God Speed the Sexism
December 1, 2010 11:11 AM   Subscribe

In a new paper, Harvard economics Alberto Alesina and Nathan Nunn and UCLA economist Paola Giuliano correlate "societies with a tradition of plough agriculture" with "female labor force participation, female participation in politics, female ownership of firms, the sex ratio and self-expressed attitudes about the role of women in society." In short, if your ancestors used a plough, you're likely to think women belong in the kitchen.
posted by l33tpolicywonk (30 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Sorry: More likely. Don't want to overstate the case.
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 11:14 AM on December 1, 2010

Jared Diamond is famous for calling agriculture "the worst mistake in human history" for this and many other reasons.
posted by mathowie at 11:17 AM on December 1, 2010

Countries with a tradition of invisible jet planes and magic lassos believe women should fight crime.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:18 AM on December 1, 2010 [18 favorites]

Isn't the word "ancestor" just a euphemism for those who used to plough?

as much as we are loath to imagine it
posted by 2bucksplus at 11:26 AM on December 1, 2010

What does spelling it "plough" predict?

With shifting cultivation, which is labor intensive and does not use the plough, women do most of the agricultural work.

Doesn't sound so enlightened when you put it that way.
posted by DU at 11:28 AM on December 1, 2010

I guess it isn't so much the plough per se as the division of labor. If you divide things up for some reason (in this case strength, apparently) then later generations just think of that as How Things Are and tends to stick to it. The real issue isn't agriculture (the plow really is hard to steer, after all) but conservatism, which sticks to Tradition even when it makes no sense.

Also, by not dividing the labor up, the sexes both benefit in labor saving devices, labor regulation, etc, which leads to more equality later.
posted by DU at 11:33 AM on December 1, 2010

Did women tend to be among the first domesticated animals or the last in these societies, I wonder.
posted by jamjam at 11:34 AM on December 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

In short, if your ancestors used a plough, you're likely to think women belong in the kitchen.

Um, right, except modern feminism was born in and has progressed furthest in Western societies that have historically used the plow and in fact continue to do so. So, in short, if your ancestors lived in the West and used a plough, you're likely to be a feminist.
posted by MarshallPoe at 11:48 AM on December 1, 2010 [2 favorites]

Just curious, but "plough societies" as opposed to what other kind of societies?
posted by jabberjaw at 11:54 AM on December 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Hoe societies.
posted by kuujjuarapik at 11:56 AM on December 1, 2010 [6 favorites]

Everybody, his name is spelled Plouffe, and I really don't understand what he has to do with this.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 12:03 PM on December 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

> Isn't the word "ancestor" just a euphemism for those who used to plough?

No. The ancestors may have been hoe agriculturists or pointed-stick diggers. (So you then ask, didn't they go through a plough stage later? Not if they're still using hoes or pointed sticks today. See, largely, sub-Saharan Africa, big parts of south and south-east Asia, Amazonia.)
posted by jfuller at 12:06 PM on December 1, 2010

Just curious, but "plough societies" as opposed to what other kind of societies?

I wonder if the author doesn't just mean "agricultural societies" as opposed to hunter-gatherer societies. Both cereal crops and wet-rice agriculture rely on the plow.
posted by KokuRyu at 12:26 PM on December 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

KokuRyu: "I wonder if the author doesn't just mean "agricultural societies" as opposed to hunter-gatherer societies."

As I understand the correlations in the article, the authors are talking very specifically about how ploughs (because they're so heavy to push) influence a culture's conception of who can "work" and who can't.
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 12:35 PM on December 1, 2010

Also, if your ancestors never had sex, chances are you won't either.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 12:46 PM on December 1, 2010 [2 favorites]

Plow agriculture vs. hoe and shifting agriculture.
It is interesting to note that the evidence suggests that this difference in agricultural technology also leads to a different organization of marriage. In areas with shifting technologies women are an asset for men who pay a price for them. In fact polygamy is common since the first wife welcomes other helpers in the field and at home. In plough intensive cultivation instead the wife’s family pays a dowry to marry their daughter and polygamy is rare (Goody,
1976, Burton and Reitz, 1981).
We find a strong and robust negative relationship between the historic use of the plough and female labor force participation as well as gender role attitudes.
So, if I'm following the researcher's logic correctly, modern females would also be more 'empowered' if their ancestors were polygamous. In hoe cultures, females are valued goods which males seek to amass and in plough cultures, they're kind of a drag.

I really think economists should get out more.
posted by kuujjuarapik at 1:00 PM on December 1, 2010

oops. I broke the blockquote. Those are my words after the word 'attitudes'
posted by kuujjuarapik at 1:02 PM on December 1, 2010

I'm having trouble thinking of a society in which labor is or was not divided in some way among genders.
posted by cmoj at 1:12 PM on December 1, 2010

Aside from plough economies, there are fishing economies, orchard economies, and various kinds of herding economies. I don't think the "descendants" ("ancestor" is a terrible concept in this context) of any of these are less socially/politically/economically restrictive for women. Also, there are wide differences in female participation within these categories. Think: Peru vs. Norway, for instance. In North America, female suffrage began in plough areas of the frontier and this suggests another kind of model.
posted by CCBC at 1:15 PM on December 1, 2010

It's too bad being "in the kitchen" is still such de-valued thing.
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 1:29 PM on December 1, 2010

such *a* devalued thing
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 1:30 PM on December 1, 2010

Ooh, time for my plough joke!

Q: What did the farmer say when he lost his plough?

A: Hey! Where's my plough?!
posted by Meatbomb at 1:32 PM on December 1, 2010 [2 favorites]

Some bits I found interesting:

Sub-Saharan Africa tends to be predominantly plough negative together with New Zealand, Australia, Greenland and most of the Northern European countries. (p. 12)

Thirty two percent of ethnic groups historically had mostly men working in agriculture, 32 percent had equal participation and the remaining 36 percent had mostly female participation. (p. 18)

The OLS estimates show that female immigrants who have an ancestry of historic plough-use have lower rates of female labor force participation within the US. The estimates also show that the estimated effect fades over time for second generation when this is identified by looking at the father country of origin. Further amongst second generation immigrants, the mother country’s historic plough use appears to be a stronger determinant than the father’s. This is consistent with norms about female behavior being most strongly transmitted from the mother to the daughter. (p. 28)

All of this calls to mind the experience of black women in America who did not benefit as much from feminism's effort to get women out of the home and into the workplace because black women were already working outside the home (although we have certainly benefited from the expansion in available opportunities, especially college). I've often read that this was linked to slavery when both men and women worked in the fields, but it seems it went a lot farther back than that.

But this also makes me wonder why slave-owners had so little problem putting black women to work in the fields, since those slave-owners would have had a traditional understanding that women are better suited for domestic labor. There is the possibility that they did not see black women as fully women (more than a possibility, pretty much a guarantee). The rules didn't apply I guess.

In his efforts to wrench as much field labor as possible from slaves of child-bearing age without injuring their reproductive capacity, the master made a "noble admission of female equality," observed Kemble, an abolitionist sympathizer, with bitter irony (p. 14)....In fact, throughout the South, enslaved women formed the bulk of the agricultural labor force (and an estimated 60 to 80 percent of all rice hands). (p. 15) from Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow by Jacqueline Jones
posted by Danila at 1:34 PM on December 1, 2010

I'm having trouble thinking of a society in which labor is or was not divided in some way among genders.

Neolithic Çatalhöyük!
Truly outstanding and especially remarkable is the fact that women, too, received tools as burial objects, just as men did (Mellaart 1967: 209) (Footnote 6). In later class societies, men (of the "middle classes") received burial objects that allowed conclusions as to their profession but women's graves contained only jewellery: rich women were given rich jewellery, poor women poor jewellery. That these women worked just as hard - if not even harder - than men is not reflected in the burial objects. The tools in neolithic women graves illustrate that women were recognized as equals as a matter of course in the production of goods. This, in turn, supports the assumption that in this society the antagonism between production and reproduction was abolished. There are mural paintings in Çatalhöyük that complement and confirm this assumption; they show men dancing with children (Mellaart 1966: pl. LIV, LV, LIX, LXI), a motif that does not occur in class society until the 13th century B.C. and also later only led a shadowy existence. Also, in contrast to Mellaart's statement, not only women were buried with children but men also (Hamilton 1996: 253/1).
However, not only were women buried with tools but also men were buried with jewellery, partially with considerable amounts (Hamilton 1996: 262) (Fussnote 7). Naomi Hamilton who in Hodder's team is responsible for working with the graves and therefore for analyzing gender relations, doubts if the definition of a social gender apart from biological sex is at all helpful in the discussion on Çatalhöyük. She regards the concept of gender as bound to our times and their problems and considers the possibility that neolithic humans did not perceive man and woman as being a polarity (Hamilton 1996: 262). Indeed, already in 1990 Hodder developed the thought that the decisive polarity for neolithic perception may have been of a different nature (Hodder 1990). It is interesting that more recent considerations lead to an analogous assumption concerning the Palaeolithic (Heidefrau 2004). The author, Elke Heidefrau, writes: "Possibly, the discussion on gender ... mainly reveals something about our own culture: a culture in which it seems immensely important to know sex of another person (see the first question asked after the birth of a child). To us, a culture in which this is not the case seems almost unthinkable; therefore, such thoughts could open new horizons to us and thus enrich the current gender discussion!" (Heidefrau 2004: 148; translated). Obviously, at that time the real individuals were at the centre, and when they liked to adorn themselves their jewellery was not taken away from them when they died - regardless of their sex. And it was people who produced, possessed and used tools and therefore also kept them in their graves - again, regardless of their sex.
posted by Abiezer at 1:42 PM on December 1, 2010 [2 favorites]

DU: then later generations just think of that as How Things Are and tends to stick to it.

That reminds me of a story I read many years ago; I don't remember whether it's true or apocryphal, so take it as you will. For what it's worth, I have it tagged in my head as real. I don't know how accurately I'll reproduce this, however.

Seems there was a married couple, and the husband was watching his wife cook. She was doing a ham, and carefully sliced one corner off, before tossing both in the pot. So he asked her, "Why do you do that?"

"Do what?"

"Cut the corner off the ham."

"Hmm. I don't know. That's how my mother taught me. Let me call her." And she did.

"Mom, why do we cut the corner off the ham when we cook it?"

"I don't know, dear. Let me call your mother and ask."

So the mother called the grandmother. "Why do we cut corners off hams before cooking them?"

"Oh, goodness, are you still doing that? When you were growing up, the only pot I had was too small for hams, so I had to cut the corners off to get them to fit."

And, two generations later, the family was still doing that.
posted by Malor at 1:44 PM on December 1, 2010 [5 favorites]

Bugger, missed the passage that is most on point, directly follows bug chunk above:
Men and women performed very similar tasks, as can be deduced from the abrasion of bones. Both sexes stayed in and outside the house equally long and were equally active in the kitchen as in tool production. There are no hints pointing to a gender-related division of labour.
posted by Abiezer at 1:45 PM on December 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

I thought it was desert communities versus forest communities…
posted by klangklangston at 2:00 PM on December 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

That's an old story, Malor, almost certainly apocryphal... I heard it with roast rather than ham (and mentioned it in this thread about religion). It is a damn good example, though, true or not.
posted by vorfeed at 2:21 PM on December 1, 2010

Both of my grandfathers spent time as farmers, at opposite ends of the properity scale, although both as tenants. My maternal grandpa would have been hands on the plough in Missouri in the 1920s, while my paternal grandpa learned how to run steam engines at the same time as bossing muleteams.

They both cooked, and my maternal grandpa was the primary cook in his marriage.

As am I.

I say, keep men in the kitchen where we belong!
posted by mwhybark at 6:11 PM on December 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Well, another anecdote that I know is true:

Seems some researchers a couple years ago did some experimentation on either chimp or monkey social behavior. I'll use 'monkey' here, but it could have been chimps.

What the researchers did was this: they hung some bananas somewhat out of reach, and then put some steps under the bananas. Monkeys, being smart creatures, realized that standing on the steps would bring the bananas in reach, but the instant anything touched the steps, the entire cage would be sprayed down with cold water, a rather unpleasant experience. So the monkeys very rapidly realized that they didn't dare touch the steps.

So, the researchers removed one monkey and substituted a new one. Of course, New Monkey immediately headed for the bananas, and the entire rest of the troupe immediately set on him and beat the hell out of him, to keep from getting soaked. He got the point.

So then they swapped in another monkey, and the same exact thing happened. The new monkey enthusiastically jumped into the beating, even though he had no idea why they were doing it. Monkey #2 got the hint, too.

So they kept swapping in new monkeys, until gradually, not one monkey left in the cage had ever been sprayed with water. Yet, every time a newcomer tried for the bananas, every monkey in the cage would beat the living shit out of him.

Not one monkey, in other words, had any idea what the tradition was for, but they savagely enforced it. "That's just the way things are around here, son."
posted by Malor at 7:29 PM on December 1, 2010 [2 favorites]

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