The Plow: Origin of Sexism?

You read that correctly. There have been all sorts of theories as to why discrimination towards women seems so pervasive and near-universal, and from where it comes from to begin with. But a crude farming tool is by far the most interesting and unexpected origin. As the Economist – my most cherished and regularly read source – recently reported, a team of economists, of all people, set out to prove that the adoption of the plow coincided with a change of attitudes towards women that persists to this day.

Specifically, a move towards large-scale and labor-intensive agriculture – defined by the adoption of the heavy plow – created an economic system in which one’s physical strength and endurance became a major basis for productivity, and they key to society’s survival. Men were naturally more adept in this new function, and from this crucial role they would subsequently come to dominate other aspects of society, namely in politics, religion, and other economic ventures.

Indeed, pre-history – the era before the widespread advent of agriculture – is strongly associated with matriarchy. The worship and reverence of females, mothers, and other symbols of womanhood, such as fertility, was widespread across many different civilizations. Religions and mythologies dating from this era tended to be female-dominated, and it wasn’t unusual for women to be found in all sorts of leadership roles too (though we shouldn’t risk overstating the universality of all this).

None of this is new however. As the Economist article quickly establishes, this theory was proposed decades ago:

FERNAND BRAUDEL, a renowned French historian, once described a remarkable transformation in the society of ancient Mesopotamia. Sometime before the end of the fifth millennium BC, he wrote, the fertile region between the Tigris and the Euphrates went from being one that worshipped “all-powerful mother goddesses” to one where it was “the male gods and priests who were predominant in Sumer and Babylon.” The cause of this move from matriarchy, Mr Braudel argued, was neither a change in law nor a wholesale reorganisation of politics. Rather, it was a fundamental change in the technology the Mesopotamians used to produce food: the adoption of the plough.

The plough was heavier than the tools formerly used by farmers. By demanding significantly more upper-body strength than hoes did, it gave men an advantage over women. According to Mr Braudel, women in ancient Mesopotamia had previously been in charge of the fields and gardens where cereals were grown. With the advent of the plough, however, farming became the work of men.

What’s interesting about this recent study is that it tests Braudel’s premise by looking over all sorts of economic, ethnographic, and historical data, deriving a pattern which shows a strong correlation between plow-intensive agricultural societies and patriarchy (the original paper is available here). The sort of societies that used the plow were in turn contingent upon geography and climate, since certain areas and forms of weather were conducive to certain crops. Thus, famously male-dominated Middle-Eastern and South Asian civilizations emerged as an accident of location: they emerged in areas where only labor-intensiveness crops could form, and this cultivation would in turn lead to their persistent patriarchal mindsets.

The academics point out that the decision to choose—or abstain from—plough cultivation has a lot to do with the type of farmland and climate. Broadly speaking, ploughs are most useful for crops that require large tracts of land to be tilled in a short span of time, perhaps because the climate favours a grain with a relatively short growing season. Crops like wheat, teff, barley and rye are well-suited for plough-based farming; others, including sorghum, millet, roots and tubers, benefit less from the use of the plough. The economists were able to use measures of agro-climatic conditions to predict which parts of the world would adopt the plough. The data show that ethnic groups whose ancestors would have been expected to pick ploughs based on climatic conditions have sharply differentiated economic roles for the sexes even today. So it seems reasonable to argue that its use drove attitudes rather than the other way around.

This presents yet another strong argument for determinism, and the notion that many of our sociological, psychological, and cultural developments – both individually and collectively – are shaped by factors outside our control. Granted, this in no way justifies stances like sexism, nor does it suggest that these things are intractable. Humanity is constantly progressing in it’s outlook, and transcending it’s constraints. We live in a post-industrial world increasingly less dependent upon physical prowess as a factor for survival – the so-called “knowledge” economy theoretically gives men and women an equal edge in terms of their contributions and roles in society (traditional mores and maternal roles  notwithstanding).

Of course, there is a casual dilemma in all this, as is typical of correlative demonstrations. Did the adoption of the plow lead to sexist attitudes towards women? Or did societies that already had this attitude end up adopting the plow? Many have suggested that the discovery of and utilization of metals had a big part to play. As humans refined their ever-present penchant for warfare, martial prowess – even more defined by strength, stamina, and endurance – became the key for the survival of a given community.

It seems that as advanced civilizations began to form, attitudes towards females started to change in response to new needs and priorities. Physical strength was crucial not just for agriculture, as just discussed, but for the building of great structures, the sailing of seafaring ships, and the conducting of warfare. This made men naturally dominant in many sectors of society, while relegating women to the role of reproduction and child raising (which made them more impractical for the various new roles emerging in advancing societies). Ironically, as human societies civilized and progressed, the treatment of women went backwards comparatively.

Whatever the conclusion, if any, I’m once again left marveled by our constant effort to understand ourselves and our enigmatic nature. Such interesting studies and propositions provide much needed reflection and discussion.

2 comments on “The Plow: Origin of Sexism?

  1. If you’re interested in gender topics, I’d suggest having a listen to this:!download|570l32|168186861||174042|R~CCC5F0FB9A2568EA0917F9951C6CE0DD|0|0

    It’s an audio version version of the book ‘The Myth of Male Power’ by ‘Warren Farrell’ (I can’t find a PDF version online). Don’t let the title put you off, it’s an interesting listen, as long as you have the time, it has 4 parts that are roughly 45 minutes each.

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