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Did Men Own Women?

Updated: Aug 12, 2020

The Hawa Mahal has 953 tiny windows through which the "wives" held inside could see the outside world.

One question has haunted me for more than a decade: How did it happen that the economic position of women is the same in every country in the world, enforced by constraints that hardly vary at all from place to place?

I had been taught, as have so many others, that gender is a cultural phenomenon and therefore sex roles and gender practices are different everywhere. But my own field work showed me that, at least in economics, that article of faith simply wasn't true. I also studied the big gender data sets posted by international institutions over the past ten years. This data, too, shows a distinctive pattern of inequality that repeats itself in all nations. History said the same thing: the economic constraints on women in poor countries—such as forbidding them to own property or barring them from banks—have typified women’s predicament in the Western nations in the not-too-distant past.

I asked myself: Where did this stuff come from?

Only two possibilities could explain this frighteningly monotonous picture of exclusion and inequality:

  • The exclusion was somehow “natural,” as males trying to rationalize their own dominance have claimed for decades or

  • These systematic constraints are really, really old and had somehow spread all over the globe.

I spent a long time researching the question of “nature” and have detailed the (rather surprising) findings in my book, The Double X Economy. What I eventually concluded, though, after years of research, was that the basic system is ancient enough to have spread across the earth with the humans who eventually covered it.

A phrase I heard in Africa, “A women cannot own property because she is property,” inspired me to try and find the starting scenario and trace it to the present.

One of the first anthropological works ever written about women, Gayle Rubin’s “The Traffic in Women,” famously argued that the near-universal practice among hunter-gatherers in which the males exchanged the females in trade was how the subordination of women began.

At the time Rubin's essay appeared (1975) , anthropologists had romanticized the trade in "wives" for decades. They were blind to the fact that the “hunter-gatherer economy” was really a “human trafficking economy," but there was no argument that this horrendous practice was, as far as anyone knew, typical of all such societies. Humans have lived this way for 99% of our history.

I think most people believe that slavery was extinguished in the 19th century, but today’s slave trade is bigger than it has ever been. The International Labor Organization, which tracks this criminal activity, reports that 71% of today’s slaves are female, 15.4 million of them by means of forced marriage.

And this is where it gets sticky. People want to believe their ideal of marriage is timeless. So did I. But the facts from the past say something different.

Across human history, women have been “married” to men without their consent, usually by their father, for a price. In the hunter-gatherer groups, “wives” are shared freely among men, to pay a debt, negotiate a truce, resolve a spat, or simply for entertainment. It is flatly false that men “naturally” guard exclusive sexual rights over a women in order to know the children a wife bears are his. Our forager cousins simply do not care about that, so our forebears probably didn't either.

The desire to control female sexuality emerged as men found ways to hold women captive and wrote laws that exacted punishment if another man encroached. Most societies in world history have been polygamous and men consistently have used the number and beauty of their wives to communicate status to other males. This kind of male behavior is indeed all about competition—but not to win the affections of women and thereby get more of their genes into the pool. Because women were mated against their will, the usual evolutionary rationale that whatever characteristics we observe in a species are there because that's what the females like can't be claimed for humans.

You can see the legal machinery for women's subordination and exclusion emerging in the first legal codes. You can also see the same customary practices in ancient, preliterate scriptures like the Old Testament as well as later spoken sagas like the old Norse tales.

In these historical cultures, women were usually held in captivity, first by their fathers to ensure their virginity would bring a high price in trade, and then by their husbands to guard exclusive sexual rights over them. The earliest law code we have, the Code of Ur-Nammu, enumerates rules protecting fathers’ economic rights to sell daughters. There is even a schedule of fines for violating various classes of women—essentially a price list.

When women were first veiled, it was as a marker to show that a particular woman “belonged” to a man. You can trace the veils and seclusion, which have been common on all continents, because they moved around the world through trade and conquest.

The true test of ownership is whether you can sell, destroy, mortgage, or give away a property. In the earliest laws, fathers had the right to sell their daughters, as well as to kill them if they were raped (because they are no good after that) or chose to have sex with another man. “Honor killings” have apparently been with us for thousands of years. Husbands could trade away, sell, or “set aside” a wife at will, as well as beat her or permanently disfigure her for the smallest infraction. It was virtually impossible, however, for a woman to get a divorce.

Once you understand that this is what happened, you can’t help but see it in everything from history books to fairy tales. In history, kings trade daughters to cement alliances with distant enemies; neither the historian nor the reader pauses to contemplate what it meant to be sent away to sleep with your family's mortal enemy. Or we airily read a fairy story where the king keeps his daughter in a tower until a prince can “win” her hand in marriage.

Stop and think about that.

Women have consistently been required to turn over money or assets (usually in the form of a dowry) to their husbands, including in the Western nations up until at least the opening of the 20th century. Women have been barred from the financial system practically since it was invented, so even if they got a little cash, they could only save in bits and in secret. The enforced poverty—no ownership, no income, no cash, no savings—among women, even when they had rich husbands, held them in place as effectively as the walls and screens around them.

The Western nations are not an exception: for instance, convents were not just a place for devout women seeking retreat, but were widely used as storehouses for women who could not be sold profitably or who had become widows. The British common law that was exported to all the English-speaking countries dictated that a husband had total control over the wife's assets and income—and took away her own legal identity. Another feature typical of slavery is taking away the slave's given or family name and legally declaring them an "unperson."

There are architectural relics, all around the world, that were once prisons for women. Some are ornate like the Hawa Mahal, pictured above. Some are austere, like the convents of Europe. All of them have been sentimentalized to a degree that we no longer sense the cruelty of their purpose. But imagine this: one of your neighbors is keeping his wife and daughters inside 24/7, with the drapes drawn, never even allowing them to talk to anyone else. Do you smile, thinking how well he is protecting their respectability? Or do you call the police? In the 21st century, we see this kind of forced isolation as abuse—why do we think the women of the past were not damaged by it?

Women’s economic exclusion as we see it today, even in the developed nations, is actually an extension of a whole system of practices that deemed them property, not persons—and, in the West, the final demise of that system only came in the last fifty years. But the same practices are alive and well in many communities around the globe.

It took months for me to write the chapter on this topic in my book, I was so depressed by the material. But since this horrific truth was the core explanation for everything the book was about, it had to be said. I vacillated between what I felt was my responsibility to tell the real story and the hope I wanted readers to carry through to the end of the book.

The solution came as I traced the emergence of an ethic that held husbands and wives should love each other. This idea grew out of the Reformation in Europe and eventually transformed both marriage and the economic position of women in it. In the end, it was this idea that marriage is meant to be a relationship between loving partners, instead of an abusive arrangement between master and slave, that set us on a path toward gender equality.

It didn’t happen that way in the rest of the world, which is why today’s campaigns to let daughters choose their own husbands are so important. Having been nose-to-nose with the selling of daughters myself, I cannot emphasize enough how cruel and destructive this practice is, nor how totally it is accepted. These things should never have been romanticized.

There is much more to say about women as property, about the laws that kept them economically excluded until very recently, and about the distinctive fingerprints this history has left on all of us—as well as the practical steps we can take to redeem this tragic past. You can follow up in my book, The Double X Economy.

Another post from today may also be interesting: "How Men Grabbed Control of the World's Capital."

In addition, this post may be of interest: "Who Stands Against Gender Equality?"


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