Friday, August 6, 2010

The Historical roots of Western Sexism

I was presenting heraldry at a girls school recently, and they asked me why it was so sexist? Why the Cadency (symbol for which son you are in the family), was only for sons? I jokingly responded, “Well it is mainly a French system, so perhaps we should blame the French?”

This immediately brought up the question, “So do other places do it less sexist-ly (sic)?”

The interesting thing is that other places do. The further north you go in Europe, the more liberal the heraldry laws, and indeed the inheritance laws become. In fact not only did England and Sweden and the Netherlands have Queens in their own right –something unimaginable in southern Europe – but Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway and Sweden have even changed their monarchy’s to have the oldest child inherit regardless of sex!

I shot a slightly apologetic glance at the teacher, and suggested they could have, “the polite version, or the politically incorrect version?” The teacher said, “What’s the polite version?” To which I could point out that the Northern European states had a greater tendency towards traditional Germanic legal practices, which prized women’s roles more highly, whereas the Southern European states reverted to Roman law which was far more sexist. The teacher then glanced at the clearly fascinated class, and amusedly asked for the politically incorrect version. To which the obvious answer is that the North is Protestant, and the South is Catholic.

Guess what sort of private girl’s school I was at?

The point is interesting. It could be suggested that the South is more sexist because it is more Roman Catholic. It could be suggested the South is more sexist because it is more Roman in Law. It could be suggested that the South is more Roman Catholic because it is more Roman Law. It could be suggested that the Roman Catholic Church is more sexist because of Roman Law. Or it cold be suggested that both Roman Law and Roman Catholisism are more prevalent in the South because of other issues, such as a warmer climate?

This last is fascinating. Climate clearly has an impressive effect on human civilization. All the great Ancient civilisations developed in nice warm river valleys in the Middle East or China, spreading along the nice warm coast of the Mediterannean. This is of course, because living in a nice climate that does not require much in the way of clothing or other resources to survive, leaving a lot of spare time for developing a culture, compared to those poor bastards who are stuck in snow four months of the year and spend most of the rest of the year trying to accumulate enough food, clothing, firewood and shelter to make it through.

We know this from the Australian Aboriginal experience. Tribes in the nice warm Northern Territories needed perhaps four hours of labour per day to gather enough food and other resources to be happy and healthy. That leaves a lot of time for culture, painting, corroberees, walkabouts, and dreamtimes. As a result we have extensive records of Aboriginal culture in the North. However Australian Aborigines in Tasmania, where it is cold and miserable most of the year, needed to spend up to fourteen hours per day collecting the necessities for survival. That doesn’t leave much time for culture, and unsurprisingly there are very few records of their having much culture. This is subsistence living at the edges, and it is not suprising that the Tasmanian tribes died out very quickly when hit by Eurasian diseases. (Willingness by Aboriginal males to swap a fertile female for a hunting dog probably didn’t help long term either. Jared Diamond talks in Collapse about the vanishing of certain Arctic tribes probably being more related to the women swapping to a new camp to be with better providers too, an early version of feminism voting with it’s feet perhaps?)

So perhaps it could be argued that nice warm climates where life is easy encourage sexism, and colder climates where life is harder can’t afford such silly luxuries? Certainly the least sexist Western societies were Germanic tribes like the Vikings, where a woman could demand a divorce, and a property split, at her convenience. Perhaps there is a relationship between working hard to survive, and lack of sexism? (Or perhaps it is baised towards societies where the men are away lots, and the women run things… Like Dark Ages Vikings, or early Medieval Crusaders.)

This also flags the point of laziness. The early civilisations to get off the ground did not keep their technological edge for long. The cold Northern European or Chinese areas may have taken a lot longer to get off the ground, but then they shot well ahead in technology, leaving the Southern areas far, far behind. The Northerners knew the value of labour saving devices to survive, and so became mass investors in Windmills and Water Wheels while the warm Mediterranean states stuck to the old methods. No surprise that the Ancient (China), Medieval and Modern (Europe only), industrial revolutions were a thing of the North. There could be a very good reason why the Germanic system is far less sexist than the Roman or Greek ones?

Mind you, that brings up the issue of the Orthodox Christians. They are more sexist than the Protestants, but have a wider range of perspectives than the Roman Catholics. Is it that some are Mediterranean, and some from the colder areas of the Balkans and Russia? Is it that some are from traditional farming communities, and some from Nomadic tribes - which have always treated women as lesser people? Do the northern and western farming communities of the Balkans and Russia have a more or less sexist approach than the southern and eastern mountain peoples and Cossacks? (There is no question that the Muslim areas are more sexist. I often comment to students that the Roman period had such good army surgeons that the Roman period is the only time in Western history that men have lived longer than women. I have to say Western history, because women have never lived as long as men in any Muslim society.) Certainly both the Byzantine (Medieval) and Russian (Early Modern) empires had female rulers in their own rights, which was not possible in contemporary Greece or Poland.

What other impacts can have an effect on sexism?

What legal affects for instance?

Australia has a much boasted ‘Harvester Judgement’ from the 1920’s which the Australian Union movement claims improved the standards of the working class immeasurably. What it did was to make a ‘one wage family’ a legislated possibility. Hurray! Who do you suppose got the one wage? Who do you suppose got to be barefoot and pregnant? Whose education standards were reduced because they would never need to work? Whose access to higher study was undermined because they would never need to study serious stuff, just go to University to fill in time until they were married? (No don’t laugh, I was accidentally awarded a pass BA instead of an Honours for my first degree. Of 140 graduates there were only 22 pass degrees… me and 21 Greek girls!)

What cultural effects for instance?

One of the side effects of the Russian Revolution was the legalisation of abortion. (This was a very short term ‘reform’ because within three years it was so clear that the effect on the birthrate was astonishingly disastrous, that it was re-criminalised.) Or we could take an example from the French Revolution where ‘no-fault’ divorce allowed women to leave just by claiming what we would call ‘un-reconcilable differences’. (Again short lived, because Napoleon threw it out.) Both these cultural impacts had drastic short term effects on sexism that seem promising from the modern perspective. (Though both might have led quickly to a counter-swing that actually left women worse off in the long term).

What about cultural affects that actually lasted?

Napoleon didn’t renounce the other Revolutionary social reform of ‘equal inheritance’ of all children. This replaced Primogeniture (eldest son inherits), which admittedly looks old fashioned to modern eyes until one realizes that before primogeniture even healthy kingdoms like Charlemagne’s vast empire had to be split between various sons, who then split it between their sons, etc. Various scholars have pointed out that the effects of equal inheritance on monarchical states (the vast majority of states in all human history), is devolution, insecurity, violence, chaos, poverty, disease and death. In economic terms – whether Kings or other landholders – primogeniture is the only proven way to improve the health and wealth of the culture.

So when Prof McPhee mentioned in a recent lecture that ‘equal inheritance’ was a positive result of the French Revolution, I immediately queried whether that had entrenched rural poverty and steadily reduced the size and viability of farms. He explained that the French had very quickly adapted to agreements whereby although one child would ‘own’ the farm, all the children were entitled to a share of it’s produce. (Which apparently means that farms never fall below subsistence, but that families can rarely increase their holdings or improve their lot. It certainly explains to me why British Tommies marching through France in World War One were astonished at how backwards and poverty stricken French farms appeared. I suspect that only a combination of urbanization and falling population have really improved that since.)

Which brings us neatly to Prof McPhee’s point about the real French coping strategy. Birthrates dropped, immediately.
Now the interesting thing about that is that clearly a dropping birthrate is usually an indication of improving education and opportunities for women. So perhaps it was just a result of the Revolution anyway. On the other hand the birthrate has remained lower than most of Europe even after other nations got into mass education, so maybe it is to do with this unique approach to inheritance. However the long-term implications of a reduced birthrate have led to a steady decrease in France’s influence in European affairs (starting with unprecedented defeats by just one other European nation – rather than a coalition as in previous wars - in 1870, 1914, 1940, etc.); and a comparative fall in standards of living compared to some other European countries – particularly Scandinavia, the Low Countries and Germany.

So what are the possible effects on the status of French women, and on sexism towards them? France is a partly northern European, partly Mediterranean culture. It is now largely Catholic not Protestant. It is certainly more Roman in law than Germanic – despite the ‘Franks’ being originally a Germanic tribe. It has legislated rights for women going back to the 1790’s (though noticeably it was considered shocking when De Gaulle autocratically decided French women would be allowed to vote after the Second World War). It is wealthy and well educated, and has a low birth-rate. On the other hand it has made up for its low birthrate by importing many North-African’s, who are mainly Muslim. So we see a debate on whether women should be allowed to wear the Hijab for cultural or religious reasons, when it is clearly a sexist statement culturally, and a political statement in a decidedly separated church/state environment.

The answer appears to be that well educated white French women have lots of rights, but poorly educated dark-skinned French women have far less. Is this a political, legal, religious, historical, cultural, ethnic, or climate based division? Or is it a combination of all of the above?

The correct answer in any circumstance is of course: select which apply for any time or place.

Sexism can be affected by technology, famine and food supply, as easily as by culture, war and persecution. Legislation plays an unpredictable part, and often has unexpected consequences. The interesting thing about western sexism, is that there is enough cultural variety, technological development, and economic change, to see what variables can be brought into play.

Now it will be interesting to see how pushing some of those variables into other cultures affects their attitude to sexism. Watching some northern Afghan women in business suits in parliament while some southern ones still face public stoning for being seen without adequate covering, is decidedly interesting. Did Suttee die out because of British enforcement, or as a result of European example, or just because of improving economic conditions? Or is it still desired by large elements and likely to raise its ugly head again if the more extreme end of Hindu nationalism gains more ground?

What does the varied reasons for sexism tell us about the human condition?

Can we get better?

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