The Changing Role of Women in Models of Human Evolution
Annual Review of Anthropology
Vol. 15: 25-66 (Volume publication date October 1986)
L M Fedigan
In lieu of an abstract, the publisher reproduces the first page of the article. (Link)

Letters to My Tutor…

My dear, kind Madame,

Reading Linda Marie Fedigan’s “The Changing Role of Women in Models of Human Evolution,” I was again struck with the thought that women in academia are more attuned to academic bias which is, I suppose, as one would expect.  Much the same as when reading the review for “Groups That Don’t Want In: Gypsies and Other Artisan, Trader, and Entertainer Minorities,” there was an undertone of “Here’s the state of the literature…such as it is,” and justifiably so.  In American schools there is this pretense that academia is more independent than it is; that there is some raison dêtre other than support of the state and the status quo.  There is a sense that new and innovative and pragmatic thinking will be appreciated, but it is a false sense for the most part.  It seems that many American academics like to believe that they love Plato Socrates when really they are just as Aristotelian as the rest of the Western world.

In an essay on Americans (Philosophical Writings (Beauvoir Series)), you write that the existentialists believe that the realness of freedom lies in pursuing some end and effecting some real change upon the world and this is why you “approve, to some extent, the American way of judging a man by what he has done.”  A man is not simply the product of his birthright, but more the product of his accomplishments.  I believe that your observation is true, that this is a real ideal in American culture.  And I believe that it is this ideal that requires the pretense of appreciation of the novel in American academia.  If a man is what he does, there is a different valuing and definition of “doing” than what one finds in other Western cultures.   Birth is given to the notion that hard work based on skill or knowledge or facts is always rewarded.  However, this ideal is much more real in American folklore than can be found in actual practice.  Conservatism in academia has a much longer and deeper history than American pragmatism.

As to some of the specifics of the review, there seemed to a consistent narrative in the literature reviewed that cast women’s reproductive abilities in a negative light.  The fact that women had babies held them back and made them dependent on men for protection and sustenance.  Fedigan writes that the prevailing ideology as far as who gets to reproduce is not only a matter of selecting for desirable male traits, but also a matter of men choosing which women should be so lucky as to serve as incubators for the genetic stuff of the superior males.  She writes: “…Darwin helped to pioneer what I call the ‘coat-tails’ theory of human evolution: traits are selected for in males and women evolve by clinging to the mean’s coat-tails.”  Female reproduction is a hindrance or at most an aside.  Male reproduction, on the other hand, is the stuff that builds and sustains.

Thinking more modernly, we have these notions of the world in crisis because women are having babies; overpopulation will be the death of us all.  Damn those women!!  I remember this being a particular gripe of my first anthropology professor, “Women having babies is not the problem,” she often cried out.  I didn’t love my first anthropology professor in that way that many women often love their first anthropology professors, but on this we agreed.  The world in crisis couldn’t have almost entirely to do with the consumption and output of modern societies, could it?  It seems these narratives of how women having babies is a problem for women, for cultural development, for the health of the planet are deeply embedded in modern human societies.  I think it would make for interesting study to look at them all.

Men laid claim to their own bloody and violent birthing schemes.  I think the popularity of “Man the Hunter” comes from a desire to take ownership of an ability natural to women.  The blood and guts and endurance and bonding that comes from hunting is much more important to how human cultures evolved and developed than any contribution of women.  Men can be tough, too!  I think the popularity of looking to other primates or modern day hunter-gatherer societies for clues into the development of early human cultures does much to support male-dominant schemes of early cultural development in that doing so limits the type and scope of questions asked even when those questions would tend to look more favorably on female contributions.  I think the focus on the tangible and easily measurable leads to significant shortcomings; it’s so easy to misinterpret or ignore significance in these comparisons.  Things that look the same across cultures may not have the same significance, may not have the same mind applied to the thing.

I’ve always thought that women giving birth was the key to understanding early human cultures and the development of cultures and the male desire to dominate in culture as well as the methods he uses to do so or claims to have done so.  I’ve always believed that early cultural traditions and rituals surrounding the importance of women giving birth are key to understanding the prevalence of misogyny across modern cultures.  I’m not sure of the influences that lead me to this place, but I’ve thought this since I was very young.  I believe there was much Marxist thinking floating around in rural Mississippi.

OK, it’s getting late again.  Reading Fedigan, I feel very encouraged to read more of Friedrich Engels.  I agree with him that it seems that women played a more significant role in early human cultures and that that role fell into decline.  I am interested to know more of the details of his thinking.

Yours in mind and spirit,