Friday, June 10, 2011

Gender Issues

As you can guess, the French press has been abuzz with the … ahem... legal troubles of our former president-to-be. The … re-ahem... difficulties of Dominique Strauss-Kahn may turn out to have the same historical impact as the rape of Lucretia – that did not change the fact that some pan-Mediterranean Empire would eventually emerge, but it did make sure its language would not be Etruscan or Punic. DSK’s tribulations have, however, a more immediate interest, as they highlight what may be of particular importance as we slide down Hubbert’s curve: the troubled relationship between gender and power.

We, as a civilization, have decided that genetic differences were irrelevant to politics. It is a decision I support, both because it is the decent thing to do and because it is grounded in facts. As a species we are very homogeneous – dangerously so, in fact. There is less genetic diversity in the whole human race than in a single band of chimpanzees. Besides, the diversity that matters (the high prevalence of iron overload among Bretons, for instance) is generally invisible.

The problem is that our species is also sexually dimorphic. There are obvious biological differences, not as big as among sea elephants, mind you, not even as big as among robins, but still significant, and some of them are behavioral. Most men are physically stronger, more aggressive and technically-minded, more concerned by the big picture rather than by details, and tend to compete more fiercely for resources – basically, those traits which make one an efficient predator. Most women are physically hardier, less aggressive, more socially minded, more concerned by details rather than by the big picture, and tend to compete for attention – basically those traits which makes one a good steward. The key word, of course, is most. Human sexual dimorphism is a continuum and there definitely are strong, aggressive women competing for resources – think Margaret Thatcher – and weak, passive men competing for attention, such as, well, myself before I realized it was a bad idea. Besides, cultural expectations play a role too – the West has, for instance, a strong tradition of female empowerment, even if the actual status of women has varied with historical circumstances.

Those biological, hardwired differences point to an ancient division of labor, probably dating back to the beginning of our history as a species. Basically, men did the dangerous jobs such as hunting or spearing off predators, and competed for leadership; while women cared for children, gathered roots and fruit, and competed for the attention of the top hunters.

It probably was adaptive then. It is not necessarily so today, but we have to deal with the hard-wiring we have got.

After the discovery of agriculture, societies became more complex and hunters turned into warriors. Warfare was and is still a man’s job, because men are stronger physically but also because they are expendable. In a world where the ruler is first and foremost a war leader, politics and warfare were bound to become inextricably linked; women and the activities they had specialized for were removed from the sphere of power.

As with everything human, there have been many variations on this theme and many exceptions. There have been female warriors: Joan of Arc, for instance, or Hua Mulan. There have been all-female armies, generally expensive status symbols, but not always – the Dahomey amazons, for instance, did fight, with some success, the French colonial army. There were female rulers, mostly but not only in the West: Athaliah of Judah, Irene and Theodora of Byzantium, Seondeok of Silla, Zenobia of Palmyra, Wak Chanil Ajaw in the Maya kingdom of Naranio, Suiko of Japan, Wu Zetian of Tang China, and Maria Theresa of Austria, to list only a few.

These definitely have been a minority, however, even if their social background has been more diverse than that of their male counterparts. Catherine I of Russia, for instance, was an illiterate farmer’s daughter and Theodora of Byzantium a bear trainer’s.

Women’s suffrage was not unknown to medieval and early modern civilization either. In medieval Europe, voting for city and town assemblies and meetings was open to the heads of households, who could be women.

The advent of industrial civilization changed the rules of the game. First, it was detrimental to women. The replacement of the textile cottage industry which thrived in early-nineteenth-century England by huge cloth factories basically downgraded a whole class of professional woman to the rank of mere cogs. The displacement of the nobility, which began with the French Revolution, also lowered the status of women, or at least that of a significant subset of them. Even though they were socially subordinate, noble women had an important cultural role in XVIIth- and XVIIIth-century France. Many of them ran salons frequented by renowned philosophers and some became authors themselves, Madame de La Fayette for instance. One only has to compare, say, the world of La Princesse de Clèves and that of Balzac’s Human Comedy to see how fast the status of women plummeted after the French Revolution gutted the old aristocratic order.

Yet at the same time, the ideas of the French Revolution could be applied to the situation of women. In 1791, Olympe de Gouges published the Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen, which stated:

All citizens including women are equally admissible to all public dignities, offices and employments, according to their capacity, and with no other distinction than that of their virtues and talents.

De Gouges, who had written "Women have the right to mount the scaffold, they must also have the right to mount the speaker’s rostrum," was not very popular among the Jacobins and was beheaded in 1793. Her ideas had only a limited impact upon the French left – with the exception of the far left, which briefly imposed universal suffrage during the Commune of Paris. In fact, it was the moderate left which resisted women’s suffrage the longest, mostly because it feared the Church’s supposed influence upon them.

Her British counterpart Mary Wollstonecraft was sensible enough to flee the Jacobin madness in time and her A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, albeit more conservative, had a central place in the English debate about the French Revolution. Mary Wollstonecraft was not a feminist in the modern sense of the word – she considered men to be superior to women – however, she believed that women had to be educated to fulfill their role in society.

She was at the origin of a long tradition of activism focused upon the political and civil equality of women. The members of this tradition were not necessarily what we would call left-wing today. While Margaret Fuller, whose seminal Woman in the Nineteenth Century is considered the first major American feminist work, was an abolitionist, Frances Willard, who was instrumental in the passage of the nineteenth amendment, came from conservative Christianity, and wrote in 1890: “… nor is it fair that a plantation Negro, who can neither read nor write, whose ideas are bounded by the fence of his own field and the price of his own mule, should be entrusted with the ballot.

Gradually, nearly all Western countries granted voting rights to women during the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth century – France was, by the way, particularly late and waited until 1944. Full civil equality – especially in family matters – came later, but by the mid-seventies women had, legally speaking, reached full equality nearly everywhere in the West.

This was made greatly easier by the rise of the industrial society and the glut of essentially free energy which coal and then oil provided. This enabled our societies to generate considerable surpluses, which, in turn, enabled them to create a wealth of mid-level administrative or commercial jobs that earlier cultures simply could not afford. Besides, in an era of essentially free energy, manpower – especially skilled manpower – was a limiting factor and keeping half of one’s population out of the workforce was every bit as maladaptive as sending one’s womenfolk out onto the battlefield was in preindustrial societies.

This helped destroy the domestic economy and made women both more independent – they no longer need a husband to support them – and more vulnerable: as families became more prone to break up, the number of impoverished single moms exploded.

Feminism, which had essentially won all its battles, took an unexpected turn after the fifties. After Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, it began to claim there were no real differences between the two sexes and that those which were observed in the real world were due to social conditioning. To quote de Beauvoir, "One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman". This led to the idea of patriarchy, which quickly became to feminism what capitalism is to the far left: an ill-defined but all-encompassing notion which basically includes everything a given author doesn’t like and which can become a convenient tool to disqualify the struggles he or she is not interested in.

This has had far-reaching political and social consequences, however. According to this logic, if both sexes are identical, then the fact that they tend to choose different career paths must be due to the influence of "patriarchy", an influence which must be overcome through the force of law if necessary. Thus in France, women must represent 50% of the candidates fielded in party-list elections, which of course hasn’t changed the fact that women, as a group, don’t go into politics, but makes life far easier for those few who do and far harder for small parties, who struggle to find the required women. By the same logic, campaigns are regularly run to encourage women to choose such or such a relatively high status career path where they are few in number, to enter politics or sport or to become more "visible" in executive functions. This results in faster career advancement for those few who do, but subtly brands the others as failures. At the same time, measures which would profit women, such as the maternal salary, are staunchly resisted because it would mean giving official recognition, and therefore some prestige, to traditionally feminine activities and would imply that the way of the mother and of the housewife is as valid a choice as the way of the CEO (or more probably the cashier).

By choosing to push women into traditionally masculine domains rather than promoting traditionally feminine activities and fighting for giving them a higher status, feminists made a mistake which will prevent women from ever reaching full equality. Indeed, by decreeing that a woman’s success should be measured by the same – masculine – criteria as a man’s, they turned women not into another kind of human, but into another kind of man. This, of course, amounts to submitting to the patriarchal values they claim to despise and leads many of them to focus on the career problems of the top ten percent of the population rather than on the livelihood problems of the bottom ninety – not an uncommon occurrence in today's left, by the way.

While this evolution does not bode well for working class women, it does not lead to a non-viable society. Evolution, after all, means change concept and while our Paleolithic hard-wiring is likely to get in the way for quite a long time, it could eventually be bypassed or even rewired through cultural conditioning: the West has, after all, been quite successful at imposing monogamy even though our species seems to be naturally polygynic.

The problem is that we don't have that kind of time.

As our civilization begins to slide down Hubbert's curve, a number of things are bound to happen, all of them detrimental to the status of women.

First, as I have already said, the middle class and a sizable fraction of the working class will disappear. There will be no place in the de-industrial future for a plethora of commercial or administrative jobs. While future societies will probably have teachers – in notably reduced numbers – they certainly won't have any human resource managers, marketing executives, or cashiers: the resources to support them simply won't be there anymore. A large part of the industrial or agricultural sector will be absorbed back into the domestic economy, a domestic economy which is very likely to become once again a woman's realm.

Second, war will become again central in politics. We may not like it, but in a world of dwindling resources organized violence may become the only way for a society to ensure its survival. As long as the economy is growing, it is more adaptive to compete economically than militarily – at least against somebody who could put up a decent fight. This will no longer be true in the post-peak world, where the advantage will go to those who can seize and keep scarce resources, through force if necessary. This is likely to induce a shift in the balance of power toward the military... until the military is all that remains of the government. And as we know, warfare, especially low-energy warfare, is a man's job.

Third, contraception and safe abortion will become things of the past. By enabling women to control their own fecundity, they gave them considerable freedom and enabled them to pursue careers which would otherwise have been considerably hindered by pregnancies. Of course, birth control will still be available to post-peak societies, but it will be done through far cruder means – unsafe abortions, infanticide, strictly enforced monogamy associated with the removal of excess population through war or exile into a monastery – and none of those methods are particularly empowering for women. Besides, in a world without retirement, the only way to be sure you won't starve in old age is to have a lot of children, most of whom will die in infancy. For women, the choice between having a family and having a career will become an existential one.

Finally, societies will become simpler, sometimes greatly so, and organic solidarities tied to family, clan, or neighborhood will progressively replace the welfare state. While this won't necessarily eliminate divorce – several past civilizations had it – it will make it far less appealing from a woman's point of view, as it would mean breaking up with a vital network of relatives and endangering equally vital inter-family solidarities. Unless some kind of mother-centered family structure evolves, always a possibility, the social pressure against divorce is likely to become stronger and stronger as industrial society unravels.

This need not necessarily result in a lower status for women, even if that outcome is a distinct possibility. One fifth of all Scythian warriors’ graves were women's – a minority, but hardly a freak occurrence – and we are likely to see their equivalent during the twilight years of our civilization, including a few warladies right out of a Miyazaki anime. We may also have high priestesses, and not only if some variation of Wicca becomes dominant – a few Islamic traditions have female imams.

This will concern only a small minority, however. Post-industrial societies won't have the resources to support a large upper or middle class of any gender. For a very long time most women will work in the domestic economy. Their status relative to their male counterparts will be heavily dependent upon the prestige their specific contribution to the domestic economy has. It will matter little to a farmer's daughter in Bocéliande country two centuries from now that the castle of Pontivy or Dinan is held by a woman if her daily work is looked down upon. What will matter is whether she is respected within her community and can make her own decisions under the strict constraints of her time. Unfortunately, late-twentieth-century feminism, with its constant valorizing of masculine traditional role and values, did not exactly pave the way for this outcome.

As for DSK... well. Support for his candidacy collapsed nearly overnight, with only a few public figures speaking for him – a leading feminist among them, by the way. The leading socialist candidate is now François “regular guy” Hollande, whose motto is “I am a normal candidate”. Everybody hopes he will indeed be one.


  1. I have often thought that feminism got that wrong. I have no desire to be an engineer and every desire to remain what I am - a well educated housewife who is an artist in her spare time. My only wish from the feminist movement would be to be treated as an equal player status wise which means, of course, that what I do should have just as much value as being a cashier or an accountant.

    Dreams are free!

    My only good observation is that at the home level, most people act together cooperatively and assign chores etc to the advantage of all. Which means I don't have to mow the grass and my partner doesn't have to do the laundry :)

    viv in nz

  2. How very interesting! I came this way by the Archdruid Report, and what do i find: an european perspective on the real world, or whatever it should be called: post Hubbard, post-welfare, post-delusion.

    On this particular post, i agree with the premises, but have some points to add on the conclusion. My scant experience aboout men in current times, is that they are the folks that are the most tied to the social ideas of success. Having a well-paying job, that includes as little of anything that could be considered labour, is the measure of success. It is alright to go mountain-climbing for a week every year, and to gym every week, but anything that gets too close to manual labor is to be despised. Left to others. We have a large amount of men who will not take up weapons or wife-beating in a low energy-society. I doubt if they will be even capable to take up any sort of work that is available. Our culture seems to be geared also to infantilize men, and the spectator sports and all sorts of "fun" hobbies certainly do not contribute to anything of survival value.

    It occurs to me, that maybe we are travelling towards matriarchy: not because women are somehow more in power, but more because of the helplessness/infantilization of men. When the corporate and state structures that hold up those many worthless men, are crumbling, where will those men go? They no doubt can intrigue and manipulate and make fine plans on paper, but, as confucius says, words don't cook rice.

    So, in my view, it is not so clear-cut what the low-energy society will look like. The belief-structures (like christianity) that held the fabric of pre-industrial society in place, are not in existence anymore. The god-given authority of the rulers and heads of families is gone. And the society is more dependent on belief than on brute force, simply because brute force is so horribly expensive. I'd say those who can take up useful occupations will inherit the earth. And these will be surprisingly few, i'm afraid.

    The pretense of monogamy may stem from the arrangements of inheritance in agricultural societies. But how is it going to go with agriculture? Farming is back-breaking work without machines: i doubt even the ability of those who are currently farmers, to continue without machines. Tribal/nomadic societies seem not to enforce monogamy so enthusiastically.

    Anyways, a fine blog, very juicy articles, thank you. I especially like your points about feminism - i cringe when feminists present themselves as the voice of womanhood, when they (most often) do not represent me. And it is good that there's at least somebody in europe thinking in these terms. I hail from Finland, and here independent thinking is something you practice at home behind closed doors. Public discussion here is inane: questioning the blessings of immigration, for example, will get you immediately stamped as a racist. It is as if everybody knows for certain that this way of life cannot go on, but anyone who tries to imagine how to deal with the situation when "this" has ceased, is a traitor. The collective pressure to pretend that the elephant in the room is invisible is such a strange phenomenon.

  3. Kristiina, you're welcome.

    Social success has always been measured by your ability to being able to live well without having to work - look at the roman concept of otium, for instance. A Roman patrician or a French aristocrat was not supposed to work.

    It is no wonder that when the mass was given the opportunity to enjoy what was hitherto the elite's privilege, most, well took it.

    It is also no wonder that a significant part of men stay in a kind of extended adolescence. There were such men before - D'Artagnan, Cyrano de Bergerac, Rimbaud, François Villon - but their way of life came with a price - a sometimes drastically shortened life expectancy. In our society, there is no negative consequences for such Peter Pan behavior, while familial responsibility is discouraged. It is therefore hardly surprising that so many of us opt to spend their free time behind a TV screen or a computer in the company of a pack of beer.

    Of course, it's a faustian deal and when things begins to unravel, a lot of people - of any gender - will have a lot of troubles. It will be a slow process, so many will adapt to an impoverished and bitter lifestyle, some will die and a lucky few will profit from the situation.

    There will no doubt a lot of incentives to grow up very fast

  4. Hmmm... Don't know if i'd put Cyrano de Bergerac and the couch-potato in the same basket. What is a mystery to me, is that many people find a life of idleness the highest achievement. And it seems to me that men take these cultural/societal ideass more to heart, and don't react that much. Whereas well-to do women from the turn of the last century turned to all sorts of symptoms - the whole idea of psychotherapy seems to be invented to entertain well-to-do women who, in their boredom, started producing those interesting symptoms of hysteria and melancholia.

    And wasn't Faust making that pact with Mephistopheles in the grip of profoundest melancholia? Faust wanted to live, experience and enjoy everything life had to offer. And he really did - not in idleness, but frenzied activity. I've never seen anyone say anything that would make sense about the inertia that seems to hold so many people nowadays. I am just not getting it.

    But yes, incentives to grow up fast - we will have that.

  5. Cyrano de Bergerac and the couch potato are certainly different in many aspects but they both reject the norms of their societies. The difference is that Cyrano defied the rather strict norms of his time, with total disregard for his life - he died at 36, after all.

    The couch potato, on the other hand let himself fall into a life of idleness because the society does not enforce its norms strictly enough, so he can ignore them - passively. In a harsher society, such people would have to fight or fall in the gutter.

    Remember, also, that even though men are expected to achieve, only a minority rises to this standard in any society - say ten percent and I am being generous. Most are just content living an comfortable and undemanding life, something Industrial society enables us to do with reasonable ease so it's a constant temptation.

    As for women going into psychotherapy, well the well-to-do ones are not the only ones to do so, which is a sign of how affluent our societies still are. I suspect it is linked to the fact women tend to compete for attention rather than for resource - getting attention from the strongest hunters was vital in the pleistocene, remember. Going to a psychotherapist is a way to get this attention in a world where worthy attention is very scarce - because worthy attention can only come from an self-assured person, a very scarce commodity in this world

    As for Faust, well, remember he lived in a world where people could still starve to death. As a civilization, we used Mephistopheles' gift to do a lot of great things (and a lot of no so great things)but we have become so accustomed to them that we consider them as our birthright - and enjoying birthrights leads to passivity (and frustration and anger, when those slip away).

    We have a joke here about a gangster who, after his death, went to a giant casino full of fine liquors and beautiful women. He found out that he won all the time, could drink days and night without any consequences and was never rejected by women no matter stupid he acted. After a month of succeeding at everything he became so utterly bored that he asked to go "to the other place".

    He was answered that, well, this was the other place.

  6. Haha, i like the joke - and as good jokes tend to be, it is also true - now. The heaven of consumer knick-knacks that is flooding over everything is - not for me, at least - not quite so blissful as the advertisments make it out to be. The constant whirlwind of attention-grabbing stuff, from gadgets to films to contrived scare-news, it is all waste of time . and eats away the wonderful creativity of humans. Because for creativity, time is needed.

    But back to the topic: men and women. I guess i come over as overtly attention-seeking to keep pursuing this, but this happens to interest me. And i just read Lou Andréas Salome's biography - she was a student of Freud and very independent woman, and not only for her time. She never supported the womens movement, but pondered a great deal about the relationship of men and women. And came to see that the "standard" relationship of marriage and family is not necessarily suitable for all. And she had also a great deal of insight into how men and women torment each other. Rather the reverse from the Platonic idyll of two halves of a circle that complement each other. I think this kind of insight is pointing to the possibility of something new emerging - not just repetition of the old. So i still claim that men, currently, are stuck in a pattern of seeking recognition in the society, in a way that is really destructive from the perspective of the society itself. There is an infantile irresponsibiliy that assumes there is somebody somewhere who will clean up the mess afterwards. You know the notes put in office kitchens: your mother does not work here - to remind people to tidy up after themselves? As a society, we have forgotten this.

    In a lot of native societies, there were (and maybe still is) traditions of initiation where young men, to qualify as adults, were made to face great danger and pain - alone. Killing a lion with bare hands, seeking a vision by not eating and drinking for several days - these experiences force the reality of ultimate responsibility on a man who will never experience it in a community. There will always be doting mothers to whom the bright sons can do no wrong.

    So, when incentives to grow up fast really start emerging, i don't think the men that emerge from those experiences will be the he-men-like testosterone-buzzers that the popular culture seems to predict. Being made to face consequences - this, if anything, makes for mature people. But we are a long way frome reesponsibility, bot men and women.

  7. Kristiina, I am no fan of Freud, but I tend to agree with Lou Andrea Salomé : marriage and family is not suitable for all - it is probably not for me, but that may be because I have been badly burned in the past. Remember, however, that in a low energy society, marriage and family are economic institutions. You can live without them, but there is a price to pay : you cannot rely on their protection, and in world without a welfare state, it can become very costly.

    Humans have always had a tendency to irresponsibility. Being irresponsible can be, after all, quite comfortable a position if the rest of the society is ready to put up with it. In low energy society this was a privilege reserved to a small elite. We are just more democratic in that matter.

    As for men and women tormenting each other, it is basically the result of diverging matting strategies. Women want high status men, but those haven't achieved this status by being nice and gentle... and they generally have a lot of options.

    You don't need to go in native societies to find initiation rituals. A significant part of my generation spent ten month in the army. It was a dying institution by then, but even in its sorry state "the service" was an initiation ritual.

    I also think the He-men have a long and glorious future, because we need their boldness, their rashness and their fighting spirit. Of course most of them will die young protecting their tamer and more responsible cusins - but that's what they are for

  8. Fun reading, includings the comments. Thanks.