Last Tuesday, I poked a stick at a gnarly question: why have women submitted to patriarchy over the centuries? I wondered if, being child-bearers, they benefited from the system. Papers on the subject no doubt exist. Even so, as a layman, I did a little “googling” on my own and came up with some intriguing tidbits.
Everyone knows prehistoric times weren’t friendly to the several versions of human species nature produced. A common impediment was that we were small and weak compared to our predators. Being a biped didn’t help. A marauder with four feet on the ground could outrun a human morsel with only two. For humans, trees were a place of refuge much of the time. Unfortunately, our ancestors lacked the flexile toes that made monkeys and apes good climbers. We didn’t descend from those primates. We were an upright species from the get-go.
A bipedal female in prehistoric times faced unique problems during pregnancy. Just like today, to give birth, it was best to have help. The reason has to do with the birth canal of an upright woman. Writer Kevin Burger explains the problem in a recent article. (“What Made Early Humans Smart,” by Kevin Burger, Nautilus, Issue 38, pgs. 65-71.) “…because of changes in the pelvis associated with walking on two legs, a baby has to corkscrew through the birth canal and it ends up being born facing backward most of the time, and that requires assistance.” (Ibid pg. 69.)
Once a prehistoric human female gave birth to her child, she faced another problem. Her baby had no surface to cling to as she foraged for food. Human babies must be carried. That fact limited the distance females could go to look for sustenance. Generally, mothers made do with the leaves and twigs at hand, or members of her group shared the food they’d found. As newborns were important to a tribe’s existence, sharing was an important survival strategy. Simply put, people cooperated not because God asked them to or because of social mores but because they had to.
A side effect of cooperation is that it builds trust. (Ibid, pg. 68.) Trust, in turn, reinforces a willingness to accommodate.
Because women bear children and are bipeds, they experience times when they depend upon the assistance of others. Accommodation may not be baked into their DNA, but to protect their children, mothers probably assumed an attitude of accommodation. Patriarchy probably flourished because of that accommodation as it was a system intended to protect women and infants during a vulnerable period.
Of course, patriarchy wasn’t inevitable. A few primates like bonobos developed matriarchal societies. But in the case of humans, patriarchy seems to be the social structure that developed.
Were there other reasons that favored this choice? I don’t know. But Burger’s article has stirred my little grey cells. For example, I wonder why the system has endured past its “sell by” date and become an instrument of feminine oppression.
And here’s another question. If patriarchy is rooted in a pattern of survival that required sharing and cooperation, how did we get into the mess we’re in today?