Reprinted from the September 1995 UNESCO Courier.
This article was the lead article for the issue, Women: one half of heaven, highlighting the United Nations Beijing Women’s Conference.
Riane Eisler is an internationally renowned peace, development, and human rights scholar, president of The Center for Partnership Studies, and author of many books, including the international best seller The Chalice and The Blade, and the award-winning The Power of Partnership.
Today’s questioning of sex roles and relations is part of a broader movement towards greater democracy and egalitarianism…
Men are from Mars, proclaims a recent book title, and women are from Venus. This two-planet image vividly expresses the lingering belief that women and men are fundamentally and unalterably different.
But if it were true that women and men are inherently so different, how is it that their differences differ so much from one time and place to another? For example, in Victorian England the mark of real femininity was a “ladylike” paleness and weakness, whereas in Kenya real femininity was traditionally proved by a woman’s ability to do very hard work on behalf of her family. In the Samurai Age of Japan, real masculinity was proving oneself a fierce warrior, whereas among the Hopi Indians of North America men were supposed to be peaceful, agreeable, and non-aggressive.
Not only that, but over the last decades the roles and relations of women and men have been changing at a very rapid pace. For example, large numbers of women have in many Western nations begun to do things that were once considered exclusively men’s work, such as the work of doctors, plumbers, engineers, lawyers, welders and university professors-all highly paid professions and trades from which women were once barred. Similarly, men have begun to redefine fathering to include some of the “women’s work” of feeding, diapering, and otherwise caring for and nurturing babies.
Moreover, even against enormous resistance, women’s and men’s relations have gradually become more egalitarian. At the same time, although more slowly, once firmly entrenched beliefs that men, and what men do, are more important than women and what women do, have also begun to change-with such commonplace remarks as “hope next time it’s a boy” increasingly considered offensive by both new mothers and fathers.
For some people, both women and men, these changes are a source of hope for a more humane, less violent, less unjust future: one where one kind of person (be it a person of a different race, nationality, religion or sex) is no longer viewed as of a lower order than another. But for others, these changes are a source of confusion and fear, yet another complexity to be dealt with in a far too rapidly changing world.
Women, Men, and Human Relations
It is certainly true that our world has been changing very fast over the last few hundred years, so fast that, in the words of the futurologist Alvin Toffler, it has put some people in “future shock”. Rapid technological and economic changes have destabilized not only established habits of work, but long-standing habits of thinking and acting. This has been the source of much dislocation and stress. But as modern history drastically demonstrates, technological and economic change has also opened the door for questioning much that was once taken for granted-be it the once supposedly divinely ordained right of kings and princes to absolute authority, or the once also supposedly divinely ordained right of men to absolute authority in the “castles” of their homes. The questioning we see all over the world today of sex roles and relations is thus part of a much larger questioning. It is also part of a much larger movement for change: the global movement toward more democratic and egalitarian relations in both the so-called private and public spheres.
In fact, once we examine the constant interaction between the private and public spheres, it is possible to see patterns or connections that were invisible in older studies, because these focused almost exclusively on the public or men’s world from which women and children were excluded. These patterns or connections show something that once articulated seems self-evident: that the way a society organizes the roles and relations of the two halves of humanity- which is what men and women are-profoundly affects everything in our lives.
For example, how these roles and relations are organized is a critical factor in how a society structures the family. Societies where women’s and men’s roles are rigidly circumscribed, which are generally also rigidly male-dominated societies, are by and large also societies where we see a generally authoritarian, top-down family structure. Even more specifically, it tends to be a family where men rule over women and parents rule over children, with this rule ultimately backed up by fear and force. On the other hand, societies where women’s and men’s roles are more flexible and there is more equality between women and men tend to have more democratic families, with less socially condoned use of fear and force. Moreover, societies characterized by more rigid male dominance (where sex roles are also more rigid) are generally also more authoritarian. For example, with the rise to power of Hitler in Germany and the imposition of a brutally authoritarian and very violent regime, there was much emphasis on returning women to their “traditional” roles in a male-dominated family. Conversely, in the Scandinavian nations, strong emphasis on sexual equality has gone along with both political and economic democracy, as well as with social priority given to activities stereotypically associated with women such as child care, health care and environmental housekeeping.
A New View of the Past
Further light is shed on these connections by archaeological studies such as those of the Lithuanian-American archaeologist Marija Gimbutas, the British archaeologist James Mellaart, and the Greek archaeologist Nicolas Platon. These studies indicate that, contrary to what we have been taught, the earliest cradles of civilization were not authoritarian, male-dominant and chronically warlike. There are strong indications that these prehistoric societies (for example, Catal Huyuk in Turkey, which dates back approximately 8,000 years) were more peaceful and egalitarian societies in which, significantly, women were not dominated by men.
Thus, Platon notes that in the highly technologically developed Minoan civilization that flourished on the Mediterranean island of Crete approximately 3,500 years ago the influence of women is evident, and that this was a remarkably peaceful and prosperous society in which the whole of life was pervaded by an ardent faith in the goddess Nature ” As we can still see today from their beautiful nature-celebrating art, the Minoans also seem to have had a great respect not only for women but for our Mother Earth: what we today would call an ecological consciousness.
So here again we see the variability of women’s and men’s roles and relations, and how these roles and relations are affected by, and in turn affect, social structure. We see that stereotypically “feminine” values such as nurturance and non-violence can be embraced by men, and that women can take on stereotypically “masculine” roles of social and religious governance. Most important, we see that neither war nor the war of the sexes is inevitable.
But I want to emphasize an important matter. There is no evidence that, because women in these societies seem to have held high social and religious positions, men were dominated by women. In other words, these societies were neither matriarchies nor patriarchies. They conformed more to what I would call a partnership rather than a dominator model of social organization: a form of organization that offers a viable alternative to the complex tensions that are inherent in relations based on domination and subordination.
Gender equity and quality of life
Indeed, if we re-examine modern history from this larger perspective, we see that underneath its many complex currents and cross-currents lies a powerful movement towards a partnership social organization, countered by strong resistance to it. We see that all the modern progressive movements have basically been movements challenging different forms of domination backed by force and fear. This is the common thread in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century rights of man, anti-slavery, anti-monarchist, socialist, pacifist and feminist movements. In the same way, the twentieth-century anti-colonialist, anti-war, participatory democracy, women’s rights and economic justice movements are not isolated phenomena. They are all part of a much larger movement: the movement to create a world in which-be it in our global family of nations or in our individual families- principles of partnership rather than domination and submission are primary.
Moreover, we see that the contemporary movement toward gender equity is an integral part of this larger partnership movement. This should not surprise us, since the domination of one half of humanity by the other is a basic model for all forms of domination. Conversely, the equal valuing of the two halves of humanity teaches children from early on to value diversity, rather than seeing it as a reason for ranking superior” people over “inferior” ones. This is why those parts of our world where the movement to raise the status of women has been most successful are also more generally democratic. Even beyond this, a recent statistical survey of eighty-nine countries conducted by the Center for Partnership Studies indicates that if the movement towards sexual equality continues, we can also predict a generally higher quality of life for all.
This study, entitled “Gender Equity and the Quality of Life”, shows the Scandinavian nations on the average with both the highest gender equity and the highest quality of life. It also verifies that there is a strong correlation between, on the one hand, such gender inequity indicators as substantially lower female than male literacy, high maternal mortality, and low female participation in government and, on the other, indicators of a generally lower quality of life for all such as high infant mortality, a high number of refugees fleeing a country, and a high ratio of Gross Domestic Product going to the wealthiest as opposed to the poorest 20 per cent of the population. Furthermore, the study indicates that areas where the movement for women’s rights has made the least progress also tend to be those where human rights ratings are generally lower.
In short, the way in which a society structures the relations between women and men is of profound personal, social and economic significance. It is encouraging that many governments worldwide are beginning to pass laws to equalize the position of women and men, following the provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. This will obviously vastly improve women’s quality of life. But it is also essential if we are to move to a world of greater partnership and peace, not only between men and women but between the diverse nations, races, religions and ethnic groups on our planet.