On the Origins of Gender Inequality

By Joan Huber

I am ashamed to admit that this book is the first book I’ve read in a really long time; I am not ashamed to admit that this book is the first book I’ve read in a really long time. I stumbled across it while putting together a “For Further Reading” list for a book on male and female roles, and just thought that the summary looked pretty interesting.

It’s a skinny little thing, and I am shocked to learn that it costs more than $60, but I do know that academic books are priced for a different market than regular books. I didn’t buy it–it’s on loan from the library–but I was surprised by its page count. Let me assure you, however, that the author packs it with substance. I tend to indulge my inner bombast and let my sentences overwrite themselves, but the prose in this book is to. the. point. So much to the point, in fact, that it’s off-putting for a few pages until you get into the rhythm of it. Actually, I can see how that would be a relief to any student or researcher sitting down to extract information from it–there is a lot of opaque academic writing out there. But this book is short because it contains absolutely nothing but content. The author put in like one personal anecdote, and even that was in the introduction!

Long Story Short
Gender inequality originated in the biological fact that women bear children and nurse them. Nursing babies takes too much time, and put women in a very dependent role so long as she had babes in arms.

Short Story Longer
So maybe I am of the lucky generation of mothers who already knew all that stuff about lactation and nursing that the book spent a good chunk of time explaining. Huber emphasizes that only recently have people discovered that for most of human history, babies were worn like shirts and nursed a couple minutes at a time in ten- to fifteen-minute intervals for three years or so. There were explanations about the contents and benefits of breast milk, and how the baby suckles and how it affects mothers and babies, and pretty much everything that I’d gleaned from baby classes and online stuff I was looking up a few years ago when Fella not nursing enough was an actual issue. I am sure, however, that such information is revelatory to, well, lots and lots of people, especially those who spend a good deal of time focusing most of their energy on narrow fields of research. The author also touched on the effects of postmodernism thought eschewing the biological sciences, and how feminist scholars decided that gender differences were cultural–not physiological–and developed anthropological theories to support their agenda. Huber put more finesse and shades of gray into these arguments than I am doing, and she was not utterly dismissive of the findings of previous decades, but in general people were sticking with one or two studies of hunter-gatherer peoples and taking them sort of at face value instead of performing additional research (because the best part of postmodernism, we all know, is thinking your way to the desired conclusion rather than from the data).

Don’t take anything I say about postmodernism seriously. I don’t know anything. I am not an academic. You can debate with me, if you want, but I won’t be any good at it. Of course, that will show you as the winner!

So my experience reading the first half of this book was basically the author saying in one sentence that women had to spend so much time breastfeeding and all the other pieces falling into place. I could have independently come up with the same conclusions (less all the supporting evidence that the author cites), and it wasn’t wowing me, but it wasn’t something I didn’t know anything about in the first part. I totally skimmed the actual chapters about the mechanics of nursing, and almost gave up the book as a good tutorial for everyone else but me, except them I got to the part about how agriculture and technology and population growth sort of latched on (ha!) to this latent separation of gender roles and institutionalized them and made it very easy for men to take advantage of women’s involuntary preoccupation with the needs of children. This was told in the same straightforward academic language with no interesting turns of phrase, but it was still depressing and fascinating to read all at the same time.

Basically, domesticating animals and growing crops made it more possible for people other than the mother to feed a baby (regardless of whether animal milk or grain-based “pap” was good for the baby). That freed up women to labor to some extent, but it also disrupted the contraceptive benefits of regular nursing, so women were pregnant more often. As technology advanced and larger machines and heavier animals were required to do the important work (women could still weed and schlep stuff, but a mother with small children can’t drive oxen carrying a plow), it became easier and easier for men to take control of the important resources and then writing made it easier for them to codify ideas that justified their authority. I probably don’t have to spell it out for you. This all changed basically in the 20th Century, with the advent of public health projects, germ theory, and the development of safer baby formula that meant a baby could have access to clean bottles and nutritional substitutes to breast milk (combined with reliable contraception) that meant mothers could free themselves from the tasks of feeding babies without consigning them to early deaths. Voila! Gender equality! I bet the people who wanted clean water never saw that coming. Ultimately, the book was very optimistic about the role of women and the future of male/female interactions. That is, it seemed optimistic to me.

An Aside
There was one passage that sticks with me, which caught my attention because a month or two ago I was talking with someone who wanted to know ways that Christianity had helped the world. I came up with some half-formed explanation (based no doubt on something I heard in school in passing one time) that Christianity promoted women’s rights to a degree not really found in many other religions, and that missionarying gave women independence and leadership practice (as did convents). Huber sort of hits that topic, in her explanation of how the institutionalized mutilation of women increases the more their purpose and identity is limited to that of motherhood (versus food production):

An unanswered question is why the severity of maiming so varied across cultures. Why did the customs to control women seem less ferocious in Europe than in Asia and North Africa? The spike heel and even the chastity belt seem mild compared to suttee, foot-binding, and clitoridectomy.

Goody suggests that the milder constraints on the behavior of European women were an unexpected consequence of measures taken by the Roman Catholic Church to induce adherents to leave it their wealth. For example, the church reduced a person’s number of close relatives by abolishing adoption and close-cousin marriages. Some of the measures clearly benefited women as well. The church banned child marriages and often gave women the right to inherit land. A woman who entered a convent could later leave the land she inherited to the church.

Spike heels = maiming now? That’s a crying shame. But you know what another benefit of being Catholic and in a convent was in the middle ages? Lesbians. Lesbian nuns having sex don’t have children, and these women’s freedom from the responsibilities of childrearing left them available to pursue their intellectual interests and make decisions for their community. Lesbian nun sex FTW!

Supplemental Reading
It’s hardly a coincidence that I’m reading this book while finishing up this male/female roles project, but last night I was reading an Op-Ed article by Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times called “Mistresses of the Universe,” which makes the argument that we’d all be better off if more women worked on Wall Street (again, I’m long-story-shorting). It brings together some interesting research, all with free, full copies (PDFs) linked to in the article, but the one that fascinated me the most was the one by Grant Miller on how government agendas change when women vote:

Women’s Suffrage, Political Responsiveness, and Child Survival in American History

(The link is to the author’s page at Stanford, but the direct link to the article, which is a PDF and can be clicked on from that page, will probably give me grief if I try to link directly, but you can always enter http://www.stanford.edu/~ngmiller/suffrage.pdf if you want it directly, or if it moves somewhere.)

And THIS article reminds me of that speech I joked about from the women’s rights congress that earned itself a big old blog post last month: “The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same.” I was making fun of poor Mrs. Corbin for calling for take out dinners for everyone and relieving me of the need to do housework, but the bulk of her speech was linking child mortality to unclean living conditions. Hers is a first-hand account of exactly what women do when they vote. I’m having one of those moments where everything I’ve read is crystallizing into this sense of profound insight and awe at how everyone affects everyone else. I’m getting chills, which is a coincidence because it’s only seventy degrees in the house and I don’t have socks on. I’m happy that our electric bill has been kinda low, so instead of turning on the heat I’m going to take a shower. In clean water. Thank you, Suffragettes!

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  • Barbara  On April 8, 2009 at 1:18 pm

    Clean water is not available in every country. Nestle has been heavily criticised by campaigners for pushing formula products to mothers who don’t have access to clean water or clean bottles for their babies. If the babies were breastfed, they would have a greater chance of survival.

  • Karen  On April 8, 2009 at 2:51 pm

    They absolutely would.

    I think the point the author was making was that breastfeeding women are easy to control, especially if they are nursing a few minutes every fifteen. Improving their status–which hopefully will be possible faster, what with the communication capabilities we have now–would put them in charge of better political decision-making, which would presumably follow the same pattern that women voting has created: women with votes result in societies with better public health.

    I don’t think the author was arguing against breastfeeding either. The kind of power that is wielded today is physically compatible with nursing.

  • Barbara  On April 8, 2009 at 3:35 pm

    I have no dispute with the author, just with this summary:
    “This all changed basically in the 20th Century, with the advent of public health projects, germ theory, and the development of safer baby formula that meant a baby could have access to clean bottles and nutritional substitutes to breast milk (combined with reliable contraception) that meant mothers could free themselves from the tasks of feeding babies without consigning them to early deaths.”

    It didn’t change everywhere. Some babies are still being consigned to early deaths by being fed with formula by mothers with no access to clean water. Despite the presence of profiteering multi-national companies, public health projects and clean water are not universally available to women. Nor is gender equality, yet.

  • Karen  On April 8, 2009 at 7:09 pm

    No, it didn’t change everywhere. But when it changed, it was in the 20th century, and public health followed every time. Where it changes in the future, the same thing will happen.

    The baby formula/multinational corporation thing is a different issue. The rich have always taken advantage of the poor, and education always gives people more power and control over their lives. Luckily, communication technology is making it easier by the day for people to leverage information to their benefit.

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