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PROPERTY AND THE HISTORY OF WOMEN
An Essay by Justin Alexander
Recently I've been reading The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir. The book, as a whole, attempts to provide a universal overview of women -- biologically, historically, culturally, and socially -- from the dawn of time down through the mid-20th century (when it was written). It's a stunningly ambitious project and, to its credit, succeeds far more often than it fails.
In the historical section of the book, Beauvoir analyzes how and why women came to be subjugated in almost every culture from the beginning of recorded history until the present day. If it was a matter of pure chance or a cultural artifact, she argues, we would not expect it to appear so reliably in cultures with little or no connection to each other. Nor would we expect to see the subjugation continue with such unmitigated persistence in all of these disparate cultural traditions while every other aspect of those cultures could be seen to shift dramatically.
Beauvoir makes a rather worthwhile argument that the key moment of change lies in the shift from hunter-gatherer societies (in which women are frequently seen as societal equals or even superiors) to agricultural societies. In short, no matter where agriculture arose, women were almost simultaneously subjugated. This indicates that the subjugation of women is neither a biological imperative nor some cultural oddity, but rather the result of something systemic to early agricultural societies.
Unfortunately, Beauvoir ends up muddying her argument rather thoroughly with heavy doses of mysticism, existentialism, and bald assertion. (These features may also be the result of a poor translation.) So, to try to straighten this out in my own mind, I wanted to put it down in a clearer form and then expand upon it.
Prior to the invention of agriculture (roughly 10,000 years ago), women were mythologically venerated. The degree to which this translated to daily life is somewhat unclear, but based on a variety of information (including the study of primitive tribes) it seems clear that men and women in hunter-gatherer societies were generally considered equals. There was a division of labor in these societies (usually with the men hunting and the women gathering) based on the physical differences between the genders, but not subjugation.
But with the invention of agriculture, things shifted. Mother goddesses were shoved out of power and replaced with male gods. And by the time written records begin to appear, women have almost universally been shoved into a second-place status.
Something had changed.
CHANGE #1: PROPERTY
Agriculture created a sense of ownership in the land. And I think, from that, a stronger sense of property in general developed. Property is a form of power and allows for the extension of the personal will. The desire for control seems pretty deeply ingrained into humanity, and property is one way of asserting control.
This expansion of the concept of property eventually led to other humans being controlled as property. Slavery is the most egregious form of this concept, but the concept is also expressed in the idea that a daughter belongs to her father and is given to her husband.
What determines the difference between master and slave? Power. And in a society ruled by physical strength, who gains the power and who becomes the object to be owned? Statistically speaking, it's the male who has more physical strength than the female.
In this way, the expansion of the concept of personal property leads to the opportunity for the subjugation of women.
CHANGE #2: LEGACY AND IMMORTALITY
The expansion of property rights also created the ability to pass on a greater and more meaningful legacy to your children.
The nascent desire to achieve immortality through our children (so that some part of us might continue throughout eternity) is a pretty basic building block of human psychology. But being able to give our children property acts as a kind of force magnifier on our genetics: Now we're not just passing on our flesh and blood, but also all that we have achieved in the course of our own lifetimes.
(The ultimate futility of this is demonstrated by Ozymandias, for example, but that doesn't stop us from wanting it.)
But there's a catch here: Without property, we're perfectly happy to spread our genetic material far and wide and hope that some of it will endure. With property, however, there's suddenly a desire to give it to the most worthy of our heirs. And, even more importantly, make sure it goes to one of our heirs and not somebody else's heirs.
Unlike women, however, men have no surety of paternity. Which means that they have no inherent surety that they're giving their property to their own kid or to the kid of some guy just down the street.
In order to gain that surety, the female mate must be controlled. And this creates the motivation for the subjugation of women.
CHANGE #3: FAMILY SIZE
There is plenty of evidence -- both archaeological and anthropological -- indicating that the movement from a hunter-gatherer society to an agricultural society resulted in larger families. This is either because the agricultural lifestyle required a larger workforce (which was obtained by having a larger family) or it was because the predictability of the agricultural lifestyle allowed for more children (which was desirable because of the legacy and sense of immortality they created).
However, for women having more children means spending more time in the non-productive state of biological reproduction (i.e., pregnant or recovering from pregnancy). Because women become less productive, they become more dependent on the production of men.
There are two edges to this sword: First, dependence allows for control. To put it in crude terms, if leaving your husband means you'll starve to death, you effectively can't leave your husband.
Second, because men are the breadwinners, they have a natural inclination to believe that the resulting wealth belongs to them alone. (Even if, in point of fact, their own productivity is heavily ennabled by their wife's partnership and the children she is sacrificing her own productivity to bear and raise.) Since it is their wealth -- not their wife's wealth -- the desire to make sure it goes to their own child (and not the progeny of cuckoldry) becomes even stronger.
(These impulses, it can be noted, explain the common laws prohibiting women -- particularly married women -- from owning property. It is a simple and expedient way to make sure that they can't lay claim to any of the wealth which their husbands believe belongs rightfully to themselves and to their sons.)
This is all simplified to its most basic components, of course. But that's pretty much inherent in the exercise: We're looking at the broad similarities created in society and economy by the agricultural revolution. Those broad similarities result in certain cultural patterns, of which the oppression of women is one.
And that's why the oppression of women appears in tandem with the agricultural revolution, even when cultures are discovering agriculture independently.
On the flip-side, this does lead to the interesting observation that women's liberation groups first began meeting with widespread success right around the time of the industrial revolution. In other words, the oppression of women appeared with agricultural economies and began disappearing as the agricultural economies gave way to industrial economies.
Is that mere coincidence?
From a philosophical standpoint, the women's liberation movement is commonly understood to grow out of the Enlightenment-era focus on liberty. But were those philosophies only able to find fertile soil because the economies created by the industrial revolution de-emphasized inheritable property, reduced the need for large families, and made it possible women to obtain gainful employment?
This, ultimately, opens a much larger discussion of whether culture influnces economy; or if its the economy that influences culture. I suspect that, to one degree or another, both are true. I also suspect that it's probably more insightful to look at how the necessities of an economy create certain social structures, and then look at the cultural impact those social structures have. (For example, the agricultural revolution may have subjugated women, but that subjugation manifested itself in very different ways across a wide swath of cultures and classes.)
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