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!