Patriarchy in a State of Nature

A Renaissance painting of a scene from the apocryphal book of Judith.Renaissance painting of a scene from the apocryphal book of Judith.  Provocative, no?

When I was in middle school and kids would make fun of me, I would always come up with a really great comeback about four days later.  I’m in college now, but it’s still the case that unless I know the subject really, really well, I’m not likely to be quick on my feet in the middle of debate.  So, on New Year’s, when a friend of mine made the argument that if weren’t for technology, it would be the men who were doing the hunting and gathering and the women who would be staying at home, I didn’t really have much to say in response.  A couple days later the problems with the argument, especially as an attempt to legitimize patriarchy as the “natural” state of society, became more readily apparent.

Essentially what the argument states is that if modern technology—meaning, I assume, levers, wheels, cars, nanochips, the internet, and so on—didn’t exist, our society would revert back to a state of nature where the man assumed the dominant role of hunter-gatherer and the woman the supplementary role of domestic supporter, taking care of the children and tending to the matters of the home.  This is the case because the basic genetic makeup of men and women lends their bodies more naturally to different tasks: men, with their bigger biceps and knack for spatial reasoning, would be better suited to hunt for food and defend the family, while women, with their bigger breasts and knack for fostering healthy relationships, would be better suited to nurture the young and care for family life.  For this reason, modern situations in which the man and woman switch roles, with mom as a career woman and dad as a stay-at-home parent, are contrary to nature and only possible through the advent of technologies which enable this kind of role-swapping to take place.

OK, now for the problems.First of all, is it really possible to imagine a human society devoid of any kind of technology?  One of the reasons that we, along with other primates, have done so well as a species is our cognitive ability to develop and utilize tools.  A tool is anything which helps us do something we couldn’t do on our own: a monkey procures ants from a tree with the help of a stick; the caveman uses a club to crush a tiger’s skull; I use the internet to communicate with a friend in Santorini.  Can we even begin to envision a society without tools?  Yet the primitive state of nature which the argument assumes must not, in order for the argument to work, have technology—but under the category “technology” we must, of course, include spears, arrows, and traps as well as baskets, pots, and pans.  Something tells me one man with his bare hands alone isn’t going to catch enough food to feed his family anything except wild berries.

Indeed, the inability of a single family to survive on its own could well be what necessitated the formation of tribal groups in the first place; in this sense, society itself might be a tool, a technology whose end is the survival of its individual members.  One man on his own (especially without a tool) is not likely to catch enough meat every day to provide for his wife and, say, three children; but three men might figure out a way to catch enough for all of their families combined.  But without the use of tools, again, they’re not likely to catch much at all, if you ask me.  As it turns out, it is technology which must have enabled men to become the primordial hunter/provider figure in the first place.

But the real trick of the argument is the hidden assumption that the role of the hunter is superior to the role of the nurterer–that biceps beat breasts.  If the hunter role is dominant, then man’s “natural” role in society is dominant as well.  But once exposed, this argument leaks like a sieve.  The alleged “natural” role of the male as hunter says nothing about the relative esteem of the male in the larger society.  It tells us nothing of his political situation at all.  Indeed, one could easily imagine a society, primitive or modern, in which the role of the male as grunt laborer was held in relatively low esteem and women held all of the political power both in the society and in the home.  Indeed, the time-consuming task of hunting, which requires a lot of travel and time spent outside the bounds of the home, would seem to make this more likely.  It is women, who are better multi-taskers anyway, who would be more likely in this primitive society to possess political power, since they would be in a better positions to oversee societal matters.  One can nurse and sit on a tribal council at the same time; hunting deer and doing so might prove a bit more difficult.

You could object that men, being generally stronger in terms of muscle, would not likely tolerate this kind of subordination for long.  But there are other means of subduing men than just by beating them up.  Women, as any man knows, can be surprisingly adept at manipulating the male mind, whether purposely or not.  This is well attested by Scripture, mythology, literature, history, and many a man’s personal experience (just guessing).

In fact, the only thing this argument illustrates is the arbitrariness of our the assigment of dominance and political power to men–both within the home and outside of it.  The argument that the primitive role of men as hunters or providers somehow gives them “natural” dominance politically or sociologically only works if you assume that this role already indicates dominance, that is, if you assume the very thing you are trying to prove.  To say that man’s (or rather, some men’s) strength and suitability for hunting somehow legitimates his claim to power over woman is more than a stretch—it’s nonsense, plain and simple.  Those seeking to legitimize patriarachy will have to look to someone other than the caveman for help.

This entry was posted in Feminism, Friends, Masculinity, Philosophy and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Patriarchy in a State of Nature

  1. Adri says:

    Encore, encore!

  2. fin says:

    plenty examples of native societies in which western gender roles didn’t exist.

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