A Tentative Reconstruction

Christine M. Rodrigue, Ph.D.

California State University
Northridge, California 91330
(presently CSU, Chico, CA 95929-0425 -- 1998)
(now at CSU, Long Beach, CA 90840-1101 -- 1999+)

Association of American Geographers, Portland, OR, 1987.
basis of presentation to "Feminist Geography" workshop at CSUC


Women in most settled societies of the world and virtually all class societies have experienced low status, exploitation, oppression, and loss of self-determination. For example, most settled and class societies transmit names and property through the male line, as shown in Figure 1. Given the importance of paternity in patrilineal societies, it is scarcely surprising that many settled and class societies insist on female premarital chastity, as mapped in Figure 2. The inherent uncertainty of paternity has often produced bizarre and barbarous attempts to secure the fidelity of married women as well.

A recent investigation of the origins of animal domestication and sacrificial practices in the Near East of 8,000 to 5,000 years ago suggested a novel interpretation of the origins of women's oppression.1 Prior explanations have tended to make assumptions about prehistoric sexual dimorphism in strength and size, the rigidity of primitive sex-based divisions of labor, the belated discovery of biological paternity by men, or the innate perfidy of men.2 The interpretation here makes no such assumptions.

This argument explores the consequences for women of the sedentarization of human groups in the Near East, beginning about 14,000 years ago. Sedentarization heightened the vulnerability of societies to localized environmental changes by reducing the frequent mobility by which societies hitherto coped with them. The collection and storage of food and other resources in excess of day to day needs provided an alternative coping strategy. The investment in architecture allowed by a more sedentary existence made this a feasible alternative.

Reliance on stored reserves, however, carries an inherent risk of instability. It is impossible to second-guess the magnitude, frequency, and duration of environmental events, such as drought or flood. This unpredictability implies the necessity of amassing food stores appreciably larger than needed for weathering the recurrent low magnitude, high probability event. There is, thus, a tendency to growth built into the use of surplus storage.

The need to amass stores adequate to meet most continencies exerts pressure on people to exploit their land base in such a way as to increase productivity per unit of land. Ironically enough, one means of raising land productivity is to increase the number of people working it. Population begins to grow in response to this effect: children are no longer the liability they are to roving bands of hunters and gatherers, having become productive assets to settled societies and households. The response of land to greater inputs of human labor, then, accelerates the growth tendency implicit in surplus storage by increasing the size of the society.

An alternative means of coping with environmental unpredictability is the development of trade contacts in order to move resources and obligations across space and time. Exchange, too, implies a tendency to grow, through need expansion: commodities can stimulate their own demand as people are exposed to them.3

The need for development of the stores may be met by the forcible extension of a group's land base at the expense of another group. War, then, is a likely outcome of sedentism, at least in the spatially and temporally changeable environments of the Mesolithic and Neolithic Near East. War, too, could serve as a desperate last resort should a group's stores prove inadequately able to support it through a lean time when expected mutual aid from another group fails to materialize. Raiding and war can follow disputes over cheating in trade, and items stored against trade make a tempting target in any case.4

For one reason or another, sedentary groups increasingly find themselves embroiled in wars. Many of these wars consist of hostilities among groups of many generations' duration. The atrocities committed in war generate intense intergroup hatreds that themselves are potent inducements to hostilities independent of the original stimuli of land expropriation, raiding, and control of trading activities.5

The sedentary life, then, commonly eventuates in a state of chronic hostilities. At this point, I wish to speculate on the social implications of recurrent wars. One is the longer duration of war party leadership, by way of perpetual preparedness.6 Another, of greater interest here, is the increasing rigidity of the sexual division of labor.

Any society using women warriors incurs a significant disadvantage in the long run. That is, the death of a male warrior is but the loss of one man, but the death of a female is the death not of one woman alone but of the children she might have borne had she lived. Given the long-standing patterns of hostilities, the more Amazonian groups would reproduce defense forces less efficiently than those relying exclusively or nearly exclusively on male warriors. Through time, the more Amazonian groups would eventually be cut off from their land bases and be less and less able successfully to carry out raids.7

Those societies that excluded women from the war parties began to crystallize the division of labor in such a way as increasingly to sequester women from participation in the public life, even from determining the character of their own personal lives. Weapons in the hands of men are as easily turned to encouraging compliance with newer customs in their interest as to external offense and defense. Women's status in society began to erode, as men took control over their productive and reproductive activities, property, and naming.

Even as women's status and self-determination waned, their position in religion waxed. Society increasingly depended on the fecundity of women, as larger populations were needed to weather skirmishes. Religion more and more turned on the fertility of women themselves, in addition to the fertility of beast and land symbolized by them. The images of women first turn up in the Near East about 12,000 years ago and multiply tremendously until scarcely a site lacks them by 8,000 BP. The Great Goddess rose to spiritual ascendancy together with the fall of the women She idealizes.

The most distinctive aspect of this paper is the correlations it makes between sedentism and war, war and the downfall of women, and female dominance in religion and the increasing subjugation of women in real life. This paper serves as a sobering reminder to other feminist scholars to avoid naïve equations of the Mother Goddess religion with a golden age of female power, of matriarchy. Other scholars have pointed out that the Mother Goddess religion is potentially compatible with a range of different social treatments of women, ranging from matriarchy to the simultaneous idealization of woman as Other while oppressing flesh and blood women.8 I argue that the religious focus on female fertility specifically reflects the needs of a society caught in a cycle of hostilities ultimately due to sedentarization, a society increasingly consigning women to anonymous broodmare status and domestic labor.

Though this speculative reconstruction grew out of research on the development of agriculture in the Near East, its conclusions are probably applicable in other regions. The subjection of women was almost certainly unavoidable in any region in which people were moving from mobile hunting and gathering to more settled ways of life, particularly in areas characterized by significant environmental change from one year or season to the next. The stresses these changes imposed on sedentary peoples and the tension resulting from surplus management, breakdowns in exchange relations, and expansionism generate wars. In conditions of recurrent hostilities, larger population is a military advantage, and women's reproductive abilities are too valuable for a society to risk for the sake of a female warrior's self-actualization. War and the exclusion of women from the warrior function lead to women's oppression and subjection to men to one degree or another. Patriarchy, then, diffused through cultural contagion, extinguishing many more egalitarian societies in its wake, incorporating members of vanquished groups, and inducing emulation out of necessity.



1Christine M. Rodrigue, "An Evaluation of Ritual Sacrifice as an Explanation for Early Animal Domestications in the Near East" (Ph.D. dissertation, Clark University, 1986) and "A New Theory of Animal Domestication in the Near East," colloquium presentation, Department of Geography, UCLA, 1981.

2Works exemplifying each of these basic outlooks are, respectively: John Stuart Mill, The Subjection of Women (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1970) and L.H. Morgan, Ancient Society (New York: World, 1963); Dorothy Dinnerstein, The Mermaid and the Minotaur, Kathleen Gough, "The Origin of the Family," in Rayna R. Reiter (ed.), Toward an Anthropology of Women (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1975): 51-76, and Shulamith Firestone, The Dialectic of Sex (New York: Bantam, 1972); Henry Maine, Ancient Law (London: Murray, 1861); and Evelyn Reed, Woman's Evolution: From Matriarchal Clan to Patriarchal Family (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1975) and Elizabeth Gould Davis, The First Sex (New York: G.P. Putnam, 1971).

3Karl Marx, Grundrisse, trans. from German by Martin Nicolaus (New York: Random House, 1973).

4As an example, the long-standing history of war, raiding, and the torture of war prisoners shared by the Huron and Iroquois nations in part had to do with control of the trade in furs from the Algonquin groups to their north. Bruce C. Trigger, The Children of Aataentsic: A History of the Huron People to 1660 (Montreal and London: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1976) and C.E. Heidenreich, "The Huron: A Brief Ethnography," York University, Department of Geography, Discussion Paper 6 (1972). Antonio Gilman argues that narrowing of the mutual aid circles perceived as necessary to survival in a given environment may spark hostilities and wars, as groups in need find themselves denied the assistance they formerly obtained from a given group. "Explaining the Upper Palaeolithic evolution," in Matthew Spriggs (ed.) Marxist Approaches in Archaeology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983): 115-26.

5Trigger, op. cit.

6Robert M. Adams, "The Origin of Cities," In Hunters, Farmers, and Civilizations: Old World Archaeology, Readings from Scientific American (San Francisco: W.H. Freeman, 1979): 170-77.

7This argument owes much to David Rindos, The Origins of Agriculture: An Evolutionary Perspective (Orlando, FL: Academic Press, 1984).

8Paula Webster, "Matriarchy: A Vision of Power," Reiter (ed.), Toward an Anthropology of Women: 141-56.

The two maps shown during this talk display data and regionalizations drawn from Erika Bourguignon and Lenora S. Greenbaum, Diversity and Homogeneity in World Societies (New Haven, CN: Human Relations Area Files, 1973). Their work is a computerized coding of George Peter Murdock's Ethnographic Atlas (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1967).

This document maintained 03/12/98 and 06/03/04