Updated: Dec 24, 2021
Our world is marked by the Great Gender Divergence. In South Asia and the Middle East, most women remain secluded. Chinese women work but are locked out of politics. Latin America has undergone radical transformation, nearly achieving gender parity in political representation and massive rallies against male violence. Scandinavia still comes closest to a feminist utopia, but for most of history Europe was far more patriarchal than matrilineal South East Asia and Southern Africa.
What explains the Great Gender Divergence? It happened primarily in the 20th century, but it has much deeper roots. To answer the question, we need to go back ten thousand years.
With the Neolithic Revolution three kinds of agricultural societies emerged in the world: patrilineal, bilateral and matrilineal. In Eurasia, patrilineal communities transmitted land and herds to sons. Concern for paternity and lineage purity motivated tight restrictions on women’s sexuality and mobility. By contrast, horticultural societies in Southern Africa and Southeast Asia tended to be matrilineal, tracing descent and property down the female line. With less concern for paternity, women moved freely in their communities. Native Americans were mostly bilateral and recognised the importance of women's contributions.
Eurasia itself saw another important division several thousand years ago. The Middle East and South Asia grew even more endogamous (through cousin marriage and caste). Since rumours of female promiscuity would dishonour the entire lineage, women were increasingly cloistered, especially in socially diverse towns. Meanwhile in medieval Europe emerged several latent advantages: nuclear families and participatory assemblies. These innovations would prove important later, when skill-biased technological change increased the economic returns to female employment.
Patriarchal dominance was not geographically determined, but was also a product of cultural evolution, as reflected in folklore, religion, gender stereotypes, and institutions. Folklore (an insight into traditional cultures) of the Middle East, South Asia, the Mediterranean and Scandinavia tends to valorise male dominance and female submission. Patriarchy was cemented in Eurasia by the emergence over 2000 years ago of religions with Big Gods meting out supernatural punishment. Tight policing of women’s sexuality was sanctified. Disobedience was punished by God or karma with famines, floods and torment after death.
The Great Gender Divergence really occurred in the 20th century. Technological change freed women from domestic drudgery while industrialisation increased demand for their labour. Thriving firms ran out of skilled men and recruited women en masse. Women, in turn, gained status, autonomy and solidarity through broader friendships. But this progress towards gender equality was contingent on strong growth, weak systems of kinship and democratisation. If prevailing wages are too low to compensate for the loss of honour, female seclusion persists (as in much of India, Iran and Egypt). These effects are compounded by political trajectories. Only in democracies (so excluding Russia and China) can women collectively mobilise for representation and protection from male violence.
This blog offers some preliminary explorations of
The Patriarchal Revolution
Pre-Colonial Eurasia in the Longue Durée
Pre-Colonial Matrilineal and Bilateral Societies
The Eurasian Divergence
Colonial Latin America
The Death of Matriliny
Those who prefer to watch, may enjoy my 25 minute YouTube Video.
If you see an error, do correct me: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Patriarchal Revolution
The Neolithic Revolution has been considered a watershed in social inequality, but the transition was gradual and depended on a number of innovations beyond the domestication of crops.
There had never been a feminist utopia before the Neolithic. If recent studies of foragers are any guide, during the 100,000 years that our ancestors had spent as hunter-gatherers, girls may have been forced into marriage, often polygynously, beaten and raped. However, since female labour was a crucial element of the forager economy, women were at least not secluded.
With the advent of early agriculture, women continued to contribute to their households by working in the fields. For example, Catalhöyük (7000 BC) was not marked by strong gender divisions of labour. Women and men performed the same work, ate the same diet, and spent similar time outdoors. Bones and burials suggest little difference in gender roles (though male violence doubtless persisted).
But male dominance was strengthened dramatically by animal domestication, cereal-cultivation, draught animals, wealth stratification, and the rise of states.
1) Wealth emerged with a series of technological innovations. The domestication of animals resulted in livestock herds. Cereal cultivation produced a storable surplus. Irrigation, inter alia, raised crop yields, making land itself a valuable asset.
2) The emergence of wealth was accompanied by class differentiation: some people owned the land, whilst others worked on it.
3) Wealth and class turned inheritance into a key element of social organisation. Wealthy landowners and pastoralists concerned about passing fixed assets down the generations wished to ensure paternal certainty. Control of female sexuality became paramount.
5) Inherited class privileges and lineage purity were maintained by ensuring women only reproduced with group members.
6) The stronger the reliance on kinship cooperation and endogamy, as well as the greater the concern for purity, then the stricter the surveillance, inhibiting women’s freedoms and friendships.
Pre-Colonial Eurasia in the Longue Durée
Southern Mesopotamia, site of some of the oldest city-states in history, was initially not so patriarchal. In 4000 BCE, Sumerian girls and boys were both trained to be scribes. Women’s names appear on land deeds and ration lists as heads of households. Women ran their own businesses, such as taverns. Female deities had democratic input and rape was punished.
But society appears to have become more patriarchal over time. Women were subsequently excluded from the citadels of learning, as well as from prominent religious and political positions. Knowledge became male-dominated. Urukagina (King of Lagash, 2400 BC) decreed, “The woman who has sinned by saying something to a man which she should not have said must have her teeth crushed with burnt bricks”. The Code of Hammurabi (1750 BC) and Assyrian laws were preoccupied with marriage and sexuality. A husband had total authority over his wife and children, whom he could divorce without citing a reason. Wives at serious fault were drowned. Veiling was mandatory for high status Assyrian women, but prohibited for slaves or prostitutes (who would be duly flogged). Zoroastrianism introduced supernatural punishments: over a third of religious sins concerned female sexuality; female disobedience was criminalised. This long predated Islam.
Why did Southern Mesopotamia grow more patriarchal over time? Well, let us consider its distinguishing features. Given low rainfall, swampy marshes and risk of salination, Sumerian agriculture was dependent on large-scale irrigation. As technological innovation improved, crop yields became extraordinarily high, while exit options in the semi-desert remained poor. Commoners flocked to work as sharecroppers for wealthy landowners, who controlled the canals. A ruling priestly class managed centralised food distribution; as depicted in images of extreme supplication. City walls were fortified, to protect against nomadic raids. These oases were hugely unequal, heavily militarised, patrilineal, and led by divine authority.
Europe may have been similarly patriarchal - after patrilineal steppe pastoralists wiped out indigenous males. Strong patrilineal clans are suggested by Paleogenomic evidence, isotope analysis, kinship terminology, and Germanic codes. Norway has the highest share of Yamnaya ancestry, its folklore typically portrays women as submissive and men as dominant - think Thor and Odin!
Ancient Greece provides further clues to Europe’s past. Patrilineal kinship was imperative: a woman without brothers was obliged to marry her nearest paternal relative. Given strong concerns for paternity, inheritance and citizenship, wealthy families secluded female kin. Women’s names were not uttered in public; they were only recognised as appendages to husbands and fathers. As Aristotle remarked, “A man is naturally superior to women and so the man should rule and the woman should be ruled”. Ancient Greece and Rome differed from other patriarchal empires in one important respect, however: they prescribed monogamy. This idea was later adopted by the Church.
India developed caste at least two thousand years ago. A few castes owned estates, while others engaged in pastoralism, farm work, crafts, and bonded labour. Occupations became inherited and stratified. To preserve jati endogamy, girls were married before puberty, so they could not possibly reproduce for the ‘wrong’ lineage. Female seclusion may have been more marked in the north, since loamy soils allow plough cultivation, reducing the demand for women’s fieldwork, and processing wheat necessitates women’s home-based labour.
In the 7th century, Arabs conquered vast swathes of territory across the Middle East and North Africa. This catalysed a deterioration in women’s autonomy - most especially in Egypt. Conquered people gained rights and tax exemptions if they converted to Islam, recited the Quran, gained an Arab patron, and adopted tribal lineages. Patrilineal kinship was simultaneously reinforced (by Shariah law’s recognition of male agnates in inheritance and patrilineal ownership of children) and also threatened (by Muslim women’s inheritance rights). Cousin marriage provided a solution: consolidating family wealth, strength, and trust. It remains especially high in Muslim countries formerly under the Umayyad Caliphate. As Egyptians shifted from bilateral to patrilineal tribes, they restricted women’s rights and freedoms.
Iraq became the seat of the Sunni Muslim empire: Persian theologians managed state institutions of learning, and played a crucial role in developing Islamic ethics. They constructed men as intellectually superior, uniquely capable of reason, and thus rightful patriarchs. Men could only achieve piety by preventing fitna (moral corruption) and policing women. Clerics repeatedly prescribed gender segregation: barring women from communal prayers in the mosque. 12th century Damascan and Cairean women did defy these prescriptions (occasionally they even preached). But open dissent was increasingly inhibited by close-knit tribes, fear of eternal damnation, and religious authoritarianism.
India was ruled by Turkic Muslims for over 600 years. Mughal rule was concentrated in North India, on the upper Gangetic Plain. Women were captured in raids - sold as sex slaves. North Indian society became more gender segregated. Since the ruling class practised purdah, it came to signify status. Upwardly mobile families followed suit, to symbolise respectability. With Islamisation and the adoption of the plow, East Bengali women (once integral to wet-rice cultivation) slowly retreated to winnowing, soaking, parboiling, and husking - within the confines of the family courtyard.
China’s Song dynasty (10-13th century) heralded commercialisation, bureaucratic expansion, a meritocratic civil service exam, the spread of printing and education, Confucian revivalism, as well as more patriarchal practices: like foot-binding, sexual segregation, and escalating dowries. As educated men seized lucrative opportunities, female confinement was idealised. Paintings of Kaifeng’s bustling city streets show porters, innkeepers, monks, and traders, but a conspicuous absence of women.
Why were Chinese women increasingly hobbled? Marriage markets are one possibility: loving mothers may have bound their daughters’ feet in order to appeal to upwardly mobile grooms seeking chaste brides.
Foot-binding was especially common in regions growing wheat- and cotton, not in the rice-growing south. Rice is labour-intensive. Families would have needed their daughters in the fields. I suspect that thousands of years of women farming rice may have normalised female mobility, such that parents couldn’t contemplate foot-binding. Foot-binding strongly persisted in cotton-growing regions, where it was profitable to immobilise girls at the loom.
East Asian women were certainly oppressed and unfree, but they had a latent advantage which would prove important under industrialisation a thousand years later. Marrying patrilineal relatives was sternly punished under the Song Code. Exogamy weakened clans and - in comparison to the Middle East and South Asia - lessened their preference for female seclusion.
To summarise, in patrilineal civilisations, females were closely policed to improve their marriage prospects and maintain family honour. Although families might be tempted to supplement their meagre earnings by putting their daughter to work, this incentive had to be weighed against the potential loss of honour and the severity of social sanctions. Since no family wanted to deviate from this norm unilaterally, all were trapped in a negative feedback loop in which women stayed close to the home. Women competed over grooms with guarantees of paternal certainty: foot-binding, female seclusion, nuptial virginity tests, and infibulation.
Pre-Colonial Matrilineal and Bilateral Societies
South East Asia, Southern Africa and much of the Americas were far more gender equal, thanks to matrilineal or bilateral kinship. With weaker concern for paternal certainty, women moved more freely in their communities. Folklore did not represent men as dominant aggressors, and language was not gendered.
In pre-colonial Philippines, land was not seen as a major source of wealth. Men paid a dowry of gold, jewellery or slaves. Daughters were valuable and divorce was common. If a woman wanted to remarry, she could take her property, half the children and half of the shared slaves. Kinship and economic interdependence much enhanced women’s bargaining power. Men even wore (painful) penis pins to enhance women’s sexual pleasure, because women insisted on it. In the 16th century, most spiritual leaders were women. Men who wanted to be priests had to dress and act like women – they had to be effeminate.
For centuries, women in the Philippines, Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos enjoyed pre-marital sex, travelled widely as traders, owned land, divorced freely, worked as royal bodyguards, held high office and were worshipped as goddesses.
Anthropological archeology of Andean ayllu communities suggests ideologies of gender complementarity. Husbands and wives were portrayed as providing commensurate labour for household survival: women’s work as weavers and cultivators was valued. Descent was traced down both the male and female line. The Moon was the supreme goddess of the Incas, worshipped as the creator of women, in a cult led by women. They also permitted pre-marital sexuality. Ayllu communities were also relatively egalitarian, relying on reciprocal labour.
The matrilineal Bemba in Southern Africa practised slash and burn agriculture. There was no property to inherit, families just needed labour. To demonstrate his readiness for marriage, a young man provided several years of labour service for his in-laws. Should he prove unsatisfactory, she could easily divorce and would be welcomed by kin. Women were relatively autonomous, heading their own spheres of knowledge and influence.
Why were these societies relatively gender equal? One commonality is that in the absence of the plough, draft-animals, cereal cultivation, migration from the patrilineal steppe or markets, there was little social stratification, taxation or state formation. The Inca empire relied on labour service (not tribute in goods, unlike the maize-growing Maya and Aztecs). Ancient Egypt likewise had weak markets and little stratification. Reciprocal labour, egalitarianism and female mobility seem to go hand in hand.
However, even if women’s field labour is needed, they may still lack autonomy. Beautiful virgins (acllas) were seized by the Inca – to become sacrifices, consecrated to the gods, concubines, or the secondary wives of provincial headmen. Over in Sub-Saharan Africa, Ashanti, Tiv, Chimbu and Igbo practised FGM, female pawnship, and polygny.
Now let’s go to the Eurasian Divergence.
The Eurasian Divergence
Medieval Europe was patriarchal but possessed several latent advantages: nuclear families (without cousin marriage), participatory assemblies and state institutions. How did these emerge? Here are the facts, to the best of my understanding.
Patrilineal clans emerged in Europe as a result of colonisation by horse-riding steppe peoples.
Frankish empires blended Germanic tribes’ participatory assemblies and Roman state institutions. Both were run by men.
From 300-1300 CE, the Roman Catholic Church and Carolingian Empire tried to stamp out cousin marriage and polygamy. Noble families leveraged incest prohibitions to prevent their rivals from consolidating wealth.
English families were nuclear before the Black Death. Peasants disregarded lineage and rarely exchanged work with extended kin.
There was broad compliance with myriad Church strictures, which cannot be explained by anything but religion. In the 14th Century, English marriages seldom occurred during Lent nor if men had prior relations with her kinswoman (as was proscribed by the Church).
Young men and women often worked in service until they saved enough to establish their own nuclear households.
The age of marriage was thus unusually high in North-Western Europe (mid-twenties), especially when wages were low.
Nuclear household’s vulnerability necessitated married women’s continued employment. Husbands seldom objected. Trusting their wife’s competence, men bequeathed land and family affairs to her control. Couples cooperated, as a conjugal unit.
North-Western European women worked - as dairy farmers, spinners, seamstresses, hawkers, midwives and shop-keepers. In cities like London, Leiden and Paris, where economic opportunities were greater, market women were assertive, self-reliant and street-wise. Where guilds were weak, women gained professional pride in skilled crafts (like seamstresses in Old Regime France).
But women’s work was mostly low-skilled, unorganised and often home-based (like spinning). Before contraception, infant formula, electricity and washing machines, mothers' lives were relentlessly interrupted. 60% of their prime-age years were spent either pregnant or nursing. Screaming toddlers forestalled the pursuit of skilled trades, economic autonomy and broad social networks (beyond other similarly marginalised female kin and neighbours).
Men were far more able to seize new economic opportunities. As Europe transitioned from feudalism to commercialisation (with larger-scale more capital intensive production), men honed their crafts and travelled as merchants. Men consolidated their advantage by establishing guilds that monopolised lucrative ventures and locked women out. Men’s dominance was entrenched by a plethora of fraternal orders - in government, the judiciary, religion, medicine and universities. Vulnerable women, with weaker social capital, struggled to protect themselves from persecution. As competing Catholic and Protestant churches sought to demonstrate their superior power to protect people from witchcraft, they burnt women in their thousands.
95% of writers were men, propagating patriarchal ideals. But from 1600 that started to change, starting with Protestants. Rather than defer to religious authorities (as persists across the Middle East and North Africa), Protestants championed sola scriptura: each man and woman should read and interpret the Bible for themselves. This catalysed rising literacy and gender parity; women increasingly became published authors.
The Enlightenment heralded yet greater transformation: Europe and North America became more scientific, secular and democratic. Inventors, entrepreneurs, and artisans thronged to discuss great discoveries. As peers praised innovation, others eagerly experimented and gained prestige. Taverns and coffee houses became hot-beds of collaborative creativity and political debate. Saloons were surprisingly conducive to patents! Members gained tremendous insider benefits: free-masons amassed knowledge, respectability, and elite patronage. Clubs also went to court to protect members’ reputations, enabling them to take far greater risks in the public sphere.
If you grant that this rich associational sphere catalysed innovations, surely you accept that women were disadvantaged through their forced exclusion? 95% of Enlightenment associations in England were male. Exceptions include London’s bluestocking gatherings and female debating societies, as well as Dutch women’s masonic lodges and scientific societies. But however gifted or determined, their contributions were generally derided. Brilliant women toiled in solitude, while men’s advances were amplified on megaphones.
The Ottoman empire maintained a stronger preference for female seclusion. Honour and commerce within kinship networks was contingent upon eliminating rumours of female impropriety. Clerics and concerned publics repeatedly petitioned the Sultan to crack down on women’s freedoms.
But in some respects the Ottoman Empire was quite similar to Europe and the Americas. Ordinary women worked in textiles: spinning thread and weaving cloth at home. Peasants invariably worked in family fields. Ottoman towns, however, were far more gender segregated. Hawking in busy city streets meant fraternising with non-kin, fuelling gossip, jeopardising a woman’s honour and thwarting her marriage prospects. Only the poorest, most desperate women peddled food in Cairo. Divorced women who supported their children by trading at the market could even lose custody rights. In Lebanon, baptisms only recorded boys’ names - reflecting their patrilineal primacy. Women were also absent from mosques.
Though public life was gender segregated, canny Ottoman women used Islamic courts to advance their autonomy. In 16th Century Turkey, women held independent property rights to urban and rural real estate (houses, shops, mills, orchards, and vineyards), as well as donkeys and goats. They also engaged in credit networks. In Istanbul, wealthy women founded madrasas, libraries, and religious foundations. In Damascus, women leveraged Shariah law to secure maintenance. Peasant and lower class urban Egyptian women pursued their interests in Islamic courts: trading property and pursuing thieves. 19th Century Egyptian elite women invested in businesses and litigated in court, but intermediaries operated on their behalf while they remained secluded. In Iran, imperial wives and concubines schemed to promote their sons. They were by no means passive.
Likewise in colonial India, women worked on family farms, but married early and seldom mixed with outsiders. North Indian towns were especially gender segregated. This maintained jati-endogamy, which was the foundation of trust, commerce and mutual insurance.
In sum, Eurasia underwent an important divergence: endogamy tightened in India, the Middle East and North Africa; East Asia remained exogamous; while Europe became more nuclear, democratic, and scientific.
Colonial Latin America
Spanish conquistadors butchered and enslaved Native Americans. They stole their lands and forced them onto new reservations. European epidemics wiped out entire populations. 56 million people died. Indigenous women were tortured, raped and forced to weave by colonial administrators, landowners, magistrates and clergy. They were unpaid, underfed and beaten. Family violence may have intensified under stress.
But indigenous people fiercely maintained their own traditions. They kept their language, reciprocal labour, religious practices and community-sponsored festivals. Mexican Indian women continued to weave. Andean non-elite permitted pre-marital sex and encouraged trial marriage, deeming it necessary for companionate marriage. Catholic priests were aghast and threatened punishment. Spaniards decried trial marriage as ‘diabolical’. But they were ignored. The adoption of Catholicism ended their previously diverse religious roles. But women continued to work, own, inherit and bequeath property. They also participated in their local religious life and were prominent in protests. In the 1780 indigenous rebellion, women were military strategists, leading armies, organising supplies and defending territory. After the Tupac Ameru Rebellion of 1783, 43% of arrested leaders were women.
Both the indigenous populations prior to European conquest and the European conquerors themselves had relatively low rates of cousin marriage, polygamy, and extended families’ co-residence. There was variation by class and geography, however. Wealthy landowners used endogamy to consolidate property. Elite white girls were cloistered and chaperoned. Mayans were patrilineal and patrilocal, which motivated similarly close surveillance.
For the vast majority of Latin Americans, kinship was weak. In 16th century Mexico, a quarter of households were female-headed. Even higher rates were recorded in early 19th century Sao Paulo. The lower classes often formed informal unions, which broke when men left to exploit export opportunities in the agriculture frontier. Women left behind fended for themselves in home-based textiles and small shops. Men’s honour was still contingent on female chastity. But single women and widows operated independently, especially in towns where they traded in markets. In 1788, female silk spinners in Mexico City organised their own guild. Like Europe, men decided the laws of the land but kinship was relatively weak.
The Death of Matriliny
Africa was late to transition to intensive agriculture and herding, due to poor soils and the tsetse fly. When the Bantu belatedly acquired cattle, they ceased to be matrilineal. The transition to patriliny was often violent. Keen to wrest control of valuable land, communities in India, South-East Asia, and Africa have hunted and killed widows as witches.
Marketisation undermines matrilocality (where a young man is a stranger in his wife’s village, working on their fields, under their authority). Once men gain wages and economic autonomy, they establish their own independent homes. But if growth is low and job queues are long, men may monopolise new opportunities. That’s precisely what happened in Northern Rhodesia. Men left their matrilineal villages to gain employment on the Copperbelt, they lived in nuclear homes. Given the dearth of good jobs, women were now dependent on male breadwinners. No society has ever got rich and stayed matrilocal.
Poverty is no feminist utopia, however. Fertility remains high in places with low returns to schooling and low opportunity costs of child-bearing. Impoverished families cannot heavily invest in all their children. Girls marry early, bear many children, become burdened by care-giving, and struggle to accumulate the capital, knowledge, and networks to challenge dominant men. Child brides are more likely to be abused. Economic desperation exacerbates stress and marital disputes.
Sub-Saharan Africa has low population density and low state penetration. If victims cannot get help, violence continues with impunity. Living in isolated rural communities, growing up in violent homes, never hearing alternative perspectives, women may try to endure what they perceive as inevitable.
Imperialism’s strongest impact on gender was more likely indirect. Western imperialism should be blamed to the extent that it weakened state capacity, catalysed violence, corruption, and authoritarianism.
Job queues were long and men were at the front. Firms preferred to hire, train and promote men. Women were likely to exit upon childbirth and leave early to take care of the kids. Employers would then lose their investment. In Victorian England, many teenage girls desperately wanted to work, to have a little economic autonomy and join the public sphere. Factory work was horrific, but girls still saw it as preferable to the relentless drudgery of care work, which confined them to the home, and provided no rewards. Yet their earnings were so low and the volume of housework so large that their parents didn’t consider it worthwhile. So in areas with low labour demand, girls were often saddled with childcare and scrubbing, while their brothers were out, earning their own money, and being valued as financial contributors.
Due to sex discrimination in the labour marked, women in Victorian England needed to marry to survive and remained dependent on men’s good graces, but men were distinctly unreliable. Rising male wages did not lift all boats. Moreover, they amplified patriarchy, endowing men with pride, status, and authority.
Economic growth in the 20th century eroded gender inequalities. When firms ran out of qualified men, they eagerly recruited women. Seeing growing returns to skilled work, parents reduced fertility and invested in education. Contraception, infant formula, electricity and washing machines were time-saving engines of liberation. As divorces soared in the ‘70s, marriage provided unreliable insurance and so many women ceased to rely on a male breadwinner. Career girls pursued burgeoning opportunities in medicine, business, public administration, and law.
As women thrived in traditionally masculine domains, others ceased to presume them less intelligent. Female friendships laid the foundations for feminist activism and consciousness. By speaking out, emboldening each other, gaining a sense of rightful resistance, and realising broad support for social change, women came to expect and demand better.
These changes occur if female employment rises. Women’s proclivity to move to new economic opportunities is much lower in patrilineal societies, with strong preferences for female chastity. The economic returns to female employment must then be sufficiently high to compensate for the loss of honour.
That’s precisely what happened in East Asia. Rapid growth likewise enabled women to liberate themselves from parental control. Daughters migrated to cities, where they made friends, bemoaned unfair practices, and discovered more egalitarian alternatives. They gained “face” (respect and social standing) by remitting earnings, supporting their families, and showing filial piety just like sons. Pay gaps have narrowed in Taiwan and China, just as they did in the USA and Sweden. Leveraging economic growth and democratisation, Taiwanese women closed gender pay gaps, became politically competitive, and now lead the nation.
Trust in states, markets and the rule of law are also important: enabling broader cooperation (beyond kin) and lessening male bravado.