How did women come to be regarded as inferior in society?
April 23, 2013 6:12 PM   Subscribe

Why/how did this idea actually start?

So, upon studying the Hebrew Bible for class, I became curious. As we discussed the Ten Commandments and how women were considered "property", it made me wonder: when and how did this actually start? Even in Genesis, Eve was merely a piece of Adam. These days, religion (among other things) is sometimes used as an excuse to oppress women, but what about the time before religion – how did women come to be regarded as inferior in the first place?

(Disclaimers: I realize that at many points in history, just about everyone lived under poor conditions, regardless of sex. I also understand that not all societies were against having women in power.)

I am not looking for interpretations of the Bible... it is just my starting point for the question! I also realize that there may be no true answer to this question, so I'm wondering what others have studied or even references to good books on this topic.

Thank you!
posted by metacognition to Religion & Philosophy (29 answers total) 45 users marked this as a favorite
I have assumed that this came from a position of physical strength. The men generally could force women to do what they wanted with actual physical force.
posted by saradarlin at 6:18 PM on April 23, 2013 [10 favorites]

The wiki on Patriarchy essentially covers the theories offered in the various sociology, political science, anthropology, psychology and women's studies courses I took in college. It's a good starting point.
posted by loquat at 6:21 PM on April 23, 2013 [5 favorites]

You may find this link interesting - The Origins of Women's Subjugation: A Tentative Reconstruction. I make no claims as to its accuracy.
posted by knapah at 6:22 PM on April 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

One theory is that women were more highly regarded before societies worked out the immediate link between sex, pregnancy and birth, and when they did, men started taking the credit for producing the babies (see: theories that men provide the homunculus, women only acting as incubators), became possessive of women and made efforts to ensure that any offspring born to their women was theirs only, and everything followed from that.
posted by zadcat at 6:46 PM on April 23, 2013 [3 favorites]

Nobody knows.

Seriously, really. We just don't know, and every theory we have about it is just the vaguest hint of a hypothesis. In my understanding as someone with a degree in both anthropology and women's studies, every single idea put forth so far is a just so story. And I don't say that because I think they're all bad ideas (as a feminist I quite liked the now-antiquated idea of a matriarchy shattered by men who felt threatened by women's ability to create life), just because, if we're all honest with ourselves, we know there's no scientific basis for any of it.

Short of finding an ancient script that we figure out how to translate and it turns out to be a journal entry of the last Grand High Leader Of The Matriarchy explaining how she was deposed yesterday by some dude brandishing a club and ranting something about sperm, we'll probably never have a satisfactory answer to this question.
posted by Sara C. at 7:10 PM on April 23, 2013 [26 favorites]

We read Peggy R. Sanday's Female Power and Male Dominance: On the Origins of Sexual Inequality in my cultural anthropology class. It mostly answers your question (and is an enjoyable read), but also describes some cultures where men act dominant, but women really hold the power. Male anthropologists missed the women "gossiping" at the river washing clothes, but Sanday & others realized the women were making village decisions that the men reiterated at council that night.
posted by morganw at 7:11 PM on April 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

The story of Lilith, Adam's first wife who, instead of allowing herself to be "inferior" to her husband, left to go do her own thing is an interesting one.

My google-fu is failing, but a couple years ago I heard an interview on public radio of an author of a book that described Eve as actually being first - not Adam. That the original text of the bible in its original language had the first human as being female, not male. It was the subsequent translations and editorializing that changed it to Adam.

I'm sorry that this doesn't answer your question better. But there are also some cultures where women are considered the stronger of the two sexes. Margaret Mead's work discussed this in great detail.
posted by jillithd at 8:34 PM on April 23, 2013

I'm midway through Marriage, a History, and the first few chapters were very good for an overview of different societies in how women and men and their relationships are handled. The sheer variety is astonishing, but also she had a good section talking about how the factors of inherited property vs nomadic, densely populated vs sparse, high income disparity vs communal etc were reflected in the roles of men and women in marriages and child-rearing. She does talk about religions, mostly in how they shaped cultural and political changes in marriage and gender roles.

It's a really well-written interesting book, and one where I have ended up keeping a list of keywords and names from it to follow-up on reading further plus her bibliography. I think it'd make an excellent overview for your question.
posted by viggorlijah at 8:54 PM on April 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

according to the hebrew scriptures: the Fall. this is when adam began to rule over eve.

eve being created out of adam doesn't make her inferior. you're thinking like a modern 20th century westerner who privileges individuality. this is not the case with the biblical text where relationship and community were privileged. man was created out of the dust and we have a connection/relationship to the earth. does this make man inferior to the earth? woman was created out of man and women have a connection/relationship to men as fellow human beings. it's all about relationships and connection, the whole of life. before the Fall things were egalitarian, no hierarchy. and pretty groovy.
posted by wildflower at 8:58 PM on April 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

I second saradarlin. If women were innately smarter than men, then it might be different, but I don't think there's any evidence that women are innately smarter than men. So in the absence of smarter, doesn't physical power take precedence? After all, if women were not smarter, and were weaker physically, why would they have been seen as superior or even equal? When hunting and hard farming labor are the components of survival, it seems those who are most capable of doing those tasks would be considered more powerful and superior. Is it possible that it's hard for women to intuit that because they have not been in those shoes? But look at who most women prefer to date - taller men. And look at presidents - they are almost all on the tall side. There is clearly a strong association between physical presence/dominance and perceived power and superiority.
posted by Dansaman at 9:57 PM on April 23, 2013

When hunting and hard farming labor are the components of survival, it seems those who are most capable of doing those tasks would be considered more powerful and superior.

This is an assumption that doesn't correspond to actual reality on the ground.

Firstly, in a lot of cultures, farm labor is women's work.

Secondly, in the few hunter/gatherer cultures that still exist, we often find two things:

- Men don't require great brute strength to hunt. It's more about speed, endurance, tracking, aim, skill with weapons, and the like, but more interestingly,

- The bulk of the actual calories consumed often comes from the "women's" work of gathering and hunting smaller game.

If, of course, you take as axiomatic that hunter/gatherers use that division of labor, which they often don't. But just, like, for the sake of argument.

This is a major reason why "common sense" just so stories aren't terribly useful. You can spin a story any way you want. They're interesting to think about, but almost impossible to prove in a way that is useful to scholars.
posted by Sara C. at 10:05 PM on April 23, 2013 [33 favorites]

I think physical force is absolutely the reason. Men can make women do whatever the hell they want because they are generally bigger. And that's on a good day--when they're pregnant, they are usually weaker and more vulnerable. Men have the strength and the raging testosterone and... Our entire societal history seems to be based on genders being different and the bigger one being superior.

I found some good quotes on this topic.

"One fairly good indicator of the extent of polygamy in a species is the size disparity between males and females--the more polygamous a species, the more males must fight to obtain harems. In the battle for dominance, size is usually the decisive factor, with the larger males monopolizing the females. Their size advantage is then passed along to their offspring so that the males continue to grow larger over time (in biological terms, women's bodies shouldn't be considered smaller versions of men's bodies; rather, women are the norm, and men's bodies should be considered larger versions of women's bodies). When a species is monogamous, males and females will be similar in size."

Men are roughly 10 percent taller and 20 percent heavier than women, which indicates mild polygamy. Applying a formula developed by biologists, we can estimate that male body size indicates harems of two to three women. But there is some good news. We appear to be evolving in a more monogamous direction. A few hundred thousand years ago, men used to be one and half times the size of females, so our current 20 percent difference represents a distinct decrease. If we give it another couple of hundred thousand years, we may find that men and women match each other exactly and live in perfect monogamous bliss."

--Decoding Love: Why It Takes Twelve Frogs to Find a Prince, and Other Revelations from the Science of Attraction, by Andrew Trees

"We are, physically, the weaker sex. We're not as good as hefting stones, killing mammoths, and rowing boats. In addition, sex often had the added complication of getting us pregnant and leaving us feeling "too fat" to lead an army into India. It's not a coincidence that efforts toward female emancipation only got going under the twin exegeses of industrialization and contraception--when machines made us the equal of men in the workplace, and the Pill made us the equal of men in expressing our desire. In more primitive times--what I would personally regard as any time before the release of Working Girl in 1988---the winners were always going to be those both physically strong enough to punch an antelope to the ground and whose libido didn't end up with them getting pregnant, then dying in childbirth.

So to the powerful came education, discussion, and the conception of "normality." Being a man and men's experiences were considered "normal": everything else was other. And as "other"--without cities, philosophers, scientists, and engineers--women were the losers. I don't think that women being seen as inferior is a prejudice based on male hatred of women. When you look at history, it's a prejudice based on simple fact."

"Women have--there's no two ways about this--really been shafted by the simple fact that men fancy them. We can see that men's desire for women has, throughout history, given rise to unspeakable barbarity. It's caused terrible, terrible things to happen, because men have been the dominant force, with no rules or checks on their behavior."

--How To Be A Woman, by Caitlin Moran.
posted by jenfullmoon at 10:14 PM on April 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

We're not as good as hefting stones, killing mammoths, and rowing boats. In addition, sex often had the added complication of getting us pregnant and leaving us feeling "too fat" to lead an army into India.

This kind of stuff is just straight up not science.

Now, maybe you're not looking for a fact-based answer to your question. In that case, I think that reading things like the above can be helpful. People from Aristotle to Gerda Lerner to the various evolutionary psychologists, as well as just about every religion that exists, have come up with potential answers to your question. You could spend a lifetime reading up on these different answers and seeing what rings true to you. That's really the best anybody can do right now.

But, y'know, keep in mind that these are all just, like, somebody's opinion, maaan.
posted by Sara C. at 10:50 PM on April 23, 2013 [7 favorites]

Mod note: Reminder: OP has asked for "what others have studied or even references to good books on this topic." So links to sources more helpful than personal opinions here. Thanks.
posted by taz (staff) at 11:05 PM on April 23, 2013

I will recommend th book "More work for mother." It documents 300 years of history for "labor saving" household technology, like vacuum cleaners and blenders. The finding: It mostly "saved" male labor, transferring hard physical labor done by men to easier labor done by women. For example, men used to periodically take up rugs, beat them outside to clean them, and then put them back down. They stopped doing that when vacuum cleaners were invented. Vacuuming tends to be women's work.

The book concluded that it freed up male labor so that men could focus more on paid labor at a time when the world was transitioning away from subsistence labor to paid labor. In other words, 300 years ago most labor was performed to physically care for yourself and your family. Men grew food on the farm and raised animals. Women had a vegetable garden and cooked and cleaned. Money was relatively uncommon. (In fact, the first president of the U.S., who has been determined to have been the richest president we ever had (at least relative to others during his life) had to borrow money to make the trip to Washington for his inauguration. He had land and substantial net worth but no money on hand.)

So when mom and dad each literally brought food to the table by the sweat of their brow, they weren't seen as differently as we now imagine. Men have long had some advantages. But the assumptions we make about historical practices frequently distort things by imposing our current models. A lot of what we think we see when we look back on history was perceived differently at the time because labor was much more often about sewing your own clothes and building your own house, etc, rather than for money.

The current tendency to confuse value and price strongly biases views towards perceiving men as superior because they make more money. And I think the fluidity of money does push things in that direction. But that's moving into the area of my opinion and away from what the book actually says. So I will stop here.
posted by Michele in California at 11:29 PM on April 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

Coontz's Marriage, A History is definitely one to read. Also, I recommend Mothers and Others by Sarah Blaffer Hrdy (PDF link goes to review of book). Hrdy's book is more about childrearing than the origins of patriarchy, but she speculates that once some societies settled down and started accumulating large amounts of private property, women's oppression was part of the process of consolidating power into the hands of a few alpha males - obedient, chaste women posed less of a threat to the power structure. Children became part of the collateral damage because women were now expected to have more children, closer together, with less help; and children now stopped being treated with affection and permissiveness and it became "spare the rod and spoil the child" because now children were to obey their parents.

In Coontz's book she also skirts around the idea that patriarchy may have partly arisen to control "lesser" men - so that independent "uppity" women of wealth wouldn't go and marry a handsome serf and thus enrich some undeserving nobody and his family.

There is a vast, vast literature on the topic from all the sciences and many people who just have an axe to grind. I would especially recommend starting from anthropology and sociology as there is value in looking at what other cultures have made of gender (I've also read Sanday's book and it is a good read; she has the advantage of being able to compare many different cultures).
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 11:44 PM on April 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

Like Sara C., I also have a background in sociology and anthropology; my comparative literature Masters thesis was on creation myths in Native American (especially Haudenosaunee), Scandinavian, and Greek societies, with a nod to our own modern-day culture that's inculcated with the Christian creation myth. (As you can see in this very thread, there are people arguing that "men are stronger" is a reason in and of itself, and finding just-so stories to support that; this is precisely what our Western "creation myth" also argues.)

I could write (well, did write) hundreds of pages on this, so will boil it down to the most helpful work I came across as pertains to your question: Chain Her By One Foot: The Subjugation of Native Women in Seventeenth-Century New France. It is a distilled example of "how patriarchy replaced egalitarian gender relations". It is very complex and cannot be boiled down to one or even two things. I highly recommend reading it, since it touches on so many different aspects that contributed to egalitarian relationships being replaced by power relationships. I'll try to summarize: traumatic change over a long period of time, search for meaning, an example of meaning being given by people who appeared to be positively affected by the traumatic changes (colonists/missionaries), and the negatively-affected people hoping that by adopting the "new manner of being", the traumatisms "caused" (as interpreted for them by the missionaries) by their old way of being, would end.

When you look at how patriarchal attitudes and systems work in our own world, that interdependent complexity is indeed what comes out. "Just so" stories really do not work. If it were that easy to explain, we wouldn't still be debating patriarchy.

What really came through in my own research was that we have a very rigid view of textuality and mythology. "The Version" is given authority by our Western societal upbringing, which is not the case in other cultures. (I also know this from personal experience since I have Native American friends, who never put forth their beliefs as "The Beliefs". Indeed, their own beliefs embrace diversity: people have spirit animals, or spirit plants, as in the case of the Kalapuya in my area. Each person has to find their own soul guide; it cannot be given to them by anyone or anything external. And people can never find their guide, or lose it. There's not a rigid "do it this way or else" view, but a "find your way, which, as long as it too is supportive of diversity, shall be supported by us since we support diversity," if you were to try to put it in so many words.) Even in Greek society, there were different mythologies. There was not one mythology. There were different, more egalitarian (interestingly) views of creation where Eros originated the universe; where Chaos and Eros coexisted; etc. almost ad infinitum. So it's also good to ask ourselves: why do we give so much importance to texts? Where does that "authoritative text" belief come from, and why are "authoritative texts" given precedence over genuinely lived experiences? Over the rich diversity of views that we can find simply by talking to people around us?
posted by fraula at 1:06 AM on April 24, 2013 [17 favorites]

It is definitely not just about this (so feel free to skip around the book to find what you want), but Ken Wilber's A Brief History of Everything addresses the point in human civil-evolution where men tended to have authority over women.

I am not smart enough to know if he is a genius or crazy, but he has an articulate answer to your question, and one I'd not read before.

And I know you didn't ask for this, but it's bugging me: depending on your reading of the text, H'adam is not specifically sexed until the creation of Eve (or Kavvah, or whatever). It's a similar vibe to the Greek legends of ancestral hermaphrodites.
posted by Poppa Bear at 6:49 AM on April 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

Here's a nice short summary from the Library of Congress on some of Margaret Mead's anthropology discoveries regarding gender:
Mead found a different pattern of male and female behavior in each of the cultures she studied, all different from gender role expectations in the United States at that time. She found among the Arapesh a temperament for both males and females that was gentle, responsive, and cooperative. Among the Mundugumor (now Biwat), both males and females were violent and aggressive, seeking power and position. For the Tchambuli (now Chambri), male and female temperaments were distinct from each other, the woman being dominant, impersonal, and managerial and the male less responsible and more emotionally dependent.
posted by jillithd at 6:55 AM on April 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

I've always figured that in part it had to do with high mortality in childbirth. It's hard to get too attached to somebody if you might go through 3 or 4 wives in the process of filling out your household. Even without strength differences, this is a biggie.

(no claims of expertise here, just more rumination. writing down some of the above references!)
posted by acm at 7:15 AM on April 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

but what about the time before religion – how did women come to be regarded as inferior in the first place?

Other people have had good answers, but I just want to emphasize that the religion and society you describe is not the only religion and society thats exist or has existed on this planet. Doing some reading into the roles of women outside the Judeo-Christian tradition might be enlightening. Just one example: the historian Sybille Haynes does a great job in her work on the Etruscans emphasizing the different role women seem to have played in that particular society (her Etruscan Civilization is kind of the standard intro text for Etruscan studies now, so it doesn't just focus on women, but she makes sure to stop and discuss women periodically). Some of the phenomena she and other Etruscologists have had to explain are the use of matronymics in the Etruscannaming system and the appearance of bronze weapons and chariots in the graves of women -- the current understanding is not that women went to battle themselves, but rather that the symbols of a military aristocracy were equally available to women and to men.
posted by oinopaponton at 8:29 AM on April 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

I just want to add a quick word of caution about anthropological studies based particularly on mortuary practices and grave goods: As modern anthropologists, sometimes we get sloppy and gender graves based on grave goods that we assume are male/female instead of actually sexing the skeletons. Or we overlay our own gender prejudices on top of finds, privileging the things we think are gendered over non-gender evidence. So if you're reading an anthropology book, and it says, "All warrior graves found were female," or, "All warrior graves found were male," you might want to look a little further into it and ask how did they find that out? Because anthropologists sometimes slide into the trap of telling just-so stories about gender as well.
posted by WidgetAlley at 8:43 AM on April 24, 2013 [3 favorites]

I think something to be cautious about in the "hunting mammoth/man strong" myth- there is strong tendency to over value male roles over female roles- for example lactation is a sex specific skill necessary to the long term survival of a group, that is as entirely as arbitrary as male muscle strength, and yet nobody says that it is an obvious sign that women would end up the dominant group because they have a skill that's so important.

Heck, it's even one that men can't really take over until the domestication of animals lets us have alternative milk sources- and yet any given women would have the necessary physical equipment to hunt. For that matter, hunting is a relatively luxury activity and fairly calorie intense, compared with say, eating bugs gleaned from "gathering".
posted by Phalene at 9:22 AM on April 24, 2013 [7 favorites]

I disagree with Sara C. above that there's no scientific basis for any theory on the explanation for the prevalence of patriarchy in human societies. Demography, biology, and zoology provide good clues.

(Open Yale Courses has been linked on the blue before, and there's all sorts of awesome stuff in there.)

(The MIT course Animal Behavior also gives good evidence of a generalized connection between what drives human behavior and what drives animal behavior. Not that humanity isn't special, but it's rooted in an animal past.)

I think it was in his seminal work Sociobiology that Edward O Wilson offered the basis for the following explanation summed up by Robert Wyman, a professor of molecular, cellular, and developmental biology at Yale. Wyman is in the following quoted sections.

The point: There's a clear connection between the way we were as cave-men & even earlier, and the way we are now. Kind of like in the book Zoobiquity, our closest relative species gives us clues about ourselves.

Wyman lecture 1: Evolution of Sex and Reproductive Strategies
Reproduction is not simple or easy, nor is it fair. Females often bear a larger reproductive burden of child bearing and child rearing. Reproductive strategies can be simplified into two primary strategies for males and two for females: males often either engage in sperm competition or physical competition while females strategize to get resources from males, or to find the best male genes for the offspring. Rape and violence, as reproductive strategies, occur in few species, but violence is especially prevalent among the great apes, probably because eggs are so scarce in these species. Among orangutans, rape is common. For gorillas, infanticide is a common form of reproductive violence, and male chimpanzees regularly fight each other and batter females.
Wyman Lecture 2: Sex and Violence Among the Apes
Chimpanzee males compete for position in a dominance hierarchy; status often depends on support from other members, including females, of the group. High-ranking males have much greater sexual access to females in estrus. Males control females by physical violence and intimidation. Chimpanzees also engage in purposeful raids to kill members of other chimpanzee groups. This inter-group violence can help explain intra-group violence. To fend off attack from other groups, males must remain in groups and that requires males to compete for mating opportunities within the community. Competition for the scarce resource, eggs, leads to male-male violence and male coercion of females.
Wyman lecture 3: From Ape to Human
You can draw many similarities between the chimp organization of this lethal raiding and human warfare. How does one think about this? Well there are two possibilities. Either whatever you think of the chimp warfare and the causes of it you have to think that a lot of that is still causing human warfare, or you can say as many utopians do, that they're different. That human--human warfare has nothing to do with chimp warfare.

One of the ways to prove or disprove that would be to look in history, as far as we can tell, and if it has different causes, what you have to assume is, we know for sure that this is what chimps do, and we presume that their ancestors some millions of years ago before we split--did that, but we don't really know that, but we presume it's true that chimps did that and then sometime in human history we have to find a period where we stopped doing it. Then at a later period we started doing it again but now for a totally different set of reasons than for the chimp reasons. The strategy of trying to figure out this question is then to go back in history and gather the archaeological and the anthropological--whatever data we can gather, and try to find out: has there been a period in human history where we were not--did not have this inter-communal violence.

The people who believe that war has different causes -- they think agriculture started it because land becomes valuable or private property of some sort, people wanted to get each other's private property, or governments, modern state governments, or very commonly you'll hear that it has something to do with modernity, that civilization has somehow corrupted the pure nature of early humans who were wonderful human beings and didn't go to war.

What was the situation for prehistoric humans?....

At a 13,000 year old cemetery in Sudan, over 40% of the skeletons had spear or arrow points embedded in them. The wounds--there were children buried there--the wounds found from the children in the cemetery were all execution shots in the head or the neck. They were just bashed to death in the head or the neck. This was not like one burial from one horrific incident, it was used over several generations. It was a continuing cemetery, and many of the adults showed not only the wounds that caused their death but many prior wounds, bone cracks and skull cracks that had healed, so you can see both a wound from some prior conflict which had healed and the new wound which caused the death at this moment. Individuals had gotten into a lot of conflict: one skeleton had 20 different wounds....

In short, archeology documents warfare in every well-studied region for the past 10,000 years, which is when we have very good records. That's what you can dig up. The other thing is to look at currently primitive human beings and ask how many of them are truly peaceful. The anthropologists now take over from the archeologists. What the anthropologists find is that 90% to 95% of known societies have been involved in war that we can document. One sample of 50 societies, 45 engaged in war frequently; 4 did not engage in war because they had recently been driven into isolated refuges by warfare.
Wyman lecture 15: Female Disadvantage


Female disadvantage is a characteristic of nearly all societies.

Male dominance is present in most cultures, but there's very very few with female dominance (are there any?). This is not because of an idea that suddenly became very popular around the world. It's rooted in our cave-man past (and earlier).

This is how biology enters into the explanation of the prevalence of sexism:

Among the apes (of which we are a weird naked variety), males compete for females. The males that pass on their genes are the bigger stronger ones, so there's a tendency toward bigger stronger males. This leads to the sexual dimorphism among the primates. This dimorphism leads to an inequality in gender relations.

That's the way it works among non-human primates, and it's very likely the way it worked among our pre-human ancestors. It's a regrettable heritage like our tendency toward violence. (also summed up in the book Demonic Males)

(My own speculation: There's some evidence that taller people tend to have social advantages and wind up making more money; we literally "look up to them". It's stupid and there's no good reason for it, but it's pervasive nonetheless. This probably figures into the gender dynamic. The assumption that 'bigger is better' is built into the English language and, I'd wager, all languages [that would be an interesting avenue of research]. "Great" means "big" and also "really good." God is great. "Higher" is better than "lower". Male primates including humans are typically bigger than females. )

Another factor that might contribute to male dominance is that males typically outnumber females starting from birth. Overall among humans, there's about 105-106 male births for every 100 female births. (The US is skewed toward a slightly larger female population because our population is aging, and women survive aging better than men. The whole world, as it undergoes the same demographic transition over the next century or two, might see the same shift.)

A subtle manifestation of female disadvantage throughout human history is the Smurfette Principle & the results of the Bechdel Test. It's prevalent in today's society. I think this sort of "women are secondary" tendency has been the default throughout the entire history of literature. Beowulf? The Bible? The Epic of Gilgamesh? Most deities are male. The tendency is even stronger for the primary deities.

You see very strong female disadvantage today in many cultures around the world, even ones that were not particularly influenced by the West. contains some awesome statistical data, including this tragic data: Women in dozens of developing countries around the world (from very diverse cultures) all too frequently believe their husbands have the right to beat them, or that they themselves don't have the right to refuse sex. (I can't link directly to the table, but navigate this way: Topics -> Characteristics of Households -> Women's Attitude Toward Wife Beating & Women's Attitude Toward Refusing Sex With Husband.) This isn't new, it's something old and horrible.

Much of the above indicates that sexism (usually in the form of male dominance) is "natural." (So's feces.) It's based in our animal heritage. That doesn't make it at all OK or mean we should struggle any less to overcome it.

I just think that the best explanation for sexism being so prevalent is that there's something innate that inclines us that way. Racism and tribal discrimination (my country/team's better than yours) are similarly prevalent and similarly rooted.
posted by Sleeper at 12:02 PM on April 24, 2013 [4 favorites]

This is just personal opinion and I haven't studied gender relations, but:

I feel masculinity is more fragile than femininity and therefore more easily threatened. In Elizabeth Marshall Thomas's The Harmless People she writes about how in the Bushman families she observed men and women kept to their own side of the household fire as men feared their strength could be compromised by associating with women's space. Hence men may have had, historically, a need to create a separation between themselves and women, emotionally and psychically, and conventionally. I always feel, watching young people grow up, that young men feel masculinity as a challenge they have to achieve properly (and that it may be problematic) while young women don't have the same ambiguity about who they are and how they should behave.

As I said, this is my personal prejudice.

Marshall-Thomas' book, interesting as it is, follows the intellectual conventions of the time in which it was written by concentrating on masculine activities and motivations. However, as said above, it is clear that women are the major food providers for the community, that young women benefit from their desirability, and that the society is egalitarian and sharing.

Human societies are various. Some are matrilineal. Some are egalitarian. The one I grew up in is strongly patriarchal but women have always had a respected, formalised role there in the ordering of society and the structure of authority, more so than in 19 -20C Europe. Colonialism is known to have imposed a male-dominated structure on societies that were traditionally run on more equal lines. ("By analyzing the history of statecraft in the interior savannas of West Africa (in present-day Guinea-Conakry), Osborn shows that the household, and women within it, played a critical role in the pacifist Islamic state of Kankan-Baté, enabling it to endure the predations of the transatlantic slave trade and become a major trading center in the nineteenth century. But French colonization introduced a radical new method of statecraft to the region, one that separated the household from the state and depoliticized women’s domestic roles.")

Understand that our thinking operates from within a long-standing perspective of male-dominance which....may not be as universal as we think it is. There are different forms of power: there is force and there is love. Family bonds are incredibly strong. Early 20C anthropologists came up with the theory that the basic human social relationship is based on the exchange of women - don't you think that's rather extraordinarily wrong-headed? What is it that's so scary about acknowledging the rather obvious bond between mother and children? (Yes I know it's not always like that, but in most cases.)
posted by glasseyes at 8:16 PM on April 24, 2013

Good thoughts, glasseyes. I think you're right that there's usually a tendency for masculinity to be threatened by femininity. Women can wear men's clothes, but men wearing women's clothes is thought to be ridiculous.
posted by Sleeper at 11:59 AM on April 25, 2013

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