A recent post here by Belfast Barman got me thinking about just why men have a ‘need’ to control women, to be the ‘master’. To try to understand, we need to go far back in time.
The lineage of Homo Sapiens is now clearly differentiated from the Neanderthals, with whom we once co-existed. The control of fire, and the invention of cooking meant that much more energy was available, and this lead to larger brains. It’s now clear that though the Neanderthals had a large brain, this was in part because they had bigger eyes than we do, and needed a bigger brain to process the information; in their case, it was the occipital lobes, at the back of the brain, which were bigger than ours. We, by contrast, have bigger frontal and temporal lobes; these are associated with emotions and abstract thought. (We also have about 1-4% Neanderthal genes.)
One problem with the upright posture is the need for relatively narrow hips, and thus a relatively small bony pelvis. Because we have large heads, intra-uterine development is limited, and humans are very immature at birth compared to other animals. Human children need a much longer period of nurturing before they can live an independent existence. (This is also an explanation of the menopause; it allows grandmothers to help their daughters with child rearing, while no longer being capable of being pregnant themselves.)
It’s the capability of abstract thought, the idea that we can believe in things that have no real existence that clearly sets H Sapiens apart from other animals. Belief and abstraction both result in story telling. This ability seems to have occurred about 70,000 years ago, when we were hunter-gatherers. We were nomads, moving from place to place in search of food; we had to take all our ‘stuff’, our ‘possessions’ with us.
Much more recently, for reasons that aren’t wholly clear, we began to live in settlements or ‘towns’; and then around these we ‘invented’ agriculture. Such agriculture actually needed much more work than simply gathering food from trees, or hunting the occasional large animal. Crops require that the land is ploughed or worked, seeded, kept weed-free; and finally, the crop must be harvested. The grain must be milled—the ‘daily grind’—which might take a couple of hours each day, before it can be cooked. Staple foods of settled agriculture such as potatoes, rice and wheat have to be cooked before we can properly digest them.
With settled agriculture it’s accepted that divisions in work began; the man tended the fields, the woman tended the family. And with this settled living, the abstract ideas of ‘property’ developed, together with ‘inheritance’ and ‘paternity’. The woman always knows that she is the mother of the child, the man can’t be so sure. As hunter-gatherers this didn’t matter, for the children were children of the whole tribe, not of a particular set of parents. To be sure of his paternity, to legitimise his descendants, the settled man had to control the woman and her sexuality. (Even today in the UK, it’s estimated that up to 10% of ‘fathers’ named on birth certificates aren’t the biological father.)
At the same time, the concepts of ‘laws’ and ‘religion’ arose; both are artefacts, abstract ideas, both are capable of belief. The settlement produced leaders as ‘bosses’ such as kings, and priests, protecting the people and directing their actions. We might call these ‘bosses’ the elite, the 1% today. That the men were the kings and (usually) the priests may be related to the divisions of work in the family. (Women, such as seers and oracles, in these early religions were often ‘virgins’, or surprisingly, ‘temple prostitutes’.)
You can see a reflection (a justification?) of this in Genesis; man is made in the image of God, but the woman is only a bit of the man. As such, she ‘obviously’ is responsible for the fall, the punishment for which were the pains of childbirth, and the need to ‘labour in the fields [of the settlement]’.
Certainly, by the time of Christ, the idea that the man was the head of the household was ‘normal’, the ‘patriarchy’ was established by usage and custom. After all, didn’t Mary have to travel with Joseph to his city of origin? This story will be well known to small children in the Christianised world; the idea that the man is the ‘natural boss’, and that he leads is inherent in it,as is the idea that woman follows, is ingrained from a very early age. You can imagine the conversation:
Child: Why did they go to Bethlehem?
Parent: It was Joseph’s home town.
Child: Why didn’t they go to Mary’s home town?
Parent: Joseph was the man, he was the head of the family.
It’s not that people are trying to ‘brainwash’ young kids; rather, the kids will take the story quite literally, and in a way learn their ‘place’ in life. If this sounds a bit fantastic, remember that young children don’t have the ability to sift information, to accept some ideas and discard others; they accept it all, they believe all the stories they are told. There’s a little story that illustrates this; a teacher hadn’t prepared very well for her Bible study class; when asked, she explained that ‘fornication’ meant being ‘very bad’. How can an infant (and later the grown-up) not associate ‘fornication’ with ‘badness’?
Women did have prominent roles in the early Christian church; but after the pragmatic adoption of Christianity as the state religion of the Roman Empire, they were gradually airbrushed from the story. (Have a look at Thecla, for instance.) Some of the earliest Christian (male) theologians have left remarks about women which are strikingly uncomplimentary, even if they generally favoured equality (such as in education). For example:
(Thought) “women as ‘naturally’ inferior beings; they were a kind of afterthought”
[Saw man alone as] the image and glory of God
[Woman is but] the glory of the man
Let a woman learn in silence with full submissiveness. I do not allow any woman to teach or exercise authority over a man; she is to remain silent.
The man is not of the woman, but the woman is of the man
Tertullian of Carthage (c. 160 – c. 225 AD):
[Women should wear perpetual mourning to atone for] the ignominy and odium of having being the cause of the fall of the human race
Clement of Alexandria (c. 150 – c. 215)
Every woman ought to be filled with shame as the thought that she is a woman.
Amongst all the savage beasts, none is found so harmful as woman.
Even a protestant theologian expressed ideas that we would find unacceptable today:
Martin Luther (10 November 1483 – 18 February 1546)
And if a woman grows weary and at last dies from child-bearing, it matters not. Let her die from bearing, she is there to do it.
Men, it seems, have controlled women for millennia, either through force or through thought—‘religion’. Many men still see this, still justify it, as ‘natural’, the way things always have been. Today, that all surely belongs in the past?
Robert Campbell is a retired surgeon.