There won’t be many posts on female disposability because after all it’s not really a feature of our gender system, but there is such a thing as female disposability and it is worth looking at. Commenter Rebecca mentioned it in passing in reference to my passing mention of it on the most recent post on male disposability and it occurred to me it was time to put all this disposability into context. Discussing female disposability in the context of male disposability may have the effect of bringing some around to the problem of male disposability by way of putting the shoe onto the other foot.
What is female disposability? It is simply the female equivalent of male disposability – the cultural norm that says that females and their interests can be sacrificed for the common good and that females should regard this as part of their gender role, that it is unfeminine to balk at being sacrificed. As you can see, female disposability is clearly not part of our gender system in ay way whatever, but it definitely is part of other gender systems. And by the way, it can exist right alongside male disposability. Disposability is not set on a toggle switch.
Female disposability seems to fall into two broad categories. One of these is effects that arise out of a society’s dependence on patrilineal groups as the basis of social and economic organization and the other is as an accommodation to simple necessity, the reality that childbirth unassisted by modern medicine wears women out, either killing them outright or just breaking down their health over a series of childbirths.
Patrilineal social organization
Patrilineal social organization, otherwise known as “families”, is the dominant form of social organization in pre-modern societies across the world. There are some matrilineal societies, such as the Mosuo, but for the most part they are marginal and restricted to marginal corners of the world, like the Mosuo. Matrilineality is apparently not as strong a form of social organization as patrilineality. We can ask the question how that came to be, but we are not going to examine it at this point. Huge, intricate historical question. For our purposes it’s sufficient to point out that the arrangement is very old. Male groups control and protect territory and access to resources, often at the cost other men’s lives – this is what war almost always boils down to – and this requires fairly tight and more to the point, continuing, groups. Men turn to have tighter emotional bonds with their blood kin – their brothers, fathers, cousins – than with the husbands of their wives’ relatives. No big surprise there.
This kind of social organization is going to make sons more valuable than daughters, because sons and not daughters continue the family. Daughters marry out and help continue someone else’s family. It is also going to make sons more valuable than daughters-in-law because, rare eggs or not, you have a finite number of sons but a much wider field of potential daughters in law. And in any case, DILs are never going to have the same loyalty or utility to the patrilineage. I don’t particularly like this model, but hard conditions make for hard choices.
So what forms of female disposability do we expect to see under these conditions?
– Female infanticide and sex-selective abortions – this kind of thing is well-documented in China and India.
– I would add forced marriage in here, except that that is a form of male disposability as well; after all it takes to marry and the chances are good that he’s no happier than she is at being told who to marry. But, no, I will include it, because female disposability does not preclude male disposability.
All of this is summed up in the Chinese proverb: “A daughter is someone’s else’s happiness.”
Relative essentiality – As I said above, it’s a lot easier to replace daughters-in-law than sons. But even where that is not really the case, in general men’s work tended to be more essential to the family’s survival than the women’s. That doesn’t mean women’s work was important; in settings where the lion’s share of food processing, almost all clothing, almost all household containers, most furnishings, were the product of women’s work, women’s work was irreplaceable. It’s just that men brought the overwhelming majority of protein into the diet and protected the territory that furnished all the rest of that diet.
There is a piece of evidence that suggest that for thousands of generations the care and feeding of men was prioritized over that of the women in the family. That evidence is the difference between men’s and women’s nutritional needs. Women tend to get by on less than men do, although this may simply be a function of the greater body size men needed because they did all the heaviest most dangerous work. Nevertheless, the fact that women adapted,over the generations, a physical genetic adaptation, may be a response to getting less to eat.
Childbirth – As I said above childbirth wears women out if they don’t have access to modern medicine. For a number of reasons childbirth is abnormally difficult in humans. One of these is evolutionary: humans have really big-headed babies with big brains, that have to pass through the relatively narrow pelvises we need for bipedalism. They other I suspect is also evolutionary: our social arrangements have afforded women the kind of physical security necessary to making prolonged, difficult and often quite loud labor anything other than a chow call to every large predator in the area.
Childbirth was a deadly enough risk that the pre-conquest Mexica considered it the female equivalent of going to war. The dangers of childbirth were universally recognized. The Book of Common Prayer had a special service for women after childbirth, and the wording in the 1559 version – spare, blunt, and graceful – is pretty touching:
THE THANKESGEVINGE OF WOMEN AFTER CHILDE BYRTHE,
THE CHURCHYNGE OF WOMEN.
The woman shall come into the churche, and there shall knele downe in some convenient place, nyghe unto the place where the table standeth, and the priest standing by her, shal saie these wordes, or suche lyke, as the case that require.
FORASMUCHE as it hath pleased almyghtye God of hys goodnes to geve you safe delyveraunce, and hath preserved you in the great daunger of childbyrth: ye shal therfore geve heartye thankes unto God and praye….
This is followed by a section of one of the Psalms that is traditionally said in moments of mortal danger and the service concludes:
Let us praie.
O ALMIGHTYGod, which hast delivered this woman thy servaunte from the great paine and peril of childe birthe: Graunt we beseche the most mercifull Father, that she through thy help may bothe faithfully live, and walke in her vocation, accordyng to thy wil, in this lyfe present, and also may be partaker of everlastyng glory in the lyfe to come, throughe Jesus Christ our Lorde. Amen.
The woman that commeth to gine her thanckes, muste offer accustomed offerynges, aud if there be a Communion, it is convenient that she receive the holy Communion.
This type of female disposability was not a cultural choice or the result of cultural evolution, it was simply an acknowledgement of a grim medical reality. The fact that very few even know about this little service tucked away in the Book of Common Prayer says a great deal about the progress society has made in protecting women.
As I said, there isn’t much left to talk about these days when it comes to female disposability, at least not in a society where women are human beings valued simply for existing, while men are human doings, valued for their utility. But it is worth discussing as a matter of historical fact.
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