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In addition to age, gender is one of the universal dimensions on which status differences are based. Unlike sex, which is a biological concept, gender is a social construct specifying the socially and culturally prescribed roles that men and women are to follow. Women have always had lower status than men, but the extent of the gap between the sexes varies across cultures and time.
Images of women, mostly figurines of the same type as the “Venus” of Willendorf*, Lespugue** and Laussel*** (old statuettes representing obese women, women whose wombs and hips are extremely exaggerated) all dating to the Paleolithic period, far outnumber images of men. This has lead to speculation about the place of women in Stone Age society. Some have argued that these female figures denote the existence during this period of a prominent female deity identified usually as the Earth Mother or the Mother Goddess. On the basis of this assumption, it has been suggested that, unlike today, women played a considerably more important, if not dominant, role in Paleolithic society; that possibly a matriarchy existed and women ruled. That means men haven?t always been the leaders; it?s not an inborn quality (as a lot of them suggest)!
Johann Bachofen was a 19th Century Swiss archaeologist and classicist who was among the first to recognize the presence of an early matriarchal stage in proto-European cultural evolution. Bachofen used Greek myth to support his arguments. He felt that there were three cultural stages that the early European culture went through. In his view the first stage was a barbaric or hetairistic stage (from the Greek word hetero meaning both) where both or actually neither sex was really in control for there was no control. The strong took advantage of the weak, and there was wide-spread “wanton” sexual activity, uncontrolled by values or morals. Bachofen thought that Aphrodite, Goddess of Love, was the chief deity of this time. The second stage was the matriarchal stage, where women banded together for their own defense. Strong Greek hunter/warrior goddesses such as Artemis and Athena were thought by Bachofen to have come from ancient fragments of memory stemming from this time, as well as the mythic Amazons and Furies. This middle stage saw the development of agriculture, and the rise of early civilization in Bachofen ?s view. The third or last stage saw the domination of women by men. Myths depicting the rise of power of Zeus over the Titans, his many sexual conquests, the rape of Persephone by Hades, the slaying of the Medusa by Perseus, and the slaying of the Sphinx by Oedipus were thought to be a mythic account of the transition from matriarchy to patriarchy.
In the mid-20th Century the British novelist, poet, and classicist Robert Graves lent much more credence to this theory of a primeval matriarchy in the Ancient World. Graves felt that there was much evidence to show that the earliest cultures universally worshipped an Earth Mother Goddess. Graves also based much of his beliefs on the analysis of ancient myths. He also felt that Goddess worship coincided with the time when calendars were primarily determined by the Moon, and noted the correspondence of the lunar and menstrual cycles, and that the Earth Mother was associated with the Moon Goddess. He also felt that the changeover to the patriarchy coincided largely with the changeover to the solar calendar and the worship of a solar deity. Extensive archaeological evidence was unearthed in the 1950?s 60?s and 70?s from the Near East and Europe to support his claim of a universal Earth Mother. This work has shown that there was a close correspondence of Earth Goddess worship, lunar symbology and calendars and the cultivation of plants by sedentary tribes. Right from its beginnings, the theory of matriarchy, was very much argued and contradicted. It seems men had a very difficult time accepting this reality. But why is that, since, even today, in the less developed ?primitive? societies, matriarchy still dominates. Good examples of such societies are the Trobriands, the Kirghis, the Fijian, the Samoans, the Kuril, the Bhotiya and Sikkim (Tibet), and the Khorassan. In all these cultures the wife is dominant and the rules of ?proper conduct? are quite shocking to the western culture. Almost all these societies practice what Briffault calls ?clandestine marriage?; the position of the husband is one of a stranger, guest, or surreptitious visitor within the group to which his wife belongs. One of the Japanese words for marriage is ?home-iri?, which may be interpreted as ?to slip by night into the house?, and the expression accurately describes the mode of connubial intercourse among a large proportion of primitive peoples. The mother-in-law is treated with much circumspection and in some cases with even fear.
The argument of the ?primal matriarchy? was further articulated by, among others, Friedrich Engels in his book The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State published in 1884. Engels argued that the transition from primate societies to the earliest human social structure was achieved ?by granting to solidarity a supreme importance which transcended even sexual competitiveness and jealousy?. According to Engels, solidarity was achieved through “group marriage” where whole groups of kin-related women were collectively “married” to whole groups of men. Under these circumstances, only the mother of a child was known, so kinship tended to be traced through the female line, creating what Engels called a “matrilineal clan.” Ancient Egypt, a very patriarchal society today, is an example of a ?matrilineal clan?. Women in Egypt seem to have enjoyed the same legal and economic rights as men, a situation which the Greeks, writing about the Egyptians, found very strange. Herodotus, writing in the 5th century BC, and who had visited Egypt, lists among their contrary customs that “women buy and sell, the men abide at home and weave”. Diodorus of Sicily, who had visited Egypt some time between 60 and 56 BC, writes that the Egyptians had a law “permitting men to marry their sisters” and adds that “it was ordained that the queen should have greater power and honor than the king and that among private persons the wife should enjoy authority over her husband”.
Such notions have contributed to the so-called “heiress” theory which argues that the right to the throne in Ancient Egypt was transmitted through the female line. A man, no matter what his status, the eldest son of the previous pharaoh or a commoner, became a pharaoh through his relationship to the queen. The ?pharaohship? was legitimized through marriage to the “heiress” who was often the pharaoh’s sister or his half-sister. It has been argued, therefore, that Ancient Egypt was a matrilineal society where power resided in the female line.
There is evidence to show that the female line of inheritance was still intact in the New Kingdom (1550-1070 BCE) and, though not as strong, matrilineal descent in Ancient Egypt persisted even through the Ptolomaic period (323-30 BCE), ending finally with the death of Queen Cleopatra VII.
Another example of matrilineal societies are the Aegean Bronze Age cultures. Although suppressed by patriarchal societies much sooner than in Egypt, the power of the Greek matriarchal culture surfaces even today through such stories as the Iliad and the Odyssey. This woman dominated society switched to a male dominated one as soon as invaders from Western Europe began to settle in the Balkans. Very soon the position of the Greek women dropped so low, that the only difference between them and slaves was by name. The female in ancient Greek history was excluded not only from social and political life but also from the world of reason and love (communication and expression with the male race). She had no formal education (female children were largely taught to read and write informally, in their homes and usually by their mothers or by slaves who acted as tutors) and, therefore, was considered inadequate for the training of new generations; this fell into the hands of the men. Greek women were married as young as 14 or 15 to a man as arranged by her family. He may be as old as 30 and could very well be dead by age 45. A widow was expected to remarry, particularly if she was still of childbearing age. The Greeks also had an interesting ritual associated with marriage: on the night in which the marriage was consummated, the bride was dressed in a man’s cloak and sandals and laid in an unlit room to wait for her new husband. This ritual is considered a transition period for a man from a homosexual world of the mess (a male aristocratic association) to heterosexuality.
For the respectable women, the home was the center of private life and the focus of daily activity. To run the household was her foremost responsibility, second only to her duty to bear children. Because of the overwhelming desire for sons and the need for an heir, couples rarely kept more than one daughter. The practice of exposing unwanted children was common to both cultures. The discarded babies were often picked up and raised as slaves or prostitutes. Later, laws were passed which rewarded women with three or more children in hopes of discouraging the exposure of babies.
Upper class Athenian wives lived in near seclusion in the “women’s quarters” of their husbands’ homes. They had next to no contact with the outside world. Their responsibilities were those of motherhood, spinning, weaving, and sewing for the making of the family’s clothing, the gathering of vegetables, the harvesting of fruit, preparing and serving food, the supervision of the slaves and bathing and tending to guests. Sexual and emotional intimacy between husband and wife was minimal. Sex in Greek culture was not an activity for women to enjoy, but rather only a means to create citizens. However, there is evidence of birth control: women mostly used crude pessaries or douches made up of honey and vinegar.
Middle and lower class Athenian women led a less confined life. Their husbands had higher expectations of productivity for them because of the inability to afford idleness. This sector of women had a wider circle of friends and acquaintances.
Spartan women enjoyed a less restricted life than that of their Athenian sisters. Because their chief contribution to the state was producing future warriors, the Spartan women were better fed, married later, exercised and enjoyed a less restricted sex life.
The Roman women shared a very similar life to that of their Greek counterparts. A woman’s legal status was virtually entirely dependent upon the men in her life. She was essentially passed from father to husband, surrendering her dowry and any property she was to inherit to her husband. As she was considered property, it was rare she possessed property of her own or engaged in business, commerce or anything but a limited scope of frowned-upon professions. Until the first century A.D. law did not require consent of the female for marriage. Emperor Augustus that issued a law which penalized unmarried and childless women between the ages of 20 and 50, including any divorcees and widows who didn’t marry within 18 months of her divorce or two years after her husband’s death.
A man who divorced his wife for reasons other than adultery, poisoning a child or tampering with the household keys was required to give his wife half of his property. Wives were not allowed to bring charges of adultery against their husband, or any other man. If she lent her house out to someone for the use of adultery, she was guilty for adultery as well. Once a woman was named an adulterer, she could not marry again. Adultery was considered a legal motive for murder. The only person who could charge a man with adultery was another man.
Slaves could never lawfully marry. They instead underwent quasi-marriages known as countubernium, which had no status under the law.
Unmarried upper-class women, including widows, were forbidden to have sexual relations, but upper class men were entitled to have sex with prostitutes and other lower class women.
While Roman women’s lives focused mainly on domestic duties, they were not cut off from the events of the world outside their homes. Unlike the women of classical Greece, Roman women frequently attended social events and dined with the men in the family, thus hearing and participating in daily discussions of the problems of both family and community. Roman women’s primary importance was also bearing children. In the Roman Empire, a committed wife was expected to lie still during sexual intercourse because it was believed that this ensured conception.
We come to wonder what exactly happened that brought the earlier strong and independent women to such submissiveness. Merlin Stone concluded, in his book ?When God was a woman?, that the end of the matriarchy was ultimately a result of ownership, paternity, and inheritance issues: “Upon reading the Levite laws it became apparent that the sexual autonomy of women in the religion of the Goddess posed a continual threat. It undermined the far reaching goals of the men, perhaps led or influenced by Indo-European peoples, who viewed women as property and aimed at a society in which male kinship was the rule, as it had long been in Indo-European nations. This in turn required that each woman be retained as the possession of one man, leaving no doubt as to the identity of the father of the children she might bear, especially her sons. But male kinship lines remained impossible as long as women were allowed to function as sexually independent people, continuing to bear children whose paternity was not known or considered to be of any importance.”
Supporting the same idea, Evelyn Reed observes in her book ?Woman?s evolution from matriarchal clan to patriarchal family?, that: ?the most important feature of marriage from its very inception has gone largely unobserved: it was a new kind of union composed of husband and wife, distinctly different form the former clan union of sisters and brothers. The two were in fundamental antagonism to each other. Thus, although marriage was introduced by the mothers within the framework of the maternal clan structure, in the end marriage would undermine the matriarchy.?
Therefore womankind gave up its most powerful weapon in maintaining its dominance in a world of ?fatherless? children and brought about itself the torments of patriarchy, by instutionalizing marriage.
Unfortunately, unlike the matriarchy, patriarchy has lasted to our present day. Of course there has been major progress since the days of the Roman Empire, now it is illegal to consider women lower then men in any sense (at least in some countries), yet most of us still see the world through the patriarchal curtain that covers our eyes.
Bibliography:?Women out of history: a herstory anthology? by Ann Forfreedom
?The Underside of history? by Elise Boulding
?Woman?s evolution from matriarchal clan to patriarchal family? by Evelyn Reed
?When God Was a Woman? by Merlin Stone
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