Episode 6

The Creation of Feminist Consciousness, by Gerda Lerner

Published on: 29th December, 2020


Welcome to Breaking Down Patriarchy! I’m Amy McPhie Allebest. Today we are going to discuss another of Gerda Lerner’s contributions to Women’s History. It’s a logical follow-up to her book The Creation of Patriarchy, which showed the way human beings instituted societal structures wherein men ruled women, from prehistory through the time of the Greeks. The Creation of Feminist Consciousness picks up right about where The Creation of Patriarchy leaves off, at the beginning of the common era, and it continues through the 19th Century. It’s also an exciting text because it documents women’s own writings as they began to wake up and become aware of their subordinate status and try to free themselves of their own internalized sense of inferiority. 

But before we start, I’d like to introduce my reading partner, Janette Canare. Hi, Janette!


Hi, Amy! Thanks for having me. I’m happy to be here! 


Can you tell us about yourself?


Well, I currently live in California with my husband Jeff and our two kids, a daughter in high school and a son in college.

I’ve lived in California for most of my life now, moving to Silicon Valley for a tech start up in the early 90s. Most people that I meet tend to assume that I grew up in California, but I was born and raised in Virginia. My parents were the first generation to immigrate from the Philippines, moving to Norfolk in the mid-1960s, where my dad was in the Navy. I grew up attending parochial school through high school, but since my 20s I’ve considered myself a lapsed Catholic.

These days, I’m currently working towards a master’s degree in the humanities, as you know. Being back to school has kept me pretty busy, but I do enjoy being outdoors--whether hiking, gardening, or for photography. I also love art, theatre, and travelling and hope one day to be able to resume that.


I hope so too - when you finally make it to Paris I am going to visit you there!! And then I also want to ask you what interested you in this project. 


My interest in the topic of the patriarchy is two-fold. First, from an academic standpoint, my first year of graduate school was spent reading the foundational texts of the Western canon. In two quarters, we covered 2,000 years reading over 20 books, but of those 20, only two were written by women! I recall that it was a “collective lightbulb moment” shared between most of the women in my program...that in 2 millenia, only two books from women were represented. It was crushing to consider that for some reason, women had produced so few surviving works during the same period that gave us Plato, Aristotle, Virgil, Augustine, Dante, Descartes, and so on. Just saying these names, we think of their contributions to Western Civ. But where were the women?

My second interest in this topic is more personal. Looking at the literature of women’s history is also motivated by my desire to better understand my own mother. She was born in the 1930s and whether due to World War II or other reasons, she herself grew up to be very motivated to pursue both her education and a career. From the stories she told me as I grew up, she was very proud of her career in the Philippines, and coming to this country, she continued to work in her field. Yet, growing up I was very aware of the fact that when it came to decision-making, my mom would always default to my father. I never really understood why until I started to understand more about the patriarchy. Suddenly, things started to click into place--patterns of behavior that I noticed in my mom and now sometimes notice in myself.

So thank you for asking me to participate in this project! I’m excited to discuss Gerda Lerner’s book with you.


I’m excited too! So to set the stage, I thought we could share some quotes by prominent men during the centuries that this book covers, the 1st through 18th Centuries, in the part of the world that this book covers, which is basically Christianized Europe. It’s a small part of the world, but these attitudes have had a big impact through the spread of Christianity and colonization all over the world. So in preparation for discussing the book, let’s take turns reading these thoughts on women from some of the influential thinkers of the time.

Janette, do you want to start, and we’ll just take turns.


“[For women] the very consciousness of their own nature must evoke feelings of shame.”

–Saint Clement of Alexandria, Christian theologian (c. 150-215) 



“In pain shall you bring forth children, woman, and you shall turn to your husband and he shall rule over you. And do you not know that you are Eve? God’s sentence hangs still over all your sex and His punishment weighs down upon you. You are the devil’s gateway; you are she who first violated the forbidden tree and broke the law of God. It was you who coaxed your way around him whom the devil had not the force to attack. With what ease you shattered that image of God: Man! Because of the death you merited, even the Son of God had to die… Woman, you are the gate to hell.”

 Tertullian, “the father of Latin Christianity” (c. 160-225)



 “Woman does not possess the image of God in herself but only when taken together with the male who is her head, so that the whole substance is one image. But when she is assigned the role as helpmate, a function that pertains to her alone, then she is not the image of God. But as far as the man is concerned, he is by himself alone the image of God just as fully and completely as when he and the woman are joined together into one.”

 –Saint Augustine, Bishop of Hippo Regius (354-430)

(JC) This is the same Augustine who wrote Confessions and City of God.



“Woman is a misbegotten man and has a faulty and defective nature in comparison to his. Therefore she is unsure in herself. What she cannot get, she seeks to obtain through lying and diabolical deceptions. And so, to put it briefly, one must be on one's guard with every woman, as if she were a poisonous snake and the horned devil. … Thus in evil and perverse doings woman is cleverer, that is, slyer, than man. Her feelings drive woman toward every evil, just as reason impels man toward all good.”

 –Saint Albertus Magnus, Dominican theologian, 13th century



“As regards the individual nature, woman is defective and misbegotten, for the active force in the male seed tends to the production of a perfect likeness in the masculine sex; while the production of woman comes from a defect in the active force or from some material indisposition, or even from some external influence." 

—Saint Thomas Aquinas, 13th century  



 “Men have broad and large chests, and small narrow hips, and more understanding than women, who have but small and narrow breasts, and broad hips, to the end they should remain at home, sit still, keep house, and bear and bring up children.”

 –Martin Luther, Reformer (1483-1546) 



“Thus the woman, who had perversely exceeded her proper bounds, is forced back to her own position. She had, indeed, previously been subject to her husband, but that was a liberal and gentle subjection; now, however, she is cast into servitude.

John Calvin, Reformer (1509-1564)



“Do not any longer contend for mastery, for power, money, or praise. Be content to be a private, insignificant person, known and loved by God and me. . . . of what importance is your character to mankind, if you were buried just now. Or if you had never lived, what loss would it be to the cause of God?”

 –John Wesley, founder of Methodist movement (1703-1791), letter to his wife, July 15, 1774



So throughout the podcast my readers and I will talk about the definitions of words - a couple of episodes ago Malia and I talked a lot about the terms patriarchy and matriarchy, and what they technically refer to. We talked about cultures being matrifocal, or matrilocal, or matrilinear, etc., and I think it’s really useful to have a working vocabulary that is as precise as possible. So I want to use this opportunity, as we just read all of those quotes, to talk about the word misogyny. Misogyny is used to describe all kinds of practices and attitudes that are unfriendly to women, but I think it’s worth pointing out that the etymology of the word is Greek: it’s miso, which means “hatred of,” like some of my kids have a condition called “miso-phonia,” where they have an extreme hatred of certain sounds. Or someone who is mis-anthropic hates people, because anthro means people. So the other half of miso-gyny, is gyny, which means woman. Like gynecology is the study of women’s bodies. Or andro means man, and gyny means woman, so androgyny means man-woman, or both (or neutral). 

I think it’s worth pointing out that most of the quotes we just heard are not benevolently patriarchal, like a dad that wants to protect his daughter and accidentally limits her because he’s too protective. They’re not misguidedly sexist, like the Victorian cult of domesticity that tells women that the most noble and beautiful calling is motherhood, so they shouldn’t leave home and should be content being “the angel in the house.” No. This is real misogyny. And there’s power in calling it what it is, and in reserving that word for real contempt against women.

Anyway… we started with quotes by Church fathers because that’s where we are on our historical timeline, and I’ll read just one quote from Lerner about the role of Christianity during these centuries in Europe.

Whether women were religious or not, they were confronted by the core texts of the Bible, which were used for centuries by patriarchal authorities to define the proper roles for women in society and to justify the subordination of women: Genesis, the Fall and St. Paul. Since male objections to women thinkin , teaching and speaking in public were for centuries based on biblical authority, the development of feminist Bible criticism can be seen as an appropriate and perhaps not unexpected response to the constraints and limitations imposed upon women’s intellectual development by religiously sanctioned gender definitions. These biblical core texts sat like huge boulders across the paths women had to travel in order to define themselves as equals of men.

[Also], the Bible was the one text available to them. (138)

So we are going to dive into the text now, taking turns highlighting a few of the main points that stood out most to us. 


Here’s our first point...

Point 1. Women absorbed the message of their own inferiority

This is what Gerda Lerner says about this:

The fact that women were denied knowledge of the existence of Women’s History decisively and negatively affected their intellectual development as a group. Women who did not know that others like them had made intellectual contributions to knowledge and to creative thought were overwhelmed by the sense of their own inferiority or, conversely, the sense of the dangers of their daring to be different. Without knowledge of women’s past, no group of women could test their own ideas against those of their equals, those who had come out of similar conditions and similar life situations. Every thinking woman had to argue with the “great man” in her head, instead of being strengthened and encouraged by her foremothers. For thinking women, the absence of Women’s History was perhaps the most serious obstacle of all to their intellectual growth. (12)

Example: Lerner gives written evidence from as early as the 8th century of women experiencing this sense of inferiority. She writes about Hugeburc [HHOO-ger-borg], a nun who settled in Germany in 762. Hugeburc [HHOO-ger-borg] was educated and well-known in her time for writing two biographies about two brothers, a bishop and an abbott.  Her biography for the abbot also chronicled the conversion of the Germans and Franks to Christianity. Therefore, her work is considered to be a historical text. Yet, despite her achievements and renown, this is how she speaks of herself in the Prologue of one of her books:

“I am unworthy… I who am as it were a puny creature compared with my fellow-Christians… especially corruptible through the womanly frail foolishness of my sex, not supported by any prerogative of wisdom or exalted by the energy of great strength… [she also calls herself] an ignorant creature… (51)

Now during the middle ages, Lerner explains, there was a literary convention called the “humility topos.” This was the practice of writers to use the argument of their ignorance as a foil to “heighten the power and effect of their miraculous inspiration” (51). In other words, for dramatic effect, writers of this time would claim their ignorance until they received divine inspiration. Despite this custom, Lerner points out that Hugeburc’s prologue differs from the humility topos. In essence, Hugeburc’s [HHOO-ger-borg’s] words are an apology to her reader for being a woman who thinks and writes. Her plaintive words indicate her belief in her own inferiority. As a result of this inferiority, Hugeburc’s  words reveal the “agonizing struggle” within her mind and soul (51).


Point 2: **Iconic Gerda Lerner concept: Reinventing the wheel:

Men develop ideas and systems of explanation by absorbing past knowledge and critiquing and superseding it. Women, ignorant of their own history, did not know what women before them had thought and taught. So, generation after generation, they struggled for insights others had already had before them. I illustrate this by surveying women’s bible criticism over a period of one thousand years and show the endless repetition of effort, the constant reinventing of the wheel. (19)

[Lerner highlights SO MANY women in this book, all through the centuries when I didn’t know any women were writing at all. She points out, “notice that this is exactly what so-and-so said hundreds of years before. She had no knowledge of her writings.” And I have had this experience myself! If I go back through my own personal journals I see myself laboring and struggling to figure out what I was perceiving and why things felt “off.” In reading these books I have discovered exact ideas and trains of thought that took me YEARS of mental toil to develop - I could have saved myself so much heartache and effort if had known someone else had already thought of it!! And I wouldn’t have felt so alone all those years.]


[These points drive home for me why the book is so powerful! Points 1 & 2 are inextricably linked. While Lerner speaks of both points in terms of the effects on groups of women, I think each of us women experiences both of these points on an individual level.

Much of our own self-perception of our inferiority derives from feeling alone...not realizing that countless other women before, after, and during our time HAVE EXPERIENCED AND FELT THE SAME.

My hunch is that there are mechanisms embedded in the patriarchy so that this experience of being a remote “Other” who is outside acceptable norms comes with a type of "social shame" so that we are less likely to speak of our experiences and come together in support of each other. It is why Lerner is right that we need to know our own history as women.]


I absolutely agree! In terms of mechanisms embedded in patriarchy, I think specifically of the prohibition of education. That’s a really common tactic for oppressors to restrict the education of the people they want to subjugate because they know if they start to read, they will start to ask questions, and they’ll find camaraderie with like-minded people and become emboldened to question the oppressor’s power.


Point 3: The Educational Disadvantaging of Women

The word that comes to mind for this section of Lerner’s book is the term “deprivation,” which she repeats in her description of Sarah Grimké. Born in 1792 in Charleston, South Carolina, as the daughter of a wealthy plantation owner, she later became an abolitionist and suffragist.

In her youth, Grimké was aware of the shortcomings of her education, particularly in contrast to the classical education received by her brothers. 

Here’s a quote from Grimké: “With me learning was a passion… Had I received the education I craved and been bred to the profession of the law, I might have been a useful member of society, and instead of myself and my property being taken care of, I might have been a protector of the helpless.

Many a woman shudders… at the terrible eclipse of those intellectual powers which in early life seemed prophetic of usefulness and happiness… It is because we feel we have powers which are crushed, responsibilities which we are not permitted to exercise… rights vested in us as moral and intellectual beings which are utterly ignored and trampled upon.. It is because we feel this so keenly we now demand an equal education with man.” (22)

Reading these words gave me immediate pangs of restless frustration for Grimké. She was absolutely aware that she was being deprived from developing into her full potential.  Her pain is palpable as she is fully conscious of the unfairness that she is deprived from education due to gender. Her parents recognized her intelligence, but they were both adamant that she would not cross over the expectations for women of their class. Her father was a prominent attorney and judge and she also wanted to pursue a career in law. Her father let her borrow his law books, but would not allow her to learn Latin to further her studies. There is a sense of hard limits placed on the education of women, without any account of their intellectual ability or personal agence. In contrast to Sarah, her brothers received every educational opportunity.

This sense of “not being chosen” by a power of authority, in this case, both her father and mother, also feeds into the experience of inferiority that we pointed out earlier. It also maddeningly encodes and ensures the pattern that men should lead and women should follow.

[Not sure if this belongs in the Podcast, but would love to know your thoughts and feelings in response to this part of the quote.]

Education becomes institutionalized when elites - military, religious or political - need to assure their position in power by means of training a group to serve and perpetuate their interests. ...Since

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About the Podcast

Breaking Down Patriarchy
An Essential Texts Book Club
Breaking Down Patriarchy is a podcast for everyone! Learn about the creation of patriarchy and those who have challenged it as you listen to bookclub-style discussions of essential historical texts. Gain life-changing epiphanies and practical takeaways through these smart, relatable conversations.

About your host

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Amy Allebest

I grew up in Colorado as the oldest of 5 children, reading, writing, drawing, singing, and practicing the piano and violin. I attended Brigham Young University, where I met Erik Allebest during my first week of freshman year, studied abroad in Israel, lived in Chile for a year and a half as a missionary, and married Erik all before graduating with a degree in English. Erik and I moved around - to Colorado, Southern California, Utah, Spain, and Northern California - while Erik started and ran chess businesses for a living (primarily chess.com) and I stayed home to raise our four children. Those four kids have become brilliant, hilarious people and are our very best friends. I am a long-time trail runner, a recent CrossFitter, a lifelong reader and writer, and an almost-graduate of Stanford University's Master's of Liberal Arts program.