives of such American women as Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Emma Goldman, Mother Mary Jones, Jane Addams, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Margaret Sanger, Helen Keller, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Rosa Parks, Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer, and countless others (Zinn, p 322-339). To this list, the names of Harriet Ann Jacobs and Mary Crow Dog should be forcefully added.


Incidents In The Life of a Slave Girl (1861) by Harriet Ann Jacobs

Lakota Woman (1990) by Mary Brave Bird (formerly Mary Crow Dog)

A People's History of The United States (1980) by Howard Zinn

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