©2019 Molly Carter
Patriarchal societies in which women had less, little, or no power/autonomy seem to be the norm throughout history. Why was this so prevalent? What are some matriarchal societies and how did they differ from the patriarchal ones?
After writing Molly Carter’s answer to What male/female double standard do you hate the most?, I’ve been thinking a lot of patriarchal societies and what that means.
And here’s where I’m at with my thoughts and analysis. Civilization and society have developed in specific ways for specific reasons. Some we can quantify, some we can’t. But one major influence for women, throughout most of human history, is the fact that she’s been ruled by childbearing and rearing responsibilities.
Before 1957 and the creation of hormonal birth control pills, there was little a woman could do to stop herself from getting pregnant. Sure there was sheepskin and coat hangers, but in reality, many women got and remained pregnant for much of their childbearing years.
And this, pregnancy and breast feeding and toddlers in tow, made women vulnerable. Pregnancy makes you large and cumbersome and having an infant attached to your breast sure makes it difficult to move quickly.
In the earliest stages of humanity, we were hunters and gatherers. Generally speaking, men in these early societies were the primary hunters, traveling away from camp for periods of time in search of large game. Women stayed close to camp and foraged while taking care of the child rearing. Both of these positions were important and it’s assumed that one was not viewed as “better” than another within these cultures.
These roles did not develop because men were oppressing women. It was because it’s women who carry children. It’s women whose breasts fill with milk. It was therefore women who were primarily in charge of child rearing. Which, if we’re honest, is the whole biological reason for life, passing on those genes.
These roles had massive amounts of influence on early humans. Not just on how they interacted with one another, but on how their brains evolved over time. For instance, much of female tasks were monotonous (things like getting water, gathering fuel, and cooking), didn’t require much concentration, and could easily be interrupted and returned to without much issue (a necessary quality when dealing with children).
Men’s tasks, on the other hand, tended to be more dangerous, further from home, and required much of their thought process. In addition, while the women’s work was relatively constant, the men’s tasks ebbed and flowed.
Because of such things, men’s brains, in general, have as much as seven times the gray matter than females in areas related to intelligence. Gray matter is made of localized cell bodies, which process both information and action. This increase in gray matter use is most likely responsible for the “tunnel vision” many wives complain of, basically the habit of some men getting so heavily engaged in an activity that they ignore their surroundings or the people around them.
Female’s brains, on the other hand, have as much as 10 times the white matter in these areas as men’s. White matter is composed of nerve fibers and creates connections across brain structures. There’s evidence that this increase in neural connections results in the women’s ability to both switch between tasks without trouble and multi-task with ease.
What’s more, in women these neural connections tend to run back and forth between the two hemispheres of the brain, where men have more neural connections in one hemisphere. This may indicate that women pull from different sources (again with that multi-tasking bullshit), and may be why we tend to seem so complicated, while men tend to have better perception and stronger connections between spatial and motor skills. That means men tend to be better with their hands, in general, of course.
The brain differences between the sexes go beyond gray and white matter, though. There’s also a difference in how the brain processes neurotransmitters, especially serotonin.
If you don’t know, serotonin is the chemical often associated with depression and is impacted with the common antidepressant class of SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors), which includes brand names of Prozac and Zoloft.
Women, it turns out, have an increased number of serotonin receptors in the brain when compared to men and less proteins that transport the neurotransmitter for reuptake. This may have some involvement in the fact that women are more likely to suffer from depression or anxiety, while men struggle more with sitting still (serotonin also impacts our ability to be still for extended periods of time).
There are also differences with oxytocin, both in brain levels and the reactions it causes.
Oxytocin, which is often referred to as the love hormone, is a neurotransmitter that increases bonding. It’s perhaps best known for being released when a woman nurses, encouraging her to fall in love with the infant (primarily so she doesn’t just leave it in the woods to die). It’s also released during orgasm and when we fall in love, hug, and kiss.
When given a dose of oxytocin, men and women responded differently, but, in theory, in a way that made pairing and reproducing (aka doing the dirty) more likely for each, especially in a prehistoric world. In one study, men identified which partners they thought would be easier to pursue and, after given oxytocin, had an increase in wanting to partner with that woman. After their dose, women were more likely to find men they deemed faithful, attractive and were more interested in long-term relationships.
As I’m veering away from the purpose of this answer, I’m just going to bullet a few more points about the differences in male and female brains that impact behavior and support that prehistoric human dynamic:
• Women’s prefrontal cortex, which controls judgement and attention to details, develops earlier than it does in men, which is probably why women take less risks. It may also impact why women offer more details when communicating. In general, of course.
• Women also have a larger prefrontal cortex, which continues to support their less risky behavior, but men have a larger amygdala, which gives them greater processing power for threatening situations. It also increases competitiveness. Go figure.
• When the body is at rest, the brain too rests, but it’s not quiet. Especially in women. One study showed significant difference of the brain at rest, both in the amount of activity and in the active areas.  This may be one of the reasons women struggle more (in general, of course) than men with the “racing mind.” It may also influence men’s ability to “turn off,” which is something many women just aren’t able to do.
• In men, the hypothalamus, which regulates mating behaviors, aka controls your sex drive, and food intake is about twice as large in men as it is in women.
• On average, a woman’s limbic cortex is larger, which is the area of the brain that regulates emotions. That shouldn’t come as too big of a surprise to anybody.
• I mentioned above how men have more gray matter in intelligence areas, but women have more gray matter in the hippocampus, which deals with emotions and memory. It makes sense then that many women (not all and some men of course) retain strong emotional memories, allowing us to recall every moment of the fight back in 2013 when you talked to that blonde at the bar and looked at her in that way, even though you said you didn’t. Yeah. You know what I’m talking about.
• Observations have been made on 2– to 3-month old babies demonstrating that female infants tend to focus on faces, while male infants focus more on things and notice visual disturbances more often than females.
One thing that’s interesting about all this brain stuff (come the fuck on, it’s all interesting!!) is that the areas with the biggest differences in size have the highest concentrations of receptors for the sex hormones.
So what’s this have to do with patriarchy?
Well, I’m glad you asked!
So, I hope to have shown by this point that men and women’s brains are different in some important ways that supported the roles of those early humans. It allowed each of them to succeed in the ways they needed to for the species to survive.
And we did. And things were probably pretty good.
And time moved on.
I’m sorry I have to go here, but I think it’s necessary for me to address. I believe it’s safe to assume that there have always been a small percentage of men who rape women. And I think it’s safe to assume that these prehistoric times were no different. There will always be abuse of power. And strength is power. And, in general, men will remain stronger than women. This has nothing to do with a patriarchic society. It has to do with biology. And the only thing, imho, you can do to even the playing field is carry a gun (that links to an article on women’s self defense and ccw I wrote, in case you want to learn more). Or learn some kick-ass kung fu.
And then, about 10,000–12,000 years ago, someone in the Fertile Crescent (the area that contains Iraq, Syria, and Jordan), planted a seed and changed the world.
See, in the time before agriculture, there was little private property. Hunter-Gatherer groups were nomadic. There was no rich and no poor. Most groups were family groups and these clans shared food and shelter and work. Most were considered equal, even among the sexes.
Sure, the leaders of these groups were men. That’s not because they had penises (well, it sort of is), but because they were the leaders of the hunts, the leaders of the fights. Because they were bigger and stronger, they were the protectors. Again, not just because they’re “big-tough men” but because THEY WERE, in fact, big, tough men. And because of this, it was the men who left for the hunts and the men who participated in warfare. And the men who became the leaders.
But then that seed was planted and things changed.
Mark Dyble, an anthropologist who led a study at the University College of London, states:
There is still this wider perception that hunter-gatherers are more macho or male-dominated. We’d argue it was only with the emergence of agriculture, when people could start to accumulate resources, that inequality emerged.
So with agriculture, humans took a step that deviated them from what many of the other primates and animals were doing, hanging out and living in nature, and started us on the journey to civilization.
And with settlements came an abundance of food. Food that could be stored. And soon after that seed was planted, humans, those smart things, learned animal husbandry. And we suddenly had livestock.
This caused many, many things to happen (including an unprecedented population boom that continues to grow exponentially even today).
But our brains were (and are) still wired for that primitive pre-agriculture lifestyle, and they still react the same ways to stimulants. So warrior classes formed and men went off for battle, back “on the hunt” for land, money, riches. Women continued, as we always have, to bear and rear children.
Civilization emerged. Men, as they’re out and about, they’re engaged with others. They’re fighting. They’re conquering. They’re losing. They’re winning. Treaties and agreements are forged and broken.
And of course, it’s men doing these things. They’re the ones who are out of the home. Not because they’re trying to suppress women, but because… well, have you ever traveled by horseback eight months pregnant with a two-year-old strapped to your back and a whiny five-year-old walking beside you? Doesn’t sound pleasant does it. Nor safe. Nor effective.
So the women stayed home and did what they had always done. Rear children.
Governments developed. Politics. Power.
And it was primarily the men who were engaged in these things… Because, you guess it, the women were home pregnant and rearing children.
Eventually, the men, who had always been the ones talking and making decisions with the other men, made policies that suited them. Because that’s what they’d always done.
So men were doing the politics things. They were also fighting amongst other men. And when they started implementing rules and regulations and whatnots, they did it amongst themselves.
They were also protective of their women, and many, I’m sure, considered their women their property, not necessarily as in they owned them, but as in they didn’t want other men fucking them.
All this while, women continued to do what women have always done (in general, of course).
But even in ancient Egypt, women weren’t oppressed at the beginning. Hell, women ruled and owned property in Egypt and lineage was passed through females. If the world has ever seen a true matriarchy, it would have been in ancient Egypt. Women could own businesses; they could engage in trade. They were the most equal the world had seen before the US.
But time goes on. And all these things continue and, over time, men become more and more in control. And eventually, throughout the ancient world, even in Egypt, the men’s rule took over.
Although none of us can say for certain, but I highly doubt the men of the ancient world were sitting around, determining what laws to create with the goal of keep women down, suppressing their wants and needs.
See, remember way back at the top when I was talking about brain differences? Remember the part about men having tunnel vision? Men, naturally, think about what’s in front of them (in general, of course). The idea of adding women into law was probably never even thought of.
Again, not because they were trying to suppress women, more because women were home, doing what women had always done. And men were doing what they had always done since the dawn of civilization (but not always, remember those hunter-gatherers), making decisions with other men about what, as they saw it, only affected other men.
So, my guess is it wasn’t a sexist move, it was simply an oversight. Not because they’re dumb. Or inconsiderate. Or bigoted. But because that’s the way their brains are designed to work.
And time continued.
And for the most part, no one complained too much.
Then America came along. The land of the free and a Constitution that talked about individual rights and liberty in a way that the world had never seen. And people saw true freedom for the first time in their lives. And they were like, “Wait a minute! I want that, too.”
And then we had superstars like Susan B. Anthony and we won women’s suffrage. And 41 years after the 19th Amendment came into play, in 1960 when the FDA approved hormonal birth control, women saw freedoms never before seen.
Now, women can choose NOT to get pregnant. They can choose NOT to have children. And, although women and men are not really equal in qualities (not equal doesn’t equate to better than), at least here in America they live in a world where they, for the most part, are given equal opportunities.
As it stands now, our patriarchal society, which many would like to say holds women back, also holds men back. Men, our society says (biology says it too, btw) are the protectors. They’re bigger and stronger.
And society expects them to act as such (at least traditionally, the fad of the last 15 years or so has been to chastise them for it). They’re expected to not cry in public (it shows weakness and the primitive brain doesn’t want the enemy or the potential partner to think they’re weak). They expected to be the providers (remember it was the male brain that was developed to go on hunts and bring back the bacon, quite literally). They’re expected to fight and win and protect.
While many want to blame this on men, it is, by no fucking means, men’s fault. Especially today’s men. Any more than it’s a women’s fault she menstruates. It’s biology, folks. It’s the way the body and brain are made.
And it really doesn’t matter how PC y’all want to be, you’re not going to change biology. And yes, we can change law. And we have. And we are. But understand as much as you want it to be true, men and women are not the same. Neither one is better. Not men. And not women. Which means there should never be a “the future is female.”
No. The future is male and female. And while women are no longer tied to the birthing bed, we need to work together to redefine this new dynamic between us. Because, regardless of where you put them, men have male brains. And women have female brains. And they will never think the same. In general, of course.
Molly Carter is a backyard farmer, a yoga fanatic, and a pursuer of happiness. She writes words and eats real food. If you get her talking about sex, guns, or philosophy, she never shuts up.
 Early men and women were equal, say scientists
 Men and Women Hunters and Gatherers
 Sex differences in N-acetylaspartate correlates of general intelligence: An 1H-MRS study of normal human brain
 Brain Differences Between Genders
 Gray and white matter of the brain: MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia Image
 Are Male and Female Brains Different?
 About Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs)
 Sex Differences In The Brain’s Serotonin System
 Psychology Today
 Oxytocin: More Than Just a “Love Hormone”
 6 Fascinating Gender Differences Between Men and Women at Work
 The Difference Between Women’s and Men’s Brains. . .
 Resting brain activity: Differences between genders
 Hypothalamus Males and Females
 Do men and women have different brains?
 How men’s and women’s brains are different
 Sex equality can explain the unique social structure of hunter-gatherer bands
 The Development of Agriculture
 The Role and Power of Women in Ancient Egypt | Historic Mysteries