I said at the beginning that man is a mammalian species. From this one simple fact flow many important consequences for the human race. As the word “mammal” indicates, our females nurse their young, which requires diversification of the roles played by males and females, but even those words males and females tell us something. Viruses, fungi, and bacteria do not reproduce sexually and thus are not sexually distinguished. Many plants–even some trees–reproduce asexually, but animals and especially mammals are creatures defined in part by their sexuality, which allows for the genetic diversity that assists in their survival. What follows is stolen from volume II of my never-ending work tentatively entitled Cities of Men. A good deal of the earlier bibliography is covered in The Politics of Human Nature. If you have fallen into the trap of the misnamed “Men’s” Movement (no men in the movement so far as I can tell), please do not waste our time with your revanchiste fantasizing. Nothing is to be gained by whining, certainly not manhood.
The male head of the house is both husband and father, and his authority over his wife and children has been frequently invoked as an analogue or as a source for the power that a king (or the rulers of any government) has over his subjects. Feminists, looking back at the traditional sex roles of 19th and 20th century Europe and the Americas, have often written sneeringly of “the patriarchy,” as if the insertion of the definite article confers an academic anathema upon the word. Anti-feminists have responded by explicitly defending patriarchy or by discussing male dominance in terms of the rigid hierarchy of baboons. But human social life has little in common with that of the boorish baboon, and “patriarchy,” as the word suggests, refers properly not to the virtually universal human tendency toward male dominance but to societies in which the fathers and senior males rule over the family and tribal structure with sovereign authority.
Our image of patriarchy inevitably comes from Old Testament patriarchs like Abraham and Jacob, who exercised a regal authority over their wives, children, and extended kinfolk. This pattern of authority is not uncommon among other pastoral peoples, but, as societies grow and develop greater complexity, much of this authority is transferred to chieftains, kings, and representative bodies. Nonetheless, in every known society, men have occupied and continue to occupy most of the highest niches of power and prestige.
Why is this so? Anyone who has taken a look, however brief, at his fellow human beings, will have noticed that members of the male sex tend to be bigger and stronger than their nearest female relatives. The difference–on an order of roughly 10%–is not so great as in some species, but it is enough to ensure that most men can physically dominate most women. This disparity is partly a function of inherent physical differences but even more of the different roles played by men and women in society. Most women in history have had to spend a good deal of their time and energy on bearing and rearing children. In primitive societies, this burden, though it might be shared with female relatives, was a good deal heavier than it is in an era of daycare and electrical appliances.
Social roles are not, however, the whole story. Organized women’s athletics are, for the most part, a recent development, but they have existed long enough and, in recent decades, with a good deal of government encouragement without really eliminating the gap between the sexes. Even today women do not often compete with men in aggressive male sports such as boxing and football, and even in sprinting men maintain a significant advantage. The fastest official score for a man running 100 meters is Usain Bolt’s 9.58 seconds, about 9% faster than Florence Joyner’s record 10.48, about which questions have been raised. At the 2008 Olympics, gold medal winner Shelly-Ann Frazier’s 10.78 seconds was beaten by the number 8 male runner’s 10.00. We can begin to believe in sexual equality in the physical sense when there is no sexual distinction in sports, that is, when men and women compete in the same leagues.
It is only natural to assume—and scientific research has gone a long way to verify this assumption—that in the evolution of mammalian, specifically primate species, males and females developed specialized roles: Men became the experts in hunting large game and fighting the enemies of family and clan. Because these specialties are associated with certain attributes of mind and spirit as well as with bodily functions, the nervous and hormonal systems of males and females develop somewhat differently. The differences, in any individual cases, may be quite slight, but overall women are more verbal, men more analytical, women more inclined to what is now called “multi-tasking,” men more prone to concentrating on problems one at a time. As human societies have grown and developed—often in strange and wonderful ways–they have always been shaped by these fundamental facts of sexual dimorphism. In a near-universal pattern of dominance, younger humans defer to their elders and females to males.
But, given the creativity of the human race, the type and extent of that power varies greatly, from the easily familiarity of pygmy husbands and wives to the rigidity of Chinese men who (down into the early 20th century) bound women’s feet to make them more dependent. Then we have to distinguish between the basic principle, the sexual differentiation of political power, and, for example, the family practices of nomadic shepherds. Wherever our search may lead us, it will not be toward the reestablishment of a patriarchal theonomy based on Old Testament law.
It is dangerous to speak too broadly, but, in general, sexual distinctions have been more marked in developed civilizations than in primitive societies. At the same time, the civilizations of ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome–and of Medieval Europe—developed traditions and rules that required respect for mothers and wives, sisters and daughters. Men controlled the government and the army, dominated the economy, and occupied most of the high status positions. Women who inherited power were often regarded, fairly or not, as weak rulers, and both the woman pharaoh Hatshepsut and Queen Elizabeth I were sometimes portrayed or described in terms that hinted at masculinity. Nonetheless, while men may have ruled (theoretically) their children as absolute monarchs, their authority over wives was, as Aristotle says, political rather than monarchical in the sense that it was limited by law, custom, and respect.
Ancient civilizations, as they developed more complex social, political, and liberal systems, increasingly took steps to protect wives from abusive husbands. The institutions of power were, nonetheless, dominated by men. This domination did not reduce women to slaves or chattel or even to the level of dependent children. While Athenian women were generally subject to the authority of a father, husband, or guardian, some of them were involved in commerce. Roman women were much freer to engage in business and to evade the control of a guardian. They could not, however, engage in public (that is, most legal and political) business, which must have restricted their sphere of operations. Nonetheless, Roman women had greater economic opportunities and a wider sphere of liberty than most European and American women had down to the late 19th century.