The Eternal Woman

Women and men have always been partners. We need each other for the simplest and most cogent of all possible reasons: the survival of our species through the propagation and rearing of our successors. For men, the most important objects in the universe are women, and for women it is men. This is not a matter of choice. Nor is it a moral or ethical judgment. It is the natural and inevitable result of our species’ will to survive.

If we had been created as unisex hermaphrodites we never would have made it to our present state. Because of bisexuality, each person is created as a blend of the genetic material of two other distinct individuals. The resulting uniqueness of each individual is what has given our species the flexibility to survive and prosper. It made possible the process of biological evolution through natural selection during our early development; and it has been equally effective, more recently, in terms of our cultural evolution.


Let’s start at the beginning, when our species first began to evolve out of apehood. According to some theories, the larger and more efficient brain that made us human evolved as an adaptation to the male requirement to pursue and kill large mammals in the savannah. Some recent theorists, however, give the credit for this change to the female. Erect posture, according to their thinking, didn’t come about because hunters needed to see over the long grass; it evolved from the woman’s need to have both hands free while gathering food, and carrying it home so it could be both shared and stored. Probably as the scientific community accumulates more evidence, we will come to the view that both approaches to this issue are partly true–and that other factors as well entered into our evolution. I would be surprised if the cosmically significant birth of our species did not result from adaptive change by both sexes–evolving together, in tandem, as partners.

To understand the role gender plays in natural selection, we need to know who does the choosing when selecting a mate. The male obviously has an important say in these matters. In a band of chimpanzees, the number one male decides who he wants for his female partners. If you doubt that, just watch him. But what influences his decision? There is a lot that goes on behind the scenes. Observers have established that the female chimp, through networking, body language, grooming, and other more or less subtle techniques, plays a substantial role in determining who mates with whom. She prefers to mate with a male that is distinguished by physical size and prowess on the one hand, and status within the band on the other. So the female does have a say in these matters, one way or another, and therefore there is an element of sexual selection among male chimpanzees that is based not just on male dominance but partly on female choices, ie, on which male the female chooses to mate with, particularly when she is in oestrus. [1]

The early female human paid a price for assuming an erect posture. The birth canal became somewhat constricted, while the embryo’s head got bigger. These changes forced a reduction in the gestation period and meant that after birth, the infant required parental attention for years longer than a baby chimp. Therefore early humans formed pair bonds, because the child was more likely to survive if the father was still hanging around to help the mother provide food and protection.This added a new criterion for the female human to use in selecting which male she might mate with, a factor technically known as “male paternal investment”. It followed that human females, more than their chimpanzee cousins, looked for whatever evidence they could find of fidelity and commitment when they selected a mate. [2] This “partnership”, however, was often felt more strongly by the females than by the males, who remained somewhat polygynous despite their commitment to a specific female. [3]

Another question bearing on the woman’s role in the old stone age concerns the food supply. How much of our ancestral nourishment in those days came from vegetable matter, roots and fruits and such like, and how much came from the meat of animals we hunted? Gathering vegetable products, according to most authorities, was mostly women’s work, while hunting appears to have been primarily a male prerogative. Some authorities postulate that in early times food gathering was central to our ancestors’ survival, while hunting was at best marginal. This is arguable. Many early human bands may have depended more on the food the women gathered than they did on what the men killed; this probably varied from place to place and time to time. But even when hunting was episodic and most of the regular diet was vegetarian, hunting must have been important, not only for protein but for the supply of skins and bones and other useful materials. We can infer from the archeological evidence, including a vast array of animal bones that have been roasted and cracked open, that our forebears were in fact hunters as well as gatherers. Almost certainly both sides in this argument are partly right.

We have archeological evidence that religion in the late paleolithic and early neolithic was often based on worship of female deities, the “earth mother” or mother goddess theme. One school of thought takes this evidence and asserts that throughout this period societies were matriarchal; there was no male domination. Women, not men, invented agriculture and were the first to domesticate animals. Neolithic societies that flourished in the Middle East and Central Europe were peaceful and far more advanced than our contemporary male-dominated histories recognize. Arts flourished, and people made love, not war. These were graceful, nurturing societies, according to this view, but they were destroyed when male-dominated tribes swept out of the steppes and started the bloodshed and mayhem that still plagues our once-idyllic, female-oriented planet. [4]

I find it difficult to believe that the neolithic was the peaceful golden age the paradigm in the preceding paragraph suggests. The archeological evidence I am familiar with suggests otherwise. And the assertion that during our prehistory women invented everything worthwhile, including agriculture and animal husbandry, seems open to question. But wherever the truth of the matter lies, it is self-evident that society was organized quite differently in prehistoric times, and for the most part the balance between the genders may well have been more even.

The Historic Pattern: Male Domination

Throughout recorded history, our species has been largely male-dominated. Some societies for which we have records have been matriarchal, but the vast majority have been patriarchal. Where the religion is monotheistic, God has been portrayed as a man. Polytheistic religions had both gods and goddesses, but usually the most important god in the pantheon was a male. The woman’s role was increasingly marginalized, and in extreme cases she was little better than a slave. The major actors on the world’s stage, the kings and warriors and priests, were almost all men. And so it has remained until modern times.

The transition from hunter-gatherer bands through neolithic farming communities to Bronze Age city states and eventually empires profoundly altered the ways our ancestors organized themselves into social, political and economic groups. It would be surprising if such profound transformations had not also affected male-female relationships. But why did most of the newer, more complex societies that emerged out of this transition follow the pattern of increasing male domination? What was there about the changes in the ways people lived that caused this direction of change? We know that modern women are just as intelligent as their male counterparts (some modern women would say smarter); we know that their organizational skills are at least on a par with those of men; and they are not less articulate. They are more important when it comes to propagation of the race, in that the individual male is more expendable. And all this must have been as true in the post-neolithic era as it is today.

There are several theories that address this question. My own is based on the fact that there was a great deal of warfare throughout the world during this transitional period. New means of production led to increased population pressures while new technologies and forms of social organization led to less stable intertribal relations. It became possible for a given group to develop new weapons and a new approach to military organization, and to conquer vast areas containing many times its own population. Empire-building on this scale was inconceivable in paleolithic times and as far as we know it didn’t occur on any major scale during the neolithic. And the kind of combat it entailed was clearly man’s work, not woman’s. The edge the male had in physical strength was decisive in those days of hand-to-hand combat, and the fact that he was relatively dispensable added to the logic of his assuming the fighter’s role, almost to the complete exclusion of women. If half the male population went off to the wars and only a fraction came back, never mind, many of the surviving males could take more than one wife, and the group could survive about as well, demographically speaking, as it would have if everybody had stayed home.

When one group conquered another group the victors usually spared the losing side’s women. This both reflected and reinforced a growing tendency to look on women as a valuable kind of property rather than as partners. When the annihilation of the losing side’s men was fairly complete, the losing side’s women often ended up as concubines or second class wives of the victorious warriors. They then contributed to the cultural broadening of the victors by inculcating the tribe’s children with some of the more useful values and techniques of the losers.

It was not a way of life we now regard with approval, but it worked well for its time. It created an environment in which natural selection operated swiftly and surely to bring out many of the qualities we now admire, in altered form, in our own populations: group loyalty, resourcefulness, and courage, to mention just a few. But it didn’t do much for the women of that period, other than to encourage stoicism, and perhaps a sharpened sense of how to work their will with their menfolk through subtlety and indirection. No, this period was a long night for the female of our species.

First signs of a more equal partnership:

I see a direct relationship between the dawning of doubts about Godhead, ie the first faint stirrings of the humanist impulse, and the development of more equal relations between the sexes. The deity as defined in its own way by each of the three major western religions (Christianity, Islam, and Judaism) is unabashedly male. The guy up there with a long white beard is certainly no mother goddess. The Koran and associated Islamic texts define the woman’s value with some precision: it amounts to half that of the male in such matters as inheritance, testimony in court cases, and compensation to the family in case of death. If you want a sociological history of female-bashing, both the Old and the New Testaments of the Bible can provide a rich assortment. It is no coincidence that in America the most fervent female opponents of modern feminist movements including freedom of reproductive choice, ERA, and combining careers with family, are women of the far-right Evangelical Christian movement. They are the Quislings of their gender, in this era.

The current move for gender equality should be seen in the context of other forces impelling humanity into new and uncharted areas. The drive for equal rights for women ranks with humanity’s renunciation of war (between the developed nations); with our technological conquest of time and space; with our entry into into an information-based era; with our perception that procreation is something to be managed not maximized; with the replacement of tribal instincts by the perception that all humanity is a unit; and with our new ability to see Godhead as a human invention, putting the responsibility for our destiny squarely on our own shoulders. It is no accident that all of these things are happening at roughly the same time. They are interrelated; they are all parts of the same underlying process of growth.

All these trends are similar in that they have profoundly destabilized traditional ways of organizing society. And they are all similar in that they have only begun; we are still in a transitional state. There is, however, a difference between the move toward gender equality and the others. At least some of us know, in a general way, where we are heading in regard to war, information technology, pan-humanist ideals, and religion. There is a directional thrust welling up in the immediate past which we can perceive and which gives us clues as to the next stages. This is less the case with the gender revolution. Both men and women are confused and divided about their mutual relationships. We know the condition we are trying to leave behind. But where are we going? What is the next stop on the bumpy ride we have begun?

Kinder Kueche Kirche (Children, Kitchen, Church)

The old German summary of the proper role for women has been blasted sky-high by the introduction and widespread use of contraception, which has done more than anything else to make the gender revolution possible. Before contraception, woman was the prisoner of her biology. There were limits to how far she could go beyond her traditional roles in the nursery, the kitchen, and the church without renouncing her biological role as mother, and risking social disapproval.

Now a woman no longer has to choose between being a mother and having a career; she can do both, if she has the strength, and be a role model to boot. This is an extraordinary 180-degree turn in the most basic factor underlying male-female relations, and it has come about for the most part in living memory. Little wonder that there is so much debate these days about what is happening and what we should be doing about it.

Generational Shift in Attitudes:

During the last twenty or thirty years, I have had dealings with entry-level Foreign Service Officers, with Peace Corps volunteers, and with students on various college campuses. I have been consistently impressed by the vitality and competence of the young women in these groups, women who are destined to take on many of the jobs and responsibilities that would have gone almost exclusively to men when I was younger. The gender revolution has clearly unleashed an enormous reserve of energy which social values had kept bottled up for many generations past. Today’s young women are loaded for bear, they are ready.

Some of the young men look pretty competent also, but there is no comparable sign of “spoiling for the battle”, of being ready and eager to join the fray. For the most part, they seem to accept the basic equality of women as a fact of life. They regard with equanimity the prospect that the position of women in the workplace is going to get more equal as time goes by. They are more disposed than their elders of either sex simply to enjoy having women around, without feeling that there is anything strange about women doing work that used to be reserved for men.

Older women, in the West at least, have been through an extraordinary wringer, a convulsive about-face between the roles they were taught to aspire to as children, and the wider opportunities that have opened up for them more recently. Many of them, I suspect, nurse inner conflicts between their aspirations and their upbringing. It is not an easy transition for them. Better off are the younger women, who begin on the crest of the wave, less encumbered with self-doubt and guilt.

As for the older men, those of my generation, for the most part they are resigned or resentful or both. You can always get a laugh with a “dumb blonde” joke, but you had best not tell it where you will be quoted or you will be in trouble. Their general attitude of dyspeptic resignation rather reminds me of German attitudes back in 1946, when I was a young soldier in Bremen. The prevailing attitude there was, well, we lost the war, we lost it fair and square, we’ll suffer through the next few years, and maybe things will get better, though I guess they’ll never be the same as they used to be.

The Woman in the Workplace

The introduction of contraception has not, of course, guaranteed woman an equal place in the workplace. She is still handicapped by the fact that she has to take time out from a paying job to have a baby, and the process of rearing the child also falls more heavily on the mother than the father, at least during infancy. There is a perceptible effort at present to work out arrangements that moderate this handicap, such as maternity leave, pre-kindergarten schools, and nurseries, along with a growing consensus that the father needs to contribute a more equal share to the time-consuming aspects of parenting. But the basic problem continues. A recent survey indicates that the most highly-stressed sector of our population is young working mothers.

The working woman also faces a well-publicized problem in the job market, that of equal pay with men, and equal opportunities for advancement to the higher ranks. Older men still control the senior-level positions in almost all sectors of the economy, including law, finance, medicine, engineering, and many other fields. They want to maintain this control, not because they are mysogynists, but because it is what they were brought up to expect. Therefore, my women friends tell me, the battle has been joined, but it is still far from being won. Yes, I tell them, there is still a glass ceiling and it is still important. You have battles ahead of you still, but it is a generational thing, and seen in a generational context, you are well on your way to transforming society. There is no turning back: the men who oppose you now are going to retire pretty soon, and their replacements, for the most part, will be different.

On courtship, marriage, and male paternal investment

Before contraceptives arrived on the scene, a woman was not supposed to go to bed with her man until they were married. She did anyway, quite frequently, showing that ancestral compulsions can override even the strictest contemporary social requirements, if those requirements are sufficiently cross-grained. This led to an escalating range of discomforts, from gossip and guilt and confession to shotgun marriages and even, all too often, to bastardy and enduring social stigma. But by now, only the devoutly religious remain convinced that that was a better situation than the present one, where sensible people express their affection for each other in the most intimate way possible without getting in trouble, and reproduce only when they are sure they want to.

There has thus been a sea change in the West, in our lifetimes, in our attitude towards sex, the procreative act in particular. Young people engage in sex before marriage without arousing the righteous indignation such behavior occasioned in the past. It is even considered sensible and proper, in many circles, for a couple contemplating a lifetime commitment to live together in a protracted state of premarital bliss, checking out the validity and durability of their relationship. Often they marry only when they decide the time has come to have a child. Is this wrong? Is this immoral? Only by the ethical standards we inherited from an era that preceded contraception.

In terms of present-day realities, the sex act has been decoupled from marriage and procreation to a considerable degree. The sex drive continues, but serves other purposes, including but not limited to prenuptial courtship. What has replaced it as the central pillar of marriage is, in my view, an updated version of that ancient criterion, male paternal investment. Small children have an atavistic and enduring need to have both a father and a mother intimately involved in their growth. If a man and a woman have a baby, and the man vanishes over the horizon, he is acting in a way that is immoral not just by Victorian standards, but by modern ones as well. This helps us perceive what I think is only now coming clearly into focus as the basis for a modern morality about sex and marriage. Paternal obligations are already codified in our laws. There already is considerable moral opprobrium attached to the delinquent father; this is common sense. The focus would be clearer if the current debate about family values concentrated on this one issue, without being diluted by moral precepts carried over from a bygone era.

The woman contemplating marriage and procreation still has pretty much the same problem as the one that bedeviled her paleolithic ancestress, namely that of judging whether the man she plans to marry is sincere and will stay the course, or if he is only interested in sowing his oats, and will flee when the going gets rough. Modern woman can and should be able to count on social sanctions to back up her judgement. Modern men should be constrained in their instinctive impulse to spread their genes as widely as possible by these same social sanctions. This should not be too difficult in most cases, as they can now enjoy the full pleasures of an intimate relationship with the woman of their choice without its leading to conception.

Divorce is a tricky issue, but this concept of the importance of male paternal investment sheds some light on it. Divorce between childless couples should carry less of a legal burden of liability and a moral burden of guilt than divorce that occurs during the child-rearing stage. Isn’t this what the stress on “family values” is all about? The key point is to give the kid a break, let him grow up as part of a family, more or less as his ancestors have, for thousands of generations.

Modern society hasn’t resolved the issue of how the working mother can be fully competitive in the job market when she is also trying to bring up children. More stress on the parenting responsibilities of the father can help, but even if the father shares fully fifty percent of the child-rearing burden, this still leaves that working mother (as well as her husband, in this case) at a competitive disadvantage, vis-a-vis the unmarried or childless individual who may be competing for the same job.

I don’t know how our society is going to resolve this problem. My own preferred solution is to socially sanction what I call the “Aunty Principle”, where being childless is just fine, and many adults act as aunts or uncles rather than having children themselves. They would maintain a close and special relationship to certain growing children, perhaps parented by a sibling, perhaps just in something like the old “godparent” relationship. Other individuals, those who feel a strong impulse to reproduce biologically should do so, and could have large families, say four or five children. They should be supported by the state, as well as by assorted aunts, uncles, godfathers, and godmothers, so that they can live a decent life and provide a good education for their children even though they are not able to compete as effectively in the job market as the others. I see this as a kind of moral common sense that might grow naturally in our society, not as something imposed by diktat, either government or whatever. It could end up with most children growing up in an environment like our ancestors did, ie with several siblings rattling around, and with the further profoundly important benefit that each child brought into the world will be wanted, and will be given a decent shot at making the most of his talents.

On Only Having Babies When They Are Wanted

We still have too many births of unwanted babies in America. For the most part they occur among less privileged and less educated sectors of our society, but the problem exists even among our more privileged circles. Social workers, government agencies, and professional counselors are all actively engaged in this area, reflecting and trying to implement a growing consensus that people should only have babies when they want them and are prepared to look after them. Contraception, of course, is essential if this happy condition is ever to be achieved.

More serious is the problem of far too many births in the poorer countries of the world. Here it is not so much a question of babies being unwanted as it is of declining death rates. Attitudes change more slowly than the changes brought about by new technologies, and too many parents are still reproducing as though only about a quarter or a third of their offspring might survive. Contraception and publicity are being applied to the problem, with perceptible, albeit insufficient, results.

On love and hate in the battle of the sexes:

The sense of partnership that ought to provide the basis for relations between the sexes was distorted and suppressed during the past epoch of male domination. Now that women are asserting themselves, it would be useful for all of us to remind ourselves that male love for female, and vice versa, is the basis of human existence. But this will take time, while we wait for old habits to be unlearned and new replacements developed. Understandably, the women leading the charge for equal rights have sometimes assumed adversarial roles, in opposition to the males that dominate the workplaces and power centers they want to move into. The search for a new sense of what it means to be a woman has led some woman theorists into labyrinths of philosophical and metaphysical introspections that, however estimable as logical constructs, have the net effect of diminishing female esteem and regard for the opposite gender.

Gender relations are exceptionally fluid at present. The people who are alive today, especially the ones in America and the West, are forging new standards of what is correct and acceptable. I hope that coming generations will be inspired not by adversarial relations between the sexes, but by the contemporary saying, “make love, not war”.



[1]: Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, Carl Sagan, Random House, 1992

[2]: The Moral Animal, Robert Wright, Vintage Books, New York, 1995. ISBN: 0-679-76399-6. See especially chapter 3, “Men and Women”

[3]: op.cit., p.90: Sexual dimorphism, ie difference in size between male and female, is a good index of the intensity of sexual selection among males, which in turn is a sign of how polygynous the species is. This is because in highly polygynous species, the big powerful male usually gets to father the most offspring, while this factor does not apply nearly as much in a more monogamous species. We are much less dimorphic than gorillas, and less so than chimps, but more so than the highly monogamous gibbons.

[4]: The Chalice and the Blade, by Riane Eisler, Harper Collins, 1987.

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