Family/Marriage

Went climbing my family tree, found the patriarchy

I have been passionately researching my family history for over twenty years.

The first issue a genealogist will notice is the difficulty in tracing matrilineal lines. Records on women simply were not kept as those on men were. Often, one finds a female ancestor with just a first name known.

Another aspect of the patriarchy I’ve discovered in tracing my French colonial Louisiana roots is that under French law, all the value of a deceased man’s property was divided amongst his sons. When a man died, an official, basically a sheriff, immediately entered the deceased’s home and took an inventory of all items. Then the sheriff posted flyers along the River Road (which runs along the Mississippi River from Baton Rouge to New Orleans) advertising an upcoming estate sale, and at the appointed hour, neighbors showed up to buy from the estate – the home, the furnishings, everything, all while the widow stood by and watched. The proceeds from the sale were then split equally among the sons. The widow got nothing! Her home, its furnishings were all sold out from under her and she became homeless. At that point, she just had to hope she was on good enough terms with at least one of her sons so that he would take her into his home to live. This is why most of the larger plantations in the area had “mother-in-law cottages” behind the big house.

This week, however, I have stumbled across what is by far the most disturbing patriarchal custom yet to be found on my family tree. I have traced part of my family all the way back to the emperors of China in the 500s A.D. (I had no idea I was part Chinese!) The custom was that once the emperor’s first born son was officially recognized as regent – future emperor – usually at about age seven, the regent’s mother, whether wife or concubine to the emperor, was to commit suicide! Someone close to me suggested that this custom may have been used to prevent future conflict with other potential heirs to the throne, since obviously the woman who committed suicide would not be bearing any more children (one hell of a method of birth control!). What I don’t understand about that theory, however, is that after the official recognition of the regent the emperor still went on to have many more children with other wives and concubines – surely there existed a possibility that one of those children could grow up to vie for the throne, so why did the regent’s mother have to die?

I am very upset to find five generations of Chinese women ancestors who all committed suicide. Oh, I know, it probably seems strange to some of you that I would be this upset about something that happened about fifteen hundred years ago. Part of it is that my spiritual life emphasizes the divine feminine. I often pray to female ancestors. I called on them to get me through the mind-blowingly horrific pain of childbirth. The other part is me, a modern feminist, being appalled by a custom of women killing themselves. Yes, I do understand that I am forcing my norms and mores on a very different time and place. I have found a surviving quote from just one of these members of my Clan of Lost Chinese Grandmothers, and she made it clear that she committed suicide quite willingly. In the quote, she said that she hoped the emperor who ordered her to commit suicide would “rule for a thousand years after my death.” So it’s possible the suicides were even a matter of honor for these women. That registers in my head, I guess, but not in my heart – I see five generations of women on my family tree with “cause of death: suicide” on their pages and it hurts my heart.

And so, to honor my Clan of Lost Chinese Grandmothers, I am going to name them here.

my 56th great grandmother LI, concubine, died by suicide 469 in Northern Wei (China)

my 57th great grandmother LI, concubine, died by suicide 456 in Northern Wei (China)

my 58th great grandmother YUJIULU, concubine, died by suicide 452 in Northern Wei (China)

my 59th great grandmother HELAI or HELAN, concubine, died by suicide 428 in Northern Wei (China)

my 60th great grandmother DUGUHUM, concubine, died by suicide 420 in Northern Wei (China)

We women lose so much to the patriarchy, then and, yes, even now. In case I haven’t yet said it today, fuck the patriarchy!

Categories: Family/Marriage, History, Race/Gender

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3 replies »

  1. This would just be a sad historical footnote if female-selective infanticide wasn’t still commonly practiced in poorer parts of the world. Even here in the US examples abound of preference being given to male offspring.

    Good thought piece CeeJay and I agree, patriarchy denigrates us all.

    • Hello Frank and thanks for the comment.

      Yes, female infanticide still goes on. In fact, specialists in projecting populations estimate that the number of “missing” (through infanticide) female babies in the 20th century is GREATER THAN the number of men who died in both World Wars COMBINED!! Horrifying – and 100% TRUE. In some places (India comes to mind), the killing of female babies is so common that men looking for brides are finding themselves in a pinch – there now just aren’t enough women left to go around.

      And in more advanced cultures, people are beginning to use gender detection now available very early on in a pregnancy to selectively abort female fetuses. Some politicians have tried to introduce legislation here in the U.S. banning abortion for gender selection purposes, but you really can’t PROVE someone’s motivation for choosing to abort, so laws prohibiting the practice are pretty impotent.

      For a long time, I have had a secret fear that if/when science achieves human reproduction in some kind of lab scenario, without requiring live women for reproduction, the patriarchy might just kill us off. I had an epiphany one night when my abusive ex-husband tightened his hand around my throat. I was SO shocked, STUNNED by the sheer strength he had, just in one hand – yeah, he was much bigger than I, but until that night I had NO IDEA of his strength. The epiphany that came from that incident is that men really do have the strength to kill us off if they so choose. I had a major crisis of faith – for weeks afterwards I SERIOUSLY considered going to my bookcase and throwing away every book related to feminism that I owned because I figured what’s the point in all the equality talk if men could just kill us off if they decided to. What finally gave me comfort was the idea that there ARE men would actually respect us and want us around. I am happy to report that I am now with just such a man.

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