Commenter Schala has remarked several times that the way the gender system in our societies works is that women are a functional aristocracy and men are a functional proletariat. (Of course there is a kyriarchal class above all of this, composed of both men and women in about equal numbers, the elites we are constantly told are all men. The men are merely more visible, but the women benefit equally with the men.)
Schala’s thesis pulls a lot of disparate cultural norms into a framework with a lot of explanatory and predictive power. I haven’t worked this out into any kind of final form, the list of norms and features of the culture is likely incomplete, there will be connections I do not yet see, but I want to pull together what I do have for comment.
Let’s look at some of these cultural norms:
Dress – Women are allowed, expected in fact, to dress stylishly and even flamboyantly. Men are generally not allowed this, and in fact even showing an interest in dress is policed.
Work – Outdoor work tends to be a male preserve; indoor work tends to be a female preserve. (Certainly there is plenty of low-status indoor work, but even low-status indoor work is higher-status than equivalent outdoor work and when men get indoor work it is often as a reward or considered a raise in status.) This indoor/outdoor dichotomy means that men have the job of dealing with strangers, and that ironically means that men deal with warfare, politics above the clan level, commerce and all the other things that are the source of economic and political power. The price of course is all the risk and injury that entails.
Physical violence – A woman who inflicts physical violence on a man is often supported and justified by various gender stereotypes around violence, while a man who inflicts violence on a woman is considered at the least unmanly and at the worst some kind of beast. This is encoded in the “You never hit a girl” rule.
Coarseness and refinement – Gender norms for males allow or even require coarseness of manner while women are generally policed for coarseness, even now. These days women can engage in a whole spectrum of previously forbidden rude behaviors, but if you look carefully, they have to compensate with some kind of hyper-refinement in some other area. It may be daintiness of diet, to the point of rejecting certain foods as coarse or “gross” or it may be exaggerated disgust at the crudity of men.
How does this relate to class? When we look at modes of dress, types of work and norms around physical violence , we see that the female end of the spectrum aligns with the prerogatives of aristocrats – expensive and conspicuous modes of dress, staying in out of the sun and cold, and protection form physical violence from below, and that the male end of the spectrum aligns with the lot of peasants and laborers – drab and functional dress, outdoor work being considered more manly, and vulnerability to physical violence inflicted with impunity.
How did this system arise? Obviously it was not some female conspiracy to grab power. Women wouldn’t have had the power to pull that off anyway. I think it evolved as a confluence of various lines of historical development.
The Indoor/Outdoor Dichotomy – This seems to be one constant across cultures around the world. Men deal with everything outside the home or the clan. They defend the land and resources the community needs, they deal with strangers, either in war or in politics – even with divine strangers, which is how men figure so prominently in the Old Testament over women – and outdoor work is for men – working fields, tending livestock, resource extraction in mines and forests and on the sea. Women on the other hand have the job of maintaining the base camp for all of this. Women do the initial norming of children, they process crops and the catch into actual food and they often set the norms of behavior for everyone in the this base camp. But as soon as an activity normally associated with women starts being done for outsiders it becomes men’s work, and this is why baking, pottery, cooking, even weaving become men’s work as soon as someone is paying for it – because it’s only strangers who have to pay for any of this.
Conversely transgression of this division are policed. Within living memory little girls were punished for trying to climb trees, barred from athletics celebrated like oddities for being able to shoot well, drive a car of fly an airplane. Even now farting is considered somehow unfeminine, as if women’s bowels work differently from men’s.
Modes of dress – Here I think the split is due to the rise of capitalism and industrialization. We often think of capitalism as the triumph of the bourgeoisie over the proletariat, but in fact it was the triumph of the bourgeoisie over the aristocracy, with the bourgeoisie wresting power over the proletariat form the aristocracy. This process took centuries and the two contesting classes kept distinct in a number of ways – snobbery on the aristocratic side and prudish moral superiority on the bourgeois side. So where male aristocrats decked themselves out like drag queens – just watch the opening scenes of Dangerous Liaisons for a taste of this – the rising bourgeoisie kept to sedate and drab colors and sturdy materials for their business suits. These naturally have evolved into luxury items of clothing, with luxurious materials, but the drab colors remain. And in any case, jeans and Carhartt are still more macho.
Coarseness and refinement – this is a huge area and I don’t have this mapped out much at all.
So that’s the first cut. Please comment and contribute and I will thank you. And if that process of contribution and refinement leads to junking this thesis, thanks for that too.
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