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On the Origins of Gender Roles: Women and the Plough

(7 Posts)
WhollyGhost Tue 26-Jul-11 07:08:17

An interesting new paper on the agricultural origins of gender roles:
econ-www.mit.edu/files/6674

Discussed in the Economist here:
www.economist.com/node/18986073?story_id=18986073&fsrc=scn/fb/wl/ar/ploughandthenow

The work seems quite convincing, but depressing. Since it takes so long for gender roles to evolve, and they persist so strongly over generations, does that mean that we can't hope for change in our lifetimes?

joaninha Tue 26-Jul-11 10:58:33

Thanks for the links. Couldn't manage the first one but the second one was interesting. It's worth noting also that it wasn't only physical strength that stopped women operating heavier equipment but that heavy and relatively dangerous equipment was incompatible with looking after babies and children.
One of the commentors cited the increased importance of warfare as a reason for women's diminished importance outside the home and ties in with the experiences of native American women who enjoyed relative equality and political significance prior to the arrival of the Europeans. As the Europeans' presence led to increased emphasis on warfare for the native Americans as they tried to defend their lands so the status of native American women decreased.

joaninha Tue 26-Jul-11 11:10:07

Also I don't think you should be depressed cos it all goes to show that women have and can enjoy equality in the public and political arena and that the reasons for denying them those rights in the past have been cultural leading on from physical and that the rationale that later developed of women's intellectual inferiority was in fact based on nothing other than the male elite's desire to protect their domain.

Himalaya Tue 26-Jul-11 13:43:05

Interesting article. It doesn't go into why men had more upper body strength in the first place, though.

I don't think it is depressing to think there might have been good reasons for inequitable gender roles in the past. Better to understand the reasons why they came to be than to put it down to 'bad guys' and 'victims' throughout history.

ThisIsANiceCage Tue 26-Jul-11 14:06:50

Mm, don't have access to statistics but feels completely wrong.

I know hoe-using African cultures that are jaw-droppingly sexist, mysoginistic and systematically abusive of women (for example in ownership of land, moveable goods, chidren and rights over the body). While I know ploughing cultures in Asia which are underlyingly matriarchal, where women have vastly better rights and quality of life.

What's more, human-powered ploughs are a very, very limited part of plough use. Most ploughs through history and across the world use draft animals (or now machines). I'm not at all convinced you'd need more strength to cultivate the same area by animal-drawn plough than by hoe (which requires both arm-strength and back strength).

I strongly suspect this is about ploughs as high-status equipment, and therefore ownership and use is a male thing, ditto ownership or use of draft-animals (just like man gets the family car, even tho he leaves it in station car park all day). There's a problem even now with installing village pumps in Africa, that a piece of mechanical engineering is automatically assumed to be "men's business". Since water-collection is typically "women's business", when the pump breaks the men cba to fix it - not their problem. So the best pump programmes include a female engineer teaching the women to strip and repair the pump.

Himalaya Wed 27-Jul-11 07:27:37

Thisisanicecage - despite the dumb picture in the economist, I think the research did look at animal pulled ploughs.

Animal ploughing does take strength - to keep it straight and under control - its more of an all-or-nothing thing - if you are less strong at hoeing you hoe slower but you still get the job done. If you are not strong enough to keep the plough under control you can mess up the whole job. Also you can't stop-start ploughing to combine it with childcare. With hoeing you you need more people to hoe the same area and every little helps. Whereas with ploughing you need less people and the stronger person will do a better job - so it lends itself to specialisation (...and high status like you say...)

I'm sure this research is not 'the answer' though - they say it only explains 10%ish of the difference between cultures in terms of women's workforce participation. FWIW I think it goes deeper than the dawn of agriculture.

BelleCurve Wed 27-Jul-11 20:15:36

This to me seems just one step away from the evo-sexist stuff. The economist had some really condescending articles in their "women in business" section.

A less charitable soul might think that their cages were somewhat rattled by the most senior economist in the world now being a woman (and a lawyer!)

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