Appendix E


A Historical Analysis of Women’s Oppression


Extracted from

Labour Pains... coming to grips with sexual equality.  (After 5‑Collective)

Only a While the Mountain Sleeps... the story of woman and a look at the Singapore Girl. (Moa Nam‑Ow, ed.)


People usually assume that biological differences explain the difference in power between male and female. But if we go back in time to the early societies – and don't forget, 99% of human evolution took place in hunting and gathering societies – we find many instances of women enjoying a degree of power and prestige far exceeding what they have in modern societies. Women's work, even apart from child‑bearing, was as highly respected as men's work, and usually as strenuous.



But even if it could be shown that the earliest societies were male‑dominated (for which there is no strong evidence), this provides no basis to claim that women should forever remain subordinate.





If we can show that the unequal relationship between the sexes came about through essentially historical processes rather than being a simple result of biological differences, then we can also show why that relationship can be changed. And how we can use our wills and energies to change it.



For 99% of human history, societies were sustained by the hunting of animals, fishing and gathering other natural sources of food. For much of this period the only significant difference between women's and men's work was that women bore and breastfed children. Because it aided survival, societies tended to develop a specialisation of work to some extent. But there remained a great variety of work done interchangeably by both men and women.





In some societies the men gathered while the women hunted; in others it was the other way around. From the limited evidence available, it would appear that more often than not, women gathered while men hunted.

In ancient Chinese society, for instance, the gatherers were usually women. Evidence can be seen from the Chinese character for 'wife' written as      which in ancient Chinese writing was  or   

This character looked like a person squatting to gather things, and the meaning of the word 'wife' at that time was almost identical to the word, ‘woman’.


Gathering activities in those days would include plucking, picking, knowing where such foodstuff could be found, and learning how and where to store it, all of which was hardly random activity and in fact, demanded a fair amount of skill.








































So, why were women usually the gatherers and men the hunters?

a)                   The fact that women bore and breastfed children till a late stage (before the development of animal rearing which provided a substitute for mother's milk) must have limited their mobility. So, it made sense for the men to hunt, especially big game, which involved long trips away from their settlements.


b)                  Given their primitive weaponry, hunting involved a risk to life. With societies struggling to survive, it would have been important that women as sole reproducers did not specialise in such activities.


c)                   In societies where women were the gatherers, they would have been the ones to 'discover' horticulture and agriculture. So, in the early stages of farming communities, women would have been the main farmers.




The nature of farm work demanded that the farmer remained more or less within the confines of her farm to ensure the safety of her crops. In times when harvest was approaching and in the event of unexpected weather, and simply because there were always so many tasks to do (such as sowing and weeding), some people had to be constantly near the land. If these people were female, it would have meant that they were not as free to go hunting as in the past. Hunting thus became for them an occasional effort rather than a full‑time occupation.




d)                  These factors were often reinforced by the belief that the Earth Spirit was female. Today, we still speak of Mother Earth. So, in most societies, the only ones initially allowed to plant food crops were women. When two persons were involved, one to dig the hole and the other to plant the seed, the one planting had to be female although the one digging could be of either sex.









We must stress that this gradually‑emerging division of labour was not the direct outcome of natural or biological constraints. In fact, there are several recorded cases of societies in which women were the hunters and men the gatherers.

In other societies, people had limited technology and knowledge. This meant that extensive physical mobility was required. In addition, since resources were scarce, women as sole reproducers were prevented from concentrating on activities such as hunting.


Still, both sexes had their collective parts to play. In societies based mainly on gathering, women as the gatherers would have been the main food pro­viders since the meat supplied by male hunters was less in quantity and more unstable in supply. As a result, women had a high status in these societies.





Turn over to see some of the factors contributing to these changes:





Men's hunting expeditions brought them into contact with other tribes and important kinds of knowledge that women did not have access to. What kinds of knowledge these were, we can only guess. Perhaps, it was knowledge related to survival, or knowledge about water sources or the terrain. Perhaps, it was knowledge about weapons and tools, or the locations of enemy tribes. Whatever it was, this access to new knowledge on the part of men made them more powerful and indispensable to the tribe.




With different kinds of labour developing for men and women, the sexes specialised in different technologies. Take, for instance, the area of tools. While hunting weapons were basically designed for attack, farming implements were designed for digging or scraping purposes. Therefore, hunting tools had a greater potential as instruments of aggression. That men held this power in their reach also helps to explain how they could have gained superiority over women.







Furthermore, women's energy was most likely channelled more into tasks requiring persistence such as digging and clearing whereas men's energy tended to be expressed in the form of explosive strength – throwing of spears, fighting off animals, etc. These factors may well have contributed to dif­ferences in physical upbringing.





As food supply increased, so did the need to protect it from marauders. At the same time, rituals became more elaborate to ensure the fertility of the soil. This meant that any infringement of the religious rites could spark off blood feuds, and so warfare became a more frequent occurrence.

Women, as mothers, would often have had babies at their breasts or in their wombs. This made it more difficult for them to fight wars.




Besides, men's role as hunters would have meant that the task of defence or attack came to largely depend on them, thus increasing their social importance. Moreover, their mobility and the knowledge that came with it would have meant that they were in a more likely position to determine who or what was a threat to the tribe. Being invaders of another‑tribe would have added further to their status if they returned with the spoils of war – slaves whom they had captured as well as material wealth.

Lastly, since attack by animals or another tribe was of more immediate concern than the amount of crops gathered or sown, women may have become more secondary despite their responsibility for the crops.




The gradually‑emerging differences in the social roles of the sexes resulted in different psychological attitudes and forms of conditioning. At first, men were not inherently aggressive just as women were not inherently submissive. Later, men as hunters with the responsibility of improving hunting tools and techniques, as protectors of the tribe and its food supply, and as warriors with the responsibility of fighting may have actually become more aggressive.

Further, as the ones whose social role meant that they were more mobile, they could have become more inclined to explore and to be more daring than women.





For women, on the other hand, the various tasks that kept them increasingly around the home/ settlement meant that the skills and knowledge they were developing were, in a sense, more introverted. Even if they had power within the confines of their settlements, they would have increasingly relied on men to interpret for them the realities of the ‘outside world'. This dependency on men for such knowledge probably led to psychological forms of dependency, contributing to their subordination to men.





Perhaps the strongest reinforcement of women's inferior status came with the growth of private property. In many societies, this signalled the end of collective ownership and with it, the matrilineal* clan system. Family, kinship and a host of other social ties were more and more linked to private property.




















The initial emergence of private property often took the form of tools and cattle owned by men. As productivity increased, with the use of animal power and the introduction of bronze tools, economic surplus also increased. In other words, it was increasingly possible to accumulate wealth instead of having to consume everything produced.




There developed social divisions based on those who were able to accumulate the social wealth that was produced and those who produced but were unable to accumulate. And so with the development of private property, different groups of people lost out in the production and redistribution of wealth, especially those who owned no properly for a start.




















As individual men came to own more and more wealth in the form of tools and land, they extended their wealth by also claiming control over their wives, children and slaves, all of whom in effect, became their private property too. For instance, now it became profitable to keep slaves captured in war rather than kill them as was past practice. They could be put to work for their masters.




As wealth accumulated in the hands of certain men, they became more powerful and able to oppose the more democratic and collective structure of clan politics. Private property became the rule, and internal government and armed forces were formed to support the rule of these wealthy owners.


Over time, the male chief found ways to give not only his wealth to his sons but also his authority and power.

To ensure that only their legitimate sons inherited all the wealth, wives came to be more strictly controlled. In the upper classes, women were increasingly domesticated, developing a culture of femininity that generally reinforced their subordinate status. Amongst the slaves who were now doing the productive work, slave women were used for sexual pleasure as well. Women's status was thus increasingly devalued, though the forms in which this happened became increasingly different with the growth of class divisions.




These are some of the possible factors accounting for the evolution of a male‑dominated society many many moons ago. In all societies where there was increasing inequality and various forms of discrimination, the subordination of women became a common feature.


Different factors combined to lead to patriarchy in different societies. The tremendous variety of forms of male domination makes it obvious that no single cause can explain everything.


It is also clear that different factors would have shifted in importance over time – for example, physical force which was once a crucial means of exercising dominance is no longer as important as social and moral codes of behaviour in modern societies such as ours.




We do not know which factors featured prominently, and cannot know for certain now.

At different points of conflict, women must have fought desperately for their declining rights and status. But they lost. To sum up, the origins and bases of patriarchy do not lie solely (as commonly believed) or even primarily in biological factors. It was much more than a question of mere physical strength or women's role as child‑bearers. Social, economic and political factors contributed greatly to the emergence of women's unequal status.


And new ideologies and myths appeared that reinforced this sexual hierarchy.

Patriarchy had become the order of the day!