A World Before Male Dominance
Think the world has always been male-dominated? It hasn’t.
The earliest societies worshiped the great mother goddess. In some early Middle Eastern cultures women’s graves were central and richly decorated. New Guinea’s Arapesh and Tchambuli, ancient Crete, the !Kung of Africa and many American Indian tribes all tell us that patriarchy is not inevitable.
Take, for instance, the Iroquois of North America. We know of them from the French Jesuit missionaries who arrived in the 17th and 18th centuries, along with some later observers.
Iroquois women controlled the food staples of maize, beans and squash, which men’s hunting and fishing supplemented. So neither sex was completely dependent on the other.
Women also supplied men with food as they went off to hunt, trade or war. Say a woman didn’t want her husband or son fighting? She just refused to give him corn. And the guys usually deferred.
Girl babies were also a bit more valued since they could increase tribe size more than males could. Hence, a woman’s death warranted a double penalty.
And, women’s status and power came in part because paternity wasn’t entirely clear. (Might this be why women’s virginity is so prized under patriarchies?):
While marriage was monogamous, premarital sex, extramarital affairs and divorce were common among the Iroquois. You may not know who dad is, but you always know who mom is. And so women headed clans, family lineage was traced through mothers, and property passed from mother to child.
Extended families lived in a “longhouse” headed by a woman, along with her husband and daughters, the daughters’ families, and unmarried sons. All of those women gathered together created female solidarity, which helped them out on the political front.
Women had their own councils, along with the right to wage war and decide the fate of captives – since captives were adopted into the matriarchal clans. “Clan mothers” selected chieftains, with women sometimes numbering among the tribe’s leadership. The head of the Women’s Council was called Beloved Woman of the Nation, “whose voice was considered that of the Great Spirit, speaking through her.”
Astonished British settlers whined about the “petticoat government.”
It didn’t take long after whites arrived for things to go topsy-turvy. Europeans insisted men farm, instead of women. And they only taught new farming practices to men.
As Christianity spread women were taught to be chaste. And everyone was encouraged to live in small nuclear families instead of matriarchal longhouses.
Missionaries taught women to fall under the leadership of men. And men were taught to fall in line with priests. Which made it easier to control everyone. Men who acquiesced were favorited and given authority.
And so the Iroquois turned from equality to patriarchy.
But this story shows that patriarchy is not inevitable. It does not arise from innate sex differences. It comes from causes that I will explore in the future.