Farming and female disempowerment


Go to any cattle mart anywhere in the world and count the % of women.  Our media is great at challenging gender inequality in CEO’s of public companies or at senior levels in Politics and the Civil Service.  But does anyone ever ask why there are so few women in marts?

In pre-farming societies there was very little inequality.  Studies of bones in hunter gatherer communities show that the tribe shared resources and either all starved or nobody starved.  The role of women in “primitive” societies was defined differently to the role of men, but not in a way that deprived women.  Women tended to be the owners of the home, even if the home was simply a tepee on the American Great Plains.  She owned the equipment that made the home comfortable, the bedding, the cooking utensils etc.  A woman could divorce her husband simply by tossing him and his possessions out of her home.

So why did the arrival of farming change the status and the role of women so dramatically.  Why did farming result in societies where women live in purdah?  Why did women end up becoming chattels, basically another form of property or livestock owned by the man?

I propose the following theory as one major influence:  The power to trade.

In primitive hunter gatherer societies each tribe basically had fairly similar means of production and end outputs.  A hunter knapped flint, made a spear, killed a deer, ate the meat, wore the skin.  There were some products that could be traded such as metals, salt etc which some tribes were better at producing.  These trades tended to happen at large summer gatherings of tribes where everyone, man and woman alike could trade.

With the arrival of farming the nature of trade changed.  Regular trade became a vital component of successful farming.  A wheat farmer did not “live on bread alone”.  The farm produced a surplus in certain foods and traded this surplus for specialty goods produced by experts.  The basis of civilization is the ability to specialize.

With a constant demand for trading somebody had to adopt the role of the trader on the farm.  In primitive tribal societies if you sent a woman to another tribe there was a risk she would not return.   You could send an older woman, beyond child bearing age, but in primitive societies they were few and far between, and way too valuable to risk.  So you send a man.  Every move is a risk, he may be robbed, or killed, or both.  Tribes eventually settled for sending men to trade their goods.  The loss of a single man is a lesser problem for a tribe than the loss of a women who can produce children.  The future viability of a tribe derives from production of children.

So men became traders.  They developed the skills of going out into the wide world, negotiating prices, exchanging goods, learning new languages, developing accounting and recording systems etc etc.

Traders developed mathematics and writing systems.  These skills developed into formal religious institutions which observed the weather, climate, movements of animals, seasons and led to the development of calendars which dictated the correct times to plant and harvest.

When trading was defined as an activity for men it was given to them because of the danger of the job.  Nobody could have predicted the benefits trade would bring to the power of the individual.  Men rose in status at the expense of women.  Understanding the value of assets from a trade perspective they moved to take ownership of the assets of the tribe, the livestock, the land and eventually the home itself.

In some societies the home remains the property of the woman.  Greek families are an example of this, where the boys must work to provide their sisters with their own homes before they can marry.

If you want to see equality in society you need to see equality in the Cattle Mart, and we are a long way away from that day.




Don’t be disgusting.

One of the key drivers at play in retail situations is disgust.  If you want to sell your product must look perfect, but so should the shelf and the store.

Queen Elizabeth II at the English Market in Cork

Queen Elizabeth II at the English Market in Cork

Disgust is one of the 6 Universal Emotions that are rooted in psychological research (ref; Paul Ekman & Wallace Friesen).

Disgust is a very important emotion that protects us from harm.  Imagine that you leave the office and are walking home when you come across a dead rat in the street.  Do you pick it up and bring it home for dinner?  The very thought is disgusting.

It takes a great deal of deprivation to overcome disgust.  You may be able to imagine a situation where you are starving to death and that dead rat actually seems appetising, but the situation would need to be dire indeed.

What you may not realise is that disgust is operating in the background all the time, affecting your purchasing decisions.  When we go shopping we are driven by this primitive emotion to seek perfection in what we buy.

100,000 years ago, when hominids wandered the forests in search of food the emotion of disgust protected their health.  If you see a piece of fruit that has already been chewed it looks disgusting.  This is an important survival mechanism.  Humans can contract nasty diseases from the bodily fluids of other animals.

People with a genetic disposition to be disgusted by tainted food had a higher survival rate than those with a low disgust threshold.  As a result a sense of disgust became encoded into the Genome of humans.

Our sense of disgust also affects the mating decisions we make.  We are disgusted by pustules, sores, rashes etc on human skin.  All of these are potential signs of diseases such as measles, smallpox, scarlet fever, plague etc.  Those who were fussiest about physical perfection lived longer and had more babies.  Theirs were the winning genes, the genes of disgust.

In the modern world when we go shopping we want to buy things that are not tainted.  We like to go into stores that are clean and ordered, not ones that look like a herd of cattle just passed through.  So retailers must make their stores look pristine to attract shoppers.

Once inside we want to select products that look untouched by others.  We dislike clothes rails that look like someone has been pulling at them.  We like to pick products from shelves that are full to the brim, so we get the “freshest” and “ripest” food.

We avoid the dented tin, the one with the torn paper, the bag of chips that fell on the floor, the bread loaf that looks like someone squeezed it, bruised fruit, wilted salad and wrinkled apples.

It is a huge job for the retailer to keep a display in pristine condition.  As soon as a display looks untidy sales fall.

Lest we forget



I wanted to write something about the twin towers disaster anniversary.  The way I begin these posts is to find an appropriate poem.  It may not be a poem that narratively expresses the situation but it usually expresses my emotional state when I am writing the piece.  This is the reason I include the poems.  You remember history and events well, but the emotional zeitgeist can slip away over time.  Poetry is emotion embodied in word, and I use it to fix my emotions at a point in time.

So I searched for poems about towers and by chance I came across this poem by Countee Cullen, one of the Harlem Rennaissance writers of the 1920’s.  I never read Cullen before and I was delighted to find this poem in particular.  You will see why.

When you read the poem from the perspective of a Negro in the USA of the 1920’s it is quite clear that this is a poem which dreams of a future equality of man, even a celebration of being black.

But this is the 11th of September, the anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Centre.  Imagine you are standing at ground zero.  Imagine a crowd before you of those bereaved by the disaster.  Now read the poem to them.

How powerful is this?

From the Dark Tower:  by Countee Cullen

We shall not always plant while others reap
The golden increment of bursting fruit,
Not always countenance, abject and mute
That lesser men should hold their brothers cheap;
Not everlastingly while others sleep
Shall we beguile their limbs with mellow flute,
Not always bend to some more subtle brute;
We were not made eternally to weep.

The night whose sable breast relieves the stark
White stars is no less lovely being dark,
And there are buds that cannot bloom at all
In light, but crumple, piteous, and fall;
So in the dark we hide the heart that bleeds,
And wait, and tend our agonizing seeds.