The ‘control’ of women

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.
Child: Why?
Parent: Just.
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:


St Paul:

(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?

  • barnshee

    All these stupid men thinking they were actually in charge

  • aber1991

    There are plenty of controlling women about – especially in education. In my experience, most women are unsuitable for teaching – because they are too bossy and too vicious.

    Nevertheless, I think Mr Fealty should not allow his website to host a war of the sexes. A war of the sexes is usually a waste of time – because there tends to be too much fraternising with the enemy.

  • Korhomme

    I did run this post past one of the editors before putting it up here; I’m aware of sensitivities, though I feel that it’s only by exploring our views, and how we come to have them, that we can fully understand ourselves and others.

    Surely, any talk of ‘war’ implies entrenched positions, rather than a willingness to explore what we have in common, and where we differ. And how we might minimise or eliminate our differences.

  • Sergiogiorgio

    A rather silly post (sorry Korhomme) that alludes to historical, evolutionary and religious examples. Try addressing how women are “controlled” within the present day as opposed to examples drawn from previous millennia. If I tried to control the missus I’d find the controller lodged up my rectum and a very knowing expression on the dragons face.

  • Reader

    There always seems to be a proportion of bullies, and these people will kick ‘down’ because they can’t climb up. They see women as easy victims. Thankfully, modern society tries to limit that, with some success when you compare it with the alternatives. That’s maybe half of it.
    As for the rest – your split between religion (95%) and science (5%) – you have it the wrong way round. Religion was the way that society was organised, comprising what worked locally, plus what only seemed to work; and competing, viciously, with other religions for survival and dominance. On its own, it isn’t really a cause of anything – it’s just a drag on social change.
    The small section you gave to science is the core of the matter: women know that a child is theirs, men can rarely be certain. We are descended from our actual male ancestors, whether we know them or not. We are not descended from those who only believed they were fathers. For 100,000 years that has been the case. It may take a while for culture to adjust to the availability of DNA paternity testing and for men to lighten up.
    (Edited to fix a couple of typos – there are surely others…)

  • Korhomme

    You don’t think that attitudes today are formed through what we learnt as kids etc; and we learnt from people who learnt from people who had attitudes.

    I’m trying to suggest that our attitudes have a basis in history; not quite Jungian archetypes, but getting close to them. No?

  • Korhomme

    Are bullies born so, or are they made? Of course there are a small proportion of psychopaths whose behaviour is related to their chromosomal abnormalities; but what of the majority? Where do their attitudes come from?

    As for religion, surely it has had a major influence for millennia—and still does in N Ireland. And wasn’t it so often a matter of prescription, domination and control?

  • Sergiogiorgio

    Nature or nurture? Very much the latter for me on this particular subject hence the lack of relevance comment to the disparate examples provided.

    Sorry mate.

  • Reader

    I think bullies are on a warped search for either status or self esteem, and tend to have other issues. Few of them are true psychopaths, and many of them could have been ‘fixed’ in their early days. But it’s not really about women – it’s about any people who are weaker than themselves.
    As for religion, it looks mysogynist because it’s old fashioned – it’s a bunch of people who won’t learn anything new – they might open a door for you or offer up their seat, while complaining about your outfit and opposing abortion.
    (Please excuse the sweeping generalisations – the usual caveats would have trebled the length of the comment)

  • Korhomme

    I don’t think we are disagreeing; rather, I’m suggesting that our nurture is very much influenced by influences from the past, even though these influences have an ancient lineage, one often not recognised.

  • Korhomme

    You could also say that bullies are inadequate people; but what is it that makes them inadequate? (Today, increasing inequality of wealth/income is certainly associated with alienation, and, I suspect, bullying.)

  • David

    Probably worth noting the very significant and current role of local women in opposing such issues as abortion and consensual prostitution. The right of women to choose and have control over their own bodies is not something solely opposed by men.

  • Paddy Reilly

    The reason why Mary and Joseph had to go to Bethlehem is because the paternal lineage is more important. It is more important because it needs to be maintained: if it is forgotten then you only have one parent looking after a child, whereas the task needs at least two. Even penguins know this. Children with two parents have an evolutionary advantage over those with one: the latter are much more likely to end up in jail or die with a needle in their arm.