Editor’s Note: FII’s #MoodOfTheMonth for March, 2022 is Women’s History Month. We invite submissions on the contributions of women, the trajectory of the feminist movement and the need to look at history with a gender lens, throughout the month. If you’d like to contribute, kindly email your articles to email@example.com
In today’s world, women are working hard to break the shell of their subordinate position by breaking stereotypes, speaking up for themselves, and fighting for equal rights. They have earned this status through centuries of strugggle, alongside various waves of feminism.
But have you ever wondered if women were always at the subordinate position or they got there in time? What was it like when humankind first started populating the world? Was gender discrimination prevalant from the very beginigng? Is women’s oppression eternal?
Some people do believe that women were born subordinate to men and patriarchy existed from the very beginning and will always do like the other ‘rules of nature‘. According to Greek philosopher Aristotle, ‘men are always active and women are passive’. The biological difference of women makes them inferior in their capacity, ability to reason and therefore the ability to make decisions, according to him. Austrian neurologist and the founder of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud, stated that for women, anatomy is destiny. In his view, ‘a normal human was male’.
However, these theories of male supremacy have been challenged, and it has been demonstrated that there is no historical or scientific evidence for such explanations. There are biological differences between men, women and other genders in the spectrum, but these differences do not have to be the foundation of a sexual hierarchy in which men are dominant.
The examination of many of these theories enables us to recognise that women’s subordinate position is man-made; it is the result of a constructed, historical processes.
Some of the theories that deny the universality of female subordination and explore the origins of patriarchy are given by German philosopher, political theorist and socialist Fredrick Engles who put forth his theory in his book Origin of the Family, Private Property and The State. In this work, he says that the division of classes and the subordination of women developed historically. He also argues that once a family would become progressive, private property would join the labour force, and then patriarchy would disappear.
He divided evolution into three main epochs: savagery, barbarism and civilisation. His book sees women as central to developing social cooperation and organisation of social groups and gender relations of equality as dominating the vast period of prehistory of the hominid (early humans) evolution that falls under the epoch of savagery. It was at the latter stage of evolution where the sexual division developed.
According to Engles, the earliest hominid social groups clustered around females and their siblings. Speculation about the development of early hominid social groups is based on fairly sparse evidence but evidence from primate social groups like chimpanzees shows that food sharing takes place with matrifocal (mother centered) groups rather than between sexual mates.
The women were in the centre of the social group and were in charge of carrying infants, teaching their culture to their infants, and distributing food to the group. The cuisine consisted of natural goods such as fruits, nuts, and roots, and they had not yet orchestrated speech at this point. Until the hunting game appeared some 100,000 years ago, there is no undisputed evidence of a gender division of labour in food collection.
Hunters and gatherers never settled in one location for long; they had little resources and travelled from place to place; they had fewer offsprings since they, too, had to be carried. As the social group was still matrifocal, there was still equality between men and women.
By the end of the palaeolithic period, there had been an environmental shift and a change in the nature of social patterns of relationships within social groups. Archeological investigations demonstrate that hunters and gatherers began to settle near rivers and fertile lands. This was the commencement of domestication.
They domesticated both food and plants, and the settlement enabled the acquisition of possessions as well as the birth of more children. The social organisation remained matrilineal, but this was the beginning of the demise, which Engles states as the “world historical defeat of the female sex.”
Engles argues that the source of oppression of women came from the exclusion of women from social production and the conversion of household tasks into a private service. With settlement, local domestic animals were difficult to find and required to be guarded. Normally, women took care of animals because they had children to care for. Agriculture, or wild agriculture, became an element of settlement, and women gradually began to stay at home and care for all of their possessions while males went hunting.
These developments resulted from the replacement of communal ownership of property by private male ownership of the basic means of production. He speculates that such a shift took place with the rise of domestication of animals and the breeding of herds which created new social weath. This new property automatically belonged to male members of the group.
With all these changes, the population grew dramatically and the resources in the settled areas decreased rapidly. At that stage, when private property arose in the society, men wanted to retain power and property, and pass it on to their own children. The matrilineal structure was overthrown to ensure this inheritance.
The land and the animals were valuable assets that needed to be protected from intruders. As a result, wars began. Invaders seized the property of the opposition, which included women. It was done to demonstrate power. Women became property, possessions to be territorially owned.
Women had to be domesticated and confined, and their sexuality regulated and controlled, in order to establish the right of men over them. Women had to be protected from male members of other clans since they were treated as chattel. According to Engels, patriarchy and monogamy for women were established during this time period.
A scrutiny of history does show that gender roles and power equations as we see today were created to retain male dominance and supremacy. The argument that the subordination of women is the natural order of evolution has been contested and proven otherwise in the modern era of mechanisation, scientific advancement and industrialisation. It is important for us to look at all these aspects comprehensively in order to recognsie how gender roles work and to be able to diffuse them.
Hiba is a feminist and an independent researcher. She believes that all humans are equal and looks forward to work for women’s empowerment and equal opportunity. You may find her on Instagram
Featured Illustration: Ritika Banerjee for Feminism In India