No, women were not oppressed throughout history
A narrative western people take on faith is that traditionally, women were oppressed by the male-dominated society. The evidence they cite usually revolves around a few talking points:
- Women’s lives were hard.
- Women were expected to get married and have children.
- Women were subject to gender roles.
- Women’s sexuality was regulated.
- Women couldn’t own property.
- Women couldn’t go to school.
- Women couldn’t vote.
I was lucky enough to grow up in a European rural society where I got to live the reality of traditional life, and can explain why I think these are terrible points.
I. Women’s lives were hard
Women’s lives were hard because everyone’s lives were hard. Modern people live exceptionally comfortable lives, compared to their ancestors. Water comes into your home, you adjust the temperature with a few finger gestures and you grab whatever you want to eat from a shelf. This was not the case in rural, agricultural societies. People had to grow their own food out of the ground, and raised a variety animals for meat, milk, and eggs. Most of their time and energy was spent doing just that. There were no all inclusive vacations, sabbatical years, globetrotting, etc. Nobody had it easy, neither women nor men.
II. Women were expected to get married and have children
Believe it or not, humans are animals which evolved on this planet as part of a 4 billion year old tree of life. Biological reproduction is an important function of their physical body. It used to be the norm that most people would get married and have children. And it made perfect sense.
Imagine you’re a young adult in a rural society where everyone’s time is spent producing the means of survival. You wake up every morning knowing that survival depends on actually doing something. You know you are not entitled to a free ride, the world doesn’t owe you a living. Your family will help you in case of need, but you do not want to be a burden, just like as you wouldn’t want someone else to be a burden on you. There is only so much effort anyone can spare. You need to work. While you are young, you are able to keep up with the physical demands, but as you get older, your body begins to fail you. You need new pairs of hands.
As soon as you are socially and physically adequate, you find a mate of the opposite sex and start producing children. Within a few years, those children will have to work. Whether it’s with preparing food, tending the smaller children, guarding grazing animals, everyone can help. It’s not “child exploitation”, it’s a necessity. The more children you have, the easier things eventually get. There is no retirement fund, your children are your retirement fund.
What’s the alternative? If you don’t get married, you will still need to make a living. Alone. And you have no children to help you in old age. Your other relatives may help you, but their priorities are their closest blood relatives. As your parents die, you become weak and frail. Your life is hard, you are alone, and can’t afford to suffer a debilitating injury.
III. Women were subject to gender roles
And that’s great. Biologically, men and women are not interchangeable. There’s an asymmetry in their reproduction: women carry their offspring inside their bodies, men don’t. After the baby is born, it depends on the mother’s physical presence more than it depends on the father.
Since families had a lot of children, women were tasked with chores which allowed them to nurse the babies, while men were tasked with the chores which required them to roam. The family was conceptualized as a container, separating the inside from the outside. Women’s activities were centered more inside, while men’s activities were centered more outside. Men were the ones sent to deal with outside threats, while women made sure everything inside was in order.
You may think this asymmetry in outcome is “unfair”, because the grass is greener on the other side. But it wasn’t an artificial and arbitrary imposition. It was just an outcome of a very real physical difference between men and women. A raw fact of life. This division of labor made perfect sense given the constraints. Each role had its advantages and disadvantages.
IV. Women’s sexuality was regulated
And it made perfect sense that it was. Believe it or not, one of the outcomes of sex is having babies. Back then, a pregnancy meant that within less than a year, the pregnant unmarried woman would need to work to ensure the upkeep of the baby. If she was lucky, the father would take on the responsibility and marry her. But this was not a guarantee, since he had no way to be sure that he was the father.
Another natural asymmetry makes it that women are always sure that their baby is theirs. Men can never be certain, and in fact it is known that a proportion of men are actually raising other men’s biological children, thinking they are their own. If you’re a young man, and a young woman comes and says “you left me pregnant, marry me”, the deal you’re getting is “please provide for this baby even though you can’t be sure it’s yours”. You may think it’s a rotten deal, and not go through with it. In this case, the young unmarried mother and her baby become the responsibility of her parents.
Naturally, it would make sense then for any parent to want to avoid that situation, by keeping a closer watch on their daughters. This isn’t a “pro-men” preference. It’s a resource conservation optimization. It’s merely incidental that men seem to get a better deal.
As wives, women were expected to be faithful more than men were. This was not unfair, it was a balancing of a natural asymmetry which favors women. No matter who the father is, the mother is always sure the baby is hers. There is zero chance she is completely unrelated to the baby she just gave birth to. However, if the husband raises another man’s baby, it’s an evolutionary dead end. Evolution likely selected for those traits which make men extremely attentive when it comes to what their wives are up to.
V. Women couldn’t own property
This is a complaint which seems to make sense from a modern perspective, but made no sense in the past. People didn’t engage in trading real estate as individuals. Property belonged to families, as land was used to grow food and to survive. People acquired land in order to grow food as their families expanded, and then gave it away to their children as they established their own families.
VI. Women couldn’t go to school.
This is a talking point which should be broken down the following way, along a social and evolutionary axis:
- since pregnancy was a big deal, it isn’t at all surprising that many schools were segregated by sex. What do you get when you put horny boys and girls together? Sex. And unwanted pregnancies.
- from an evolutionary perspective, women have the privilege of always being desirable. A man, however, needs prove himself in order to successfully compete with other men. It follows that there would be more schools for boys than for girls, and that they would differ in curriculum.
These two points are enough to explain the perception that women were “kept away from school”. Remember, families produced just enough to survive. Sending someone to school was not a whim. It wasn’t free. In order to send a boy to school and then on to the higher studies, they had to work extra hours, go to the market, trade produce and animals for money. Every student coming from a rural family had behind him a large number of people toiling to pay for his stay there, just in order to give him an edge over other the competition in the mating market. Because ultimately this is what it all boiled down to.
It made no sense to expend all that effort to send a girl to get a higher education, because she was already a desirable mate, as long as she was young, healthy and came from a respectable family. This isn’t “sexism” (an arbitrary imposition by “society”), it’s just sexual reproduction, which has been operating on Earth for at least 1,000,000,000 years.
A woman wasn’t considered to be “worth less”. Considerations of “worth” didn’t come into discussion.
VII. Women couldn’t vote
This is another complaint which only makes sense from a modern perspective. For most human history, people didn’t vote.
Voting was introduced in European countries in modern times, with the advent of national states. It was an experiment that many were skeptical of. Voting wasn’t part of what traditionally-minded people considered essential in life. There was no yearning for the “right to vote”.
Originally, only men of high standing were afforded this strange new duty, and their vote represented the position of their family and estate, not their position as individuals. Why men, and not women? Because men were by default the ones to deal with the “external affairs” of the family, due to their inherent biological “mobility”. Whether it was wolves attacking the sheep herds, bears attacking cows, bandits on the outskirts of the village, forest fires, wars, it was men who were sent to deal with the “outside”.
Within a few decades, the vote was made universal. First expanded to all families (represented by the husband), then to all individuals (including women). Considering voting is a major talking point in this discussion, it’s surprising to contrast the idealization with reality.
What was the first thing many countries did when their citizens got universal suffrage? They got totalitarian regimes in power throughout Europe, from Mussolini in Italy, to Hitler in Germany. In other cases, it was newly-established totalitarian regimes which promulgated universal suffrage, as a way of buying themselves the favor of the people (a favorite tactic of the communists). The people, of course, never got to actually have a say in how things were ran. They certainly had much less of a say than when voting wasn’t “universal”.
So I don’t think that the short period between the introduction of voting and universal suffrage is indicative of an injustice against women. The path chosen represented the shift from the family to the individual as the building block of society.