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Patriarchy and America – Part IV

19 January, 2011

The so-called “new world,” (for which we can no longer thank Columbus but for which we can thank the Pilgrims and other colonists) was not an empty land when the first settlers from the “old world” arrived.  It was filled a variety of family/clan organizations.  Among them were the Iroquois, a unique group of people.  They were held together by a loose confederacy of nations, an idea influenced the formation of the U.S. confederation.  The Iroquois were also unique in being matriarchal; women owned everything, leaving the men to go about their business of being warriors.  Tribes of hunter-gathers lived on the Great Plains, with women providing a share of the clan’s needs and in Southern California until the missionaries of the Catholic Church decided to convert them into the “true religion” and forced labor.  In the Northwest, men hunted whales and fish while women gathered.  Most of the natives in the Americas lived in tribal groups, not families as we use the term.   Unfortunately, the land-hungry settlers did not take the time to get to know these people, but drove them from their lands and killed them or destroyed their way of life.

The Puritans relied on religion to bind their patriarchy together and after a 50-year truce with the natives took their lands and drove them off along with any other people they thought were “unholy.”  They drove off some of their own too for questioning parts of the religious dogma.  Later on, under Calvinism “acquisition” became the way to determine your “righteousness,.”   The colonies in Virginia were settled under the second sons of English aristocracy who needed a way to stay “in the money” without doing actual labor themselves.  Both the Puritans and English were Patriarchal.  The French came through Canada as hunters and trappers, through the Southern colonies and New Orleans but had little trouble accepting and mingling with Native populations there.   The Spanish held land along most of the current Southwest states; they continued the patriarchal line of the Mexican (Spanish/French cultures).  Eventually, all that land was annexed to the Union.


Patriarchy was firmly rooted in the U.S., but family was not.  Those colonist who came here left behind “La Familia” – their clans of like-minded people as well as their relatives.  Some came alone, some came with a brother or sister, some brought a wife and children, or a mother and father; rarely did anyone bring everyone.  As the country expanded, this pattern was continued.

The U.S. was populated by a wide variety of people from many backgrounds, both native and imported.  Obviously, once the plantations, mills, factories, etc. were in full swing, labor was needed.  The slave ships came from Africa, the indentured servants came from England (which had a habit of deporting all “undesirables” to far away “colonies” like the New England and Australia).  But the need for labor was insatiable as the industrial movement gobbled up the land and farmers had to move west to make a living or become independent.  That’s where the hungry and poor came in.  “Bring me your huddled masses” to do our hard and undesirable labor.

The first wave of women to leave the farm and begin working in the mills or the single women who came to America to work as nannies, maids and housekeepers often left their families behind, either on the farms or in another country.   They might send money back home to support the rest of the extended family, but they were no longer “together.”   Sometimes they boarded with other working women or widows, forming a small support group, but it was not “family.”

When the laborer was able to earn enough money and move up the social scale, replacements were brought in from other countries and not always legally (eg. China and, today, Hispanics).

Why does this matter?

Because Industrialization in the “new world” meant bringing together disparate people from all over the world for different reasons.  There has never been one straight line from the Pilgrims to modern U.S.  The Africans and Chinese were Christianized but that was not by choice; it was forced on them by their owners/bosses.  The Quakers who went to Pennsylvania believed (still believe) in a different form of Christianity than the Pilgrims.  So do Orthodox Christians.  Sikhs are not Christian, Muslims are not Christian, Buddhists are not Christian.

The model for the modern U.S. is a hodge-podge of backgrounds and beliefs, not people bound together for centuries by notions of “family,” religion, or shared history.  Today, for instance, we see how the introduction of “others” is affecting England and France, creating discomfort and a need to expel those “others.”  Essentially the U.S. was spared this notion of unity from the beginning.  We are a nation of people who “go it alone,” “each man for himself.”  We value the individual who moves on, hacks out a life in the wilderness, and “never looks back.”  Even as we crowd into cities and suburbs, we hold to the ideals of the “pioneer” spirit.

There never was a sense of “La Familia” in the United States,where the pattern of a “nuclear family”  took hold.  Patriarchy, however, was embedded in our psyche and we never let go of it, not even when some women were able to break from its grasp.


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