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A Historical Perspective On Gender Inequality

My social media has been flooded with a singular hashtag, #MeToo. Women in my social circle have been sexually abused or sexually harassed. A few had me as a confidant. Others simply reinforced the magnitude of the problem. But I never had an ounce of doubt on the fact that this problem is real, and staring right back at us, mocking our society at every turn.

I am frustrated, sad, and angry. I would like to address these feelings, and in the process, hopefully enlighten a few about the problem at hand, its roots, and potential ideas to tackle the issue. This article is my attempt to identify how this problem sprouted in human society, and thwart some of the irrational lines of argument propagated by protectors of the current social order. First, I will present a set of arguments in the modern setting which pop up in one form or another. Then we try to look at human history to comment upon causation/correlation.

This post is also inspired by a series of statements presented to me during a discussion to justify differential pay between men and women. The premise is that women get paid less than men. Although the premise is vague, and you can establish a plethora of constraints, I will not go into the specifics. This discussion is also very closely related to the idea of male supremacy, which also manifests in the unfortunate form of sexual harassment. The points of argument are:

  • Is every way we treat the two genders differently insulting?
  • Is paying men and women equally really fair?
  • Should the difference in biology be completely discarded?
  • What about the physiological differences (aggression, ambition, authoritative etc.)?
  • Is hiring a woman is an inherent risk due to the fact that she can get pregnant?

I am not going to fault the person who has made these remarks, as a lot of factors are responsible for shaping a person’s opinions and thoughts. Although, I will try my best to address the concerns raised by him through a thorough analysis of human history and gender inequality, with hopes to present enough evidence for him to acknowledge the fact that a problem exists.

To start off, let’s take a look at our biology. A naturalistic basis for justified human behavior may take into account the fact that we are mammals. Pregnancy lasts a long time relative to the overall life cycle of a given female. The females nurse the young, adding significant time in the form of child care. In mammals, males fight or display for sexual access, and females are either herded or harassed by males or choose males with which to mate, and males provide virtually no offspring care in most species. In some species there is courting and female choice, in others, hormonally mediated sexual arousal and activity, in others, what we might call rape. That is a pretty wide range of behaviors, but one must use this wide range to describe ‘typical’ mammals, as they do vary somewhat. There are key characteristics that do pertain to all mammals, however: pregnancy and nursing being entirely female, longish period of offspring care, and internal fertilization which results in a certain amount of paternal uncertainty (unclear attribution of fatherhood) for all males.

In light of such diversity, it makes sense to narrow down our target group to closer relatives — the primates. Most primates are either solitary or monogamous, with males and females not differing very much in size. Mating happens as a matter of female choice more than male fighting in most primate species. In many primate species, especially the polyandrous ones, there is a certain amount of male care of offspring, while in others, not so much. So, our evolutionary heritage as primates actually looks quite different than if we look more broadly at mammals.

But really, while we are in fact primates, we are actually Old World Primates. If we remove the prosimians and the New World Primates from the mix, we get a different picture. Looking more narrowly at the Old World Primates, we actually drop all of the polyandry and most of the monogamy. We now get a pretty large difference, on average, in body size of males vs. females, but male coercion is rarely a means of sexual interaction. Rather, females and males both engage in quite a bit of politics (these are smart animals) and these political interactions are mediated by quite a bit of biting and poking. The result is often a parallel (male vs. female) set of hierarchies, and position in these hierarchies determines for males who gets to mate and for females who ends up most successfully raising offspring.

But wait, the Old World Primates diversified a VERY long time ago. Maybe we should look at the subset of Old World Primates of which we are a part — the apes. The majority of ape species are monomorphic in body size (the males and females are the same size) and life-long pair bonding. Both males and females are physically equipped (strong bodies, big canines) to defend the territory and the young, and both take similar roles in this regard, though the females nurse the young so there is some difference in male vs. female role in offspring care. A considerable effort is put into care of offspring overall, and with setting them up in new territories, etc., and this sort of care involves the males at least as much as the females. So we might expect humans, as apes, to be highly monogamous and to put huge amounts of efforts into offspring, somewhat different in style but with similar levels of effort for males vs. females.

But we are great apes! The great apes constitutes a smaller taxonomic group. Maybe we should look at the great apes only and forget the gibbons and siamangs. When we do that, we are looking at orangutans, gorillas, chimps, and bonobos. Orangutans have a very high level of sexual dimorphism, are primarily vegetarian, and the most typical form of sexual interaction is either forced copulation (rape) or females swooning over gigantic, and presumably very sexy, but rare, super males. All offspring care is female. In fact, the largest social group among these apes is the mother and offspring with a random male busy raping the female while the offspring hangs out on a nearby branch eating some wild figs. Gorillas also have a high level of dimorphism in body size, but live in large groups with the key group structure consisting of a silver back male and a harem of females who are totally devoted to and sexually monogamous with the male until a lone silver back starts to show up and kill the female’s infant offspring now and then. When that happens, the females join the infanticidal male and abandoned their devoted and gentle silver back. These two apes provide very different models, but are similar in that females are either raped or have their children killed (and they can stop that by joining the killer) and when push comes to shove, the enormously large males get to do all the pushing. This would suggest that humans get comfortable with a very male dominated society and that the females should just get in line. Fast.

But hold on, we are much much more closely related to the chimpanzees — common chimp and bonobo — than to these other apes. So let’s look at their lifestyle. Both groups have the unusual and interesting feature of adult and potentially sexually mature males and females living in the same group. When a female is in a state of ovulation, she also enters a state of estrus — the visible display of ovulation. Some of the males may be forced to not mate with this female (forced by dominant males) but for the most part every male mates with such a female. Over time, all of the females go into estrus one or two at a time. So, over the course of a few years, every single male will eventually have potentially baby-making sex with every female. This is done in the form of giant orgies in which only one female participates. That is true for common chimps, but it is also true for bonobos, with an added twist. All the chimps have lots of what I will call erotic interaction all the time, including auto erotic. But for bonobos, there is the added feature of almost every possible gender and age combination of erotic interaction, and every combination of body part interaction. So a young female may provide oral sex to an older male. An older male may provide oral sex to a young male. Two adult females may engage in genital-genital rubbing. And so on and so forth. Young male chimps do not seem to have sex with their mothers. Otherwise, pretty much every combination happens.

So, given the chimp model, we should all be bisexual and disregard age of our sexual partners. Almost all baby making sex should involve a gang bang lasting several days. We should have strong male hierarchies and female hierarchies that determine, ultimately, who gets to be the father of each child (more or less) not by who has sex with whom, but by regulating exactly when in the ovulatory cycle intromissive sex with male orgasm happens. If we lean towards the common chimp model, all males should be dominant over all females. If we lean towards the bonobo model, all females should be dominant over all males.

If you are still with me (and I would understand if you’ve gotten bored or frustrated and gone away by now) then you can easily see this point: We have a rich supply of models from which we can draw naturalistic conclusions, and these models can be used to ‘justify’ or explain almost anything. It is time we take a closer look at human history.

The earliest humans were known to be hunter-gatherers. There was a long span of time in history when women were not subject to men, but were a key part of the society. In such settings, men generally went out for hunt, while women stayed back for gathering and nurturing off-springs (this was additionally due to the fact of child bearing, hence it made sense for women to not wander on hunts). It is also important to note that in these societies, about 80 percent of their sustenance came from gathering, and 20 percent from hunting. This division of labor established the fact that men needed more power [muscular], speed and agility due to demands of hunting (This is the point where we developed a gulf in physiology of men and women). For women, it made no sense to develop such features (the energy-hungry cells that muscles are, it makes less evolutionary sense to develop them on a whim).

After the neolithic revolution, agrarian societies developed. In these societies as well, the role of women was significant. A symbiotic relationship developed, where the role of women was to stay at home and tend to farms. Men carried out the grunt work in the farms and administrative activities. Again, this division of labor stems from the fact that child-bearing was a major part of women lives. Although there is little evidence to suggest that men and women were not part of an egalitarian setup, I suspect it was during this period that ideas around male dominance started to take shape. Due to evolutionary steps during the pre-historic phase, men were more suited for activities which involved open display of power.

Eventual rise of religion saw that the power of administration rested with the religious head. Historically, the roles of priesthood were restricted to men. Still, we don’t see full manifestation of male dominance at this stage as well. As the establishment evolved, various roles within the religious establishments became available to women. Women were provided with opportunities to escape the path of marriage and child-rearing, acquire literacy and learning, and play a more active religious role. Although this provided equal footing to women on surface, these measures introduced the idea that women need to ‘sacrifice’ certain aspects of their lives to be on equal footing to men. Another problem faced by women during this period was death during childbirth. Even though men and women exhibited the same life expectancy if women survived the childbirth, anecdotal evidence was enough to push society towards a line of thinking where women were thought of as the weaker sex. Irrespective, we still had a plethora of influential and strong female characters during this period, including Hilda of Whitby and Joan of Arc.

Alright, if you are still with me, reading this, well done! You would have noticed that till this point, I have argued that the concept of inequality on the basis of gender did not exist in the human society (at least actively). Now, we explore the tipping point — Industrialization. Before industrialization, men were farmers and fishermen. They saw the fruits of their labor everyday, and at the end of the season had tangible evidence that their work paid off. They could hold the produce in their hands, knowing that it was going to feed someone. Women were involved in this process, and the level of inequality was nowhere near what was to come.

When huge factories took over farming towns, men who went to work lost the ability to see the tangible fruites of their own labor. They were no longer the masters of their workspace because they had to answer directly to a boss or a supervisor. The ruling institutions knew this, and they knew that stripping men of their masculinity at work was going to cause problems. Instead, the idea of masculinity and authority in the home was strengthened. For the women, this meant state intervention in their lives. It meant that while the state was talking about the strong man, head of the house, king of the family, his subordinate was his wife. State-supported patriarchy has been a prevalent theme of many regimes. During the feminism movement in the US during the 60s and 70s, J. Edgar Hoover, Director of FBI at the time, labelled the women group as ‘threat to national security’, and installed spies. The irony is that female agents were deployed in the feminist groups, but were relegated to the status of informant, rather than FBI agents.

The above case studies and scenarios should help in one’s holistic understanding of the issue. I wish to address a final, very common line of reasoning that is also sometimes counter-intuitively used by people supporting the idea of gender equality. The claim is that not all men are responsible for this. But is there any point in establishing the count of the perpetrators? The goal should be to end the deep-rooted inequality chasm. Not to bicker upon minor details of how huge the problem is. In fact, I would even argue that each of us, men and women, have at some point, contributed to this dystopian setup. We have to start telling people, both men and women, they are equal. We have to stop reinforcing stereotypes at every level. It is our stereotypes and pre-conceived notions which shape the future generations, not the other way round. Let us not fall in a vicious cycle of justifying superficial social orders on the basis of skewed effects created by their own superficiality.




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Thanks !

Thanks for sharing this, you are awesome !

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