The Roots of Gender Roles

In this day and age, there is a lot of talk about gender roles.  In the realm of politics, traditional gender roles are treated like the products of a thankfully bygone era that couldn’t have died too soon.  It’s like people believe that those roles existed solely so men could oppress women or something.

Photo from Flickr, by Quinn Dombrowski
Photo from Flickr, by Quinn Dombrowski

Author Sarah Hoyt, best known for her fiction writing but also a notable political and cultural writer, took aim at the topic a couple of days ago.  Some of you may be groaning, thinking, “Oh great.  Another woman to tell us just how much we suck.”

If you’re thinking that, then you don’t know Sarah.

Sarah isn’t just an author and commentator.  She’s also a dear friend, an ally of this site, and something of a mentor to me with my fiction writing.  In other words, she’s not the kind of woman we need to worry about.

Here’s what Sarah had to say:

So, imagine you created a species with sexual dimorphism.  This means that the sexes are different.  Men and women are not the same.  Men are generally larger, stronger, more muscular, and able to survive body blows better.  Women are smaller, more agile, more fragile, capable of enduring pain better.  (No, ladies, when your husbands are being such babies with an illness it’s not their fault.  They feel pain more than we do.)

Psychologically, the body imposes certain psychological differences.  The sex hormones have different effects on the brain from the time of gestation on.  I’m not an  endocrine specialist, so I can’t go into all the details, but I do know testosterone makes you think “clearer, faster, more incisively” and estrogen makes you think “deeper, more connected and layered.”

So in this species men and women have different but covalent specialties.  If you intend — we assume you do — for this species to eventually develop science and technology, then both modes of thinking are needed and complementary.  Sure, because any individual exists on a continuum, some men’s thinking will more layered and deeper and more connected, but men will be on the women’s low range for this, so having women in a project probably makes it better.

This is complicated by evolution which molds men’s and women’s social styles in different ways.  While both men and women work in groups — we are a social ape — they work differently in groups.  This is probably because men in hunting parties needed to respond well to overt hierarchy while women in gathering parties were more likely to have their children survive if they have deep sideways connections and sort of a behind the scenes power.  Because if you don’t have connections, everyone is going to let your kids be eaten by a bear while you’re picking berries.

Which means that men and women don’t have similar social styles.  We do interact well enough in romance, but we have serious issues when working together.  We’ll leave that aside for now.  (It’s not true in all cases, and what is required is a more male-working-mode, which is why as women go into work there is a push to function as men.  More on that later.)

She’s absolutely right about all of this.  What she didn’t get to, however, is many of the biological differences and how they influenced traditional gender roles.

Some are obvious, of course.  Men being bigger and stronger means we’re best able to fend off attackers, be they animal or other humans.  It means we’re the ones most likely to be tasked with building things, etc.

Others may not be so obvious at first.

For example, let’s take the idea of a woman staying at home with their kids.  In this day and age, being a stay at home mom is a choice a woman makes, but it wasn’t always the case.  Traditionally, women were expected to stay at home and raise the kids while the father worked.

Feminists argue that this was proof of the Patriarchy worked against women, but think about the roots for a moment.

Back in the bad old days, there wasn’t any formula or even animal’s milk you could give an infant.  The only thing available was breast milk for dear old mom.

That meant mothers and babies couldn’t really afford to be separated for more than a brief period of time.  Mother’s couldn’t hunt or spend hours in the fields.  They needed to be close to Junior.

In a hunter/gatherer society, this meant women were often relegated to gathering.  After all, you can pick berries and mushrooms with a kid attached to you, but hunting mammoths?  Not so much.

Additionally, both of these require skill.  It’s a waste of resources to teach a woman to hunt, only to have her get pregnant and suddenly be forced to switch to “gathering” where she would have to learn a whole new skill.

“But ‘gathering’ isn’t that hard,” you might say.  If you’re an idiot.

Gathering still happens today, though people call it foraging.  They go out into the woods and pick leaves, berries, and other edible things from the wild for supper.  However, one has to learn what is edible and what isn’t.  What happens if you don’t?  Death.

Further, due to the high mortality rate, women didn’t stop having children after one or two.  Even if a child survived infancy, there was no promise they’d grow into adulthood, so you stacked the deck in the tribe’s favor and cranked out a lot of kids.

When agriculture came along, gender roles had to shift slightly.  Men were needed to do the arduous work in the fields requiring strength and physical endurance, and women were needed to be home with babies for pretty much the same reason as before.  Only now, baby making wasn’t about tribal survival but about labor to help grow more food.


As a result, so-called “women’s work” developed because these were tasks that needed to be done and since a woman was forced by biology to stay close to home anyway, they were deemed her responsibility.

Today, we don’t live in that world thankfully.  We live in a world where I can work from home and help raise the kids, and my wife can work outside the home if she so chooses.  Personally, I like people having choices.

Unfortunately, sometime between then and now, men forgot why things were the way they were and simply accepted tradition as all that mattered.  They didn’t think women should work at all, etc, but without a thought as to why things had always been that way.

The greatest disservice I can think of is to simply ascribe to evil and oppression that which was an artifact of common sense at the time.

Of course, as Sarah points out, today’s “oppression” is the most idiotic oppression ever.

As your mentor, reading your world building, I’m going to tell you “Waitafargin minute, why are the females the ones that’s considered oppressed?  The men were the ones killed in batch lots both by war and by trying to make a living.  It was the men who endured hard and dangerous work in all weathers.  Arguably it was the women who oppressed them by convincing them to go out there and to it.  Your worldbuilding doesn’t work, son.  This is highly implausible.  Even if you add in that period where in upper class western societies men could really oppress those women under their power, you’d have to be a ninny not to realize the women fought back with subversion and indoctrination.  See the myth of the woman as angel, for instance.  Non western societies are more complicated but there, too, life was horrible for men.  So let’s talk about this. Your world just won’t work.  Shouldn’t men be clamoring for redress of the evils perpetrated on them through centuries.”

Seriously, go read the whole thing.  You can thank me later.



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