I would like to sidestep the debate that has been raging on this blog about whether people should raise their children to be gender aschematic, and instead I would like to examine a much older debate. Is our gender stratified society an expression of our biological natures, or alternatively, is the society we encounter each day entirely of our own social making? In other words, is biology destiny?
Early civilizations were gendered, which is to say that in hunter-gatherer societies men and women had very different roles. Some have argued that these distinct roles may have been based on, say, the innate ability of women to produce breast milk. Here, society is created by the reality of our biology. Others emphasize that the structure of society is not dependent on biology and is instead the result of human doings. Whatever biology's "instructions" might be for society, humans find ways of doing what they want. Society, by this logic, is not something given but is instead something formed from a struggle of values and ideas. In fact, this fight of values and ideas continues today on this blog with some bloggers arguing that children should be raised in a gender aschematic environment.
The argument that role specialization is based on biology is a bit out of the ordinary for me because it so sharply contradicts arguments posed by social constructivists. It encourages us to believe that the stratified society we see today is not one of human design but is instead biologically innate, and that position is not one I’m prepared to easily accept. Still the logic is difficult to dispute. If women are the ones who are biologically equipped to bear and breast feed children, which is a task their male counterparts can’t physically do, it makes some sense that the women of earlier societies stayed close to camp so they could feed and rear future generations. While it seems irrefutable that modern society has moved past any practical need to separate men and women, the argument that role specialization has its origins with biology makes some sense.
In a piece about human sex differences, evolutionary psychologist Doreen Kimura claims that “[a] more rational view is that cultural norms arose in conjunction with, and in support of, biological imperatives.” She marshals evidence which suggests that sex differences (i.e., biological) are expressed in gendered norms and practices (i.e., culture). Role specialization, by this logic, is born from innate biological characterists. Not only is it important that only women produce breast milk, but Kimura extends the argument by suggesting that there also exist innate differences in cognition and hormones as well.
Following Kimura, perhaps we can think of gender and its attendant role specialization as something that was created for practical reasons in hunter-gatherer societies, but now, long after it has ceased being practical, it remains with us and has become a basis for inequality.
As I mentioned above, role specialization has been around longer than written history, but so too have people who have fought against role specialization—feminist sociologists, parents who want gender aschematic children, and me, to name only a few. New evidence has emerged to suggest that some women who lived in hunter-gatherer societies 10,000 years ago also fought against the inequality derived from role-specialization.
According to a theory born out of Iowa (here), not only did role specialization begin in hunter-gatherer societies, but opposition to role specialization also has its roots in such societies. This opposition materialized in the form of an attachment to a spear that made weapons easier for women to throw, thereby allowing them to do more of what was considered men’s work.
The theory asserts that the atlatl, which is a stick attached to a spear, was not just an assist to those throwing spears in war or hunting, but it was also an equalizer. The spear itself was a man’s weapon because it required sheer upper body strength to throw and use as a weapon against members of other tribes or large animals. The atlatl made it easier for women to use the spear as a weapon, so it stands to reason that it may have been invented for women either to assist in the hunting activities, or to engage in warfare with other tribes.
Although this type of prehistoric opposition isn’t a mirror-image of today’s opposition, which comes in the form of parents attempting to raise a child in a gender aschematic environment, it does show that resistance to role specialization and gender-based inequality has been around for a long time.
So is biology destiny? My conclusion is, no. Role specialization between men and women may have coincided with biological attributes, but technologies such as the atlatl have long since allowed us to transcend biology. It is not at all clear that that our stratified society was inevitable, and even if it was, it certainly isn’t inevitabile today.
The Class Blog Project, or CBP, is a blog featuring undergraduate students forming a critical dialogue with each other around ideas related to the sociology of gender.