By the 18th century, our ideas of gender were pretty set. Colonial America was extremely patriarchal and men were the head of their families and government. They occupied the general role that still exists today – a strong, intelligent, determined leader. They were the “stronger sex”. Women were expected to be virtuous, aid the husband, and were relegated to the home. (In APUSH we learned this as the idea of the private sphere). Everyone knew their place.
Where did this come from? Has the idea of gender roles always existed? Were the first humans separated in the way we are today?
One intriguing study suggests that this was not the case. Researchers used a computer simulation to create models for what how siblings, parents, and children would be distributed in their camps based on what sex was making the camp. This is really cool to me because I usually think of computer models being used in physics, not in anthropology! Anyway, it found that when men were the sole decision makers, the closely related individuals all lived together. In contrast, when men and women were equally influential to the process the models showed a more spread out society. “When only men have influence over who they are living with, the core of any community is a dense network of closely related men with the spouses on the periphery,” said the lead researcher. “If men and women decide, you don’t get groups of four or five brothers living together.” This spread out society was what researchers found when they looked at current hunter-gatherer tribes living today! This suggests that in the women and men play an equal role! And while it’s all well and good that a computer model of camps seems to match up, it’s even more exciting that “In the Philippines population, women are involved in hunting and honey collecting and while there is still a division of labour, overall men and women contribute a similar number of calories to the camp….monogamy is the norm and men are active in childcare.” The caveman’s egalitarian lifestyle is confirmed! (Heh, just joking…I am a bit biased and this is only one study.)
So what happened?
The study reasoned that gender roles (and the patriarchy) emerged when we started settling into agricultural societies. They think that the spread-out model was more favorable to hunter-gatherers because it provided a wide social network and cooperation between unrelated individuals. However, once the communities settled, the distribution that was found if men were the decision makers became more favorable – it was better to be closer to your male kin and to have several wives now “on the periphery”. It’s beautifully ironic, it seems the beginning of civilization heralded the death of equality.