From Our Forebears

If you write historical fiction, this sort of stuff is great to encounter. It gets you thinking. How our world continues to evolve:

Screen capture of the Guardian.
Screen capture of the Guardian.

Objectively, that’s essentially true: our norms are “male.” However, it is also true that such is due to our social heritage. It hasn’t come about in an historical vacuum.

It is easy to forget how, until only very recently, physical prowess secured safety in our communities. (Relatedly, I’ve written on how travel was even inherently dangerous two centuries ago in a way it is not today.) Men, far more than women, possessed physical strength, so men came overwhelmingly to dominate the social order and what we now term “politics.” In it, force is unfortunately often necessary in order to impose law.

That meant men bore the arms – swords, clubs, etc., – which required a physical strength most women lacked. That reality, coupled with the fact women gave birth, directed women primarily into the roles of maintaining domesticity and rearing children. “We rule the world and our wives rule us,” quipped Ancient Rome’s orator and politician, Cicero.

And so it has been most everywhere – and is still in many places – until the last century.

The emergence of industrialization in the late 1700s continues to transform our world even as we sit here. Not only is the physical prowess of earlier generations no longer generally required in daily life. (A recent study notes “millennial” young men today are physically weaker than their fathers were.) Advances in weaponry mean any woman holding an automatic weapon, or piloting a jet aircraft, is plainly the equal to any man holding a similar weapon, or piloting a jet aircraft.

The vote for women came about intermixed with growing industrialization. As a result women now equally engage in politics and in maintaining the state. Women police officers and women soldiers are now common: after all any woman with a gun can easily equally kill any man holding a gun…or waving a sword.

By coincidence, before I saw that Guardian piece yesterday, I had been writing a debate between two male characters. Back in their “1794,” they had drifted into discussing women in the world and especially in the French Revolution:

Sneak Peek into  "Conventions." Click to expand.
Sneak Peek into “Conventions.” Click to expand.

Before industrialization, women were generally considered a “trophy” of victory in wars conducted by men. When a town was taken by an attacking army (usually of men), any men still living (and above puberty) were usually slaughtered or enslaved at hard labor. However, marriageable women (defined pre-industrially as post-pubescent) were usually carried off by the (male) victors (while non-child bearing age women were generally simply enslaved). In short, child-bearing age women weren’t usually massacred equally alongside defeated men.

The French Revolution saw the start of modern politics not only in ways in which we often point to in history classes – end of absolute monarchy in France, greater equality, the rights of “man,” etc., – but also in this even more fundamental sense: women too were killed en masse over politics. Often they were killed merely for being deemed “aristocratic” (which may well have meant they simply questioned the Revolution), or simply for being something that the new rulers (all men) had determined was anti-revolutionary.

That child-bearing age women were regularly guillotined, or shot, or drowned, during the French Revolution was the start of a social change that was, in itself, also profoundly revolutionary. However, while industrialization spread in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries we still saw an overlap between the “old” and the “new”: men mostly still bore the arms, while women usually stayed at home. In World War I, most killed were still men; women suffered behind the lines at home. But during World War II not only were women of all ages equally murdered in the Holocaust, but being a woman “behind the front lines” meant nothing as an enemy dropped death from the air on cities below.

Birth control for women – the contraceptive pill particularly – stems from industrialization as well. But biology still dictates women do have the children, which naturally creates “gray areas” in which references to previously millenia-understood distinctions of “men’s role” as opposed to what used to be known as “woman’s work” can lead to an uproar. Proof enough of that is when a BBC reporter, interviewing a British Olympic gold medalist celebrating cycling couple, walked into a social media buzzsaw when – ineptly or just thoughtlessly – he joked, “Sheโ€™s [Trott] doing all the emotion for him โ€“ heโ€™s [Kenny] looking at her wondering what’s for tea!” (“Tea” in that British context means “dinner”.)

An evening in alone: I watched "Mad Men" and made myself dinner. [Photo by me, 2016.]
An evening in alone: I watched “Mad Men” and made myself dinner. [Photo by me, 2016.]

Pre-industrial men did not “hate” women. Mostly they were not motived by a determination to enforce “gender distinctions” just for the sake of it. They were what was handed down to them; women were too: they all inhabited an often hard and unforgiving world in which brute force mattered much more than now. What we label “gender roles” today are rooted largely in that thousands of years of pre-industrial reality.

We are no more immune from history than anyone before us. There is always some lag and overlap. Our social language and outlooks are now at times chaotically and awkwardly struggling to catch up with what is a truly stunning social transformation which the amazing technological advances of the last two centuries have made possible.

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Author: โ€œConventions: The Garden At Paris,โ€ โ€œPassports,โ€ โ€œFrontiers,โ€ and โ€œDistances.โ€ British Airways frequent flier. Lover of the Catskill Mountains...and the 1700s. New novel of 1797-1805, "Tomorrow The Grace," due out in 2019.