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Market Feminism: Human Nature and the Story of Origins

This post continues a series on "Market Feminism," in turn based on a recent speech at the University of Vermont. Links to other installments are at the end.

Allison Jaggar opened her classic treatise on feminist theory with the stipulation that any theory, to be acceptable, must provide a definition of human nature upon which to base its program for change.

I’ll be honest. This little rule has always struck me as naive and bit pompous. My own view is that human nature is multi-faceted, highly variable, and always changing.  I suspect that people who base their arguments on a statement of “what human nature is” are selectively grabbing a huge beast by the tail, trunk, ears, or tusk, according to their own agenda.

In Jaggar’s book, for instance, she says liberal feminism is based on the notion that human nature is the capacity for reason. She suggests that the Marxist view is based on the material existence of humans, of their constant creation of and adaptation to the things around them.  But wait!  Humans are capable of thinking and making stuff.  Still, one theorist grabs the reason and the other grabs the tools; each goes off to create a one-dimensional theory. We get either homo cogitans or homo faber or any number of other compartmentalizations that, at first, help us think about or work with something, but pretty soon just form a box.

I confess I have an attitude about this whole charade of distilling human nature to a two-word Latin phrase.

The pompous part is what you often hear when you propose major social change (like saving the planet or freeing the women). Some self-appointed arbiter harrumphs, “Well, my dear, you will never get people to go along with what you propose.  It goes against human nature.” Nine times out of ten, of course, “human nature” matches up neatly with their own self-interest.

I am simply not impressed by that topic of discussion. It seems a waste of time.

What haunts me is the question of origins. When and why did women become so horribly disadvantaged?  Previous hypotheses are unsatisfactory.  The main ones are:

  1. women became disadvantaged when private property was invented

  2. women became disadvantaged when they were forbidden to learn writing and reading

  3. women became disadvantaged when the plow was invented.

All of these hypotheses fail for more or less the same reason: they do not explain why gender subordination is universal. There are many cultures in the world today–many places in Africa, for instance–where property is still owned communally (that is, by the clan). Women do not usually have many rights in such societies.  Indeed, women usually are property in such places. I have always suspected that Frederick Engels’ selection of property as the origin of women’s oppression was primarily motivated to give class oppression and sex oppression the same basis.  It did not work out.

Nobody wants to go there: if gender oppression started in prehistoric times, it might suggest that the origin is not culture, but nature. The global data showing the universal presence of gender disadvantage today suggests the same thing. The distinctive pattern of this oppression, from South America to Western Europe to the Indian subcontinent and beyond, also point to some very old point of origin.

Gerda Lerner’s account of the devastating impact it had on women to be excluded from the technology of writing is extremely impressive. Yet, her own literature review as well as her analysis of the earliest written laws point repeatedly to a previous setting–that is, one before writing was invented–in which women were continually raped, abducted, enslaved, and just generally treated as something less than human. Today, literacy does track inversely with women’s rights. It seems clear that education is a key means for achieving equality.  Thus, we might say that Lerner was right that exclusion from education was a major tactic of subordination.  But we cannot say the invention of writing was the origin of oppression because women in pre-literate groups today are the worst off (and because Lerner’s own source material suggests strongly that women were dominated well before writing).

A recent article, much ballyhooed, argued in support of Esther Boserup’s idea that the use of the plow was the basis for women’s oppression.  (Because plows were too heavy.  Come on.  Does this really seem like a plausible cause for such an elaborate, universal, and enduring subordination?) The authors were able to demonstrate that groups whose ancestors had plows are worse for women.  What they are not able to demonstrate is that societies without the the plow are also without gender subordination. Because that simply is not true.  There are hunter-gatherer societies, nomadic societies, trading societies, industrial societies, and information societies–in none of them are women equal.

It seems to me that the root cause must be something that came before property, pens, or plows.  These technologies undoubtedly did much to elaborate and ensure the continuation of subordination. But it seems clear that if women’s subordination occurs everywhere in past and present history, then we need to look for something that was present before written records.  We must look to a time even before memory, since the transcriptions of ancient oral texts tell stories in which the women are subordinate.

Hamadryas harem. The females always look terrfied.

OK, so one night Jim and I are watching the BBC Earth series called Life (gorgeous and highly recommended).  That night, we chose “Primates.”  First up are the Hamadryas baboons.  David Attenborough tells us straightaway that the main group of about 400 is divided into one-male harems and that the males deal with the females “severely” for even slight missteps (over Attenborough’s cultivated voice we see a male bite a female at the neck as she screams with pain).  My blood runs cold: the thought in my head goes, “We come from some creature like this.”

Hamadryas male bares his teeth. So maybe the original "bad boy" wasn't so charming.

Another group of baboons shows up. There is an attempt on the part of one group to steal some of the other’s females.  War is declared. Much shrieking and general nastiness follows, during which we learn that a key objective is to abduct the other group’s females. Eventually, the hostilities between the males cease, but then we watch as each guy goes back to his harem and brutally punishes any female that was seen to stray.  (Stray? Was she trying to get out?)  Over all this  horrible stuff (you can see bits of it here, where the BBC warns of the “disturbing images” before you click Play), Sir David tells us that the violence is essential so that order can be maintained.  I’m thinking, “Essential. Really? Really? Then why don’t we see this behavior in all mammals?”  One of the production team actually comments:  “The scale of the fight and the way the males are so dominant is just unparalleled in primate society.”


We don’t see this stuff in very many species, it is true.  Plenty of animals will fight to get a mate or defend a baby.  Some kill when they mate.  But this combination “war and wife-beating” deal is indeed uncommon.  If we consider ourselves as primates, however, we are actually quite similar to these baboons.

Humans, it turns out, are one of only three species (the other two being chimps and wolves) that will break into small bands, strategize, and then go kill others of the same species, often for no apparent reason.  As in, “Hey, it’s Saturday night.  Nothin’ better to do.  Let’s get drunk and go burn down the next village.” Humans add the rape-and-abduction behavior.