Once and Future Gender Equality

Indian womanMost people don’t realize that the world wasn’t always male-dominant.

Even today a few egalitarian societies remain. Like the !Kung of Africa or New Guinea’s Tchambuli.

Going back in time, when Europeans first set out to conquer the world, they were surprised to see how gender-equal some of the peoples they met were. Like American Indians and Pacific Islanders.

Gender-equal Minoan Crête

Even further into history and we find Minoan Crête where women and men acted in partnership and women held high social, economic, political and religious positions. There, the so-called “feminine virtues” of peacefulness and sensitivity were celebrated. Actually, they seemed to have little inequality of any kind. Personal ambition wasn’t important, and archaeology finds no statues or pictures of those who sat on thrones.

Gender-equal hunter-gatherers

Now move into pre-history, the Neolithic age, when goddesses were widely worshiped, and where women’s graves were central and richly decorated in some parts of Europe, Africa and the Middle East.

Hunter-gatherer father and child.

Hunter-gatherer father and child.

Evidence also points to high levels of equality among Paleolithic hunter- gatherers, since that’s what we find among forager peoples today. Boston College psychologist and research professor, Peter Gray, observes (to paraphrase):

During the twentieth century, anthropologists discovered and studied dozens of different hunter-gatherer societies, in various remote parts of the world, who had been nearly untouched by modern influences. Wherever they were found — in Africa, Asia, South America, or elsewhere; in deserts or in jungles — these societies had many characteristics in common.

In each of these societies, the dominant cultural ethos was one that emphasized individual autonomy, nonviolence, sharing, cooperation, and consensual decision-making. Their core value, which underlay all of the rest, was that of the equality of individuals.

These people were not passively egalitarian; they were actively so.

They would not tolerate anyone’s boasting, or putting on airs, or trying to lord it over others. Their first line of defense was ridicule. If anyone–especially if some young man–attempted to act better than others or failed to show proper humility in daily life, the rest of the group, especially the elders, would make fun of that person until proper humility was shown.

Recent research on population movement suggests the same thing.

Gender-equality in pre-history

Anthropologist, Mark Dyble of University College London, has identified a pattern: when men determine where a family lives, the core community is a network of closely related men, with their spouses on the periphery.

But when men and women have equal power to decide where to live the number of people who are related is much lower.

And people in hunter-gatherer societies tend to live in groups with few closely related individuals.

This suggests that sex equality was common in our earliest societies. And it may have created an evolutionary advantage, says Prof Dyble:

It gives you a far more expansive social network with a wider choice of mates, so inbreeding would be less of an issue. And you come into contact with more people and you can share innovations, which is something that humans do par excellence.

Gender equality is not only possible. It once was.

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About BroadBlogs

I have a Ph.D. from UCLA in sociology (emphasis: gender, social psych). I currently teach sociology and women's studies at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA. I have also lectured at San Jose State. And I have blogged for Feminispire, Ms. Magazine, The Good Men Project and Daily Kos. Also been picked up by The Alternet.

Posted on April 15, 2016, in feminism, sexism, women and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 15 Comments.

  1. I loved this post. My boyfriend and I were just discussing the other day the subject of gender equality and historical nations and societies where women shared the same roles or importance as men. I love to hear and learn about how women used to play important roles and were looked at as equals. My boyfriend is a member of the Paiute Native American Tribe that resides in Oregon. He was telling me about how in many tribes, women were leaders instead of men. They made the decisions, had female only pow wows, and such. The reason they did this was because the the male chiefs and other male members were the ones always going off to fight wars and going hunting as would often get killed. The tribes also saw the woman as a strong being who would create and carry a child. With this all in mind, many of those tribes chose a woman for their chief so they wouldn’t have the risk of her dying in war, and because they saw her as a strong, intelligent and equal person among them.

  2. I am taking a Cultural Anthropology class, and right now we are talking about egalitarian vs. stratified societies, Food gathering vs. food producers; foragers, horticulture, pastoralism, and Intensive agriculture (America). Its an online class, and one of the discussions to respond to was about “…Why would we, members of a highly industrialized society, study foragers, people who used to hunt and gather for a living, but who are today confined to reservations and “preserves?” Why do anthropologists (and maybe some of you) think it’s important to understand foraging cultures?” This was my response.

    Anthropology is the study of humanity, and to be an anthropologist one studies humans to find out what makes them human. For an anthropologist to study foraging I feel it lays a foundation to the study of how people work as a community, and allows the study of other successful cultures expose other societies like our own to become successful by learning how others live peacefully and successfully without materialistic ideals, industrialization, or a social ladder. To understand foraging cultures opens the mind to many successful ideas of improving communities, and I think if we can start improving communities by adopting foraging culture traditions we can have more success in a happy life because everyone would feel included in keeping their community successful. In a foraging lifestyle everyone has a job to do; this could lead to less crime, drug abuse, and poverty in communities. Also, by studying foraging cultures allows other to understand what it takes to have a happy successful community which could lead to a better government.

    A foraging culture allows everyone to be equal within the community because everyone is vital to keeping the community going; everyone has a job to do. Thank you for writing this, it was a great read!

    • Nice response. For centuries people have believe that men were naturally dominant. These foraging/hunting societies shows otherwise. Indeed, the earliest humans seem to have been very equal.

  3. . Personal ambition wasn’t important,”

    That doesn’t sound right to me. Life seems boring and mundane and just about surviving which makes sense during that time. The basic purpose is to survive, but you hope when things settle better that you can stray a little from that. It’s hard for me to not see personal ambition as not important. It’s hard to see, since selfishness seems like a natural human flaw personality and that ego is a natural thing. You said cocky men become humbled, well cocky people are annoying and need to be humbled. But I’m talking about proud people who aren;t cocky and don’t show it, but they want success and to do better than other people.

    • There are positives and negatives to various ways of being, And I one could probably be ambitious for the good of the group rather than for serving one’s ego. The experience of love is probably greater with widespread equality There are trade-offs to these things.

  4. this was very interesting and thought provoking!

  5. Oh I forgot to mention – Palau in the Micronesia is the same, but the women’s power goes into politics as well. They have a very interesting system, even to the selection of husbands, I was told. 🙂

  6. 🙂 Nice post. Also for Papua New Guinea; check the New Guinea Islands (New Ireland and East New Britain) and North Solomons Provinces. These areas are matrilineal societies, still to date. The women own the land and in any Melanesian society, your power basically is derived from land wealth.

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