Louisa sat cross-legged in the worn brown, overstuffed chair that was positioned in the corner of my office. A wisp of a woman, the bright afternoon light made her 40 years look more careworn. She carefully watched me cross the room, a tissue clenched in her right hand. Thinning jet black hair fell off her narrow, brown shoulders. Louisa had recently been diagnosed with HIV and was doing an intake interview with me to see how our agency could help her. I sat down in my office chair in front of her and made some introductory comments. She smiled politely, kneaded the tissue in her hands and began timidly.
When she was 15, her 20-year-old drunk boyfriend raped her on the front porch of his father’s house. He had gotten her pregnant, and because both families were Catholic she was forced to have the child and marry him. Once married, Louisa was forbidden from visiting with her mother or sisters without being chaperoned by her family-in-laws. As they told her, “We don’t want you getting any ideas”.
Living hand to mouth, she spent almost 30 years following him around from job to job, and had 2 more kids. He was a heavy alcohol and cocaine user, and frequently beat and raped her. It was during one of these violent episodes that he infected her with HIV. I sat in awe of such a fiercely courageous woman. Last year, her husband was murdered in the desert outside Lamar, Colorado.
No Wonder I have been riveted to the problem of gender equality for 20 years. In my work as a counselor, the issues that my female clients brought into the therapeutic space were a lot like Louisa’s. Misogynistic cultural, religious and family ideas about gender roles and sexuality are bad for everyone, but for a woman like Louisa, her culture carries a deep religious paranoia about her power and prospects, that promoted shame and set the stage for low self esteem, low achievement and depression as it does, to varying degrees, for too many women.
Misogyny is not some artifact of modern life. It’s roots are deeper than civilization. Yet, deep questions about historical misogyny are almost never asked about these days. In my graduate counseling program, hatred of women (or LGBT, for that matter) was rarely discussed. Of course, they taught us how to clear away the wreckage of lives ruined by a world culture in fear of its women. For all the harm gender in-equality has done, you have to admit that the religious script – How my Father came to be in heaven, and my mother came to be a whore is one of the slickest jobs of repackaging in the history of manufactured consent. From there, it seeped into the collective male unconscious and made devaluing the feminine into a global pastime. Confounding my work as a researcher and writer is the vast time frame I am dealing with; the further back you go, the less sure you can be. And, as usual, there are a few male researchers who apply an (un)conscious patriarchal bias to their work.
If we ignore the static, we will gain insight from a less biased, truer narrative about gender inequality than what we have heard so far. One that connects ancient pre-history with the violent sexism of our so-called modern era. Since there is a 7000 year unbroken line of hatred/fear towards women we will need a theory of everything. My theory begins with the primal assertion: Absolutely nothing happens without a dependence on prior conditions. That includes fear, hatred and misogyny. In this respect, we are as connected to our Paleolithic forbearers as we are to the latest hatreds coming out of the neoconservative, fundamentalist, and terrorist camps of today.
I propose that this unbroken line begins somewhere within the darker recesses of humanoid evolution. The line of hominids, like Homo habilis (handy man), Homo erectus (upright man), and so on, were among the earliest precursors of Homo sapiens (wise man). That we are the only surviving species of the Homo line should be a testament to our success and fitness as a species. Yet the legacy of sapient the wise doesn’t altogether live up to his brain size. For hundreds of million of years, hominid evolution was driven by natural selection, mutation, migration and so on; but around 10,000 years ago, something new was added to the stew.
During the Upper Paleolithic, or late stone age (30,000 – 15,000 BCE) evidence of creativity and symbolism began to emerge. Much can be deduced about early culture through the art work they left behind, and perhaps the most enduring impressions they left are the “Venus Statues”. These highly stylized female statues first appeared in old-Europe around 35,000 BCE (Venus of Hohle Fels), and hundreds have been found since, some carbon dating as late as 11,000 BCE, the Mesolithic era. Although the Venus statues are made from various materials such as stone, ivory or wood, they are united by a classic motif.
Breasts, hips, abdomen, and thighs are greatly exaggerated, in a roughly triangular formation, while the upper body, head and shoulders are small and lack detail. Venus figurines are often missing feet and hands suggesting perhaps, that the focus of the artist was on her critically important reproductive powers rather than her daily activities. Some are pregnant, and some are not, but the fact that there are far more Venus statues than male figurines cannot help but invite questions about the state of gender equality at the conclusion of the Upper Paleolithic period, about 15,000 BCE.
That the production of Venus statues was stable over 15 or 20,000 years shouts of a woman’s robust connection with ordinary, and extraordinary, Paleolithic life. There are many theories offered as to their origins and functions: from casual sculpting on a rainy
afternoon, to pornography, self-portraits and fertility icons. Yet I believe that the presence of so many Venus figurines uncovers the centrality and sacredness of woman’s work in giving birth, and in every other aspect of life, then as now. The very ideals that men often find intimidating today.
Although a few male Anthropologists like to gnash their teeth over the existence of an ancient matriarchy, there is little reason for their ardor. Not only is there is scant evidence for one, I don’t think that a matriarchy (as the feminine equivalent to patriarchy) is necessary to validate women’s power over nature and men, because few women have any use for controlling what they are; an implicit part of nature. For me, a women’s power is as self-evident in my wife, Suzanne, as she speaks to large audiences about birth advocacy, as it was to early women coping on the edge of survival. The same power I saw in Louisa’s brown eyes so many years ago.
But it does suggest a source we can draw upon to describe what might, arguably, be called a kind of Paleolithic Feminism. Clearly, their were no feminists in the stone age; yet a feminine ethos, perhaps even a Divine Feminine, when applied to the tribe as a whole, would have been essential to the survival of a nascent civilization.
Food sharing, lack of individual wealth, cooperative community and hunting strategies are a few of the elements of egalitarianism. Yet underneath all those activities is an implicit acknowledgement of human vulnerability. If you think about it, to upper Paleolithic peoples, vulnerability, in the face of death or injury was an everyday reality; and however odd it might seem today, vulnerability, I believe, was the cohesive genius of the Paleolithic era that bonded men and women together, and ironically, became the bane of 21st century men.
However little we know of it, caring for the emotional and physical health of the tribe has serious implications for survival. Without social workers, counselors or Prozac, stone-age psychiatry would have relied on the community, much as egalitarian tribes have always done, to absorb and transmute stress, another important Paleolithic innovation. Eventually though, the awareness of vulnerability became more than just about staying alive, and it was right around the time of the Neolithic period (8,000 – 6,000 BCE), that the fortunes of the ancient gatherer-hunter and Venus began to change.
The emergence of the proto-city can be found among the other remarkable trappings of the Neolithic period like agriculture and metallurgy. The Ubaidians, for example, were a pre-Mesopotamian culture that existed in the greater Euphrates/Tigris river region (6500 – 5000 BCE) of modern day Iraq. Their large settlements were un-walled and notable not only for the fine pottery recovered, but for the construction of the first temples as public architecture. Trade flourished widely among the Ubaidians, bringing new wealth, but at a cost. Amongst the burial goods of their dead archeologists found the first evidence that some Ubaidian men were being viewed as better than others. A new social order had appeared.
But what is of greater significance, and talked about the least, is that this revolution of social stratification butted up against the disappearance of the Venus Statues. Coincidence or not, female carvings that spoke in some way to women’s primacy in early cultures, that were produced for 20,000 years, vanished at about the same time as transitional cultures, such as the semi-sedentary Natufians, appeared around 10,000 BCE in Syria. We could hardly replace the reverent Venus, but she would be replaced with a unique kind of carving five thousand years later.
Everywhere you look in the ancient cities of Ur, Ukur, Sumer, and later on in greater Mesopotamia, women’s power was on the decline. While in some places she retained some rights, as it were, a massive social transition was on the move and this is seen in the remarkable sculptures of the day.
While they have inspired stories of ET’s and reptilian invasions, the Ubaidian Lizard Men (why they are called ”men” is unclear since they were obviously female) were clearly transitional objects created around 5,000 BCE. They portray a female-like body with a reptilian head, heavy shouldering, often nursing a baby and sometimes holding a phallus. No one knows what their true function was; but interestingly, they were created at about the same time as the status of women was on the decline, and seem to suggest that considerations of gender were in flux too.
Social stratification brought with it a radically new way to express power. Egalitarian cultures go out of their way to minimize power differentials, while late Neolithic or the Metal Age culture (3000 BCE) maximized power differences between people of differing status. Gender IN-equality has always been about men holding power over the more physically and emotionally vulnerable in order to control them. That is to say, men appeared who did not hesitate to use social power explicitly as a weapon of social control.
Why is this important? With their reptilian flourish and feminine style, the Lizard Men statues are a marked departure from the quietly powerful Venus. I am not an archeologist, but I have been married, and this suggests to me that women were pissed off with the way they were being treated, perhaps even worried about the direction civilization seemed to be headed, and that we men got tired of hearing about it and decided to create objects like the Lizard Men to satirize and demonize women to demean and control them. It was also likely the first time men had used a power-over strategy like this for the purpose of oppression and social gain. Of course, no one has a need for such power unless the perpetrator feels powerless to begin with!
So the collisions of Mesolithic collectivity with emerging Neolithic individuality were a seismic event. Indeed, the Natufians and Ubaidians are thought of as trans-egalitarian: a people and culture in transition from a more or less pure nomadic or pastoral egalitarianism to a brand new kind of social order. Perhaps it was an unintended effect of technological advancements, like agriculture and metallurgy, that created a new order of social selection pressures based less on cooperation between genders, than they were on accumulating personal wealth and social status that benefitted men alone. (e.g. a budding patriarchy)
As migrations into cities, like Sumer, proceeded (about 3000 BCE), the first experiences with gender inequality must have been quite a shock for an egalitarian people. Where natural evolution is glacial and impartial, I propose that over a few thousand years, a sociology of men evolved to produce synthetic class distinctions that had never existed before: distinctions that were partial to social power and privilege. Like all evolutionary changes, they were advantageous to some and disabling to others.
So this radical reboot of the male-as-Invulnerable was quite a turnabout, and by the time men had passed through the Neolithic into the Bronze age, roughly 2500 BCE, men had undergone a sea change. Far away from the ancient feminine ethos of cooperation, the evolution of a male hegemony took righteous hold of the world.
Owing to the enormous opportunities of the Bronze and Iron ages (900 BCE), the male social brain was overtaken by a evolutionary wave, and with a dangerous and tragic outcome. His once valued and precious vulnerability was now locked within the gleaming metal of his new Bronze facade. He was on his own for the first time. Severing himself from the safety and healing balm of his tribe, most men who surfed the wave of change didn’t know a lonely time was upon them. An epoch of separation, and probably real chaos, began, and all of humankind were the losers.
Where vulnerability was an asset to Paleolithic group cohesion, now, caught up in a world of social competition, vulnerability had become a liability. We men began a centuries long, slow motion coup d’état where we tried (and failed) to erase our vulnerability by erasing every trace of (divine) femininity from within ourselves, and from the public sphere. Making women even more vulnerable than they already were became our unspoken goal. This is not just the rapist’s silent credo. If vulnerability was the sacred glue of an earlier egalitarian time, then denial of that sacredness was the innovation and curse of “The Age of Man”.
Where the alchemy of the tribe once took on his suffering, the demands of this new social life no longer considered it manly for men to speak of their fears as they would have with truly equal peers. It may also suggest a time frame for men’s loss of connection with self, empathy and their ability to view feelings as anything other than a vulnerability to hide or to project onto another.
If cruelty and aggression are the transfer, or catharsis, of the most hated and suppressed aspects of ourselves (in this case, male vulnerability), then the degradation of the Paleolithic Divine Mother into the destroyer of men was an extraordinarily cruel betrayal; and so it goes today. Men have made women into their personal waste dumps, gradually forcing her to absorb more and more of his toxic fear through violence and intimidation.
Although the timelines vary depending upon where you were in 800 BC, the same general pattern of male dominance and aggression advanced across the known world, East and West. The repackaging of women as inferior was variously integrated into most of the civilized world by 2000 BCE. During the Roman period, women, as creators of future Romans, were treated relatively well, if not benevolently. Clearly some men were still gynophobic; as the Athenian, Menander reminds us in the 4th century BCE, if you teach a woman to write you are providing poison to an asp.
In ancient Egypt (3000 BCE), quite remarkably, women were treated as equals to men and by all accounts their culture appears to be something of a refinement of ancient egalitarianism. It also begs the question: If the Egyptians of 3000 BCE avoided trashing women, why were her prospects so much more dubious in ancient Iraq, much as they are today? Meanwhile, in Mesopotamia and old Europe, men were busy cramming women’s power into the domestic sphere, while establishing a near-universal “man-cave” known as Patriarchy that would not only write much of history, but grow to control and abuse virtually every aspect of life, and the chaos spreads further.
After the fall of Rome in the 2nd century the mood of Europe darkened. Whatever relative peace women may have enjoyed under Roman rule was about to come to a close. Misogyny got a leg up when the male-dominated Christian Church in Europe, eschewed community, and chose to lead itself through a quorum of men. And lead they did; principally through chaos and incitement to fire and brimstone fear, superstition and worst of all, exile. The Church shielded itself by glorifying men, granting them access to broad authority and unearned privilege. At the first council of Nicaea in 325 AD, the founding fathers of the Church cemented Christ’s divine nature and, in between the lines of the Nicene Creed, decreed the supremacy of men over the wild and uncontrolled passions of women. Given the violent and impulsive nature of men in this period, exactly whose wild and uncontrolled passions are we really talking about? The Dark Ages suddenly got even darker. The dishonesty is appalling and murderous.
The job of Christianity over the next several hundred years was to scour itself clean of the feminine menace through terror and by scapegoating those who threatened men the most. In The Malleus Maleficarum, (Hammer of Witches), a witch hunting manual written in the 15th century, women were now totally subordinate to the devil. Magdalene sinners and witches; those dangerous others, became patriarchy’s Maginot Line, as he heaped his fear and cluelessness into the breach.
For what amounts to a 7,000-year-old experiment in male pride, our pursuits of happiness have been tied up with his expressions of arrogance, according to his own history, virtually forever. Although misogyny will always be the hatred of women, gynophobia is the truer undertow that began it’s relentless drag on the feminine over five millennia ago and continues erasing woman’s rights, sovereignty, power and pay in the private and public spheres today.
Lost hope, lost dreams, lost income; betrayal steers many people into desperation, as it did Louisa. But what drew most of my clients into counseling to begin with was, to put it in general terms, a traumatically induced, aborted process of becoming, that, on a grander scale of 7000 years of historical trauma, misogyny, gender inequality and oppression, amounts to soul murder on a massive scale.
But how many perpetrators and victims of soul murder do we count? There are almost too many threads to even begin. In Louisa’s story, we have a young rape victim. We have the perpetrator, and like all perpetrators, he was a victim too, made powerless by a tangle of defeated parents, neglect and probable racism. Both parents were made victims of a rigid Catholicism that sentenced Louisa to the torture of forced childbirth and parenting. The Church doesn’t mind forbidding abortion; but what about the aborted life of the girl? Surely, the Church is an equal perpetrator, as is a deeply racist and patriarchal culture. Repeat this story of control and domination a million-million-million times over for women and men, and we run into a reign of progress damning, male perpetrators 7000 years long. Yup, those same fellas who are clawing at your vote in November.
Today’s neocon bully is just the same old face of brutality we already know from history. I don’t know where or when the line of misogyny will burn out, but I know there’s hope. We are on the tipping edge of a 2nd great enlightenment. Considering medical and scientific advances alone should give us cause for optimism. Yet, we still have to work for the same advancements in how we treat each other. Everywhere you look, though, women are empowering themselves and each other. More and more girls are being freed of cultural burdens and are making courageous choices for themselves. Many women and some men are making a left turn out of this gridlock of Patriarchal traffic. We are ripe for the next revolution: a quantum revolution just as seismic as the transition from the egalitarian experience of the Paleolithic to Neolithic men who first denied their vulnerability, and went on to rattle swords, wage wars and don Bronze armor to hide their vulnerable hearts.
Whatever else the second enlightenment might be, I propose it must first of all be about the great re-membering that the best of humanity’s vulnerable hopes and dreams are carried aloft on butterfly wings.
I don’t know where you are, Louisa, but I hope you’re listening.
From Petal to Steel, How Gender Became so UnEqual © Robert Hartman 2016