Words by David E.J.A. Bennett
It was a tense night the other night as my wife and I sat in bed debating how, historically, men came to be so dominant over women. My wife – who currently earns more money than me, and never loses an argument even when she loses an argument – said it was because “men are bastards”.
I said that was a bit unfair, and she continued to say that “men have not always been the dominant gender. Women once held an equally important role as hunter-gathers in prehistorical societies.”
The tension did not arise, however, from our disgruntlement at each other’s arguments, but from our burning desires for sugary or fatty snacks – the slimming world diet we had recently embarked upon had become almost unbearable merely one week in. But that’s beside the point…
Our respective arguments were polarised.
I suggested that men were more dominant than women (throughout the major historical civilisations of Mesopotamia, Greece, Rome, even Victorian Britain) purely because they could be.
If men were not naturally more dominant, then they would not have been more dominant. Women would have dominated men if women were the more dominant, and women and men would have stayed equal throughout history if the dominant force was equality.
This argument was met with a look of disdain – a look I am often greeted with. I had written my university thesis on feminism in Ancient Rome, and I am generally one of the most egalitarian men you’ll meet, which is why, I guess, my argument troubled my wife.
But that argument is purely objective. I was not saying I think men are more dominant and that they deserve more, but that male dominance, throughout history, came to pass purely because it could.
The main question was ‘why?’
Why had men felt the need to dominate precisely half of the world’s population? What were their motives for systematically oppressing their most necessary of companions in the game of life?
Why, for instance, is ancient mythology from Greece and Rome filled with powerful goddesses often more powerful than the male gods, yet the women of the cultures they are created in are barely allowed to even read a book, unless they are high-born?
In Sumer, one of the earliest known ancient civilisations – c.4500 to c.1900 BC – women were thought to have held positions of power equivalent to men. Summarised by historyonthenet.com, “Sumerian women could own property, run businesses alongside their husbands, become priestesses, scribes, physicians and act as judges and witnesses in court”.
This account of historical women does not hold up to the general understanding that women are, and always have been, oppressed in some way.
Furthermore, a study by University College London, documented in the Guardian, suggests that women from early hunter-gatherer tribes held equal standing to men in terms of hunting and the shaping of their cultures – an argument much aligned with my wife’s.
The study “has shown that in contemporary hunter-gatherer tribes, men and women tend to have equal influence on where their group lives and who they live with. The findings challenge the idea that sexual equality is a recent invention, suggesting that it has been the norm for humans for most of our evolutionary history.”
So, what happened between those periods in human evolution – the early hunter-gatherer societies, and the earliest civilisations such as that of the Sumerians – and the slightly later Ancient Greek and Roman periods, all the way up to our modern society? A period, of roughly 5000 years, which has undoubtedly been dominated by men.
I went through an entire literature degree, and about ten years’ worth of collecting historical literature, before finding out that the first known author by name, was a woman:
Enheduanna from the Sumerian city of Ur, whose most notable works all depict the powerful goddess, Inanna (a precursor to the later Aphrodite). A powerful female author, writing about a powerful female deity, very much sounds like feminism to me.
But who was withholding this historical information? And why? I can only assume that education, which has historically been dominated by men, in both the teaching of and the access to, meant that revealing that the first known author was a woman, and not Homer, was some kind of embarrassment to their male egos.
In A Room of One’s Own (1929), Virginia Woolf argues that women have not had the freedom to become good writers on the same scale as men, because of their relative poverty, and thus lacked the economic freedom to write.
The authors of the UCL study concluded, in some part, that, “it was only with the emergence of agriculture, when people could start to accumulate resources, that inequality emerged.”
With this last point in mind, a picture appears to form: the emergence of an ability for individuals to accumulate resources, wealth and thus power, added to the physical dominance of men over women (dominance in keeping them from economic freedom and education), added to the seemingly inherent human quality of greed, and a collective ego big enough to erase powerful women from history, appears to equate to men being able to take over the world! Thus inequality between the sexes was created.
The notion that a woman’s place is in the home appears, at this point, to be a convenient excuse for the oppression of women by men. A notion that is unravelling before our very eyes in this modern era. For, when women stand up and take their own freedom from their oppressors (the male-dominated societies in which they dwell), women become as equally powerful as men.
So, for the sake of the argument between my wife and I, a draw is the most fitting outcome.
Women are now taking their freedom back because of a collective acceptance that they can, much like the history of male dominance came to pass purely because of a collective acceptance that it could. And, in tune with my wife’s argument, women have always been equally as dominant as men – it’s just somehow, for the last 5000 years, by some form of male sorcery, women have been tricked into thinking they were not.