April 17, 2024

Patriarchy and Racism?

By Stephen Tuttle | Feb. 24, 2024

Public school history teachers in some states have to be especially careful these days. Prohibitions now exist, or have been proposed, limiting how teachers can discuss race or gender and how both impacted our founding history.

Montana, South Dakota, Florida, Georgia, Utah, and Alabama either have, or are considering, laws making it impossible to honestly discuss our history of treatment of women and those minorities we brought here to enslave. Alabama, Florida, and South Dakota have also introduced proposals making discussions of gender so difficult it is impossible to tell our story accurately.

Some school boards and politicians now believe any discussion of race is the equivalent of “bringing critical race theory (CRT) into the classroom.” And gender issues now seem to terrify too many public school administrators.

Let’s start with the obvious: The United States was created by white men, most of whom were wealthy. That’s just a fact, so let’s take a look at the patriarchy issue first.

According to Oxford Languages, patriarchy is “a system of society or government in which men hold the power and women are largely excluded from it.” That seems clear enough, so let’s use 1788, the year the U.S. Constitution was ratified, as our starting point. Did we meet the Oxford definition?

In 1788, only men could vote (it would be another 132 years before women were allowed to vote) or hold political office. Married women could not own property or a business or be a lawyer or doctor (things were a little more lenient for widows and single women); only men could file suit; men maintained custody of children in the event of divorce or separation; only men could go to a university; men in most cases could not be charged with domestic abuse; and if a married woman had a job for which she was paid, her wages went directly to her husband. Let’s repeat that last one: In 1788, if a married woman had a job for which she earned wages, that money was paid not to her but directly to her husband.

That was absolute textbook patriarchy. To the extent women aided in the revolution, and many did, they did so in spite of men, not because of them.

That is a reality of our history, and to prohibit its teaching is to do a dishonest disservice to current and future generations. We also should teach that most of those barriers and restrictions placed in front of women have come down and are still coming down. That we aren’t done making progress is an important part of our ongoing history, too.

Those arguing we were not and are not a racist country need to do some minimal reading—or maybe they just prefer ignorance to information.

In 1776, when we declared it to be a self-evident truth that “all men are created equal,” slavery was legal and slaves were owned in all 13 colonies. Of the 56 men who signed the Declaration, 41 were slave owners. By the time the U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1788, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut had abolished slavery, but the federal government and its constitution had not.

According to the Gilder Lehrman Institute for American History, 25 of the 55 delegates to the Constitutional Convention were slave owners. The Constitutional Rights Foundation puts the number at 17, but they owned a shocking 1,400 human beings.

The Constitution itself explicitly approves slavery. Article I, Section 9, paragraph 1 prohibits Congress from banning the importation of slaves prior to the year 1808. And Article I, Section 2, paragraph 1 manages to fully dehumanize slaves by counting them as only three-fifths of a person during apportionment for taxation and representation purposes.

Ten of our first 12 presidents owned slaves; only John Adams and his son, John Quincy Adams, were not involved in direct slave ownership. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson continued owning slaves while in office. From 1789 through 1923, there were more than 200 members of Congress who were or had been slave owners. And according to the White House Historical Association, slave labor was key to the construction of both the White House and the U.S. Capitol Building.

Despite all of that, we didn’t get around to constitutionally banning slavery until 1865, 77 years after we ratified our constitution. All it took was a civil war and 700,000 deaths.

Yes, much progress has been made, and that is also an important part of our history. Our democratic republic was and is a noble experiment, but we have to be honest about both the patriarchy and racism of our darker beginnings.

Our public school history classes must include warts and all. To do otherwise disrespects those excluded in our past and does a disservice to those leading us into the future.


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