In Book I, Chapter IV of "An Essay on the Principle of Population" (6th edition, 1826), Thomas Malthus states how terrible the condition of women was among "savage societies" (to which he meant natives outside "civilised Europe" living mainly of hunting, fishing, and gathering, so excluding established agrarian societies). For instance, he writes:

It is justly observed by Dr. Robertson, that, "Whether man has been improved by the progress of arts and civilization, is a question which in the wantonness of disputation has been agitated among philosophers. That women are indebted to the refinement of polished manners for a happy change in their state, is a point which can admit of no doubt." In every part of the world, one of the most general characteristics of the savage is to despise and degrade the female sex. Among most of the tribes in America their condition is so peculiarly grievous, that servitude is a name too mild to describe their wretched state. A wife is no better than a beast of burden. While the man passes his days in idleness or amusement, the woman is condemned to incessant toil. Tasks are imposed upon her without mercy, and services are received without complacence or gratitude. There are some districts in America where this state of degradation has been so severely felt, that mothers have destroyed their female infants, to deliver them at once from a life in which they were doomed to such a miserable slavery.

This and other chapters contain several recounts by "Western travelers" of such ill-treatment of women by "savages". Whilst all this is certainly relevant anecdotal evidence, is there more robust evidence (built upon the advances of scientific inquiry and methods since Malthus' times) about the condition of women in these "primitive societies" around the world? A dedicated article to the history of women in Wikipedia, for instance, is scarce on ancient history and has many unsupported claims. A book refered there (Women's History and Ancient History) does not really focuses on "primitive societies". In this sense, any reference to particular research and/or books on the topic is most welcomed.

PS1: the term "savages" and "primitive societies" are surely arbitrary. Yet, Malthus had something in mind, which might include groups like hunters and gatherers, nomads, indigenous peoples, and so on. I am not particularly interested on conditioning the terms, but I am definitely not asking about ancient cultures like Egypt, Greek, Roman, Asyrian, Chinese, etc.

PS2: I hope the political correctness police does not immediately judge me as a denier of violence against women. I am not expressing any particular opinion. I am looking for scientifically-based analysis of the topic.

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    It's an interesting topic, and an intersting post, but I can't (easily) see what your actually question is.
    – Chris H
    Commented Jan 10, 2019 at 11:55
  • @ChrisH Updated question :)
    – luchonacho
    Commented Jan 10, 2019 at 13:07
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    “Savage societies” really isn't a concept lending itself to scientifically-based analysis.
    – Relaxed
    Commented Jan 10, 2019 at 14:02
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    @luchonacho I think you've done a great job of framing a difficult question! Commented Jan 10, 2019 at 20:23
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    History isn’t a “science,” I think what you’re looking for is “modern scholarly discipline.” Commented Jan 10, 2019 at 21:07

1 Answer 1


Quite the opposite, he's arguing that "savage" societies give women higher status (from our modern point of view).

I think its important to understand that this was written by a man who benefitted from sitting comfortably in the upper rungs of Victorian (technically actually Georgian) English society. He's not talking about modern western women with (on paper at least) comparable rights to men, he's talking about Victorian Women. This was an era when women had a very specific and idealized role as essentially the lead domestic in a man's house, but with sexual duties of actually producing the children as well. They had no legal rights to own property, to take anyone to court, and of course not to vote. Effectively, they were the property of men.

This was what people such as Malthus viewed as the natural and rightful place for women, the ideal that should be aspired to, the pinnacle for a woman. Anything that fell far from that pinnacle was considered a "degradation" of the woman.

"Savages" in the English of the day was the word particularly used to describe Native Americans. It is in fact used this way in the Declaration of Independence. Different tribes had different cultures and different roles for women, and by-and-large the status of women in Native societies was still lesser to men, but of course anything outside of the Victorian ideal of the status of women (eg: being expected to do non-household labor, have their own possessions, or having political say) Malthus would have considered a "degradation".

One thing in particular that tended to drive Europeans nuts was the typical American cultural quirk that farming was considered "women's work". This is likely what he's referring to with his "beast of burden" comment. A large amount of the "civilizing" mission of the US BIA was to get Native American men to do their own farming (which of course the native men in question looked at as an attempt to effectively make them women), and it was still trying to do this well into the 20th century.

Here's a quote I found from an 1827 Norwalk, Ohio newspaper talking about the Osages that expands on exactly what English-speaking society meant by "degraded".

And their condition is truly degraded; for while the man are _____ing at their ease in their camps, striking or telling stories, or engaged in the sport of war, or of hunting; the females have to build their houses, plant their corn, dress the skins, transport the baggage, and wood, and water, and bear a many a heavy burden.

Of course looking at this with modern eyes, he's basically reciting the identity function: The less European a society, the less European its women behave.

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    Also, as far as the "man passes his days in idleness and amusement", hunting in those cultures was typically not recreation, but an important job that had to be done. In Mathus's time and class, hunting was a diversion. Commented Jan 10, 2019 at 16:04
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    @DavidThornley - Wow, how did I miss that part? Yeah, that could have been transcribed directly into the old BIA's mission documents. Men's work for Native American nations was typically hunting, trade, and war. European colonizers felt (with some justification) that if they could make the men do the farming, they'd have much less spare time on their hands to be making war (on European settlers). And of course the natives weren't idiots, and knew that's exactly what was behind it as well. Essentially emasculating the whole tribe.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Jan 10, 2019 at 16:43
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    Thanks. Some reference to literature would be better. It's certainly an interesting lecture of the issue, but could well look like an opinion. Also, you seem to forget the issue of infanticide and violence against women, that he mentions there and elsewhere.
    – luchonacho
    Commented Jan 10, 2019 at 16:58
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    You seem to be implying that in "savage societies" women were better off in every dimension. You haven't provided evidence about it. Just merely suggesting the bias of Malthus (and others) position. But the extent of the bias is the important issue here. Was it sufficiently enough such that women were better off in every dimension, or they were still ill-treated but not to such a great point as suggested by Malthus? The question remains unanswered.
    – luchonacho
    Commented Jan 11, 2019 at 11:06
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    @luchonacho - Didn't say that at all. From a history perspective we can't really deal in "better". Values change. But what rights people do or do not have is fairly easily quantifyable. There have certainly been societies in history that gave women less rights than the pre-modern English. (Can't come up with one off the top of my head, but it seems very likely. Might be a good question for someone).
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Jan 11, 2019 at 17:19

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