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Wifedom and the casual patriarchy


Anna Funder’s recent book, Wifedom, is a sustained indictment of patriarchy both in particular and in general. Firstly, and very specifically in particular, it is a searing indictment of George Orwell’s treatment of his wife, Eileen O’Shaughnessy, during the nine years of their marriage.

Secondly, and also in particular, it is an indictment of the six classical biographers of Orwell in that they are complicit with him in obliterating the memory of O’Shaughnessy from their consideration of Orwell’s life and times.

Thirdly, and more generally, it is an indictment of the ways in which casual patriarchy and ‘wifedom’ continue to dominate male/female relations even in the most enlightened families and circumstances. 

Eileen O’Shaughnessy (1905-1945) was a scholarship Oxford graduate and studying for a Master’s in Psychology at University College, London, when she met Orwell at a party in 1935.  They were married a year later.  She dropped out of university and lived with her husband in distressingly primitive conditions in a 17th Century country cottage.  There she was his literary amanuensis, his editor and typist, his more-than-occasional nurse (Orwell suffered from tuberculosis), his live-in cook, plumber and gardener, and parent to their adopted son. She alone ran their farm and shop and even undertook part-time employment so that her husband could devote himself to his evolving literary career totally unencumbered by domestic and familial responsibilities. But, more than that. Funder suggests – and advances evidence to this effect – that O’Shaughnessy not only edited but also contributed to, and even inspired, some of his later works, especially Animal Farm (1945).

Yet nowhere in his writing does Orwell acknowledge Eileen either by name or as a strong, intelligent, resourceful woman in her own right. Nor does he seem to appreciate the support she afforded him which enabled him to devote himself so exclusively to writing and politics. She is the invisible woman in his life, not only unacknowledged, but, Funder suggests, in Orwell’s eyes not worthy of acknowledgement. It is patriarchy writ large, and all the more confronting for being so casual. 

The classical biographies of Orwell share in this casual patriarchy. They, too, fail to acknowledge Eileen’s influence on Orwell and the extraordinary demands he extracted from her.  Significantly, all these biographers are male, and one cannot help but think that Orwell’s casual patriarchy is a shared chromosomal blind-spot in their critical assessment of his life and times.  Funder then suggests gently but, nonetheless, firmly that this casual patriarchy continues to affect most male/female relationships, even suspecting that her own marriage is not exempt from its influence.


'Perhaps the participants in the Roman Synod could profit in the three-day retreat that precedes the Synod from a reading of Wifedom and a showing of Barbie.'


Granted this more general observation, it is perhaps not altogether surprising that this same theme of patriarchy emerges as a significant dimension in a context far removed from scholarly literary studies, the recent box-office sensation, the film Barbie. There Barbie’s boyfriend, Ken, transitioning from the Barbie paradise, Barbieland, to the real world, is infected by patriarchy in an extreme form, machismo even. 

Initially, in the Barbie paradise, Ken is Barbie’s male appendage, a ‘handbag’ boyfriend.  In Barbieland every night is ‘girls’ night out’, and any attempt on his part to enter into a more intimate relationship with Barbe is doomed to frustration. But when he transitions with Barbie into the real world the situation is reversed. Barbie is no longer a princess as modern feminists repudiate her, but Ken comes into his own as a member of the ruling patriarchal class.  Anything is possible: professor, surgeon, politician – he is male.  

So, armed with this new-found status and confidence Ken returns to Barbieland and, with the assistance of like-minded males, proposes to subvert the matriarchal constitution of the Barbie paradise. Initially he is successful, but, unfortunately for him and his assistants, the form of patriarchy which he espouses rapidly degenerates into an extreme machismo. Inevitably there is internecine quarrelling and competitiveness among the males.  This distracts them from their plans to delegitimize female dominance. They are led astray by clever female pandering to their pride and patriarchy. Their coup never eventuates, female order is restored, and Barbieland remains ‘girls’ night out’, purged of patriarchy.

Patriarchy masquerades in many forms in the Catholic profile, and one of the items high on the agenda of the upcoming Synod on Synodality in Rome in October is the place of women in the Church. Hierarchical male governance, clericalism, celibacy, non-inclusive liturgical language, the reservation of priesthood exclusively to males, sexuality and reproduction matters generally, all consideration of these is impregnated with patriarchy. Even Pope Francis himself, who has been quite innovative in creating opportunities for women in the Church, speaks more often of the ‘complementarity’ of men and women than of their ‘equality’.

It will require a massive re-thinking if these agenda items are to be honestly addressed in the Synod. Casual patriarchy is not confined to many male/female partnerships. Modern parables like Barbie serve as a reminder for its presence endemic in our society. Perhaps the participants in the Roman Synod could profit in the three-day retreat that precedes the Synod from a reading of Wifedom and a showing of Barbie.




Bill Uren, SJ, AO, is a Scholar-in-residence at Newman College at the University of Melbourne. A former Provincial Superior of the Australian and New Zealand Jesuits, he has lectured in moral philosophy and bioethics in universities in Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth and has served on the Australian Health Ethics Committee and many clinical and human research ethics committees in universities, hospitals and research centres.

Main image: Detail from Wifedom cover (Penguin Books Australia).

Topic tags: Bill Uren, Wifedom, Barbie, Patriarchy, Orwell, Eileen O’Shaughnessy, Synod, Pope Francis



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Existing comments

I’m not sure that casual patriarchy is a significant problem in the Church. I believe that interpersonal relationships are as tricky for men as they are for women. A personal relationship with God (as difficult as that is to define) is what brings us to worship and participation in the life of the Church. Men happen to lead worship and steer the ship however it is our inner life with Christ which is the primary importance in our being where we are. I’d recommend “Middlemarch” as a novel for male clerics to read.

Pam | 27 September 2023  

How does one get Bill a red hat ?

Ginger Meggs | 27 September 2023  

'Complementarity' between males and females, a term that conveys mutual support, is a richer, more meaningful word than 'equality' - the latter's usage having become synonymous with homogeneity as many females increasingly copycat males in speech and dress, manifest especially in sports.
Moreover, call for "a massive re-thinking" in the upcoming Synod on Synodality on matters relating to human sexuality - such as Critical Theory-based gender ideology - would find itself concerned not so much with a "patriarchy" bogeyman as with the expanding diffusion of gender identities beyond binary understanding, and the implications of this phenomenon for ecclesial leadership, identity and life.

John RD | 28 September 2023  

When men talk about 'complementarity', John, they usually mean 'supplementarity'. Surely 'equality' is a necessary prerequisite to a relationship of mutual support ?

Ginger Meggs | 29 September 2023  
Show Responses

Ginger, we must move in different circles; but maybe we can settle for a 'both-and' on this one.

John RD | 01 October 2023  

'Casual patriarchy' pervades our language - and therefore our society - so much so that we don't see it John. Consider the order in the couplets 'Mr and Mrs', 'husband and wife', 'king and queen', 'duke and duchess', 'men and women'... all signifying an order - male before female. Even the reversing of the order in 'ladies and gentlemen' where, in polite society, we pretend to place women on a pedestal (and therefore out of the way and out of the fray) illustrates the point. When you and I were young, our mothers would have been addressed as Mrs John Meggs, Mrs. William RD until they were widowed and therefore no longer 'owned'. That practice has faded, but I still get formal invitations addressed to Mr and Mrs Ginger Meggs! In gendered languages like French, the female form of the third person plural pronoun referring to a group of a thousand women (elles) reverts to the male form (ils) with the addition of a solitary man. The same occurs in Chinese! None of this is accidental, none of it is about 'complementarity', it's all about pecking order.

Ginger Meggs | 01 October 2023  
Show Responses

In saying "None of this is accidental" are you suggesting some historical international conspiracy on the part of males to reduce females to 'owned' status, Ginger? Social conventions as basic and widespread as the ones you mention seem to me to be expressions that derive largely from nature rather than deliberate sociological prescription - a view I recognize as contrary to the popular contemporary notion that all reality is a social construct - one that prompted the eminent sociologist Peter Berger to write in 1969 a qualifying philosophical and theological sequel titled "A Rumour of Angels" to his influential but often misunderstood 1966 book co-authored with Thomas Luckmann, "The Social Construction of Reality".

John RD | 03 October 2023  

If you imply by the word 'conspiracy' John that there has been some secrecy in the widespread subjugation of women by men, the answer is no; the evidence to the contrary is everywhere to be seen. Just because something is practiced traditionally or widely over time and place doesn't mean that it is 'natural' and therefore not a social construct. It was once considered 'natural' for women to be subject to their father, then 'given away' to their husband, to have no property rights, and to be be unable to vote or stand for public office. Gradually, these traditional inequalities are being removed but there are many yet to go. Not until women have equal agency with men can there be truly complementary partnerships between women and men.

Ginger Meggs | 06 October 2023  

Can we ever get to the stage where we see men and women as mutually complementary and supportive, as John RD suggests? To misinterpret him and start a cheap semantic squabble is IMHO to degrade the issue.
The issue of sex in the Catholic Church - where priests and nuns are required to put their sexuality on ice for life - is not, for most people, what I would consider a healthy option psychologically speaking. We have, at the moment, an aged, somewhat fossilized and slowly responsive hierarchy running things. It is by and large almost totally male, with the odd nun running one or two dicasteries. This is mainly administrative work. It can be opened up and the administrators do not all have to be clerics or nuns.

Edward Fido | 03 October 2023  

The conversation between Ginger and John RD reflects the disparity between men as to the question “Is patriarchy alive and well?” I would suggest that patriarchy is alive, in society and in the Church, but it is not well. We know when we are dominating another person and it’s not a good feeling. We know when we are using connections to bring another person to our point of view and it’s not a healthy way to live. Usually (but not always) it is the male who is the dominant person or the person using connections. The ruler of our Church, Jesus, is not like the dominators.

Pam | 03 October 2023  
Show Responses

Pam, it's only appropriate that you qualify as you do the generalizing of males as "the dominant person" - especially when one considers a number of biblical women; rulers of Egypt; mistresses, wives and mothers of Greek and Roman imperial rulers; medieval saints; and modern day women in politics. Not to mention the persistent traction of the perennial maxim : "The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world" - (and a number of Irish, Italian, Greek, Polish, German and Chinese matriarchs of my acquaintance!)
And while I fully concur with your estimation of Jesus in his attitude towards and actions with women as we know it through the New Testament, I'm curious as to why you appear to distinguish between "casual patriarchy" in your post of 29/9 and this one of 3/10).

John RD | 05 October 2023  

Ok, John RD, let’s talk about biblical women. Hagar, for example. It was a dominant couple (Abraham and Sarah) in that relationship that led to a pregnancy for Hagar, then eventual banishment. There are many women in the bible who rise above their perilous circumstances (should they have to do that?) and even the women like Jezebel were often conforming to a male-dominated violent society. Jesus treated women as people who were precious, respected and loved. I was attempting in my post of 29/9 to make the point that casual patriarchy within the Church should not exist if a person has a living and dynamic relationship with Jesus.

Pam | 09 October 2023  

Thank you, Pam.
In the OT there are a number formidable women for whom opposing a dominant male patriarchy does not appear to have been a primary objective, agenda or claim to recognition: Eve, Rachel, Deborah, Naomi, Ruth and Esther among them. And chronologically closer to Christ, there are the NT figures of Mary, Jesus' mother; Elizabeth; Anna; Priscilla and Lydia - each of them, in close relationship with Jesus beyond the commonality of a shared era, recognized for dynamic faith and a spirit of service that transcends ideological stereotyping.

John RD | 09 October 2023  

Simply because one has written a book about another person, particularly about a person's marriage, does not mean that one is able to come to firm and valid conclusions about the subject.

In September there was an excoriating review of Wifedom by the noted and much-published Orwell scholar Jeffrey Meyer in The Article. https://www.thearticle.com/in-defence-of-george-orwell
It concluded by saying that:
'The standing of Orwell, who has sold millions of copies of his books, would not be hurt if gullible students and feminists swallowed Funder’s devious attack. The real losers would be discouraged readers. Funder ignores, as Peter Davison observes in The Lost Orwell, “how greatly valued Orwell still is throughout the world—and how essential to our outlook on the world".'

Jette | 08 October 2023  

I don't believe I was misinterpreting John, Edward, nor was I having a cheap shot at him. The problem with John's 'complementarity' is twofold; firstly it includes the subordination of women, as evidenced in his subsequent postings to Pam and myself, and secondly in that it excludes any possibility of a mutually supportive relationship beyond one between a man and a woman. What possible justification can there be for restricting the roles to which women might aspire, the sports in which they might compete, or the clothing they might choose to wear?

Ginger Meggs | 10 October 2023  

There is indeed a significant linkage observed here with, connecting the casual patriarchy with the Synod’s recent and to come discussion on the clearly lesser role of women in the Church
So pervasive this is, similarly with Funder’s real life heroine, she and husbands biographers never noticed it
Refreshing it is then to experience the converse, merely listening to our female Vicar in our Anglican Church, every Sunday, world without end…

David Tuke | 14 December 2023  

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