Tuesday, February 7, 2012

History of Gender Roles

Back in the days, I always wanted to write an essay about the history of gender roles. I didn't luckily, someone else recently did. Kudos to Girlwriteswhat. Here is her article as published on the GMP:

[T]he feminist interpretation of patriarchy as a system of oppression of women…it seems to be kind of wilfully detached from the reality of human history. It seems like a concerted effort to marry the idea of patriarchy with the concept of oligarchy into a single two-headed, double-penised beast known as Patriarchy Theory. This marriage of two completely disparate sociological concepts is, to feminists, a self-evident truth, simply because the majority of the agents of the oligarchy are, and always have been, male.

This is the starting point. Oligarchy is something we are familiar via the terms and glass ceiling and glass cellar. The first one is about the visibility of men in power and the second one about the invisibility of men at the bottom, giving the distorted view that men have all the power. Oligarchy, to cite from wiki, is a form of power structure in which power effectively rests with a small number of people. To use a term of the occupy movement the "1%". She goes on with describing oligarchy, that the power the oligarchs have lead to them hording more resources, becoming more influential and that the gap between poor and rich becomes larger.

On with the history of the patriarchy:

Patriarchy, however, is not an inherently oppressive idea. It is simply a way that the base-unit of society–the family–was organized. And it’s been the way that societies, large and small, have been organized pretty much since the dawn of time, and for good reason. Families were led by a male head of household, major decisions lay under the aegis of those family leaders, and lines of descent passed through males. That is, quite simply, all patriarchy is. And up until very recently on the continuum of human history, it was the most beneficial system for both men and women. And contrary to what feminists would have you believe, in the west patriarchy is mostly a dead system. [...]

The way [feminists] approach the stark reality of most of human history is from the standpoint that men somehow consciously or willfully constructed and directed femininity for their own benefit, and that women just kind of had to go along with it because they were physically weaker. They presume that masculinity developed under the influence of men alone in such a way that it became attached to characteristics of agency, like strength, action, and virility.

They believe men imposed this system on women, essentially Othering women as a class, and turning even the simple partnership of marriage into a contract of servitude and oppression of women for the benefit of men. What they fail to realize is that patriarchy imposed other characteristics on men than those of agency–disposability, utility, self-sacrifice and resource acquisition–and for the vast majority of our evolutionary past, women were the main beneficiaries and enforcers of these patriarchal gender norms. [...]

Men were, in many ways, all through human history, a servant class, not a class of oppressors. This is because even in the earliest stages of human evolution, we had an instinctive understanding of the ultimate equation. 10 women + 1 man = 10 babies, and that switching the numbers around pretty much meant the end of the whole shebang for us.Dangerous work was the work of men, and it still is. Physically taxing work was the work of men, and it still is. Going out into the big bad dangerous world to get resources while women stayed safe was the work of men, and it still is. Those among our ancestors who were born without some pattern of these gender roles in their brains would have ultimately been unsuccessful wrt passing on their genes. The woman who decided to go hunt mastodon rather than staying home in the cave was much more likely to end up dying young.And as has been demonstrated through genetic research, individual women were much more successful throughout the whole of human history at passing on their genes. 80% of the females who have ever lived had children. Only 40% of the males who have ever lived have done the same.Because all those small innate gender differences feminists view as insignificant now, were generated and reinforced by one HUGE difference, and that is that females, not males, are the limiting factor in the perpetuation of any species. A human settlement survived through the toil and sacrifice (often of the lives) of its men, and through the safety of its women and children. This is simply the way things had to be throughout the majority of human evolution, and when they weren’t, natural selection selected those individuals out of the species.[...]

It’s so easy to sit back in the comfort of our cushy lives right now and think that going outside the house to work is fulfilling, action-packed, exciting, kick-ass and an avenue to agency. But for the vast majority of our evolution, leaving home base meant taking your life in your hands–it was dangerous, physically taxing, and often ended in death.[...]

Feminists are infamous for looking at the past through the lens of the present. To take what the domestic and public spheres look like NOW, and apply that to their vision of history. But the nature of work outside the home was a very different beast throughout most of history than it is now.[...]

On the microscale of society, men and women could be said to have oppressed each other–the whole concept of marriage could be considered a two-way street of oppression (if one were a “glass is half empty” kind of person, I guess) where both parties benefitted from their oppression of the other. A kind of cost/benefit arrangement where, human nature being what it was, could certainly lead to one party contributing more than the other and benefitting less. Sometimes that was the woman, but I’d have to say that it was probably just as often the man. [...]

Symbiotic gender roles evolved through an interaction between the importance of women as the limiting factor in reproduction, the extremely dangerous world we inhabited for the majority of our evolutionary past, and genetic paths of least resistance. Given the nature of what our world was like, patriarchy was simply the most functional, successful way humans stumbled on to deal with the world as it was, no more diabolical or purposeful than the way ant colonies or wolf packs organize themselves. Like democracy, it’s the worst possible system, except for all the others. And when you consider the nature of the labor, sacrifice and demands placed on men in the past, I would guess that most women saw male authority as a fair trade for what they got out of the deal.

Patriarchy was, essentially, a collective, evolutionary human survival strategy. Arranging society that way created stability in a turbulent world–a world where a single loaf of bread could mean survival or starvation–and allowed us all our best chance to pass on our genes. And for most of history, people were too busy just surviving to tinker with such a successful system. This, I believe, is why gender roles are typically so much more strictly enforced in places where life is hard, cheap and soon over. Those roles offer both women and men living under extremely severe conditions the best chance of surviving long enough to create another generation. In other parts of the world, our lives are safe and relatively easy, and everything is much more relaxed.

That most oligarchical oppressors have been men rather than women is a result not of men being oppressors, but rather the result of men’s gender roles, which are themselves a result of the path of least resistance in the way societies tend to organize themselves due to our biology and the fact that, up until very recently, almost no one had any time, energy, wherewithal or luxury to challenge their roles.

I cut that text down to the patriarchy argument, which was pretty well presented. I assume I already stole too much, sigh. Read the whole thing though, it is absolutely worth it. And while we are at it, a shout out to her blog.


  1. The problem is that the (early) history of gender roles is the single area GirlWritesWhat is downright wrong about.

    I wrote a comment on that article on OYS, as well as a shorter one on GMP. Extremely in brief: humans have for the vast part of their history had very modest division of labor between the sexes. Increase in this can be traced back to agriculture and particularly plow agriculture.

  2. I really like your blog but this blog you quoted is very stupid. I'd much rather read your intelligent posts than quotes from somebody who is as mistaken as she is long-winded.

  3. I am usually data driven and surely cite too much that is good for me. I agree that this post was very lon-winded. Too much for my taste certainly, I do however think it is an interesting argument to make. I am all open for different opinions though (looking at HKs post above I am sure he has a point with agriculture).

    Where do you disagree?

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