Gender Inequality Emerged From Agriculture?

Sex inequality

Sex inequality

The world wasn’t always marked by sex inequality. Particularly in plant-based societies there is much of evidence of parity.

So what happened?

No one knows for sure since we have no clear record of the transition — which may have occurred in different ways in different places. But based on archaeological, historical, and anthropological evidence, we have a few theories.

Three of them make a lot of sense to me. They involve 1) arid land, 2) efforts to avoid inbreeding, and 3) agriculture.

Let’s take a look at that last one.

Agriculture, animal husbandry and inequality

Some think that gender inequality arose from agriculture and animal husbandry partly because they introduced the concepts of inequality, ownership and control:

  • Agricultural surplus creates the possibility of large inequalities
  • Notions of control and dominance arose from controlling plant and animal life
  • Private ownership of produce and herds created an ownership-mentality

Connected to animal husbandry, as males (animal and human) were discovered to play a role in reproduction, women no longer held the sole “magic” power to create life. Men came to be seen as a life force, too, planting their seed. So women lost a degree of reverence.

Mind the gap

Mind the gap

Also, as reproduction took on economic value as animals were sold or children were needed to farm, reproduction came to be more controlled. Plus, fathers wanted to pass property to children, which was another reason to control women’s reproduction.

Men control because they’re less connected?

But as Allan Johnson points out, these precursors to patriarchy don’t necessitate it. You don’t do something just because you can.

Why not continue passing property through mothers? Why don’t women take control and become dominant?

Something else must have been going on, too.

Dr. Johnson, thinks men might be more likely to experience themselves as rising above, transcending and controlling both themselves and others because their bodies lack the monthly bleeding that would be a constant reminder of connection to the natural rhythms of birth, renewal and death.

Less abstractly, he points out that men herded cattle, and as populations grew and got in each other’s way, men might respond with fear and attempts to control and dominate.

These could all be contributing factors, but other things might be more important.

Separation from public life and the means of production

In early societies women’s focus was more on gathering food and raising children, while men more often hunted, traded, and fought. The different jobs didn’t create inequality.

gender inequality 2But as agriculture created wealth and complex societies, simple treaties grew into elaborate international relations and simple trade turned into complex business transactions. Men had done these things in their simpler forms early on, and just kept doing them as they grew more complex, eventually emerging as the business and political leaders. Meanwhile, their female partners kept on nurturing children outside the world of business and politics. And outside of power and status.

But in many cultures women were enmeshed in political and economic life. What about them?

As agriculture created stable communities with wealth accumulation, specialized labor and trade, and as societies grew more complex, childrearing moved from “the village raises the child” to individual families raising children, with responsibility placed firmly on mom’s shoulders.

As a result, women lost power and status as they left the public sphere and grew separated from the means of production.

We don’t really know what caused patriarchy, but these are a few ideas.

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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 August 5, 2016, in feminism, sexism, women and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 19 Comments.

  1. Interesting thoughts! As you suggest, the oppression of animal bodies and human bodies are closely tied it seems

    Have you heard of Carol J Adam who wrote The Sexual Politics of Meat? I have not read it but have heard her talk. Fascinating work!

  2. Looking at this in the Hunter/Gatherer society, I think men & women both exercised their strengths. Women have a superior olfactory system & color eyesight than men. This would be advantageous to gathering. Men are typically faster on their feet & have greater strength. There is also a high degree of genetic color-blindness in men in the red/brown color range that is presumed to aid them in distinguishing silhouettes & movement in shade forest. This would be an advantage for a hunter.

    What started out as natural selection has become bias.

  3. as always, thought provoking and intriguing… gives me something interesting to think about whilst I’m filing at work!

    • Yeah, it’s interesting that gender inequality didn’t arise because men are just mean — you don’t find it in any hunter-gatherer societies, which constitute about 90% of the human experience.

  4. Agriculture and animal husbandry together apparently constitute the most probable factor. Differences in anatomy and physical strength between male and female may also have catalysed the division of labour, with the male attending to harder and complex tasks and the female increasingly relegated to playing a supportive role by tending to home and family. It is convincingly clear that agriculture and animal husbandry started innocuously but progressively grew in dimension to establish the concept of ownership, also acquiring complexities of scale presumably related to size of land and multicrop farming, numbers and variety of cattle, poultry and the like. Patriarchy became ingrained over centuries of practices and conditioning. It can also change to allow equitable balance between genders through a reversal of process; signs of it are visible in societies worldwide. It is only a question of time.

    • Biological differences of female child bearing and male hunting/war mark all hunter gatherer societies.

      Men were more expendable — if they died you didn’t automatically decrease the number of children who could be born. Women also nursed kids, so they couldn’t take kids on the hunt or war. And trade was far away, and harder to take kids. So men end up specialized in trade and war.

      More complex societies via agriculture lead to more complex business and politics, and men just keep doing those things while women continue raising kids and so smaller agriculture. After a while it seems like men are more natural businessmen, politicians. And women are left out of power.

  5. happyfreeconfusedlonelyatthesametime

    That’s interesting but it seems a bit far fetched

    • Seems completely logical to me. What exactly is far-fetched? And do you have a theory?

      • happyfreeconfusedlonelyatthesametime

        Like why would men want to oppress their women just because they found out they can create something too? They could have been like “yay, we can both do it now.”
        I don’t really have a theory, no.

      • Like I said, they wouldn’t.

        Go back and read the post again. And I clarified some points in my answer to Rajagopal.

      • happyfreeconfusedlonelyatthesametime

        Ok but I still wonder why. I mean all these things could have happened differently. For example children only need their mothers for breastfeeding. Why didn’t mothers start hunting after their children were able to eat real food?

      • “All these things could have happened differently.”

        That’s true. Like I said, this is just one theory of several. And I will post on a couple of others later. It could be that we got patriarchy in different places in different ways. I’m just posting the theories that makes the most sense to me.

        As to your question, I’ve been reading about the !Kung, which is one type of forager group who lived similarly to our ancestors. They breast-fed the children for several years, About four as I recall. And then they would be pregnant again. Breast-feeding is a natural type of childbirth.

        Also, men have more upper body strength so it makes more sense for them to be the hunters. Hunting is also dangerous so it makes sense to protect the child bearers at a time when you don’t have very large populations. Because one man can impregnate a lot of women. Leaving men more expendable.

      • happyfreeconfusedlonelyatthesametime

        Well it’s an interesting theory but nothing more to me. I’m excited for your others though.

      • Ok, I’ll be writing more on this in a few weeks.

      • happyfreeconfusedlonelyatthesametime


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