So, er, how exactly did women become unequal anyway?
Updated: Jul 3, 2018
By Amanda Blennerhassett
Since the #metoo movement exploded into consciousness in October 2017, women’s equality and its many aspects have flooded our newsfeeds and become a mainstream public, rather than purely #feminist, issue.
But if you’re like me, at some point you might have wondered, how exactly did women become unequal? Weren’t there once matriarchal cultures where women ruled…and what happened to them? Were there ever actually women like Wonder Woman and the Amazons out there? #womancrush
Well, I decided to do some research into this and what I discovered was a HUGE eye opener dating back long before Christ. As in, I read a lot on this topic and want to know, why isn't anyone talking about this? Sisters, it's time for a history lesson. So, grab yourself a cuppa, sit back and get a load of this…
I have to tell you that I couldn’t find any historical evidence to suggest that matriarchal societies ever existed. That’s where women ‘hold the primary power positions in roles of political leadership, moral authority, social privilege and control of property at the specific exclusion of males - at least to a large degree’. That is, the opposite of patriarchy…which is what women experience now.
Apparently this is often confused with matrilineal culture, in which the generations are traced on the kinship of the mother and down the female line. However, that’s not the same thing as matriarchy.
What I did discover was that there is much evidence of EGALITARIAN societies, in which every person was considered equal in fundamental worth and social status. That’s where it starts to get very interesting…
So….let’s get in a time machine and go back more than ten thousand years ago.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF TIME
We’re in hunter-gatherer times. We’re living in groups of 20 to 50 people, that may or may not include extended family. We have a husband, and our husband may have more than one wife! However, there’s a good reason for this…as in 2018, women naturally outnumber men, and if the men don’t take more than one wife, some of our women friends may miss out on a husband altogether, which could have significant impact on her ability to physically survive. Basically, we’re cool with polygamy. It’s normal.
Yes, life can be challenging. We’re nomadic. Our skills, tools and possessions aren’t overly sophisticated. We can’t carry much. And we’re vulnerable to the elements and the provision of nature for survival.
Men, women and children share labour, the division of those tasks and how ‘gender specific’ they are varies by region and era. In some tribes, women and children also hunt, particularly trapping small animals. Everyone has an important role to play in ensuring everyone survives. We don’t necessarily have ‘leaders’; issues can be raised and discussed by anyone and decision-making is collective.
This collective social production and decision making affords women equal status. To women, this is normal, they are assertive and they don’t question their authority. (Remind you of Wonder Woman at all?)
One account I read that demonstrates this really clearly was from the journal of a Christian missionary staying with a North American tribe. He explained that one night the tribe’s medicine woman was trying to incite its warriors to go to war with a neighbouring tribe. He tried to interject and spread the word of peace, upon which she drew a knife and held it to his throat. “If you don’t stop interrupting me, I’ll kill you”, she told him. Now while I don’t necessarily condone violence, I find it very how interesting how much things have changed in a few hundred years… I don't see too many women being that assertive nowadays.
In that time, we humans experienced a greater sense of social security. It goes along the lines of - if my family catches an antelope to eat and yours’ doesn’t, you know we will share our antelope with you, and vice versa. We are all safe in the knowledge that so long as we toe the line, our tribe supports us. We’re all equal. We all eat or we all starve together.
In summary, it is believed that in these times, hunter-gatherer societies were more egalitarian because individual and group survival depended upon social cooperation.
THE OLD SCHOOL WAY OF DEALING WITH SELFISH & LAZY PEOPLE
The research shows that these groups rigorously enforced norms that prevented any individual or group from acquiring more status, authority or resources than others. It’s called ‘reverse dominance’ and this was literally the beginning of tall poppy syndrome.
So the group expects humility. If anyone starts getting a bit too big for their boots (it was noted that this tended to be the young males) that the group would bring them down a peg with some well-humoured, bawdy ridicule. And if they didn’t get the message, they got the silent treatment or ultimately, expulsion from the group.
And I read if your husband was lazy, you could leave him and find a better one, no problem..!
So, what does that tell us? Egalitarianism was a SOCIAL CONSTRUCT and its maintenance was a conscious choice based on group harmony and survival. Anthropologists like Richard Lee noted that egalitarianism was not passive, it was a very actively enforced values system. It was not human nature to be egalitarian. It was a choice and everyone toed the line…or else.
Sounds pretty good, right? As far as nomadic life goes.
SO WHERE DID THE SLIPPERY SLOPE TO WOMEN’S INEQUALITY BEGIN?
Anthropologist Eleanor Leacock believes it is the social act of sharing, then bartering, then production, specialisation of labour and trade that led to the downfall of egalitarianism.
Apparently everything began to change when the agricultural era began about 10,000 years ago, and the accumulation of resources and therefore a new power was possible. For the FIRST TIME, it became possible for humans to hoard resources like food.
Someone was in charge of those resources. Someone got to decide which people received them…and which people didn’t.
Originally, the management of shared resources was often the domain of women. Women had a natural predisposition towards worrying about the collective and ensuring that everyone in their community was able to eat and was looked after.
It afforded them a special sort of social power and influence. For example, in one North American tribe, the women controlled the long houses in which all the goods were stored. If the tribe’s warriors wanted to go to war against another tribe and the women did not agree with that, they could deny the warriors any food for their journey. Clever.
These resources needed to be stored somewhere. And apparently as time went on they started to be stored in the public buildings around the world that had storage space…like churches.
It became more attractive to be territorial about the land on which things were produced.
People started to band together in clusters to concentrate their group power, to strategise. This was the beginning of clans and these clans were often created by the men and with other male family members. Mixed gender groups began to decline.
Class systems began to emerge based on who had the most influence over or control of resources and land and therefore power, and the corruption of social collectivism began. Women’s tendencies towards collectivism saw them increasingly sidelined in favour of more individualistic desires of the clans.
Christianity began to spread the word of monogamy and men were encouraged to take only one wife. The nuclear family structure began.
Women’s roles as community leaders socially and economically were further diminished as their work moved from the public domain to the home, where it was decreasingly recognised and valued. This loss of community leadership and esteem was the primary cause of disempowerment.
This was all compounded by imperialism and colonialism, missionaries and religion in more recent history.
By contrast, in societies where women retained the role of merchant, for example some African tribes like the Ibo of Nigeria, they retained their social influence and status.
WHAT’S THE PUNCHLINE?
Apparently agriculture predated reading across many different societies. That would imply therefore that it is materialism and individualism - the unequal distribution of income and wealth – and the loss of social esteem and leadership roles, more than say – unequal access to education - that has led to social inequality, subjugation and ultimately oppression. Obviously this inequality is not just limited to women but other racial and social minorities as well.
Leacock asserts that a myth has been propagandised that it is men’s nature or human nature to be aggressive and dominant (the survival of the fittest concept) to justify the self-serving behaviour that began with this materialism. Leacock says if that were true, mankind by nature would be pro-war, not pro-peace (as most people are). Personally, for me, the jury is out on that one. This tendency to self-aggrandisement as young hunters and to form clans does support that male dominance notion.
However, regardless it appears that in the past greater WISDOM existed to supercede that with egalitarian culture. So, it seems that the loss of collectivism, a loss of the individual sense of social security, a loss of individual accountability and the loss of shared social commitment to egalitarianism has led to our demise.
Therefore, inequality is a social, rather than innate, human construct. It is cultural.
OTHER THAN THE OBVIOUS, WHY IS THIS IMPORTANT?
Interestingly, Stanford University research and modelling found the unequal distribution of resources - rather than imparting advantages to a group - is inherently destabilising for civilisations. Marginalised groups will inevitably seek greater and fairer distribution of resources leading to social and geopolitical destabilisation, which greatly increases the chance of group extinction in stable environments. That is, what we have right now…
The researchers said, “Equality – or inequality – is a cultural choice”.
SO WHAT CAN WE DO ABOUT THAT?
I am WINDO’s strategist. It’s my job to help our board to work out the problems in the community that WINDO is here to solve.
Our Founder, Jeanette Dal Santo, has often said to me, “Amanda, women’s inequality is a cultural problem and it needs a cultural solution”.
That’s what the Stanford researchers said. It’s also what the historical research implies.
It all raises powerful questions about the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report findings that women in Australia remain at only two-thirds the economic power of men and have far less political power.
WHY doesn’t our culture support women in leadership roles, regaining their social and economic esteem? Why do we now have so much unconscious bias towards genders, both from men and women?
In today's world, what can we do about it?
For starters, we need to create cultural change.
This is why WINDO exists. To play an important role in helping to create cultural change by ensuring women and their contribution, their natural way of being, is VISIBLE and CELEBRATED in our communities. In reversing that loss of social and community esteem that led to our fall from equality.
What do you think? Please share your thoughts and opinions in the comments.
Sources and further reading
About this contributor
Amanda Blennerhassett is multi national award-winning Business & Marketing strategist at Brand Savvy Consulting, a mentor and keenly interested in the social, political and consciousness evolution and equality of humankind.
For more about her work, visit:
Regarding this article, it's worth mentioning...
I am not a career anthropologist, sociologist or academic researcher; however, this information all came from credible sources and academic papers or academic books. This information is being generalised and no doubt there are going to be loads of exceptions; however, it is very much the thread of the reading I did across times and cultures.
Modern society is still figuring out the truth of our history as it has only been since the 1960s that female anthropologists had the authority to question the largely male historical viewpoints and accounts on this subject, made up of male Western anthropologists interviewing other Western men.
This framed history with a distorted male Western perspective, which has largely diminished and subjugated the role that women played in history. As a result, it has tended to create a self-fulfilling prophecy at odds with new anthropological and historical evidence predating agriculture.
I hope to follow this article up with another about how we create cultural change in the modern age.
If you have any further research or information regarding this topic, please contact Amanda via email@example.com.