The Plough and Gender Roles


A very jumbled post that scatterguns the question – To what extent was the agricultural revolution responsible for the emergence of patriarchy?

The Agricultural Revolution and the Origins of Patriarchy – prezi 

Sitting in a reputable bar in Bangkok with my good friend Daniel  led to a discussion about modern gender roles and inequalities. We began to consider the extent to which prehistorical cultural and technological advances led to the development of specific gender identities that have endured to this day. Was it the case, we pondered, that the more settled societies which emerged from the affordances of agriculture developed new social stratas and orders that had previously never existed?

Agricultural Revolution 101 – thanks ANDO949

Are contemporary opinions about gender defined by archaic technological revolutions and the inception of the notion of property? If so how can we know this?

The article listed below from the CEPR’s policy portal suggests that gender roles were modified according to whether prehistorical groups of Homo Sapiens used the hoe or the plough. Of course to claim such things about times when there were no bloggers leaves us with the frustrating task of identifying concrete evidence. Of course the human sciences live and die on this crux – the dearth of empirical evidence. But does that make them any less valuable than the natural sciences?

The Neolithic Revolution, Rational Wiki claims that “The benefit brought by the introduction of agriculture was a food supply much less prone to uncertainty, enabling the dominance of settled populations”. That is that agriculture provided a platform for the concept of ‘property’ created a need for new protocols for securing and passing on wealth and that led directly to the emergence of new gender roles and attitudes.

“Humans, like other semi-social primates, exhibit inherited gender roles, in which female roles are central and necessary for the survival of social units, while males tend to be peripheral, competing for status and the attention of females. The larger scale of human societies made possible by the Neolithic Revolution, the growth of social stratification and hierarchical structures, the need for defending the towns, and the emergence of a class whose profession is communal violence, all favoured male roles at the expense of female roles. In foraging societies, the gathering and selection of plant foodstuffs was primarily the work of women. Agriculture turned cultivation into heavy labor that was the work of organized teams, and allowed men to impose themselves on the women’s domain further.

The sedentary nature of agricultural lifestyles increased the number of children women were expected to bear. In nomadic societies, pregnancies must be separated by at least four to five years, due to the need of the children to be able to keep pace with the band. Sedentary farming societies are not subject to this constraint. Women were therefore expected to bear children more frequently, which took a toll on both their health and their independence.Th is drastic shift in the power relations of the genders gave rise to what some now call the “patriarchy”” Rational Wiki

  • What evidence exists to support the claims made in this quote? How dependable is such evidence?
  • To what extent are these knowledge claims opinion? Is it ever possible to be wholly objective about this or are our thoughts on such subjects coloured by our existing values and adopted social paradigms?
  • What are the ramifications for us if we accept that gender roles are essentially path dependent and determined by social and technological circumstances which have largely disappeared.

The Shift of Gender Roles in the Iroquois people

The prezi above seems to suggest that gender roles and particularly sex based inheritance lines were determined by how labour was organized around agriculture and the forms of technology available. This case study focusses on the Iroquois people of pre-invasion North America. Is it foolhardy to claim that one variable is solely responsible for determining such a fundamental social paradigm?

A modern equivalent to this is the following question. Is there a correlation between free access to proximal fresh drinking water source and the empowerment of women?

Anyway we had a great night – eh – and by the way how has the advent of the smartphone and the internet contributed to the demise of such conversations in bars?


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