Could patriarchy have evolved from females being the more creative and powerful sex all along? It may be a romantic idea, but it seems that ideas of masculinity and being a strong male, arise from being constantly validated by the love and support of a female or by other males. Masculinity seems to be the absence of femininity and validation of the female assuring, ‘Yes, you are the exact opposite of me, therefore, you are masculine’. Could the, ‘behind every great man is an even greater woman’ be argued to be the root of patriarchy? Could females really the more dominant and powerful sex? Or is it still males who rule?
Virtually everywhere there is a division of labor by sex. The tasks and expectations of the male and female sex vary tremendously so that what is masculine in one place will be feminine in another however; there are a few exceptions and that is the existence of patriarchy. The division of labor seems to be universal and is related in almost all societies to the notion of patriarchy. The majority of human societies are patriarchal where males hold higher prestige in almost all aspects of day-to-day life and where final authority for decision-making is a male prerogative. In some cultures, female and males hold the same privileges, however, this is limited. Why then are prestige and authority seen universally as male prerogatives? Tiger has considered male bonding but then considers another notion: sex role.
In ‘Feminine, Masculine or Human’ by J.S. Chafetz’s (p.20-23) considers Tiger’s notions, as well as human development and conceptualizes the development of male dominance. We go back to the dawn of human development, evolution, which therefore must be speculative.
As humans evolved from their primate ancestors they lost many physical advantages: prehensile tail which allowed to swing tree to tree and avoid predators, strong eyesight and hearing, protective fur coats, strong jaws and teeth and diminished physical size and strength. Humankind became a vulnerable creature. All of these lost attributes were traded in for thumbs and a markedly increased brain capacity. The substantial increase in brain capacity ensured that the vulnerable “naked ape” (Desmond Morris, 1967) could survive.
However, the increased brain size meant a larger skull was necessary to contain it, which presented a practical problem: how could such a large skull pass through a birth canal? One option would have been to broaden the pelvic region of the female. However, this would have rendered her immobile. As a result, evolution decided instead that human babies would be born in an underdeveloped state. Thus, at birth the human brain is only 23 percent of its final adult size (Morris, 1967, p.29). As a result, human infants are dependant on its parents for long periods of time, particularly the mother. As in all mammal species the infant lives on its mothers milk and is rendered helpless without her. However, females were often incapable of readily supplying themselves with the requisite food, shelter and protection. Thus, a pair bond, a partner and father figure is favored and necessary as outlined by Morris in the ‘The Human Animal: The Biology of Love”.
Another important biological change, which occurred in humans during the evolutionary process was that females could receive sexually and enjoy a male at any time as discussed previously here. The estrus cycle, whereby females are only sexually receptive at certain periodic intervals, namely during ‘heat’ disappeared. Long pleasurable sex and notions of love formed as a result as well as relatively permanent mating bond, a very rare phenomenon among other species. “Essentially, then, the human family probably grew out of an exchange of sexual accessibility by females in return for provision of food, shelter and protection by males” (p.21, Morris, p.54). This also helps ensure the rearing of the helpless and dependant offspring. Overall, even this concept indicates that males act as the provider as long as sex is accessible by the female. Who then really has the power? Or is the evolution of female sexuality strength and power females hold? After all, if they deny sexual access to the male, he will go without but may still provide for her in a pursuit to gain access.
The question is then how patriarchy arose from sexual accessibility from the female in exchange for creature needs from the male. In face, the exchange itself appears to be quite unequal. Males can survive quite well without having sex and so this accessibility the female provides is not necessarily an advantage to her sex. Meanwhile, females due to lack of resources cannot readily survive and rear children without a male. Thus, males still hold major dominance and significance in the male/female divide and forms a power differential between the sexes.
“Without the reinforcing mechanisms of most cultures, this power differential might have remained negligible” (p.22). In fact in some of the earliest societies females had substantial amount of prestige and power (Gough, 1971, p.768-69) where deities were seen as fertility goddesses. To primitive humans childbirth appeared to be spectacularly mystical, powerful, quite frightening and creative phenomenon, exclusive to the female sex only. In “Adam’s Rib or the Woman Within” by Una Stannard, suggests that males suffered acute “womb envy”(p.24-35).
As a result, males simultaneously scared and strongly attracted by the birth process, as it signaled strength and power, attempted to appropriate all other mystical, status conferring privileges and culturally defined creative activity available for themselves. These attempts usually succeeded by default. It was this “mass sublimation” that patriarchy, even despite the obvious inherent, biological physical advantages of the male form, gained a powerful grip. To sublimate is to divert or modify an intrinsic impulse into a culturally higher or socially more acceptable activity. Thus, by males becoming leaders, hunters and protectors, patriarchy became a ‘normal’ and accepted reality. “Cultural patterns were then established granting males, by virtue of their inability to bear children, all manner of rights and privileges, eventuating in the replacement of the fertility goddess by the male god of war and the hunt” (Chafetz, p.22)
Eventually, males discovered that they too played a role in reproduction. However, patriarchy was already a rich part of culture and self-reinforcing. In fact for a long period of time, even up until the 19th century, Western patriarchal culture had produced a ‘science’, which convinced that the human male carries a miniature but complete baby in his sperm and the female just provides the environment for the baby to grow! (Stannard, p.28). The creativity of the reproductive act was initially viewed as female but was later made into an exclusively male function, which resulted in the offspring by law and custom being the father’s possession. Even to this day children bear its father’s name. All infants have an identifiable mother but cannot be granted full status until paternity is well assured, ‘maternity is a fact, paternity a rumor’. Thus, the child will bear the name of the father. Now virtually every social and cultural institution helps to support patriarchy.
As it can be argued that patriarchy was culturally induced so can the physical differences between the sexes. In many species there are no physical differences between the sexes in size or physical strength. In some cultures, such as the Balinese males and females are built about the same. Chafetz, suggests:
“It is conceivable that once patriarchy was instituted, culturally defined notions of beauty came to favor strength and large size in males, and weakness and petite structure in females. Such definitions of beauty, marvelously supportive of patriarchal social institutions, would lead to selective reproduction favoring small, weak females and big, strong males. This difference, then, would feed back and support male power and prestige” (Chafetz, p.23)
In summary, males envied the strength and creativity of childbirth, which was seen as intrinsically female and were able to appropriate power and status because females could find sufficient psychic fulfillment in this reproductive function. Females were powerful and mystical, envied for their biologically given wombs so did not pay attention to any other potential roles. Hence, males appropriated all other elements of creativity and status-conferring activities such as hunting, war and male bonding without interference. Patriarchy had begun to form but females were not truly affected as they still had a function, which was key to the species and still seen as exclusive to them. However, once males had learnt that they too were needed in order to reproduce, their status was heightened further as well as cultural customs such as offspring bearing the father’s name.
It appears that culture and biology may have intertwined and could be argued to have caused the physical differences between males and females to ensure aesthetically they appropriate to their functions and roles. Females should be weaker and therefore smaller to validate the male’s masculinity and fulfill his role as protector. Males must be strong and large in order to protect and provide sufficiently to the female. With these ideas in mind, it may be innate that we as humans thinks that femininity and masculinity is linked to physical attributes to the person, which denote certain roles and functions. Hence, why those who are outside of these expected visual aesthetics and roles are instantly and almost unconsciously viewed as different or abnormal. The very notion I will be investigating.
Stannard, U. (1970) ‘Adam’s rib, or the woman within’. Trans Action 8(1-2), :24-35.
Chafetz, J.S. (1974). Masculine/Feminine or Human? London: F.E.Peocock Publishers, Inc. . p1-
Tiger, L (1969) Men in Groups. Transaction Publishers.