Can Gender-Equal Societies Survive? A Speculative Essay

By Jamieson, J. W. | Mankind Quarterly, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview
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Can Gender-Equal Societies Survive? A Speculative Essay


Jamieson, J. W., Mankind Quarterly


The rise of gender-equal cultures has come to be regarded as a virtually irreversible trend associated with "modernization." But gender-equality was not common amongst historically-known societies, and the author suggests reasons why patriarchal societies have been broadly characteristic of human history - and may possibly supplant contemporary Western gender-equal cultures.

Key Words: Gender-equality, patriarchalism, Islam, demography, migration, Europe, Middle East, North Africa

Ethnological research reveals that throughout known history human societies have been overwhelmingly male-dominated in organization. Matriarchal societies have indeed been rare, and usually go little beyond matrilinealism. Gender-equality, such as is increasingly indicated by trends in contemporary Western cultures, implies neither patriarchalism nor matriarchalism, but does involve a decline in male dominance and is associated with a variety of significant modifications in almost every aspect of societal structure and behavior. Yet we may ask whether gender-equality will survive in competition with patriarchalism. Indeed, the question may well be whether gender-equal societies survive in competition with patriarchal societies since statistical evidence shows a strong correlation between gender-equality and a below-replacement birth rate. It is the object of this article to investigate this relationship in the light of demographic data drawn primarily from European, North African and Middle Eastern countries.

Historical Contrasts: The Mediterranean as a Cultural Divide

Prior to the invention of horticulture, Europe, North Africa and the Middle East may have been more or less universally patriarchal, although with the replacement of hunting and gathering societies by farming societies in the Neolithic the status of women may have risen, but with the dominance of Indo-European and Semitic cultures with their pastoral background male-dominance may have reasserted itself. However, as we enter historically-documented times we observe that women in most of the societies north of the Mediterranean had a different status from that generally enjoyed by them in the AfroAsiatic (Hamitic and Semitic-speaking) cultures to the south and southwest of that body of water. The Afro-Asiatic cultures to the south and southeast of the Mediterranean arguably held women in lower esteem than those to the north of the Mediterranean.1 The difference was rooted in contrasting eschatalogical viewpoints.

Contrasting Attitudes toward Females

This emphasis on heredity was accentuated by the fact that the peoples living north of the Mediterranean, notably the ancient Greeks and Romans, the Celts, Germans and Slavs, believed that men and women could think and act independently of the gods who, though deemed immortal and endowed with super-human powers, nevertheless suffered from more or less human passions and weaknesses. Indeed, men and women who strove to be super-human in their deeds and actions were widely admired. It was even at times held that great heroes could become gods. Furthermore, it was believed that all human qualities were inherited, and the breeding of high-quality offspring was a major goal. Thus Werner Jaeger, the author of Paiedea, described the Greek ideal as "an aristocracy of race." Aristotle (Pol. IV, 8) defined nobility as "inherited virtue". We read in the Odyssey (IV, 60) the statement "The blood of your parents is not lost in ye, ye are of the line of sceptered kings, the fosterlings of Zeus, for no churl could beget sons like you."

Thus to the ancient Greeks and early Romans religion revolved around the family hearth as much as the temples of the gods. The womenfolk played an important role in tending for the family hearth fire, and because it was realized that children inherited their qualities from their mothers as much as from their fathers wives were treated with respect. Because of the importance of good ancestry on both sides of the family, in the classical age of Greece we find the admission that "we choose our wives like we choose our horses, by the length of their lineage".

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