Let’s get right into the last three paragraphs of Dan’s answer.
We (and I’m a passionate gender egalitarian) may want to say it was because of “those prejudiced men who kept women down!” but that’s just a bit too simplistic.
Notice the dog whistle word? “Gender egalitarian” is one of those phrases that is often used to quietly signal a person’s distaste for feminism. As for the content of the sentence, I agree that saying women’s oppression is just prejudiced men keeping women down is too simplistic. I’m not sure I’ve ever met or read the work of a feminist who would make such a simplistic claim. Most of us recognize that there are a number of confounding factors that contribute to the oppression of women in a society.
Even women back then didn’t question their role; even women in power (queens) believed in those roles. Nobody knew any different!
Women back when? And where? This is vague and meaningless. As far as Euroamerican history is concerned, women have long questioned and challenged their default positions in society. Here are just a few examples.
There were very real reasons rooted all the way back into the dawn of humanity, lost to the obscurity of the ages. But we know, most definitely, that the gender roles played by men and women were necessary for society to continue because life was physical, generally short, and dependent upon those roles.
Again, we see here the appeal to human nature. Forget that the particular roles that women play varies wildly across cultures throughout history. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!
The thing is, strict gender roles are not necessary for society to continue. This is obvious because there are societies that do not break down along strict gender lines. These societies work just fine! In fact, American society does not break down along strict gender lines anymore (something Dan admits below). Men and women can generally do the same kinds of tasks, and those areas of labor that are still strongly gendered are that way not because of biology, but because of culture.
Now, with the advent of the industrial and medical revolutions, suddenly there was surplus wealth (to pay for schools, social programs, safety nets), machines that equalized strength, education to give both genders a chance at contributing to society and longer human lives to fill our cities.
This line of reasoning is myopic. It wasn’t that there was no wealth to pay for schools before the Industrial Revolution and the Enlightenment, it was that Euroamerican societies were organized in strict hierarchies. The opening up of schools and social programs by the government to citizens coincides with the rise of the middle class, who began to demand such services. It’s not that there was suddenly a surplus of wealth, it’s that wealth began to be spread around more broadly to society (a trend that is reversing in the US in recent years).
It’s also not necessarily that machines “equalized strength,” it’s that machines made labor easier for everybody. Education opportunities were made available for everybody (hypothetically. In practice, it was really made available for middle-class white people!). These divisions were more about class than they were about gender; contrary to Dan’s earlier arguments, the people (mostly men) in power in Euroamerican societies during the Industrial Revolution were not in power because they were physically stronger than women. They were in power, again, because of cultural beliefs about the kinds of people who are entitled to power. Dan conveniently ignores the rise to prominence of democratic governmentality that came along with the Industrial Revolution.
This is not to say that there are no gender inequality issues that have been improved due to the Industrial Revolution and concomitant social changes. Of course there were. What I am saying is that Dan’s explanation, to use his own words, is “just a bit too simplistic.”
With this, the necessity of having babies to preserve society diminished.
I’m pretty sure it’s still necessary to have babies if we want to keep society going. But I think what Dan is getting at here is the decline in total fertility rates (TFR). But the Industrial Revolution is not what led to a decrease in TFR. It’s important to explain what TFR means. Basically, TFR measures how many children an imaginary woman in a given population would have if she were to live her entire reproductive life (ages 15-49) in a single year. So, for example, the TFR for the US is estimated to be 2.06 as of 2013.
When we look at the TFR and compare it across different countries, what we find is that there is a general decline in TFR all around the world, but when you look at individual countries, the declines happen at different points in time and at different rates. If you click on that link, you will see a graph of TFR from Google Public Data. I’ve selected a few different options to give an idea of how varied changes in TFR are. I selected the US and Canada to show that they have quite similar trends, owing to their close proximity and many shared sociocultural norms. But notice the drop in TFR in those two countries didn’t start until the 1960s. Hmm, I wonder what happened during that decade! For contrast, I put Mexico on there, which has a precipitous drop since the 1970s. Guess what happened in the 1970s in Mexico. If you guessed that contraception became more widely available, you’d be right!
The need for strong and durable men to work in fields, factories, and in war began to diminish because machines did the “equalizing” work. This has continued apace even to today, in places where machines do ALL of the heavy lifting and all that matters is brain power. Now, there may remain a few select jobs where brute physical strength is at a premium (front-line soldiers, miners, construction, etc.) and those are likely to continue to be dominated by men for obvious reasons.
I’ve already addressed this previously, but I remain unconvinced that those jobs require a male body to be done well. Combat roles, for example, are being opened up to women in the US and have been open to women in other countries for some time. There have also long been women in mining and construction jobs. So, it is not at all obvious to me that those jobs are likely to continue being dominated by men for biological or physiological reasons. It seems to me that they are dominated by men because of our beliefs about gender roles (as demonstrated by Dan’s entire answer).
And so the equalizing of the genders is not something that “men granted” but which society needed and women rightly demanded.
Oh, I am so glad to hear that women are equal now! You know, once they demanded it, it was totally granted and things are just peachy now!
We know now that no organization can prosper without tapping into the full mental and emotional potential of both genders (anything less is both a horrible waste and a recipe for failure). In fact, we’re reaching a point in development where if we do not demand that everybody contribute to their full potential, then we notice a massive creative lag in that society.
I’m not sure that we, as a society, know this. From my vantage point, I still see women being disadvantaged in school, I still see beliefs about men’s inherently higher intelligence, I still see women ignored and treated as sexual objects rather than as peers. And I know that if those things are happening in Euroamerican societies, they are certainly happening elsewhere, and probably to greater degrees where there are fewer legal and social avenues to recourse.
But don’t let me stop your privilege-blind optimism, Dan! I mean, why bother talking to women and finding out about their actual experiences in their societies when you can just imagine that things are all egalitarian now? It’s totally easier that way and doesn’t force you to be critical or reflexive about your privileged position in society. Or to question your beliefs in the myth of human nature and gender essentialism.
More importantly, as a growing world of humanists, we understand that no society can truly be free until every citizen has the same rights; to deny even the least of its members carries the potential to deny all of its members freedom and liberty.
Dan, did you just call women “the least” of our society’s members??
Yep. Pretty much what I’d expect.
And that concludes my evisceration of this load of crap. To those of you who made it all the way through, thanks for tagging along. I hope I’ve shed some light on why this kind of thinking about an essentialist human nature is faulty and misleading. And I hope that in the future Slate will avoid cross-posting crap like this from Quora and instead seek out actual experts with knowledge on these topics to answer such questions.
Featured image is of an American woman factory worker during World War II.