Gender is a race in which some of the runners compete only for the bronze medal.
Yuval Noah Harari
For the last 10,000 years, most human societies have valued men more highly than women. Men have been educated to think in a masculine way and women to think in a feminine way. Girls wear pink and boys wear blue, girls play with Barbies and boys play with Action Man, men go to work and women stay at home to look after children.
Qualities considered masculine, such as ambition, assertiveness and competitiveness, are more valued than those considered feminine, such as patience, gratefulness and gentleness. For instance, when have you heard ‘gentleness’ used to describe a CEO or president.
Women have made it to the alpha position, Queen Elizabeth I is an example. Yet like the rest she was an exception. Throughout Queen Elizabeth’s 45 year reign, men dominated positions of power. Navy officers, members of parliament, lawyers, bishops, priests, doctors, and university professors were all men.
Man’s supremacy has been the norm in almost all agricultural and industrial societies, therefore it is highly unlikely that the gender bias was the product of a chance historical situation translated into a rigid social system. Instead there must be some universal biological reason why almost all cultures valued manhood over womanhood. Below are some possible theories.
The most popular theory is that men are stronger than women. Men used their greater strength to monopolise tasks that demand hard manual labour, such as ploughing and harvesting. This gives them control of food production, which in turn translates into political clout.
There are two problems with this argument. First, men are only stronger than women on average and only with regards to certain strengths. Women are generally more resistant to hunger, disease and fatigue than men. Man flu is real bro. There are also many women who can run faster and lift heavier weights than many men. My ex-girlfriend use to give me a head-start when we used to go for runs and still beat me and I am not the only guy who has felt his masculinity implode after seeing a woman lifting more than him in the gym.
Most problematic for this theory is women have traditionally been excluded from professions that require little physical effort including law, politics and education. There is simply no direct relation between physical strength and social power among humans. People in their sixties usually exercise more power over people in their twenties, even though twenty-somethings are much stronger than their elders (my dad refuses to believe the latter). Even among chimpanzees, the alpha male wins his position by building a stable coalition with other males and females, not through mindless violence.
The social hierarchy is dependent on social and mental capabilities more than physical ones. It is hard to believe that men used brute strength to constrain women.
Millions of years of evolution have made men far more aggressive than women. Women can match men as far as hatred, greed and abuse are concerned, but when push comes to shove, the theory goes, men are more willing to engage in raw physical violence. In order to satiate the need for violence men have controlled the armed forces, which in turn has made them the masters of civilian society.
Yet, given that common soldiers are all men, does it follow that the ones managing the war and enjoying its fruits should also be men? That makes no sense. It’s like assuming that because all the slaves cultivating cotton fields are black, plantation owners will be black as well.
In fact, in numerous societies throughout history, the top officers did not work their way up from rank of private. Aristocrats, the wealthy and the educated were automatically assigned officer rank.
Wars are complex projects that require an extraordinary degree of organisation, cooperation and appeasement. The ability to maintain peace at home, acquire allies abroad, and understand what goes through the minds of other people (particularly your enemies) is usually the key to victory.
Hence an aggressive brute is often the worst choice to run a war. Much better is a cooperative person who knows how to appease, how to manipulate and how to see things from different perspectives.
Women are often stereotyped as better manipulators and appeasers than men, and are famed for their superior ability to see things from the perspective of others. If there’s any truth in these stereotypes, then women should have made excellent politicians and empire-builders.
A third type of biological explanation focuses on different reproduction strategies. Chances of reproduction for men depends on their ability to outperform and defeat other men to impregnate fertile women. Over time, the masculine genes that made it to the next generation were those belonging to the most ambitious, aggressive and competitive men.
A woman, on the other hand, had no problem finding a man willing to impregnate her. However she would have to carry the child in her womb for nine arduous months, and then nurture the offspring for years. During that time she had fewer opportunities to obtain food, and required a lot of help.
In order to ensure her own survival and the survival of her children, the women had little choice but to agree to whatever conditions the man stipulated so that he would stick around and share some of the burden.
As time went by, the feminine gene that made it to the next generation belonged to women who were submissive caretakers. Women who spend too much time fighting for power did not leave any of those genes for future generations.
The result of these different survival strategies is that men have been genetically programmed to be ambitious and competitive, and to excel in politics and business, whereas women have tended to move out of the way and dedicate their lives to raising children.
One issue with this approach is the assumption that women’s dependence on external help made them dependent on men, rather than on other women. Homo Sapiens are relatively weak animals, whose advantage rests in their ability to cooperate in large numbers. If so, we should expect that dependent women, even if they are dependent on men, would use their superior social skills to cooperate, to outmanoeuvre, and manipulate aggressive, autonomous and self-centred men.
What we do know
During the last century gender roles have undergone a tremendous revolution and even the most basic conceptions of gender and sexuality are being challenged. Most societies today give men and women equal legal status, political rights and economic opportunities.
These dramatic changes are what makes the history of gender so bewildering. If, as being demonstrated today so clearly, the patriarchal system has been based on unfounded myths rather than on biological facts, what accounts for the universality and stability of the system?