As you can guess, the French press has been abuzz with the … ahem... legal troubles of our former president-to-be. The … re-ahem... difficulties of Dominique Strauss-Kahn may turn out to have the same historical impact as the rape of Lucretia – that did not change the fact that some pan-Mediterranean Empire would eventually emerge, but it did make sure its language would not be Etruscan or Punic. DSK’s tribulations have, however, a more immediate interest, as they highlight what may be of particular importance as we slide down Hubbert’s curve: the troubled relationship between gender and power.
We, as a civilization, have decided that genetic differences were irrelevant to politics. It is a decision I support, both because it is the decent thing to do and because it is grounded in facts. As a species we are very homogeneous – dangerously so, in fact. There is less genetic diversity in the whole human race than in a single band of chimpanzees. Besides, the diversity that matters (the high prevalence of iron overload among Bretons, for instance) is generally invisible.
The problem is that our species is also sexually dimorphic. There are obvious biological differences, not as big as among sea elephants, mind you, not even as big as among robins, but still significant, and some of them are behavioral. Most men are physically stronger, more aggressive and technically-minded, more concerned by the big picture rather than by details, and tend to compete more fiercely for resources – basically, those traits which make one an efficient predator. Most women are physically hardier, less aggressive, more socially minded, more concerned by details rather than by the big picture, and tend to compete for attention – basically those traits which makes one a good steward. The key word, of course, is most. Human sexual dimorphism is a continuum and there definitely are strong, aggressive women competing for resources – think Margaret Thatcher – and weak, passive men competing for attention, such as, well, myself before I realized it was a bad idea. Besides, cultural expectations play a role too – the West has, for instance, a strong tradition of female empowerment, even if the actual status of women has varied with historical circumstances.
Those biological, hardwired differences point to an ancient division of labor, probably dating back to the beginning of our history as a species. Basically, men did the dangerous jobs such as hunting or spearing off predators, and competed for leadership; while women cared for children, gathered roots and fruit, and competed for the attention of the top hunters.
It probably was adaptive then. It is not necessarily so today, but we have to deal with the hard-wiring we have got.
After the discovery of agriculture, societies became more complex and hunters turned into warriors. Warfare was and is still a man’s job, because men are stronger physically but also because they are expendable. In a world where the ruler is first and foremost a war leader, politics and warfare were bound to become inextricably linked; women and the activities they had specialized for were removed from the sphere of power.
As with everything human, there have been many variations on this theme and many exceptions. There have been female warriors: Joan of Arc, for instance, or Hua Mulan. There have been all-female armies, generally expensive status symbols, but not always – the Dahomey amazons, for instance, did fight, with some success, the French colonial army. There were female rulers, mostly but not only in the West: Athaliah of Judah, Irene and Theodora of Byzantium, Seondeok of Silla, Zenobia of Palmyra, Wak Chanil Ajaw in the Maya kingdom of Naranio, Suiko of Japan, Wu Zetian of Tang China, and Maria Theresa of Austria, to list only a few.
These definitely have been a minority, however, even if their social background has been more diverse than that of their male counterparts. Catherine I of Russia, for instance, was an illiterate farmer’s daughter and Theodora of Byzantium a bear trainer’s.
Women’s suffrage was not unknown to medieval and early modern civilization either. In medieval Europe, voting for city and town assemblies and meetings was open to the heads of households, who could be women.
The advent of industrial civilization changed the rules of the game. First, it was detrimental to women. The replacement of the textile cottage industry which thrived in early-nineteenth-century England by huge cloth factories basically downgraded a whole class of professional woman to the rank of mere cogs. The displacement of the nobility, which began with the French Revolution, also lowered the status of women, or at least that of a significant subset of them. Even though they were socially subordinate, noble women had an important cultural role in XVIIth- and XVIIIth-century France. Many of them ran salons frequented by renowned philosophers and some became authors themselves, Madame de La Fayette for instance. One only has to compare, say, the world of La Princesse de Clèves and that of Balzac’s Human Comedy to see how fast the status of women plummeted after the French Revolution gutted the old aristocratic order.
Yet at the same time, the ideas of the French Revolution could be applied to the situation of women. In 1791, Olympe de Gouges published the Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen, which stated:
All citizens including women are equally admissible to all public dignities, offices and employments, according to their capacity, and with no other distinction than that of their virtues and talents.
De Gouges, who had written "Women have the right to mount the scaffold, they must also have the right to mount the speaker’s rostrum," was not very popular among the Jacobins and was beheaded in 1793. Her ideas had only a limited impact upon the French left – with the exception of the far left, which briefly imposed universal suffrage during the Commune of Paris. In fact, it was the moderate left which resisted women’s suffrage the longest, mostly because it feared the Church’s supposed influence upon them.
Her British counterpart Mary Wollstonecraft was sensible enough to flee the Jacobin madness in time and her A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, albeit more conservative, had a central place in the English debate about the French Revolution. Mary Wollstonecraft was not a feminist in the modern sense of the word – she considered men to be superior to women – however, she believed that women had to be educated to fulfill their role in society.
She was at the origin of a long tradition of activism focused upon the political and civil equality of women. The members of this tradition were not necessarily what we would call left-wing today. While Margaret Fuller, whose seminal Woman in the Nineteenth Century is considered the first major American feminist work, was an abolitionist, Frances Willard, who was instrumental in the passage of the nineteenth amendment, came from conservative Christianity, and wrote in 1890: “… nor is it fair that a plantation Negro, who can neither read nor write, whose ideas are bounded by the fence of his own field and the price of his own mule, should be entrusted with the ballot.”
Gradually, nearly all Western countries granted voting rights to women during the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth century – France was, by the way, particularly late and waited until 1944. Full civil equality – especially in family matters – came later, but by the mid-seventies women had, legally speaking, reached full equality nearly everywhere in the West.
This was made greatly easier by the rise of the industrial society and the glut of essentially free energy which coal and then oil provided. This enabled our societies to generate considerable surpluses, which, in turn, enabled them to create a wealth of mid-level administrative or commercial jobs that earlier cultures simply could not afford. Besides, in an era of essentially free energy, manpower – especially skilled manpower – was a limiting factor and keeping half of one’s population out of the workforce was every bit as maladaptive as sending one’s womenfolk out onto the battlefield was in preindustrial societies.
This helped destroy the domestic economy and made women both more independent – they no longer need a husband to support them – and more vulnerable: as families became more prone to break up, the number of impoverished single moms exploded.
Feminism, which had essentially won all its battles, took an unexpected turn after the fifties. After Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, it began to claim there were no real differences between the two sexes and that those which were observed in the real world were due to social conditioning. To quote de Beauvoir, "One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman". This led to the idea of patriarchy, which quickly became to feminism what capitalism is to the far left: an ill-defined but all-encompassing notion which basically includes everything a given author doesn’t like and which can become a convenient tool to disqualify the struggles he or she is not interested in.
This has had far-reaching political and social consequences, however. According to this logic, if both sexes are identical, then the fact that they tend to choose different career paths must be due to the influence of "patriarchy", an influence which must be overcome through the force of law if necessary. Thus in France, women must represent 50% of the candidates fielded in party-list elections, which of course hasn’t changed the fact that women, as a group, don’t go into politics, but makes life far easier for those few who do and far harder for small parties, who struggle to find the required women. By the same logic, campaigns are regularly run to encourage women to choose such or such a relatively high status career path where they are few in number, to enter politics or sport or to become more "visible" in executive functions. This results in faster career advancement for those few who do, but subtly brands the others as failures. At the same time, measures which would profit women, such as the maternal salary, are staunchly resisted because it would mean giving official recognition, and therefore some prestige, to traditionally feminine activities and would imply that the way of the mother and of the housewife is as valid a choice as the way of the CEO (or more probably the cashier).
By choosing to push women into traditionally masculine domains rather than promoting traditionally feminine activities and fighting for giving them a higher status, feminists made a mistake which will prevent women from ever reaching full equality. Indeed, by decreeing that a woman’s success should be measured by the same – masculine – criteria as a man’s, they turned women not into another kind of human, but into another kind of man. This, of course, amounts to submitting to the patriarchal values they claim to despise and leads many of them to focus on the career problems of the top ten percent of the population rather than on the livelihood problems of the bottom ninety – not an uncommon occurrence in today's left, by the way.
While this evolution does not bode well for working class women, it does not lead to a non-viable society. Evolution, after all, means change concept and while our Paleolithic hard-wiring is likely to get in the way for quite a long time, it could eventually be bypassed or even rewired through cultural conditioning: the West has, after all, been quite successful at imposing monogamy even though our species seems to be naturally polygynic.
The problem is that we don't have that kind of time.
As our civilization begins to slide down Hubbert's curve, a number of things are bound to happen, all of them detrimental to the status of women.
First, as I have already said, the middle class and a sizable fraction of the working class will disappear. There will be no place in the de-industrial future for a plethora of commercial or administrative jobs. While future societies will probably have teachers – in notably reduced numbers – they certainly won't have any human resource managers, marketing executives, or cashiers: the resources to support them simply won't be there anymore. A large part of the industrial or agricultural sector will be absorbed back into the domestic economy, a domestic economy which is very likely to become once again a woman's realm.
Second, war will become again central in politics. We may not like it, but in a world of dwindling resources organized violence may become the only way for a society to ensure its survival. As long as the economy is growing, it is more adaptive to compete economically than militarily – at least against somebody who could put up a decent fight. This will no longer be true in the post-peak world, where the advantage will go to those who can seize and keep scarce resources, through force if necessary. This is likely to induce a shift in the balance of power toward the military... until the military is all that remains of the government. And as we know, warfare, especially low-energy warfare, is a man's job.
Third, contraception and safe abortion will become things of the past. By enabling women to control their own fecundity, they gave them considerable freedom and enabled them to pursue careers which would otherwise have been considerably hindered by pregnancies. Of course, birth control will still be available to post-peak societies, but it will be done through far cruder means – unsafe abortions, infanticide, strictly enforced monogamy associated with the removal of excess population through war or exile into a monastery – and none of those methods are particularly empowering for women. Besides, in a world without retirement, the only way to be sure you won't starve in old age is to have a lot of children, most of whom will die in infancy. For women, the choice between having a family and having a career will become an existential one.
Finally, societies will become simpler, sometimes greatly so, and organic solidarities tied to family, clan, or neighborhood will progressively replace the welfare state. While this won't necessarily eliminate divorce – several past civilizations had it – it will make it far less appealing from a woman's point of view, as it would mean breaking up with a vital network of relatives and endangering equally vital inter-family solidarities. Unless some kind of mother-centered family structure evolves, always a possibility, the social pressure against divorce is likely to become stronger and stronger as industrial society unravels.
This need not necessarily result in a lower status for women, even if that outcome is a distinct possibility. One fifth of all Scythian warriors’ graves were women's – a minority, but hardly a freak occurrence – and we are likely to see their equivalent during the twilight years of our civilization, including a few warladies right out of a Miyazaki anime. We may also have high priestesses, and not only if some variation of Wicca becomes dominant – a few Islamic traditions have female imams.
This will concern only a small minority, however. Post-industrial societies won't have the resources to support a large upper or middle class of any gender. For a very long time most women will work in the domestic economy. Their status relative to their male counterparts will be heavily dependent upon the prestige their specific contribution to the domestic economy has. It will matter little to a farmer's daughter in Bocéliande country two centuries from now that the castle of Pontivy or Dinan is held by a woman if her daily work is looked down upon. What will matter is whether she is respected within her community and can make her own decisions under the strict constraints of her time. Unfortunately, late-twentieth-century feminism, with its constant valorizing of masculine traditional role and values, did not exactly pave the way for this outcome.
As for DSK... well. Support for his candidacy collapsed nearly overnight, with only a few public figures speaking for him – a leading feminist among them, by the way. The leading socialist candidate is now François “regular guy” Hollande, whose motto is “I am a normal candidate”. Everybody hopes he will indeed be one.
What do you think? Leave a comment below.
Sign up for regular Resilience bulletins direct to your email.