Why Men Dominate Women
by Marvin Harris
Nov. 13, 1977
Credit... The New York Times Archives
tags: overpopulation, supremacy, sex roles
Marvin Harris, a Columbia University anthropologist, was the author of “Cannibals and Kings”, among other books.
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(Leadership of Women? 2018, circa late 1977)
There is not a single country in the world today whose top political position is held by a woman. (Situation late 2020 is different.) Although, during the last decade (see rise of feminist movement), women have entered fields previously barred to them, men still monopolize the key positions in government, industry and military institutions. The questions remain: Are there innate biological barriers that prevent women from attaining equal power? Or, is there something built into the human male that makes it more natural for him to command females than for females to command him? To answer, one must know why male supremacism has been so well‐nigh universal.
Feminists actually tend to underestimate male supremacism. They are afraid, for one thing, that, (since) it has been in continuous existence throughout virtually the entire globe from the earliest times to the present, then perhaps it really is natural for men to dominate women? Some radical feminists conclude that their (activit)ies are at fault and that women will not achieve parity unless they cease to bear children. True liberation, according to (((Shulamith Firestone))), for example, will come only when babies are manufactured in bottles. (By bionic superfemales, perhaps?)
In all their eagerness to disprove the universality of male dominance, several feminists have attempted to resurrect semi-mystical theories about a golden age of “matriarchy” when women reigned supreme over men. Yet nothing justifies the exhumation of this 19th‐century corpse. Not a shred of evidence, historical or contemporary, supports the existence of a single society in which women controlled the political and economic lives of men. (au contraire, see Most Influential Hoax of all Time
Other feminists have recently (1977) insisted that the reported high incidence of male supremacist institutions is an illusion created by the sexist minds of male anthropologists. But this idea is based on a lack of understanding of the real prejudice that does exist among anthropological fieldworkers, male or female. They suffer from the temptation to claim that they have lived among groups whose customs are not to be found anywhere else. Far from wanting to overlook it, most of my male colleagues would jump at the opportunity to write journal articles, for example, about domineering matrons, or harems of male concubines. Knowing this about the state of the art, I find it impossible to believe that the widely reported cultural biases against women are mere motes in the eyes of male fieldworkers.
Many feminists argue that the sexes were equal when people lived in villages or small mobile groups called bands, prior to the development of the state. It is true that anthropological studies of contemporary band and village peoples do not always indicate the presence of strong male‐supremacist institutions. But most of this anthropological fieldwork was carried out after (indigene) warfare was suppressed by colonial authorities and thus may lead to false inferences.
From the analysis of large representative samples of all the human societies studied by anthropologists, I (Harris) find overwhelming evidence that males control females in most domains of social life. For example, in 75 percent of these societies, the bride must move from her own family to that of her husband's, while the opposite pattern prevails in only 10 percent of the (societies') marriages. This shift in residence immediately places the bride at a disadvantage; it is she who must adapt to life in a strange household often far from supportive parents and siblings.
Lines tracing family ancestry show the same asymmetry. Children are linked with their ancestors exclusively through males at least five times more often than they are linked exclusively through females. But even in cultures where descent is in the maternal line, married children remain with their mothers in only about a third of the cases. In another third, male children stop living with their mother and take residence in their mother's brother's household, bringing their wives with them. This pattern implies that it is the mother's brother who controls the domestic scene even though descent is in the female line. Remarkably, not a single case of the opposite of this pattern— the conferring of control on the father's sister in a society which reckons descent paternally— has ever been identified.
Patterns of plural marriage also overwhelmingly attest to the dominance of males. Men are polygamous a hundred times more frequently than women are (exception may be a queen, eg. Catherine of Russia. (this is a mammalian characteristic, in accord with r/K reproduction strategies inherent to the sexes; plus there is hypergamy which effects an extreme hierarchy among males, with one or a few to dominate reproduction, the other males being expendable, but females have a more secure place in society, they are the basis of population)
Furthermore, the transfer of valuables from the groom's family to the bride's is extremely common (bride price). This transfer compensates the menfolk for the loss of her valuable services. A striking fact is that in all the anthropological literature, only one or two cases are known of economic compensation given by the bride's sisters and mother to the groom's sisters and mother for loss of the groom's valuable productive and reproductive services. In other words, marriage usually involves the exchange of women between groups of men; seldom, if ever, the exchange of men between groups of women. (However, another common custom, especially of India, is dowry, which is often confiscated by the man.)
Political institutions show the same lopsided quality. Headmen rather than headwomen are the rule; as are male chiefs rather than female chiefs. In matters religious, it is the same story: Shamans—persons possessing privileged access to the realm of supernatural beings through trances, dreams and drug‐induced hallucinations—are far more often reported as men than as women. In addition, the members of the majority of band and village societies regard women as ritually unclean, especially during menstruation. They believe menstrual blood pollutes. But they use semen in rituals aimed at improving the group's health and well‐being. Throughout the world, men menace women and children with noisemakers, masks and other sacred objects whose true nature is kept as a male secret. Men's clubhouses, in which these items are stored and from which women are excluded, are also part of the same complex. Women on the other hand, seldom ritually menace men; there are no women's houses where they gather to protect themselves against the pollution given off by men. (However, now we have young women voters, who statistically prefer more government entitlements.)
Male dominance also shows up in the division of economic tasks. In almost all band and village societies, women do the drudge work, such as weeding, seed grinding, fetching water and firewood, carrying infants and household possessions and routine cooking. See Human Foraging Societies, with regard to food.
The appropriate response to this preoccupying fact of past and present male dominance does not, of course, lie in rewriting prehistory, or in mythology, or in test‐tube babies or attacks on male anthropologists. Rather what is called for is an investigation of the cultural conditions that have nurtured and sustained male sexism. Like most advocates of women's rights, I do not hold to the theory that men dominate women because it is natural for them to be aggressive and take control. Male supremacy is not a biological imperative or a genetically programmed characteristic of the human species (or is it?). Nor is it an arbitrary social convention or a conspiracy among males to degrade or exploit women, as many radical feminists believe.
Theoreticians of the women's movement have written volumes on the subject, but they have either ignored or misunderstood the crucial factors that led to male dominance. Far from being arbitrary or conspiratorial, male chauvinism arose during prehistory to counter a basic threat to human survival— the threat of overpopulation and the depletion of resources. (this theme was popular in the middle 1970s) Furthermore, my research has convinced me that the patterns of early human sexism cannot be understood without investigating the origin of another scourge—warfare. My theory holds that male supremacy and prehistoric warfare together constituted the core of a primordial system for avoiding the misery and annihilation latent in (unfettered population growth).
What recent feminist writers have failed to realize is that this entire complex of male supremacism, plus the very definition of “feminine” as passive and “masculine” as aggressive, can be deduced from one fact: Virtually all band and village societies engaged in warfare in which males were the principal if not exclusive combatants (raider bands). Throughout prehistory as well as during more recent epochs, warriors fought battles exclusively with spears, clubs, bows and arrows and other muscle-powered weapons. Under these conditions, the greater average strength and height of the human male (sexual dimorphism)— which can be traced back to our primate ancestry—became critically important. Military success, and hence the life and death of whole communities, depended on the relative number of aggressive brawny men who were psychologically and physically prepared to risk their lives in combat. ("honor ethos" of the warrior)
In preparation for their combat roles, males were taught competitive sports such as wrestling, dueling with spears and racing with heavy weights. Masculinity was also instilled by subjecting boys to intense physical ordeals such as circumcision, trials of stamina, deprivation of food and drink, and drug‐induced hallucinatory encounters with supernatural monsters. See raising boys in Sparta.
To get males to risk their comfort and their lives in behalf of their society, perfecting a powerful system of rewards and punishments was needed. Ostracism was the punishment; sex was the reward. Those who best endured the trials of boyhood and the rigors of combat were rewarded with wives and concubines. In many instances, only those who had faced an enemy in combat (or in African Maasai, a lion) could marry. This explains why virtually all band and village societies taught— and those still in existence still teach— that only males should be proficient in the use of clubs, spears and bows and arrows, and why they often forbid women to touch these weapons just as they generally excluded women from front‐line combat. Since some women are brawnier than some men and could no doubt be trained to be as brave, excluding them might seem irrational. But if wives and concubines were to be the chief inducement for men to become masculine, women had to be trained from birth not for combat but for (family management).
Because of the importance of male combat teams, band and village warfare generally tended to promote the organization of communities around a core of permanent male residents consisting of fathers, brothers and sons. (Different residential patterns arose at higher levels of political organization when warfare involved long expeditions against distant enemies.) These localized male‐centered groups formed military alliances by exchanging women. It was the (noble) line of resident males, therefore, who acquired control over the community's resources. (noble lines were devoted to religion and warfare)
This extent of property rights through males, explains why postmarital residence was with the husband and why the group that gave away a sister or daughter in marriage sought compensation. Furthermore, as I said, the allotment of women as a reward for male aggressiveness led to polygamous marriages between one man and several wives. Drudge work for women and ritual subordination and devaluation also followed directly from the need to reward (select) males at the expense of females and from the need to provide supernatural justification for the whole arrangement.
I am not saying that warfare caused sexism, much less that sexism caused warfare. Rather, the point is that warfare and male sexism were closely linked social inventions, both of which arose to serve the same vital function, namely that of preventing overpopulation and the consequent destruction of the natural resources needed by prehistoric human groups (see comments in Epilog). I have been led to this conclusion as a result of my attempt to explain a puzzling fact. Recent studies by William Divale have revealed that war‐making band and village societies often killed their infant daughters and that they did so far more frequently than they killed infant sons. The more intense the warfare, the greater the difference between the number of boys and girls reared to adulthood. Among those band and village societies whose population was known prior to the suppression of warfare, there is an average discrepancy of 128 boys under 14 to 100 girls. In contrast to an expected ratio of 105 to 100 at birth, some groups have as many as 200 boys for each 100 girls. That means that at least half of the girls born were artificially deprived of the chance to grow up. From informants’ descriptions it appears that these infant girls were killed by smacking them on the head with a rock, for example, or by
systematically neglecting to ??? suffocation.
As band and village societies gave way to expansionist state societies, warfare ceased to be effective in slowing population growth. In fact, it eventually became a part of a system for expanding growth through the incorporation of defeated peoples into ever‐larger imperial states. But infanticide continued, not being confined to prehistoric bands, flourishing as well in “civilized” societies as a principal means of family planning, despite admonitions of church and state. In India and China, as has long been known, female infanticide was common, and the practice survived well into the present century. During the last 100 years, the British were horrified to discover that the ratio of male children to female children in parts of northern India was as high as 213 to 100. Anthropologist Mildred Dickeman (see study notes) contends that some castes destroyed all their female babies. In China, in regions such as Amoy and Fukien, 30 percent of female babies were killed, and in some villages it went as high as 80 percent. From the time of Marco Polo onward, European explorers and missionaries volubly expressed disgust and horror over the way “savages” and Orientals disposed of their unwanted children. But recent investigations by historians have shown that infanticide, was probably also common in England, France, Germany and Italy.
In England between 1250 and 1358 and then again between 1430 to 1545, the sex ratio of male children to female children was 133 to 100. In Italy it stood at 125 to 100 among the wealthy families of Florence during the 15th century. Infanticide in the
Judeo‐Christian tradition, however, was murder (nix the Judes, they have an occult tradition of child sacrifice from their Babylonian influences, see Moloch); therefore every effort was made by parents to make it seem as if the deaths of unwanted babies was purely accidental. The most frequent explanation of infant death suffocation— was handled by the parish priest, not by the coroner. Such deaths were routinely attributed to something called “overlaying”— accidental suffocation caused by a mother's rolling over on her infant in bed. If the mother who was accused of overlaying was married and living with her husband, she could expect to go unpunished except for having to appeal as a public penitent at the front of her church. Unwed mothers, similarly accused, were treated differently; they were labeled witches, and were stoned to death.
When a baby died from overlaying, it was impossible to prove homicidal intent. Obviously, however, if parents were strongly motivated to rear their babies, they would seldom roll over on them. The fact that they rolled over more often on girl babies than on boys proves that, in a systemic sense, overlaying was a form of infanticide. Other surreptitious forms of infanticide were also employed. It was a common spectacle to see the corpses of infants lying in the streets or on the dunghills of London and other large cities during the 18th century. Eventually, Parliament decided to intervene and set up foundling homes with various systems for collecting unwanted infants without risk to the donor. Elsewhere, babies were passed through revolving boxes set in the walls of foundling hospitals. But governments were not capable of sustaining the cost of rearing large numbers of children to adulthood, and foundling hospitals quickly became de facto human slaughterhouses. According to historian William Langer, there were 15,0? admissions to London's first foundling hospital between 1756 and 1760. Of those admitted only 4,4? survived to adolescence. Additional thousands of foundlings were destroyed by wet nurses who were given employment by parish workhouses. In order to economize, parish officers assigned the infants to women who were nicknamed “killing nurses” or “she‐butchers” because they could be counted on to make sure that their ...
Admissions to foundling institutions increased steadily throughout Europe during the early years of the 19th century. In France, admissions rose from 90,000 a year in 1789 to 138,000 in 1822. By 1830 there were 270 revolving boxes in use throughout France, with 336,297 infants legally abandoned from 1829 to 1833. Mothers who left their babies in boxes consigned them to death as surely as if they had dropped them in the river. Between 80 and 90 percent of the children in these institutions died during their first year of life.
This information is relevant to the current debate about abortion but has not been taken into consideration as yet by either side. It shows that Western civilization has a history of covering up and disguising the consequences of population pressure and the means that were ordinarily employed to escape from the burden of unwanted children. The present intolerance of abortion has for its background centuries of tolerance of infanticide, especially female infanticide. In the past, the issue was not the right of the fetus to live but the right of the child to live. But the rights of neither child or fetus can be understood apart from the cultural history of sexism. The guiding principle of male chauvinism has always been that women are responsible for population pressures and that women and children should be punished for reproductive errors and the unintended consequences of sexual intercourse. In my opinion, the current opposition to abortion of the same.
One reason I found the practice of female infanticide among band and village societies so puzzling is that women are more valuable than men from the point of view of reproduction, and reproduction is the key to the survival of any species. Contrary to the ideological preconceptions of male‐centered cultures, most men are reproductively superfluous. The fertility of a group is determined by the number of its adult women, rather than by its adult men. This can be seen by comparing a group of one man and 10 women with one consisting of 10 men and only one woman. Since the one man can easily keep all 10 women pregnant, the birth rate of the group with 10 women will be 10 times higher than that with 10 men.
At first I was inclined to explain female infanticide merely as a further manifestation of male supremacy. Since males are dominant, it seemed logical that men should want sons rather than daughters. However, if women are to be the principal rewards for bravery and aggressiveness, why go out of the way to limit the supply of wives, concubines and drudges? Since men exploit women, the logical thing for them to do would be to rear more daughters than sons. With their monopoly over weapons, men would have little to fear if they were outnumbered. If slaves can outnumber masters, serfs can outnumber lords, and workers can outnumber capitalists, why could women not have outnumbered men?
Nor does the fact that males are more valuable than females in warfare clear away the paradox. True, sons will be preferred when the survival of the group depends on the brawny warrior. Yet human beings have never failed to grasp the elementary truth that if a group wants many sons it must start by having many mothers. The fastest way to expand male combat strength is, after all, to regard every little girl as precious and not to kill or neglect a single one. But the pursuit of a policy of unrestricted population growth was no more feasible for our prehistoric ancestors than it is for us today. The implications of unrestricted fertility are catastrophic. By allowing free range to reproduction our ancestors could easily have doubled their numbers every generation, which is a rate sufficient to convert the entire universe into a solid mass of human protoplasm in less than 2,000 years. To conserve resources such as wild game, forests and soils, band and village peoples therefore had to find ways to overcome the temptation to rear as many females as possible. The dangers of overpopulation for them were far greater than the danger of limited warfare carried out with simple weapons. As I now see it, the peculiar inversion of values that rendered biologically essential females inferior to aggressive biologically superfluous males can be explained in no other way. The only conditions under which it is preferable to rear sons is when one cannot afford to rear daughters. These conditions exist when population begins to deplete the environment and to lower living standards to bare subsistence, eventually threatening the very survival of the species. (Thus the incentive to raid other territory.)
The practice of female infanticide and warfare represented an extraordinary if grim victory of culturally induced behavior over natural impulses. In an epoch when contraception was ineffective and abortion constituted as much of a risk to the mother as to the fetus, infanticide was the only real alternative to overpopulation. Nothing could be gained, however, by practicing infanticide with the same frequency against both male and female infants since, as I have said, males do not contribute equally to the population problem. Male babies therefore could be raised in unlimited numbers and left to take their chances as adults and to perish in warfare. Women were excluded from front‐line combat and rarely died as a result of intergroup hostilities, thus preventing mutual annihilation of the combatants.
(illustration? A marriage ritual of contemporary Negritos in the Philippines... The woman, like valued chattel, is carried over an obstacle, custom not dissimilar to the carrying of a bride over a threshold.)
Warfare contributed to the regulation of population in two ways, in addition to the loss of life it caused. First, it led to the dispersal of enemy groups over territories separated by no man's lands in which valuable plants and animals were preserved; and second, it provided the immediate practical motivation and justification for the rearing of sons at the expense of daughters.
It took a very powerful cultural force to get parents to kill or neglect their own children. But an especially powerful force was needed to get them to neglect or kill more girls then boys. In the context of the simple economies of band and village peoples, women were at least as valuable as men. Since they could do everything men could plus giving birth and nursing children, it was no simple achievement to make them seem less valuable. The economic value of women was especially hard to mask where subsistence depended on simple types of horticulture for which women almost everywhere provided most of the muscle power. True, as hunters, women were overshadowed. But this resulted from the male monopoly over the weapons of war, which were essentially the same as the weapons of the hunt. The male's hunting specialty arose from his warfare training, not from a need to be brawny, or a need for women to stick close to the campfire, cook and care for the children. Hunters, like warriors, are better off when they operate at less than maximum efficiency since the problem of overpredation—taking too many animals—has had far more serious consequences throughout history and prehistory than not taking enough. Anthropologists have found that, among temperate‐or tropical‐zone hunters, the supply of meat is limited more by the prey species than by the skills of the hunters. Women hunters could easily substitute for men without reducing the supply. In fact, several recent studies have show that, among horticulturists, women usually provide more calories and proteins, by growing plant foods and raising or capturing small animals, even when they are prevented from hunting big game. Moreover, the need for women to nurse small infants does not “naturally” lead to their roles us cooks and “homebodies.” Hunting is an intermittent activity and there is nothing to prevent lactating women from leaving their infants in someone else's care for a few hours once or twice a week. Since band and village communities were organized around kinspeople, modern‐day working women, and had no trouble in finding the preindustrial equivalents of baby sitters and day‐care centers. And of course, since the men did not have 9‐to‐5 jobs, there was no reason—except for warfare and male supremacism—why they could not have minded the baby.
Freudians have long been aware that some kind of link must exist between warfare and sex roles but they have inverted the causal arrow and derived warfare from male aggressiveness rather than male aggressiveness from warfare. This inversion has spread to other disciplines and hangs over the popular culture like a fog.
For Freud, aggression was a manifestation of the frustrations of sexual instincts during childhood, and war was simply socially sanctioned aggression writ large. That men should dominate women followed automatically from the way in which the possessors of male sex organs and the possessors of female sex organs respectively experienced the traumas of childhood sexuality. Boys compete with their father for sexual mastery of the same woman. They fantasize that they are omnipotent and that they can kill their rival, who in fact or fancy threatens to cut off their sex organs. This— the central scenario of Freudian psychodynamic theory—Freud called Oedipus complex.
For the young girl, Freud envisioned a parallel but fundamentally different trauma. A girl's sexuality is also initially directed toward her mother but at the phallic stage she makes a shocking discovery: She lacks a penis. The girl “holds her mother responsible for her castrated condition” and so “she transfers her love to her father because he has the valued organ which she aspires to share with him.” But her love for her father and for other men “is mixed with feelings of envy because they possess something she lacks.” So while males must work out their Oedipus complex by learning how to be aggressive, girls must learn to compensate for their lack of a penis by accepting a subordinate status and by having babies (which symbolically stand for the lost penis).
Although this scenario sounds like sheer poppycock, anthropological research has shown that there is widespread if not universal occurrence of psychodynamic patterns that resemble Oedipal strivings— at least in the minimal sense of sexually charged hostility between older‐and younger‐generation males and penis envy among females. Freud was definitely onto something, but unfortunately his causal arrows were backward. I think what is poppycock is the idea that the Oedipal situation is part of human nature rather than a product of a specific set of cultural conditions. All of the requisites for creating castration fears and penis envy are present in male supremacism— the male monopoly over weaponry, the training of males for bravery and combat roles, in training females to be the passive reward for “masculine” performance, in the patrilineal bias, in the prevalence of male polygamy, female concubineage, competitive male sports, intense male puberty rituals, ritual “uncleanliness” of menstruating women, in the transfer of valuables at marriage, and in many other male‐centered institutions. Obviously, wherever the objective of child rearing is to produce aggressive, “masculine” and dominant males, and passive, “feminine,” subordinate females, there is going to be something like a castration fear between males in adjacent generations and something like penis envy among their sisters and a great degree of suppressed hostility and anxiety between the sexes and ambivalence about sexual roles.
Although my theory holds that anatomy destines males to be trained to be fierce and aggressive if there is war, it denies that anatomy or genes or instinct or anything else makes war inevitable. Merely because all human beings in the world today and in the known past have lived in war-making sexist societies or societies affected by war‐making sexist societies is not reason enough to cast human nature in the image of the savage characteristics required for war. The fact that warfare and sexism have played and continue to play such prominent roles in human affairs does not mean they must continue to do so for all time.
With the development of safe contraceptive alternatives to overlaying, killer wet nurses and other destructive means of regulating population growth, the prospects for ending the thralldom of male supremacy have greatly improved. Unfortunately, after the rise of state‐level societies, warfare acquired new political and economic functions unrelated to population control, functions that were present only in incipient form among band and village societies. Nonetheless, as military technology becomes more and more computerized and hand-to‐hand combat becomes obsolete, women may very well achieve full sexual parity. Women are already taking their places alongside men in silos housing the intercontinental ballistic strike force. And a female head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is no longer unthinkable as women move steadily toward the day when the “first lady” in the White House is the President. I see no reason to doubt that sexism will eventually die out, provided of course, that our culture does not die out first. If It does, it will not be the fault of our genes but of our will and intelligence. ■
Harris seems to under the influence of a popular theme of his time, overpopulation. I think this interpretation is a poor one in the case of ancient societies. Early societies were not worried about overpopulation, the opposite more likely. Or rather, underpopulation of themselves, and overabundance of property held by outsiders that begged for aggressive intervention to redistribute that wealth to themselves. The ebb and flow of human societies has been a sort of 'hunger games' scenario in which those that had power wanted to use it for their material self aggrandizement. Men were more talented in that regard than women, but women revel in the process given the opportunity.
Overpopulation is a modern phenom, as evidenced by the section on infanticide.