Throughout your life you will encounter the relics of a world where you were treated as second-rate just because you were female. People will not always listen to what you say, they will not always pay you properly, you may be subjected to indignities that a man would not have to face.
Yet you will also be aware that, compared to most women in the past and present, you are fortunate. Many millions have been assumed to be inferior by birth, the possession of their family. They have been forced to work and to have children, to wear restricting clothes, to have their bodies mutilated. So you may well wonder why gender inequality is so widespread.
Are men and women the same?
There are arguments that men and women are the same. This causes problems because they patently are not the same physically and probably in other ways as well. On the other hand, if they are accepted as different, then there is always the temptation to build this natural difference into inequality.
In Christianity, with Adam created first and Eve made out of his rib and leading him into temptation, or in some Islamic civilizations there is a long tradition of the danger associated with women. So religion often tends to suggest the inferiority of women. In much of the eastern half of the Asian continent women were seen as inferior all the time. In Hindu civilization in India, women should be subservient to their husbands and their brothers.
No-one has really explained this. Some relate it to the superior ability of men in war and hunting, where strength and aggression are more valuable. But what of the reputed Amazons? Furthermore, in most of these civilizations, a well armed woman could well have defeated a man.
Others say it reflects the relative role of men and women in economic production. They suggest that in societies where women are the main producers of the crops through their work with simple hoes (as in much of Africa), they are often powerful and independent. In societies where men are needed to guard the flocks of animals, or to work with heavy tools such as ploughs, as in India and China, then men have the higher status.
There is something in this, but we need to remember that women can plough – as they did in northern Spain and Portugal. Also, in Japan and much of China, the intensive rice cultivation was done with hoes and women were just as important as men in the work. Yet this did not improve their status.
From our own experience we know that the crucial producers, for instance those who worked in the factories and mines in nineteenth century Britain, were still treated as inferior and expendable. So the roots of the inequality seems to be more than just political or economic.
Again, people have said that the attributed inferiority reflects the way we classify the world. We tend to oppose the cultural world of human artefacts, objects which are often thought of as male, to the natural world of wild forces. With their bodies supposedly subject to the moon (the monthly cycle of menstruation), and more emotional nature, women are linked to the natural world. Yet all of this seems rather arbitrary and hardly grounds for gross discrimination.
What does seem clear is that women have had their highest status in certain religious traditions which emphasize their direct link to spiritual power, particularly Protestant Christianity and Buddhism. They also seem to have higher status in late industrial societies such as the one now dominant in western Europe and America.
Women also often have high status in societies where men are away working as shepherds or migrant labourers, as in the Nepalese village where I work, where many of the men went into the army and now go off to work abroad. Recently I visited the so-called ‘Kingdom of Women’ in Yunnan, south-western China. There the men traditionally went off for six months of the year to carry goods along the south-west silk road to India. The women were left and ran the households and the farms and were the central power in the society.
What makes people unequal?
The very simplest societies, those that hunted, gathered and practiced agriculture over the planet for a hundred thousand years were often egalitarian. There were sometimes ‘Big Men’ and some were richer than others. There were even sometimes captured slaves. Yet there were no permanent divisions into castes and classes.
It was with the emergence of ‘civilization’ that real differences in life style and expectations occurred. The universal human desire to be ‘king of the castle’, to dominate in play, to receive the deferential respect of others, to let others work for us, could now be consolidated through the use of new technologies. Those in charge could use superior weapons to enforce their dominance. These included horses, armour, writing, money, law, bureaucracy and even religion.
Because we live in an unusual civilization which is officially constantly striving towards equality, at least of opportunity, it is easy to forget that in almost all of history people have striven in the opposite direction. The general tendency has been for the differences between strata to increase. The basic premise was that people were born unequal.
On the other hand the American Declaration of Independence of 1776 started ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’ Such an assertion would have struck almost everyone who ever lived as complete nonsense. It has been very generally assumed that some humans are by nature better, more intelligent, more gifted. Furthermore, no-one has unalienable rights to anything.
What kinds of inequality are there?
Inequality expresses itself in different ways. One is ‘caste’, which comes from the Portuguese word for sexual relations. It is a system which is found in classic form in Hindu India. A person is born into a certain group. Each group has its function; priests, warriors, merchants, farmers. Its meaning lies in relation to other groups. This is a hierarchical system of differences which means that one is only allowed to have sex, marry, eat and even touch the bodies of people within one’s group. To do these things outside leads to impurity, spiritual danger and pollution.
A second system is ‘class’. This is based on success in life. It is not principally given by blood or birth. It is mainly an economic rather than religious matter. Some people are wealthier, some poorer, some own the means of producing wealth, others work for them. Often there are three classes, each of which are sub-divided. The English are perhaps the most class divided and class conscious society in history.
My grand-mother was not unusual in thinking of her world as like a large chest of drawers. A few people were in the top drawer, many were in the middle drawers which were divided into upper, middle and lower (she felt she was in the upper one of these). The drawer at the bottom contained the vast majority of the world, who could be spotted at some distance by their clothes, accents, tastes and hobbies.
The third form of classification is race. This combines inequalities of wealth with ideas of ritual pollution and dirt. Because of the colour of skin, a person is not allowed to marry, have sex with, touch or eat with people with skin of another colour, or eyes of a different shape. The extreme case of this was often combined with slavery.
What is the American way?
Outside these is the peculiar system we now try to practice, which we might call the American way. It assumes that everyone is born equal and should have equal opportunities. Yet curiously, with equal chances and equal abilities, some end up as very rich, and most end up as poor. So there is a paradox.
America, based on the premise of absolute equality, has one of the most extremely unequal divisions of wealth in the world. Japan, based on the premise of inequality, is one of the most egalitarian.
The added difficulty is that where the society proclaims that it provides equality of opportunity, there is no-one else to blame for ending up near the bottom of the pile. In caste systems we may have a lowly position, but that is not our fault. It is written on our brow at the moment of birth.
The strain comes to bear most heavily in our educational systems. If there is no natural inequality, yet people have to be assigned to differently valued and paid jobs, then something other than blood must separate them. So we use education. While we proclaim everyone is equally gifted, some end up with firsts at a good University, others leave school with poor grades at sixteen. The latter may bear the double burden of a life with far fewer material comforts and the knowledge that they have ‘failed’, that they are considered lazy or stupid by the wider society.
Does inequality usually increase?
The normal tendency is towards the growth of both caste and class and the effective enslavement of much of the population. We can see this process at work over much of Europe in the past.
After the fall of the western Roman Empire some sixteen hundred years ago, much of Europe started with light populations of ‘barbarian’ peoples mixed in with the remains of Roman civilization. Slavery had been abandoned, serfdom had not started, people were largely free to follow a military leader, work for a patron, or set up on their own. There was little instituted inequality or hierarchy. There were no inherited statuses, little division of labour and task, no huge disparities in wealth and life chances.
If we then look at western Europe a thousand years later, something extraordinary had happened. As wealth and population grew and more sophisticated technologies were developed, they created great inequalities and a caste-like structure. The rich and powerful had become superior. Through education and cultural ornamentation they had turned wealth into superior status.
For not only had inequality increased, but much of Europe had become very like a caste society. There were blood differences, that is differences based on birth and enshrined in legal rights. There were the nobility and the ignoble or commoners. There were the free-born and the bound and illiterate peasantry. There were huge gaps between these birth-given orders so that, as in the caste system of India, marriage between the castes was forbidden. Nobles must not marry commoners, a peasant could not marry a bourgeois.
What had happened was that the strong human drive to assert superiority over others, when coupled with new opportunities and tools, had created first inequalities and then hierarchy. The earlier assumption that all men were born equal in the sight of God had given way to the basic premise that some men were naturally superior to others. It was against this that the French revolutionaries set themselves with their cry of ‘liberty, equality, fraternity’ in 1789.
The tendency to drift towards inequality as a civilization settles down after a period of turbulence could be documented from many other civilizations and periods of history. We see it in various phases of Chinese civilization, or in the increasing rigidities and divisions of Japan in the seventeenth century.
What was the English path?
There was one notable exception to this almost universal tendency towards inequality and then hierarchy. Although the English to a certain extent moved towards a sort of class system they did not move towards caste. The basic premise of birth equality had been maintained. There was no legal difference between a gentleman or an aristocrat and a commoner or farmer. Their children could marry each other, they could move from one status to another through marriage or money in a few years. By the eighteenth century a ‘modern’ social structure had emerged, in opposition to the increasingly hierarchical path that had been followed by almost all previous agrarian civilizations.
One way in which past writers drew attention to this was in the curious differences in the words given to groups. In France there were definite status groups, named after a mixture of where they lived and what people did. There were the blood-born and superior warriors, the nobilité, the religious literate group or clergé, the town-dwelling merchants and craftsmen or bourgeoisie, and the country dwelling workers or paysans. They were part of the great Indo-European varna system which stretches as far as Hindu India.
In England, however, there were strange different labels. In the seventeenth century, for example, no-one used any of the above terms or their equivalents. Instead they talked of lords, gentlemen, yeomen, merchants, artificers, husbandmen, of labourers, servants, cottagers, paupers and vagrants. None of these fitted with French categories.
There was nothing like the yeoman in France. The English yeoman was a middling man, who usually lived in the country, but was educated, independent, a voter and jury-man, held substantial property, perhaps did some farming but also might do other things, making, buying, selling. It really meant a free and relatively prosperous man. As I sit writing this letter in a seventeenth century yeoman’s house I have a strong feeling of what sort of person he was. There are famous descriptions of him, with silver buttons on his coat, eating good food, sending children to the local grammar school, standing up to the knights of the shire, the ‘backbone of England’.
It is a category or class not defined by any particular occupation and which only existed in the eyes of others. It had no fixed badges or legal status. People just felt they were, and were regarded by others, as yeomen. Every English village had them, and they were numerous. There is nothing equivalent elsewhere in the world, though there are hints of something like it in parts of historic Japan. The kulaks of Russia, the rich peasants of Spain or Italy were very different in many respects. If a modern audience wants to appreciate the archetype of the yeoman living in the shires of England, they only have to turn to Tolkein’s portrayal of the hobbits living in the shires of Middle Earth. Bilbo, Frodo and their friends are yeomen.
How have some societies avoided caste?
What almost always happens is that as wealth increases the gaps between groups widen. At first everything is jumbled up and people struggle in a competitive and fairly equal world. The downfall of an Empire like Rome or the Sung in China, or the medieval wars of Japan, create a chaos of confused, overlapping, groupings where people fight to survive. As the situation clears and wealth accumulates, the social structure solidifies and small cracks become large fissures which are impossible to leap across. People increasingly live within enclosures, high fences surround them and protect them from other groups.
If a society is imagined as something vertical, then the ladder usually has few rungs and they are far apart and growing ever wider. It is impossible to climb up and difficult to drop down. There are four rungs as we have seen: the warrior-rulers, literate clergy, traders and manufacturers, country workers. There may also be outcaste groups who fit nowhere, for example the Jews and gypsies. This is the normal tendency towards greater rigidity. Yet it is not the path that led to modern western civilization.
For what was odd about the English path was that it did not look like this. There were no ‘enclosures’, or if there were, the fences round them were so flimsy and constantly broken through that they were almost meaningless. Some elocution lessons could turn a common flower girl into an upper class lady, as in Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion. Those within each ramshackle enclosure were no doubt constantly trying to prop up the fences, but then someone would let in another rich trader’s daughter or expel a useless son.
In fact there were numerous parallel ladders, each with many, closely spaced, rungs. The Church of England is a good example. This was a ladder on its own, mirroring the whole social structure from the impoverished, poorly educated, hopeless, curate in some remote living, to the Bishop of Durham or Archbishop of Canterbury, equal to any lord in wealth and status. A very talented, ruthless or cunning individual might climb this slippery ladder.
A parallel ladder occurred in trade and business. From a humble small shop-keeper in a rural village up to the heads of great trading companies, from Dick Whittington when he arrived with just a bundle on his back and his cat, to his position as a great city gentleman and Lord Mayor of London, there were hundreds of rungs on this particular ladder. The same is true for the legal, academic, farming, military and office-holding ladders.
Furthermore, one could move up one ladder and then hop across to another, or move one’s children up from rung to rung through education. There were countless cases of a person who had made a career in one field, say farming or manufacturing, who then moved their children onto another ladder, say the church or law. There were no true hereditary professions.
This system of ladders means that people are always able to climb up and fall down. Most of us would secretly agree with a man who observed that ‘What makes equality such a difficult business is that we only want it with our superiors.’ So we concentrate on climbing, as does everyone else, and the system ends up as it is.