This is the second and final installment of my overview of how gender roles and food production are intertwined throughout history. If you haven’t already, please read Part One to get an introduction to the subject.
Obtaining enough food to survive has been the main occupation of humanity for thousands of years. The close relationship between food production and survival, means that the manner of producing food is one of the key factors that has driven the evolution of gender roles.
The Stone Age (Paleolithic and Mesolithic eras)
During the Stone Age, there were two primary strategies available for finding food: you could go hunting for meat, or you could gather roots, nuts, herbs and fruits. These hunter-gatherer societies had still not discovered farming, so that wasn’t an option.
Hunter-gatherer societies appear to have had a fairly strict division of labor, with men performing all of the hunting, and women doing most of the gathering. The reasons for this kind of division of labor are pretty straightforward. Men simply have superior upper body strength compared to women, and men can also run faster, both of which are advantageous in order to be a successful hunter. Furthermore, women become pregnant while men don’t, and being pregnant would slow down a hunter tremendously while also risking a miscarriage (which would be a disaster in terms of human survival). Babies also needed to be nursed for up to three years, which all in all made it very difficult for women to participate in the hunting.
The best choice available to maximize chances of survival was therefore to let men do the hunting while letting women do most of the gathering and taking care of the children. So even at the very dawn of humanity, we see a tendency for men to work away from home, and for women to stay close to their children and work near the home. These roles were established without any discrimination occurring, they simply represent what worked best at this point in time.
Horticultural farming was the first kind of farming that human beings developed, and it simply means farming using a digging stick or a hoe. What’s interesting about horticultural farming is that it does not require the upper body strength of men, nor does it increase the risk of a pregnant woman miscarrying. Consequently, women are perfectly capable of sowing crops using a digging stick or a hoe, and this is exactly what they ended up doing.
During the horticultural era, the men continued to go hunting, while the women did most of the farming as well as the gathering of roots, herbs and nuts. Hunting was still a very bad choice for women, for the reasons listed above, so this division of labor was likely quite straightforward. However, the addition of farming led to women producing around 80 percent of the foodstuff!
This overwhelming female dominance in producing food led to women gaining more importance in the public sphere, and it was also reflected in the religious practice. The horticultural period corresponds to the era of the “Great Mother”, the “Earth Goddess” and other female deities. In fact, the majority of deities became female, simply because these societies – consciously or unconsciously – recognized the important role that women played in obtaining food.
In spite of this increased female influence in the public sphere, horticulture did not lead to a matriarchy, though some societies were matrilineal and traced ancestry through the mother. Research indicates that a matriarchy has never existed (all described cases of matriarchy have been debunked), so clearly there are other factor besides food production that influence governance in a society (this is likely related to neurohormonal factors, something that I will address in future blog posts).
While horticultural farming was carried out using a hoe or a simple digging stick, agrarian farming involved heavy plows drawn by oxen or horses. The sheer weight of these plows meant that they had to be operated by men, since women did not have the strength to do so. Additionally, the risk of miscarriage increased if women tried to operate these heavy plows.
Since agrarian farming and the keeping of livestock meant that no hunting, gathering or horticultural farming was needed, men all of a sudden produced virtually all of the food! This was a radical change from previous eras in human history, and the impact this had on cultures around the world was huge.
Men now had to work in the fields (away from home), and women had to do most of the lighter chores and raise the children (within the home). Agrarian farming created a sharper separation between the male and female gender roles than ever before, with the public sphere becoming a male only sphere, and the private sphere becoming a female only sphere.
The agrarian phase thus marks the start of what is often referred to as patriarchy. Instead of having female goddesses the deities now became men, or rather a single man, simply referred to as God. Please note though that I’m not talking about patriarchy as “a system where women’s interests are subordinated to the interests of men” but instead “a system where men are responsible for the public sphere, and women are responsible for the private sphere”. There was no oppression involved in setting up patriarchy, it simply crystallized into being since it was the best choice available at the time for both genders.
Industrialization and the Information Age
What’s interesting to note is that once industrialization freed humankind from depending on raw strength to perform heavy work, rapid change started happening more or less instantly. In a couple of hundred years, a snap of the fingers historically speaking, gender roles have evolved significantly. Women have been given the right to vote, the right to work and the right to have a voice in the public sphere. Once the factors that kept women in the home were removed, women were given the possibility to have a life outside the home.
My prediction is that men are now next in line to be given more choice and more freedom, and to have their gender role be less constricted. Then and only then, will men and women be able to work side by side to co-create the future.
These simple historical facts about food production demonstrate that oppression isn’t needed as an explanation for how gender roles came about. We can see a very clear trend of simple biological facts affecting or even determining what gender roles arose. Women’s ability to become pregnant, and women’s lesser upper body strength, have been instrumental in deciding the roles of women and men from early Stone Age right up to the era of traditional farming.
Gender roles haven’t developed as the result of human introspection or conscious choices, instead men and women have simply taken on the roles that would allow their tribe or community to be as effective as possible at obtaining food. This rhymes well with my own mantra that gender roles have always been a functional fit to the circumstances at hand, and not some kind of secret conspiracy to oppress women.
By getting our facts straight, a lot of misattributed male guilt and male shaming can be released, something that is long overdue in the current discourse on gender roles. The feminist attribution of guilt to men as a collective, is something I want to play a part in terminating.
I hope that the facts outlined in this post can contribute to a deeper understanding of gender roles that does not shame or put down either men or women.