Review: "On the Origins of Gender Roles: Women and the Plough"

On the Origins of Gender Roles: Women and the Plough, by Alberto Alesina, Paolo Giuliano and Nathan Nunn, Institute for the Study of Labor, 2011

MEN ARE from Mars, women from Venus. We are simply hardwired differently. Women are naturally caring and emotional, best suited to bearing and raising children or to looking after the sick and elderly. Men are dominant and logical, and should concentrate on breadwinning. Men have a natural affinity for leadership, so they dominate in politics and business. Gender roles are unshakeable and unchanging. So it has been and so it ever shall be.

This line of argument, while spurious, is pervasive in society. The currently favoured medium for convincing us of the supposed eternality of inequality is pseudoscience. In the past, religion would have been the chosen vector for its delivery. God’s creation of Adam, first, followed by Eve, set out the ‘natural order of things’, we were told. Now, there is simply an attempt to make an old argument new.

They try to explain gender inequality by inbuilt biological differences in the sexes. Flawed, isolated, biased or out-of-context psychological studies are routinely repackaged to declare the inevitability of woman’s ‘different’ (and usually secondary) position in society. In short, genetics explain the 10-30% pay gap women suffer.

But these arguments fail to stand up to scrutiny. Many people would point correctly to the past century, when women made big strides forward in terms of their rights, as evidence that gender roles are not set in stone. But, of course, this begs a deeper question: why were women unequal to men in the first place?

It would be absurd to suggest that no biological differences exist between men and women. But it is also wrong to assert that biology has predestined women for a secondary place in society. The biological factors which may have disadvantaged women in the past, most notably the fact of female childbearing, can now be overcome, in the main. The possibility of full, social provision of childcare, as well as free and readily available contraception and abortion, mean that, potentially, this biological fact need no longer put women at any disadvantage.

Marxists take a different view of the origins of inequalities and divisions within society. Rather than relying on bold but abstract assertions, such as the idea of a ‘natural order’ of things, we argue that the order has arisen out of the way in which a society organises production.

The earliest human societies survived on the basis of hunting and gathering. These kinds of societies make up the vast bulk of the human existence, having lasted from the emergence of the species, right up until the dawn of agriculture (around 12,000 years ago).While some anthropologists, with no real evidence, have attempted to argue that these hunter-gatherer societies would have contained lots of inequality, they face a conundrum in explaining how this would have been expressed.

This is because, unlike later forms of society which developed agriculture to produce food, there was no real possibility of producing a surplus by hunting and gathering. For this reason, the idea of some individuals having more than they need while others had less would have been a nonsense. Each member of a group would have been reliant on every other for producing enough food for everyone’s survival. Having less would have meant starvation, not just for an individual, but sometimes for a whole group.

In these societies, women and men would have tended to specialise in either hunting or gathering, with men more likely to be hunters. But this is unlikely to have led to big differences in status, as both activities were absolutely essential for survival. In fact, gathering was perhaps more important, as it would have been the most reliable source of sustenance.

It is important that divisions on the basis of class and gender have not always existed. This is why great lengths are gone to in the attempt to convince us otherwise. Propaganda which aims to convince us that things have always been this way has a second purpose: to convince us things can never change. Once you understand that something had a beginning you realise it can have an end.

Marxists argue that class and gender divisions within society only began once the development of agriculture meant the production of a surplus was possible. Then it was possible for a division of labour to develop in which certain individuals took themselves out of production and took charge of organising the surplus. While these roles would have been carried out, initially, on behalf of the group, it was from these layers that ruling groups and classes would begin to form. They began to consider the means of producing the surplus as their property. It was from this that private ownership first began to emerge.

Gender inequality is also tied in with the development of agriculture and the dawn of class society. There are a number of reasons why these emerging hierarchical societies tended to favour men, leading to the oppression of women. These include the increasing importance of activities such as warfare to secure the best farming land, the need to protect the inheritance of private property, which led to attempts to control women’s sexuality, and the fact that agricultural techniques often made it increasingly more difficult for women to participate directly in production.

A recent study focuses on this third, important point, providing evidence of how the way in which production is organised affects the hierarchies, culture and social institutions of a society. The paper, from the Institute for the Study of Labor, looked at the impact of plough use on the participation of women in the workforce. It used ethnographic data looking at contemporary attitudes towards women, as well as levels of female participation in the workforce, in different national or cultural groupings. It compared this to historical data about which of these groupings would have come from societies which would have used the plough, primarily, rather than hand-held techniques such as the hoe or digging stick.

The results showed a strong correlation between historic plough use and modern-day, negative attitudes towards women in work or politics, including low female workforce participation. In order to be sure of the causality of this link, the researchers looked at further evidence to confirm that things had not been the other way around: ie that negative attitudes towards women in work had caused societies to adopt plough agriculture. To do this they measured the ethnographic data on women against evidence about the kinds of crops farmed, the type of land used and their suitability for plough agriculture. The results confirmed a correlation between the use of crops or land most suitable for the plough and lower female workforce participation and negative cultural attitudes.

The paper points out some of the probable reasons for this. The plough, unlike the hoe or digging stick, requires a large amount of upper-body strength, grip strength and ability for short bursts of power. This is true either for pulling a plough manually or for controlling an animal which pulls it. All of these things would have given a big physical advantage to men. The hoe or digging stick are also more suitable for use while caring for children as they are less dangerous and allow for stopping and starting at more regular intervals.

The authors of the study are quick to point out that more recent developments in society, including factors such as economic development and the struggle for greater equality between genders, have in many cases overridden the impact of ancient agricultural techniques. Nevertheless, the presence of this correlation represents a confirmation of a Marxist view of history. It provides scientific evidence of how the organisation of production impacts on a society’s culture, beliefs and values.

Interestingly, this study backs up a theory put forward by the historian Fernand Braudel, who argued that a sea change in the position of women in ancient Mesopotamian society, between 6,000 and 8,000 years ago, could be put down to a change in agricultural techniques. He argued that it was the adoption of the plough which led this society to become patriarchal (with male gods, priests and so on). Previously, all-powerful female goddesses had been worshipped, with women as priests and in important political positions.

Studies like this prove that a society in which women suffer discrimination or oppression is not an inevitable, eternal fact. Socialists argue that for women to win equality once and for all it is necessary to end class society altogether. Only once freed from the constraints of capitalism and society based on hierarchy and division would an end to the oppression of women really be possible.

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