I just heard on the news that, in 70 countries, girls face risks by simply going to school and being girls.

How did women come to be second-class citizens throughout the world? Are there any relatively non-controversial historical explanations for the origins of gender inequality?

  • 2
    This is a question of anthropology or perhaps sociology, not history. Feb 10, 2015 at 0:02
  • @TylerDurden I used the "anthropology" tag for that reason, and it is an historical question. Feel free to flag as off-topic if you feel the need to. Feb 10, 2015 at 0:03
  • 4
    The two good answers should show all the close-voters that this is a historical question that can be answered, although not without controversy.
    – Mike
    Feb 11, 2015 at 2:33
  • 3
    I have no idea why my fellow mods are voting to close this perfectly valid question (among others as well, for of all things 'off-topic'). Needless to say if it ever gets closed I will vote to re-open immediately. Feb 11, 2015 at 3:16
  • 2
    All other subject are helper subjects of History :-)
    – Mouser
    Feb 22, 2015 at 13:20

2 Answers 2


In his momentous study L'origine des systèmes familiaux, Emmanuel Todd notes that, to the best of a rather sparse archival knowledge, first, the status of women in Eurasia in the 5000BC-1500CE interval seems to historically follow a lowering trajectory, second, this lowering trajectory seems to proceed in a top/down fashion and, third, the adoption of anti-women social mores in the higher classes is linked with the militarization of society and military expansion.

To be more precise, pre-civilization societies seem to display a uniformly rather high status for women. It is usually first in the ruling classes that the status of women is lowered (the low status then trickles down through society) and the adoption of anti-feminine social arrangements frequently temporally coincides with changes in the military organization of the society. Todd offers the tentative hypothesis that the idea of restructuring social mores in more military efficient but less pro-feminine ways might have appeared originally in very few places in Eurasia (among them the steppe people of northern China) and then, later on, has spread through military conquests and imitation.

Todd offers the following evidence for his thesis. First, the vast majority of hunter/gatherer people that modern anthropologists have described ascribes a high status to woman. Second, a map of Eurasia describing the gradient of woman status circa 1500CE displays the usual appearance of a diffusion process map, with peripheral zones (both in the sense of geography and intensity of cultural contacts) typically exhibiting the conservation of archaic forms and central (ditto) zones exhibiting the newer anti-feminine forms. Third, the archival record displays a clear duality in which royal and higher classes families gradually adopt more and more anti-feminine familial and social arrangements whereas lower classes censuses betray more egalitarian arrangements up to a much later period (though they eventually catch up).

I don't think this hypothesis can be deemed uncontroversial, but I do recommend skimming the reference for a sample of the evidence in support of it (which is both quite impressive and quite sparse, as it is of course extremely hard to probe the nature of gender relations in past societies, if only because contemporary documents take them for granted).

As an aside, I'll note that seen under this perspective, the relatively rather high status ascribed to women in late medieval, early modern period in England (see for instance the works of Peter Laslett) derives from the peripheral position of the British Isles at the very end of Eurasia. As the attitudes and conceptions of the English speaking world became the de facto international norm because of the disproportionate geopolitical role the United Kingdom and the United States came to play in the XIXth and XXth century, we may attribute the rather high status given to women in the contemporary developed world to the fortuitous later spread of an archaic form originally preserved because of geographical isolation. In a more pessimistic note, the thesis also suggests a factor explaining why historical centers of eurasian civilization (China, northern India, the middle-east, the Arab world) remained largely and very significantly underdeveloped in the XIXth and XXth century: as is well-known, the spread of literacy is highly correlated with a high status of women, so historical centers of civilizations, which had adopted the most "advanced" (we would anachronistically call them backwards) forms of anti-feminine mores, dragged (and still drag, to a large extent) behind peripheral zones in the adoption of widespread literacy.

  • Great answer. Does Todd offer a suggestion as to how this process started? Could the reason be similar to Boserup's reason, in that war privileges male physical strength? It seems plausible to me that if the social elite became "militarized," then it would naturally grow to be "anti-woman" because fighting is "man's work" (and in my understanding has always been so, even in egalitarian ancient societies). Feb 10, 2015 at 15:46
  • According to him, what you said plus the fact that an early efficient way to ensure military fidelity and obedience was to link hierarchical and familial relations; and that process gradually excluded women from positions of power as they (usually) play no role on the battlefield.
    – Olivier
    Feb 10, 2015 at 16:05
  • +1 - I don't know how well it applies to the rest of the world, but what you described definitely holds very true for Japan.
    – Semaphore
    Feb 16, 2015 at 5:36
  • @Semaphore Japan is indeed a major source of archival data for Emmanuel Todd.
    – Olivier
    Feb 16, 2015 at 11:31
  • I don't understand the specific connection to the northern China steppe. Mongolia traditionally accords women a higher status than other East Asian countries do. And I suspect that's not an accident--in general urban empire building in the Bronze Age involved rulers who practiced polygamy on a broad scale (for political more than military reasons). That's going to lower the status of women and to do it first in the higher classes.
    – C Monsour
    Dec 25, 2020 at 5:10

Scholars have noted that pre-agricultural societies often have more egalitarian gender norms than agricultural societies. This had led to theories that agriculture led to the development of inegalitarian gender norms, because it privileged men's body strength.

A more refined version of thesis was first posited by Ester Boserup in "Woman's Role in Economic Development." She differentiated between "shifting cultivation" and "plough cultivation," arguing that

Shifting cultivation, which uses hand-held tools like the hoe and the digging stick, is labor intensive and women actively participate in farm-work. Plough cultivation, by contrast, is much more capital intensive, using the plough to prepare the soil. Unlike the hoe or digging stick, the plough requires significant upper body strength, grip strength, and burst of power, which are needed to either pull the plough or control the animal that pulls it. Because of these requirements, when plough agriculture is practiced, men have an advantage in farming relative to women

Others developing Boserup's thesis have noted that plow agriculture does not require as much weeding (often a woman's job) and that plow agriculture is less compatible with childcare than shifting cultivation.

This thesis has recently been examined by several prominent economic historians in a large sample quantitative study. Here is their abstract:

This paper seeks to better understand the historical origins of current differences in norms and beliefs about the appropriate role of women in society. We test the hypothesis that traditional agricultural practices influenced the historical gender division of labor and the evolution and persistence of gender norms. We find that, consistent with existing hypotheses, the descendants of societies that traditionally practiced plough agriculture, today have lower rates of female participation in the workplace, in politics, and in entrepreneurial activities, as well as a greater prevalence of attitudes favoring gender inequality.

This theory is neither "unified" or "non-controversial," but honestly, you're not going to find that in any study of a topic like gender inequality.

  • +1 for nice references. I'll hold out on accepting right away because I hope there will be others, but I hadn't heard this hypothesis before Feb 10, 2015 at 0:47
  • @ssdecontrol: Of course. I'm curious what other studies are out there too.
    – two sheds
    Feb 10, 2015 at 0:49

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