Western culture has a problem with empowered women. From a historical perspective this is easy to observe – and we’ll cover some of that briefly – but the more interesting and relevant question is: why? Why have women been so persistently held back, oppressed, dismissed, denigrated, ridiculed, shamed and abused both institutionally and culturally in so many Western societies? Why, in a country like the U.S.A. where liberty and opportunity are so highly prized, have women been subject to these same prejudices? And lastly, it seems obvious that any cultural currents underlying the denigration of women are particularly relevant in the 2016 U.S. election – but what is really going on here?
About the history. Some potent reminders of the subjugation of the feminine:
• Around 85% of the witches executed in Europe and the American Colonies during the witch hunts of the 15th through 17th centuries were women.
• In medieval Europe, women who spoke their minds in public – or challenged their husband’s authority – could be subjected to public shaming via iron masks that they wore for a day or longer.
• It wasn’t until the mid-1800s that women began to receive substantive rights to their own property in the U.S., Britain and Europe; before that, husbands and fathers controlled their property.
• The post-enlightenment awakening to the importance of higher education for women resulted in the first all-women colleges in the mid-1800s and a growing concern for primary school education for girls all around the globe. Up until this time, however, it was mainly men who were encouraged to pursue education (other than in a religious context, such as Catholic convents). In many Muslim countries, however, female education has trended in the opposite direction in recent decades.
• Women’s suffrage around the globe is a particularly glaring indication of female disenfranchisement: it wasn’t until 1920 that women had the right to vote in the U.S.; 1928 in the United Kingdom; 1944 in France; 1946 in Italy; 1952 in Greece; 1954 in Columbia; 1955 in Cambodia; 1990 in Samoa; 2015 in Saudi Arabia.
• In terms of basic human rights, 189 members of the UN felt it imperative to ratify the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women in 1981. As of this writing, Somalia, Sudan, Tonga, Iran, the Holy See and the United States have refused to sign on.
• Considering that women in many parts of the United States – and many parts of the rest of the world – still have challenges asserting both their reproductive rights and their right to equal pay, we can see that the double-standards regarding female empowerment persist into modern times.
Is this longstanding prejudice in the Western world a consequence of religion? No. The mistrust and disempowerment of the feminine has nothing at all to do with religion – though religious institutions have happily taken up female oppression and regressive conservatism in service to their parent cultures. As Christianity has been the dominant religious institution in the West, we can explore it as an example. In the New Testament, Jesus is a radical feminist for his time. He elevated women’s positions above cultural norms, honored female disciple’s behaviors and attitudes above his male disciples, responded to women’s requests and admonishments even as he chastised men's, ignored cultural prejudices around female sexuality and physiology, and forgave women of their most culturally despised sins. And, for a time, this liberation of the feminine endured; in the early Church, women held positions of authority, influence and honor. In fact, there are only two short Paulian verses in all of the New Testament that place women in subjection to men, and there is a high likelihood that those were introduced (“interpolated”) into the scriptural canon long after the earliest Christian texts were written. (For more on this topic, see this excerpt from A Progressive's Guide to the New Testament.
So what happened? Pre-existing culture happened. Everywhere we look in those first few centuries of spreading Christianity, the surrounding cultures were astoundingly oppressive toward women: beginning with North African culture, Jewish culture, and Roman culture…and eventually arriving in Northern Europe. These were societies where women were treated as slaves, traded like chattel, and sometimes killed (“exposed”) at birth because they were less desirable than male offspring. And as Christianity gradually gained institutional authority in these regions of the world, it also gradually adopted the dominant memes of those cultures. Jesus’ example and the practices of the early Church regarding women were almost completely abandoned. So what began as a seemingly deliberate attempt to liberate women was often turned on its head in favor of existing cultural traditions.
Now Northern European cultures are an interesting, diverse and complex study in themselves – so can we really generalize about “anti-feminine” sentiments in this way? I think we can, mainly because of the historical evidence. We know of only one European culture that had hints of strong matriarchal traditions, and that was the Picts, whose culture and language had been diluted, assimilated or erased by the end of the first millennium. But, as alluded to, the West isn’t the only place where women are second class citizens. Many North African cultures have a problem with empowered women as well. And here again it has nothing to do with religion, colonization by Northern Europeans, or any of the other lazy explanations that are frequently invoked. Take for example female genital mutilation and child brides – these traditions predate the arrival of Islam, Christianity and the northern invaders by centuries, and persist equally across these cultures regardless of the dominant ethnic, religious, economic and political orientations. For example, Ethiopia is a predominantly Christian country with completely different geography, ethnic groups and politics than Mali, a predominantly Muslim country; but they both practice FGM to an astonishing degree (74% and 89% respectively), and child brides are bartered off at about the same rate in both places (41-60%). Here again, cultural traditions seem to be the dominating factor, far outweighing any other influences.
But we must return to the why.
Why are women so habitually denigrated? One theory that has been advanced by anthropologists and other researchers is that the cultural value of women was higher in peaceful and resource-abundant regions of the world than where resources were scarce or there was more competition with other inhabitants (see Hayden, Deal, Cannon and Casey). As the theory goes, because men had the physical advantages to become successful hunters and warriors, men gained prestige and authority in environments where those traits were important, and women’s roles became more supportive or subservient. Another theory posits that the introduction of writing and literacy pushed institutions and cultural authority away from the holistic and concrete oral traditions perpetuated by women, and into a linear, abstract and reductionist realm dominated by men (see Shlain). Another theory promotes the idea that the advent of privately owned land, agriculture and animal husbandry introduced the idea of reproductive ownership and control of resources through inheritance, where provable lineage and female reproductive capacity became essential mechanisms of patriarchal power that men felt compelled to control (see Ryan and Jethá). Yet another theory is that male-centric, warlike tribes steeped in cultural habits of domination invaded more egalitarian, cooperative and peaceful regions where women participated as equal partners, and proceeded to subjugate those cultures to the warlike-masculine-dominating archetype (see Eisler).
Although all of these theories have interesting evidence and merit, I don’t think any of them adequately explain female oppression. There is simply something missing – something more fundamental, more persistent, more universal…and more inherent.
What is it? Well I think the underlying issue centers around the relationship between testosterone and similar dietary, cultural and physical habits
that have arisen independently around the globe. Yes…you heard me: testosterone and dietary, cultural and physical habits.
Bear with me here, as I think this will all come together nicely. To appreciate how this synthesizes, we need to understand something about human physiology: specifically, we need to appreciate the effects of testosterone on human behavior and development. Here are some of those well-documented correlations. Testosterone:
1. Beginning in the eighth week after conception, testosterone stimulates fetal differentiation to become male.
2. Strongly influences development of muscle mass and strength (and retention of these over time).
3. Has tremendous impact on sexual desire and impulses.
4. Increases feelings and expression of vitality, aggression and confidence.
5. Strongly correlates (and changes) with position of social dominance (higher testosterone reflects a higher position of dominance) and a desire to compete.
6. Seems to correlate with increased objectification of sex partner as a means to gratification (higher testosterone = higher objectification; interestingly, there is evidence that estrogen has a similar effect).
7. Offers strong correlations with violent criminality (higher testosterone levels in the most violent criminals).
8. May contribute to impatient, impulsive, risk-taking personality traits.
We should note that there are genetic predispositions, socialization, learned behaviors and other factors in play as well in all of this – and that correlations between certain behaviors and testosterone may indicate more of cofactor relationship than direct causality – but for now the details of those discussions will remain outside of our scope. Also, we should appreciate that many of these correlations are equally true for both women and men.
What, then, in the most simplified terms, stimulates or sustains testosterone production as people age? Here are some broadly held conclusions regarding that:
1. Intense exercise, especially in bursts of activity and using the largest muscle groups.
2. Intermittent periods of fasting.
3. Having lots of sex, and lots of thoughts about sex.
4. Low carb, low sugar, low grain, high protein diet that includes healthy fats.
5. Receiving regular doses of Zinc (oysters, crab, other shellfish, beef, chicken, pork, beans, garlic, mushrooms, spinach, whole grains).
6. Receiving regular doses of Vitamin D (seafood, egg yolks, beef liver, beans, mushrooms, cheese).
7. Maintaining low levels of body fat.
8. Consuming foods with BCAAs (like cheese and cottage cheese).
9. Engaging in aggressive, risk-taking or violent activities.
10. Maintaining a competitive, dominance-oriented worldview and behaviors.
Can you surmise which cultures – historically – have promoted nearly all of these testosterone-enhancing components of diet, cultural values and physical habit as part of their societal norms…? Quite interestingly, most of them happen to be the very same cultures that have dominated the globe for centuries. Speaking specifically to pre-industrial proclivities of British, European and (post-colonization) North American cultures: what were the dominant features of day-to-day living in terms of diet, social mores and activities? Consider the habits, attitudes and appetites of explorers, the colonizers and imperialists, warmongers and revolutionaries…all those dominators who reveled in engineering competition and subjugating others in every aspect of life?
Certainly we could have a chicken-and-egg debate around which came first – high testosterone levels or the conditions that helped to maintain them – but the historically prevalent power brokers and change agents in these cultures seem to be poster children for testosterone-enhancing lifestyles.
We can then even piggyback onto Jared Diamond’s hypothesis in Guns, Germs and Steel,
asserting that perhaps testosterone has been one more actor that helped facilitate the Eurasian hegemony. And inherent to that testosterone-reinforced dominance (or at least thematically and biologically consistent with it) is patriarchy, male chauvinism, and general devaluation of the feminine. Even when women are themselves “masculinized” by testosterone and testosterone-enhancing activities, they likewise become aggressive, competitive, dominating, risk-taking and violent – establishing their primacy over everyone else who is “weaker.” Thus a primary feature of testosterone-reinforcing diets, culture and physical habits could at once be both the subjugation of other cultures, and the principle of “masculine” dominance, objectification and commoditization of others – from slaves to sex workers to sheeple...and most certainly "the weaker sex."
Testosterone-Dependent Dominance Systems
Now when we take a moment to step back and think about this hypothesis, one thing that rapidly becomes clear is that much of modern Western society is no longer conforming to its historical testosterone-producing advantages – at least not in many substantive ways. Habit-wise we have become much more sedentary, are consuming a lot more sugar and carbs, are gaining a lot of weight, and are generally amplifying the preconditions for Type II Diabetes in several ways. We are also exposed to a host of industrially produced antiandrogens (pesticides, insecticides, phthalates in plastics, and parabens in soaps and pharmaceuticals) that disrupt testosterone expression. Which begs the question: is the same level of testosterone-induced behavior still in play? Well I think it is…but only for those who succeed within the vestigial socioeconomic systems, traditions and institutions preserved from earlier eras. Remember the correlation between social position and testosterone? Well when human beings deliberately operate within a system that encourages and rewards aggressive competition, dominating tactics, oppression of anyone perceived as “weaker,” physical and sexual prowess, and patriarchy, the primacy of testosterone and its ongoing production is also encouraged in those who dominate
. And that symbiosis amplifies itself over time, as testosterone in turn reinforces the attitudes and behaviors that produce it. It is a classic “The Wolf You Feed
” dynamic where the testosterone-rich dominate the testosterone-poor.
Which is certainly one reason why – in our competitively capitalistic, hierarchically corporatist, domineeringly commercialized culture – men receive more pay than women, owner-shareholders lord it over worker-consumers, law enforcement perpetrates violence against citizenry, girls are sexually objectified at a young age, nearly half of all women experience sexual assault, the Stanford Prison Experiment
had such predictable results, and nearly half the electorate fears allowing an empowered and experienced woman to become POTUS. It all fits hand-in-glove. And it doesn’t seem to matter how cooperative, genteel, educated, mutually supportive, peaceful or egalitarian a society becomes – the tyranny of testosterone
can still undermine all such progress and reverse cultural evolution toward fascist sentiments and masculine-authoritarian leadership styles. More than just promoting a “Strong Father-Ruler” archetype to quash any spark of matriarchy, the tyranny of testosterone becomes a biological imperative to perpetuate reproductive primacy and control. In a pervasive – perhaps even global – societal reflex to stave of cultural male menopause, the fear of feminine power has become a sort of mass hysteria; irrational to its core, but also grounded in the physiological realities of the developed world that explicitly or implicitly erode testosterone-dependent dominance systems. One has to wonder whether the rise of Islamist fundamentalism in the developing world isn’t at least in part another indicator of this same hysteria: men seeking to reassert masculine power as they see it being eroded around them.
Thus feminine power is not merely about a woman having positional influence, it’s about a woman exercising power dynamics that are alternative and contrasting
to testosterone-related, "traditionally masculine" ones. It’s about a different mode of social organization, a different flavor of collaboration, a different pattern of interaction and communication, indeed a radically alternative political economy. Is it time to let go…? To elevate and embrace feminine power, and attenuate the masculine? I think it probably has been for some time, but even as the collective balls of society continue to shrink, the more conservative and fearful elements of our culture thrash against the inevitable, hoping through their frantic, last-ditch efforts to secure just a little more time for testosterone’s rein. And so we arrive at the 2016 election, where the archetype of feminine power has at least partially been embodied in Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. Donald Trump, by contrast, has clearly expressed himself to be shaped by traditional masculine power, with no hint of the feminine and a clear discomfort with anything resembling feminine power
. And now Hillary, as the Democratic nominee for U.S. President, has become the sole locus for cultural male menopause hysteria, with all its attendant fears and worries around demasculinization. But it is not because Hillary is a woman and Donald is a man that this archetypal tension runs so deep – it is because they each represent such different orientations to power…and to testosterone.
Before concluding, I think it responsible to at least give a nod to men’s movement
. I actually think that issue of oppressive gender roles applies equally to men, in that men often feel trapped in the same cultural expectations that should concern all equal rights activism
. In terms to causality or blame, it doesn’t really matter that the mechanisms that brought, for example, male dominance of civic institutions into being were “patriarchal” or “misogynistic” by nature, if the roles and responsibilities regarding men that are championed or imposed by those institutions are subjectively oppressive for men. For example, the gender inequality we find in military service, or high-risk jobs, or how custody and child support are awarded, or the imposition of a breadwinner role, or indeed differences in suicide rates and criminal sentencing. In these areas, the men are definitely at a disadvantage, and any remedies we seek to enable greater equality should take such disadvantages into account. In this context, I think we should be aiming for a clearer demarcation between what I have described as testosterone-driven attitudes, proclivities and behaviors, and what “should” define masculinity. In fact I think we can point to testosterone as a central actor in the systemic oppression of everyone - both women and men
. That said, I realize that I have probably reinforced a dualistic gender bias by referring to masculine
power…so perhaps we need to come up with a more gender-neutral, multidimensional language in such discussions. In this sense, it appears I still need to escape the cultural conditioning of my own language, as I have admittedly been immersed in some fairly radical feminism from a very young age.
To wrap things up, there are currently a few contrasting theories about the impact of testosterone on human cultural development. One indicates that lowering levels of testosterone in humans around 50,000 years ago facilitated more prosocial behaviors, and therefore stimulated the first art, technology and blossoming of culture (see Cieri). Another goes to the opposite extreme by asserting that testosterone is responsible for critical masculine functions and advances in human civilization (see Barzilai). Another hypothesis elevates the role of cultural conditioning in how much testosterone is generated in certain situations, indicating that biology itself is shaped by culture and reinforces that culture (see Nisbett & Cohen, and Richerson & Boyd). It is this last theory that I think is the most interesting, because it indicates a more nuanced relationship between the internalized beliefs that result from cultural conditioning, and how our bodies respond and adapt to culture according to those beliefs.
The implication is that our choices and experiences over time will shape both our individual psychology and collective cultural evolution – not just in how we consciously shape our institutions, but in how our internal hormonal cocktail conforms to, and facilitates, those societal expectations.
For further reading: