I’m a third of the way through Gerda Lerner’s The Creation of the Patriarchy, and enjoying every page of it.
While I think the questions Lerner is asking are fascinating, I can’t help feeling that her answers to them are needlessly complicated. So I thought I’d put down my own initial thoughts as I read through the book.
At the heart of Lerner’s analysis (so far) is the following observation: “Sometime during the agricultural revolution relatively egalitarian societies with a sexual division of labor based on biological necessity gave way to more highly structured societies in which both private property and the exchange of women based on incest taboos and exogamy were common.”
Lerner outlines a number of different theories explaining this observation, distinguishing, in particular between arguments that see the rise of private property preceding the establishment of male control over female reproduction, a view she associates with Engel; and arguments that see the reification and commoditization of female reproduction as precursor to the creation of private property, a view she attributes to Levi-Strauss.
The problem with both these views, per Lerner’s own critique, is that they implicitly assume a single (male) agency – a truly historical explanation of these observations requires a causal mechanism whereby both men and women, each with full agency and acting in their own perceived (though possibly short term) best interests would choose the observed shift in social structure. Any explanation that does not allow for equal choice on both sides essentially relocates the point where gender equality was violated to some other (earlier) point, thus avoiding the very problem it set out to explain.
Obviously, this is not really my field, but thinking about it, here’s my basic outline of a model that explains the shift Lerner describes:
Every society has two basic tasks – the procurement of food for short-term survival and the propagation of the species for long-term survival. The fundamental challenge is then to divide these tasks among the male and the female of the species.
Consider, to begin with, the hunter-gatherer world. This world has two sets of tasks related to food procurement – each equally valuable, since both contribute roughly equally to the food supply; but one task (hunting) is more prone to result in bodily injury and death. Since male reproductive capacity is both unverifiable and (effectively) unconstrained, so that men are relatively dispensable (and not subject to the same mortality risks as women in child bearing), it is functionally optimal for men to take on the more hazardous task (hunting), while women gather. Note that Lerner provides a slightly different logic for the functional basis of this division – situating it in the more limited mobility of women given their child rearing roles – but in either case the point is that men hunt, women gather, and since both activities are roughly equivalent in value, the resulting social organization is egalitarian. In particular, the balance in food procurement contributions means that the sexual terms of trade can be determined independently of the terms of trade in food procurement. In fact, there is no real reason for sex to be traded for advantage at all, and therefore no need to define sexual property rights.
Now consider what happens to this happy equilibrium when a new technology – agriculture – is introduced that both lowers the hazards of food collection, and eliminates the need for two distinct food procurement tasks. For men, the lower mortality rate means that their sexual services, always fairly marginal, are rendered even more valueless – their only remaining social function is as food providers, a function they must embrace so as to avoid becoming irrelevant. For women, the greater productivity and stability of agriculture means that the value of their sexual capacities relative to their food gathering skills has increased. This would be true even if we assume that women have an absolute advantage in food production, so that even if women are better at agriculture than men, their relative advantage is sexual, so that it would be rational for them to specialize in reproduction and essentially outsource food production to the men. This is especially true because the alternative – trading in male sexuality – is unviable, both because as a commodity male reproductive capacity is not especially valuable, and, more importantly, because it is unverifiable, especially to an outsider, so that anyone trying to trade in male reproductive capacity is very likely to end up with lemons.
The introduction of agriculture thus creates trade between two domains that where hitherto independent and self-sufficient – the domain of food procurement and the domain of reproduction. For this new form of exchange to function, both sides must have something to trade – thus on the one hand you need the creation of private property as means of granting men control over food production, and on the other hand you have the reification of female sexuality. Note that this reification need not initially come with the transfer to male control; initially the property rights over female sexuality may still be held by women themselves. But the transformation of female sexuality into something to be traded sets the stage for the later appropriation of these rights.
This appropriation is made possible, of course, by the relative time horizons of the two functions being performed. As specialization progresses, and men are increasingly responsible for the short-term survival of the group, while women are increasingly responsible for its long-term survival, the balance of power, once so heavily weighted towards women, increasingly shifts towards men. In the long run, specializing in sexual propagation leaves women in roughly the same situation as a country that chose to specialize in the production of capital goods, depending on another country for all its consumables. Both countries need each other, but the latter can survive much longer without the former than the former can the latter. Because technology advances slowly, however, this eventual outcome of specialization is unimaginable to the agents who choose to specialize initially – the woman who first trades on her reproductive capacity cannot possibly imagine a world where her role as a food gatherer will become irrelevant.
What agriculture thus makes possible is the fundamental patriarchal trap of the specialization by gender of food production and reproduction, a specialization that is accompanied by simultaneous creation of both private property and trading in female reproduction. As agricultural technology advances, the specialization will grow more extreme, with women being both increasingly limited to and defined by their sexual role, and being increasingly driven to reify and celebrate that role in themselves, as being their chief means of competing with others of their sex. Men, conversely, will compete by usurping the means of food production from others, with the resultant increase in mortality levels serving as a further supply constraint.
Obviously, this is all speculation, and I have no idea how well the model above fits with the available facts. Still, it’s what I was thinking about as I read Lerner’s book, and I think it provides an account that is at least as plausible, and at least as successful at explaining the fundamental shift she is seeking to explain, as the theoretical arguments she provides.