Posts Tagged ‘patriarchy’

Why Men Rule

Tuesday, May 12th, 2009

In this post I want to give an overview of a controversial subject that cannot be avoided by anyone interested in gender equality. Please let me know in the comments if you disagree with any of the facts of conclusions that I list, since I believe that this is a subject that deserves a deep analysis.

Here’s the bullet point overview:

  • To this day, no human civilization has been run by a matriarchy (i.e. women having most of the positions of power). One by one the anthropological claims of having found a tribe or culture with female governance have been disproved. Currently there are no verified examples of predominantly female governance.
  • This means that men have always had the majority of the high status positions, in every known society.
  • Not all men want status, but it appears that men are much more likely to make the sacrifices necessary to reach an important position in society, regardless of whether the price to pay is deteriorating health, less time with family or even risk of dying.
  • Since the absence of a matriarchy is a cross-cultural phenomenon, we cannot look for an explanation in cultural variables. Thus, we turn to biology.
  • What biological factors could there be? We have knowledge about girls and women who were exposed to abnormally high testosterone levels in utero (for various biological reasons, one of them being the medical condition CAH). These girls, who have been affected by testosterone as their fetal brains were developing, are more likely to be interested in a style of playing that is generally considered “boyish”.
  • Furthermore, from age 11 these girls are more likely to be interested in having a career (Dittman et al, 1990a) and less likely to want to have children or be a stay-at-home mom than other girls their age. This is something that happens even though the girl is raised as a girl, and expected to behave like a girl. As grown women, they are more likely to have a high status career (Purigoy and Koopmans, 1979; W Gallagher, 1998; Bancroft et al, 1983)

Personally I consider these bullet points to be a strong piece of evidence for innate differences in behavior between men and women (though there are certainly lots of other good pieces of evidence).

This brings us to one of the “hard problems” of gender equality: how can we accept that there are differences between men and women on a group level, and not allow this to lead to discrimination? How do we separate the individual from the collective? I’ve already written about this problem once, but it continues to fascinate me. If you have any interesting ideas to share, then let me know.

(The title of this post has been borrowed from the author Stephen Goldberg, who’s written a book on this very subject.)

Who Produces the Food? – Part Two

Friday, February 13th, 2009

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.

Horticulture(Neolithic era)

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).

Agrarian Farming

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.

Women’s Liberation vs Black Slavery

Wednesday, February 4th, 2009

It is quite common to compare feminism, or women’s liberation, to other major liberation movements. Sometime the comparisons focus on how women have a lot in common with people in the GLBT movement (GLBT = gay, lesbian, bisexual, transsexual), and at other times women are bundled together with immigrants. The argument that is usually put forward is that women have been oppressed, just like GLBT people and immigrants have been and are oppressed.

Perhaps the most common comparison is that of drawing parallels between feminism and the Civil Rights Movement in the US. Just like black people have had to endure oppression, racism and slavery at the hands of white people – women are said to have been oppressed by men, and to therefore have a lot in common with African Americans. According to this view, black people in the US and women around the world, are simply two oppressed groups who have been and still are fighting for their freedom and rights.

I believe this kind of comparison to be deeply flawed, and it doesn’t hold up to a closer scrutiny. African Americans have certainly had to face slavery, oppression and all kinds of horrible acts that they could not defend themselves against. Even to this day, there remains a lot of prejudice, racism and discrimination that needs to be dealt with, in the US and around the world.

However, women’s history has not been shaped by men who actively oppressed women. Women’s (and men’s) history has been co-created by men and women, and has largely been determined by survival needs which made certain gender roles or behaviors more or less unavoidable. Patriarchy was not created by men, it was simply a functional fit to the historical circumstances – so that human beings could survive and start building more civilized societies.

To investigate this further, and check whether my assumption is correct, let’s travel back in time. Here is a list of some the major difficulties and oppressive structures that black slaves had to face, when slavery was still around:

1. Slaves do the heavy labor
2. Slaves do the dangerous labor
3. The lives of slaves are worth less than the lives of their owners
4. Slaves are only worth something to society if they perform
5. Slaves do not have a voice in the public sphere
6. Slaves cannot vote
7. Slaves are confined to the home
8. Slaves cannot earn a salary

As you can see, slave owners – being in complete control of their slaves and being free to oppress them as they saw fit – left all the unwanted responsibilities to the slaves while giving them none of the coveted benefits. If women are indeed oppressed by men within a patriarchy, then we would expect men to make similar choices: giving all the benefits to themselves while letting women take care of all the undesirable chores and responsibilities.

When we look at the above points (1-8) through a gender lens, who was given what task within a patriarchy? If men really did oppress and control women, then we would expect women to have a situation corresponding to that of the slaves in all or most cases.

1. Slaves do the heavy labor. In a patriarchy, it is the responsibility of men to do the heavy work. Some of you may object to the inclusion of this point, and say that of course men did the heavy labor; men are simply a whole lot stronger! However, that objection actually rhymes well with what I claimed above: that history has been co-created by men and women, and gender roles have been determined by survival needs and who could do certain tasks most efficiently.

2. Slaves do the dangerous labor. In a patriarchy men have to perform the dangerous work. In fact, women are discouraged to ever take part in any dangerous activities and the safety of women (and children) is often emphasized. The reason for this is that historically every society needed lots of children to prosper, and only women have wombs.

3. The lives of slaves are worth less than the lives of their owners. Similarly, men’s lives are worth less than women’s lives in a patriarchy. Men are expected to die for their country, die protecting their wife, or die performing a dangerous job.

4. Slaves are only worth something to society if they perform. Again, it is men who have a situation similar to the slaves. Unemployed men or men who hold down very low status jobs don’t get much respect from society, or from women for that matter.

5. Slaves do not have a voice in the public sphere. Clearly, this corresponds to women’s situation in a patriarchy. Women cannot work and are expected to stay home most of the time in a traditional patriarchal society.

6. Slaves cannot vote. Men were given this right before women, so women are the ones who most closely match the slaves in this case.

7. Slaves are confined to the home. As stated above, women tend to be confined to the home in a traditional patriarchal society.

8. Slaves cannot earn a salary. Women are the ones who don’t have access to the labor market in an old-fashioned patriarchy, so women’s situation is the one that resembles that of the slaves in this example.

The result of this simple thought experiment is very interesting. If men oppressed women the same way that white slave owners could oppress their black slaves, then we would expect women and blacks to end up in the same disadvantageous situations – at least most of the time. However, the analysis above indicates that the unwanted tasks and the withheld rights are distributed pretty equally between men and women, even in a traditional patriarchal society that supposedly benefits men.

A common feminist definition of patriarchy is: “Patriarchal refers to power relations in which women’s interests are subordinated to the interests of men” (this definition is taken from the book Introducing Feminism by Cathia Jenainati and Judy Groves). At one point in my life I believed this definition to be correct, but at this point I take it for what it is: misinformed ideology. Women have suffered terribly throughout history (as have men), but if women’s interests were truly subordinated to the interests of men within a patriarchy, then this thought experiment would have turned out very differently.

Culture Wars: The Need for a Culture to Be Competitive

Monday, January 26th, 2009

Roy F. Baumeister is a social psychologist who in 2007 gave an excellent speech on the topic “Is There Anything Good About Men?”, that I resonate deeply with. Unfortunately I wasn’t there to hear him speak, but a transcript is freely available.

The gist of Baumeister’s talk is that the feminist assumption that men and women constantly compete for power within a culture, may not be as true as many people think. In fact, feminism has created a false worldview of the sexes always being against each other and competing for power. The reality is that throughout history men and women have usually been forced to cooperate in order to obtain adequate amounts of food and to ensure that their offspring survives and thrives.

We approach a much more profound truth when we realize that every culture has always competed with other cultures for power and influence. The largest determinant of how cultures have been organized through history is not a power struggle between men and women, but instead a competition between different cultures. Cultures have had to be organized efficiently enough to be able to maintain or even increase their power and influence, or else face the possibility of being dominated or subsumed by another, more efficient culture.

So why has there been this constant competition, whether fierce or subtle, between different cultures? Why haven’t cultures been able to get along peacefully, trusting each other to only want what best for everyone? Nowadays, we see that lots of countries do try to stay out of wars as much as possible, and two democracies have still never gone to war with each other. However, historically speaking, cultures and people simply weren’t as evolved as we are now, so the primitive threat of being overrun or dominated by your neighbouring culture was always a very real threat.

Cultures therefore needed to be as efficient as possible, in order to stay competitive and also to simply be able to gather enough food to survive. As it turns out, what all successful cultures have discovered is that it is very efficient and beneficial to use men for most or all of the high risk tasks, while keeping women as safe as possible. As you are probably aware of yourself, this pattern of using men for high risk activities while keeping women safe remains with us until this day.

But why did women need to be kept safe? Why couldn’t women participate alongside men in the dangerous activities? The safety of women has always been crucial, because it’s only women who have wombs – and wombs are the limiting factor for maintaining or increasing the population of a certain culture. Men’s biological contribution to reproduction is simply a batch of sperms, and sperms are abundant. Each man could potentially father hundreds of children with hundreds of different women, which means that men have never been a limiting factor in the reproduction process.

Each woman, on the other hand, can only be pregnant with one baby at a time (on average), and each pregnancy lasts for nine months. Losing the life of a woman is thereby equivalent to losing a womb, and from the perspective of a culture competing with other cultures, this represents the loss of a “baby factory”. Lots of children being born increased the chances for a culture to expand its influence and power. When population grows, you have more people available to produce wealth by working, trading or fighting. And in this context wealth creation is pretty the same thing as becoming more powerful and influential.

We can now see that the competition that has been going on between different cultures or societies around the world has been a major catalyst for the evolution of human culture and human societies. Constantly striving for wealth creation and better organization, in order to be able to compete better, has fueled the process of increased civilization and has given us more sophisticated ways of being human. We’ve simply become less primitive and more evolved.

The downside to all this is that even to this day, we view men as expendable and male lives as less worth than female lives. Men are still the ones who go to war, and who do the dangerous jobs such as being a police officer, fireman, coal miner, oil platform worker and pretty much any dangerous job you can think of. This is an issue that is currently not addressed properly in the gender debate, and feminism does not have this issue on its agenda.

Feminism has very much realized that the whole business of keeping women safe, helped contribute to women being shut out of the public sphere, which isn’t desirable in a modern society. However, if we are intellectually honest, we need to look at the flip side of the coin, and the fact that because of cultures competing in the past (and to some extent still competing) – men now have a gender role where they are considered expendable or disposable.

Stay tuned for the upcoming post where I’ll address this universal male expendability in a lot more detail.