Some Notes on Gender and Power (Part 1)

150629BoudiccaGender and power are two very big and complicated topics. Put them together and you get something even bigger and complicateder. (Yes, I said “complicateder.” Deal with it.) They are also two topics that have become very important in a lot of contemporary speculative fiction. I’m not going to try to take on the whole subject here, but I would like to offer a few points that can be useful for thinking about gender, power, and how they fit both into the world we live in and into the worlds we write about.

1. There is a lot of bad theorizing out there about gender and power relations

Ancient myths are full of stories about why men should be dominant over women. The Hebrew Bible says that Eve fell for the serpent’s lies and so Adam got to be in charge. Greeks told stories about Amazons as a warning about what happens if women get to have power. Romans claimed that their ancestors had grown their city by kidnapping a bunch of Sabine women. None of these stories is history and we recognize them for the ideologically-driven myths that they are.

There are a lot of ideologically-driven myths about men and women kicking around in more recent times, too. (The myth-making hasn’t quite figured out what to do with those who are elsewhere on the gender spectrum, but no doubt it will reach them in time.) One that was popular in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was the myth of the primordial matriarchy. According to this hypothesis, the earliest settled human societies were matriarchies, which were later conquered by patriarchal nomads. In the intellectual climate of the nineteenth century, filled with ideas of imperial progress and manifest destiny, the primordial matriarchy was deemed a childish, undeveloped form of civilization which needed to be replaced with the mature vigor of patriarchy.

In the early twentieth century, as the women’s rights movement gained force and the brutality of the First World War made imperial ideology sound hollow, the theory was turned around and the primordial matriarchy was recast as a utopian society of peace and harmony which was crushed by brutish, war-mongering patriarchy. The trouble with both of these theories is that the primordial matriarchy never existed. It was a figment of the theorists’ imagination, which twisted any scrap of evidence, from neolithic figurines to Greek myths, to fit the theory.

In recent years, the cause of imaginary gender history has been taken up by “evolutionary psychology,” whose methods are not much better. In place of the primordial matriarchy they have conjured a primordial patriarchy of rugged men out clubbing mammoths and pregnant women keeping the cave fires burning, which can be trotted out to explain any modern behavior from domestic violence to the etiquette of teenage flirting. The prehistoric gender relations evolutionary psychologists imagine, however, are no more than guesswork and wishful thinking, just as the primordial matriarchy of a century ago was.

There is a lot of bad theorizing out there about gender in history. Usually, it serves a contemporary political purpose. Be skeptical of anyone who offers you a simple story about how people of different genders related to each other in the past, because the reality is probably a lot more complicated.

2. Patriarchy is not inherent in human societies.

Now that I just got done telling you why you should never listen to anyone about gender relations in history, let me tell you about gender relations in history. Yes, that applies to me, too. The standard caveats are in full effect and you should take what I have to say with as much skepticism as any other interpretation, but, with due caution, here’s what we think we know today about the rise and eventual fall of patriarchy.

Male-dominated societies are very common in the world today and in history, but that doesn’t mean patriarchy is a natural or necessary condition of human civilization. Heck, cell phones are pretty common these days, but that doesn’t make them an essential of human history. Patriarchy is the product of specific historical circumstances, not biology.

Small-scale societies tend to be egalitarian. While many extant hunter-gatherer societies make symbolic or ritual distinctions between men and women, these distinctions rarely, if ever, create a social or political hierarchy. The archaeological evidence for ancient pre-agrarian societies is difficult to interpret, but things like settlement patterns, personal adornments, and burial customs suggest that until a few thousand years ago, egalitarian societies were the norm.

The rise of patriarchy correlates with the spread of agriculture and the settled way of life that goes with it. We cannot say with certainty why these changes happened together, but the current thinking is that two consequences of agriculture flowed together to prompt the creation of male-dominated social structures.

For one thing, agriculture meant a fundamental change in economic life. Hunter-gatherers acquire food quickly and share resources freely, but planting, tending, and harvesting a crop takes a long-term investment of labor on a fixed plot of ground. As family groups settled down to start farming, it became increasingly important for them to defend their rights to the crops that they had put in the work to grow, and so defining the limits of who was or was not a member of the family became increasingly important. Women can always be certain that their children are their own, but men cannot, and so men adapted to the new circumstances of agriculture by asserting more control over the sexual lives of the women they mated with.

At the same time, the increased population and social complexity allowed by farming and the surplus it generates led to the development of many novel kinds of stratification. Social class, slavery, clientage, and many other forms of institutional inequality are unknown in hunter-gatherer societies and appear only with the emergence of agriculture. The subjugation of women to their mates fit into this new social paradigm.

At the other end of history, it is probably no accident that the modern movement for women’s rights first took shape in the middle of the nineteenth century as the western world was transitioning from a primarily agricultural economy to a primarily industrial one, and has only accelerated in the past generation with the rise of the information economy. Patriarchy is not some constant of human history. It rose with agriculture, and it is (albeit slowly) falling with it.

This is getting long, so let’s wrap it up there for today. To be continued next week with a few more useful points.

Image: Boudicca statue, detail of photograph by Carole Raddato via Wikimedia (London; 1905; bronze; by Thomas Thornycroft)

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.