The Other I

July 30, 2011

A woman’s place wasn’t always in the home

Filed under: Cultural Differences,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 8:52 pm
Tags: ,

I just come across some of the most fascinating research I’ve read in years.  I hope to study it in greater detail but for now here is the gist.

About seven thousand years ago in what is now Iraq, the god whom the people worshipped changed from an all-powerful mother goddess to male gods served predominantly by male priests.

This has been well-documented for a long time and is no surprise.  What is astonishing is that this change took place at the same time as men took over tilling the fields.  Up until then, it was the women who hoed the fields and produced the food on which the society survived.
But in 5,000 BC the plough was introduced.  A plough requires more upper-body strength than a hoe, and men, on average, possess more than women.  Men took possession of the plough and women were forbidden to use it.

So at the  point that the plough was introduced, not only did the top gods become male.  The work of women was transferred to the home.

But here is what I find mind-boggling:  Today, in societies that replaced the plough with the hoe thousands of years ago, women’s place is still seen to be  predominantly in the home.  But in societies where the plough was not appropriate for the crops – like rice, for instance – and that did not benefit from the plough, women are much more likely to work outside the home.

The figures seem to be quite dramatic.  Despite industrialization, despite the fact that the plough itself has been mostly displaced by a tractor which can be driven equally well by members of both sexes, huge differences persist.

For example 25% of women in the Arab world work outside the home.  91% of the women in Burundi, a formerly hoe-using country, do.  Women from hoe-using countries like Kenya are much more likely even today to work outside the home than those from former plough-using countries like India or Egypt.  In America, daughters of immigrants from plough-using societies are less apt to work outside the home than their counterparts whose ancestors used hoes.

Modern attitudes towards the appropriate roles of women follow the same pattern.  Plough-using descendants believe that in times of unemployment, men should be given jobs before women and that men make better political leaders than women.

Still, although these stereotypes may have lasted thousands of years, they are not totally immune to change.  During the second world war, women took over many of the “male” jobs on farms and in factories because the men were away.  A larger percentage of women still work exclusively at home than do men.  But the war did seem to make a permanent difference.

I grew up on a farm.  By the time I was six, I had a plan to get out of there and move to New York City.  I wasn’t abused as a child – I wasn’t running away from an abusive home.  I just didn’t want to be stuck on a farm with the cows and fields and chickens.  

I wonder if my ancestors were hoe-users.


  1. I didn’t know that during times of economic hardships some people currently believe that men should be given jobs before women, or that men should be leaders instead of women. Some people seem to think we’ve left this behind, but it seems that during economic hardship and social upheaval, some of the old ways of humanity return, at times almost unnoticed.

    I also heard of a book (I believe is called Blade and Chalice) which supposedly makes a similar argument except that that shift from matriarchal to patriarchal religion and values and social organization coincided with the growth of groups, which caused groups to come into conflict with other groups, and when this began to happen, it resulted in warfare. Men took over since they were the ones who would engage in war.

    However, what you say is interesting and worth keeping in mind.


    Comment by demian217 — July 31, 2011 @ 12:11 am | Reply

    • Thank you, Roberto, for your interesting addition. I’ve checked out Blade and Chalice and see it is available through Amazon. I hope to check it out. In retrospect, it makes a lot of sense that our first gods should have been those associated with providing us with food. Although it is a great surprise – to me at least – to discover just how very long these influences have persisted.

      But there must be other influences besides our agricultural methods, mustn’t there? Otherwise, we would still have a lot more female gods in dominant positions. And they seem to have all but completely disappeared around the world.

      This whole issue of sex-appropriate roles is far more interesting than I ever realized. I guess I’d always assumed it was solely a power issue backed up by convenient religious institutions. Well, there goes another one of my fundamental assumptions!

      Seriously, thank you again.


      Comment by theotheri — July 31, 2011 @ 1:47 pm | Reply

  2. Thanks so much for the link. Fascinating stuff indeed.


    Comment by Chris Lawrence — July 31, 2011 @ 11:03 am | Reply

    • It is fascinating, isn’t it, Chris? I wrote yesterday’s post after reading little more than the abstract. I read it in greater depth today and the more I read, the more tantalizing it becomes. As I said in response to the comment above, there must be other powerful factors shaping our view of appropriate sex roles as well, but I would never have guessed that our agricultural practices seven thousand years ago would still be exerting such a powerful influence. It makes one want to look at ones genealogy from a completely new perspective, doesn’t it?

      Thank you for sharing your interest. You know, I am sure, that it’s partly what keeps one blogging.


      Comment by theotheri — July 31, 2011 @ 1:31 pm | Reply

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