Monday, November 16, 2009

The Wife As A Deputy

(Sumerian headdress worn by Queen Shub-Ad)

Coincidences can be interesting. I was reading about Michelle Obama's ratings as the First Lady and then the reader comments to that story. The "First Lady articles" always make me feel as if I had just been stung by several hundred bees and as if a handful of them were still buzzing around my ears. Bzzzz.

Those bees are all the hidden assumptions about what women are for and about the role of the First Lady. Should she be the Perfect Mum? The Perfect Feminist? The Perfect Representative of her ethnic group, age group, body shape group? Should she be the Earth Goddess of us all? Should she be assertive or retreating? Should she participate in politics or not? If not, what should she do? And why do we have any right to even discuss this?

Then there's the fact that she is both a public person and one who is not paid for her work.

Where was I? Those bees, right. Right about the same time I happened to read Gerda Lerner's The Creation of Patriarchy, and came across her discussion of the women of the Mesopotamian upper classes, about 3500 years ago. And Gerda took the fly swatter and killed all those bees:

Having briefly surveyed the fragments of evidence concerning Mesopotamian women in different cultures over a 1400-year span, what have we learned? We have seen ample evidence of societies in which the active participation of women in economic, religious, and political life was taken for granted. Equally taken for granted was their dependence on and obligation to male kin and/or husbands.

For the ruling elite, their self-interest as usurpers to the kingship demanded that the form in which they establish power become what one observer has aptly called "patrimonial bureaucracy." The security of their power depended on installing family members in important subordinate positions of power. Such family members were, in this early period, quite often women --who, so to speak, become the first liege-lords of their husband/father/king. Thus emerged the role of the "wife-as-deputy", a role in which we will find women from that period forward.

We have seen the extent and the limits of her power represented by Queen Shibtu carrying out her husband's orders in ruling the realm and in selecting women for his harem from among the captives. Her image can serve as an apt metaphor for what it means, what it meant then, and what it has meant for nearly 3000 years, for a woman to be upper class. Queen Shibtu's role of "wife-as-deputy" is the highest to which such women can aspire. Their power derives entirely from the male on whom they depend. Their influence and actual role in shaping events are real, as is their power over the men and women of lower rank whom they own or control. But in matters of sexuality, they are utterly subordinate to men. In fact, as we have seen in the cases of several royal wives, their power in economic and political life depends on the adequacy of the sexual services they perform for their men. If they no longer please, as in the case of Kirum or Kunshimatum, they are out of power at the whim of their lord.

Gerda puts it more harshly than I would, but she has a point: Any First Lady is a First Lady only through her husband. In that sense nothing much has changed from those Mesopotamian times. Well, if anything, today's First Ladies have less real political power than the queens of old did. But they are still working the wife-as-a-deputy role.

And that is the main reason why I dislike the "First Lady articles."