Some studies indicate that in hunting and gathering societies, females and males were seen as equal.44 In addition, horticultural societies are thought to have had more egalitarian roles in their social structures.45 In these groups, women may have contributed to as much as 60 percent of the food supply. Yet today, sex and gender have become a basis for discrimination.
So, how did women become a minority? The main theory proposed to explain the origin of patriarchy— male dominated society—centers on human reproduction.46 In early human history, life was short. Among traditional hunter-gatherers, the average life expectancy at birth varied from 21 to 37 years, but longer than their “cavemen” ancestors who lived to about 25 years of age in the Paleolithic Era. Because life was short, if groups were to survive, women needed to give birth...a lot! An infant needed a nursing mother; without one it would die. This brought about severe social consequences for women. With children to carry, birth, nurse, and care for, women were not able to stay away from camp as long as men. When they did leave camp, they often had to move slower to accommodate the infants and children. When hunting large animals, men were able to leave for longer periods and move faster. Women around the world began taking on roles and tasks associates with the home and childcare.
This led to men being seen as dominant in tribes and groups around the world. While they were hunting and leaving their camps, they were also meeting people from other tribes. They communicated with them, traded with them, and waged war with them. Women’s work began to be devalued, as they were keeping fires going and caring for the home and children. They were not seen as risking their lives for the group. They were not bringing food for the tribe. Rather, they were preparing it. Their work was often dull, routine, and taken for granted. But without their work, their giving and sustaining the lives of the children, the groups would have died out.
These gender roles allowed for men to take control of society. Their sources of power included their items from trade, their triumphs in war, and the knowledge they gained from interacting with other groups. Women become second-class citizens, subject to men’s control and decisions.
44 Leacock, Eleanor. Myths of Male Dominance. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1981 45 Collins, Randall, et all. “Toward an integrated Theory of Gender Stratification.” Sociological Perspectives, 36, 3, 1993:185-216. 46 Lerner, Gerda. The Creation of Patriarchy. New York: Oxford. 1986.