Thursday, January 25, 2007

What is 'natural' for a woman?

A couple of months ago a woman in Germany published a book essentially saying "we were all wrong when we started working and looking for a career, only a woman having children and a husband and staying at home to care for them can ever hope to be happy". The really funny thing about this isn't the theory, it's the fact that the woman writing the book actually was a well-known figure of public life and had surely put her career before a family. As she still is working, she somehow counteracts her own theory ... and that surely doesn't make the theory any more believably.

Now another very well-known woman has written an answer to this book - and this answer isn't kind (you wouldn't expect a kind answer if you knew that woman...).

I've not given names here before, because I don't think either Eva Hermanns (author of the first book mentioned) or Desirée Nick (author of the answering book) are famous outside Germany.

The whole thing got me thinking about what could be 'natural behaviour' for a woman. A lot of people (usually men) might claim that women were always the ones taking care of the children and the home, doing whatever necessary to make their husbands content. The facts are quite different, especially during the 'old' times.

There are various tribes all over Asia Minor in which the women fought at their men's side (it's one of those tribes that inspired the Greek myth of the Amazons). Among the Vikings a woman had the right to kick out a husband who didn't bring back enough loot (meaning he wasn't fierce enough a warrior). Among the Egyptians there were powerful women, too - even some female pharaohs have been recorded (though usually only grudgingly). It's our own limitation (seeing the Greek and the Romans, two people where women had no rights, as the whole 'Ancient' times) that makes us think women spent millennia just delivering and raising children, cooking their husband's meals and cleaning their husband's houses.

What did nature have in mind for us? It's true, only women have the necessary 'parts' to deliver children, but so does the lioness (which is a fierce hunter, as the only things the male lion ever does is defending his territory and making little lions). From all the species on earth coming with more than one gender (not counting bacteria and other cells just duplicating or snails and other hermaphrodites), only one is currently know to have the male deliver the children - the family of the sea horses.

But this doesn't mean the females are always weaker, quite the opposite, actually. Among the insects females often are bigger and stronger. Among the fish females often are bigger as well (some deep-sea fish put this to extremes, because the male is so small, it actually fuses with the female, living off her blood and doing nothing but donating sperm whenever necessary). The same goes for amphibians (take toads and frogs as an example). Reptilians usually don't differ much by gender. It's mainly the birds (where males have to impress the females in most species and therefore have to look more eye-catching) and the mammals where the males are bigger or more noticeable. And even those parts of the large Tree of Life know exceptions. There's a species of swamp bird where the female keeps a harem of males, laying the eggs, but letting the males hatch them and raise the young. Hyenas have a matriarchy so strict even the weakest female still stands higher in the hierarchy than the strongest male, the females doing the hunting and the males rising the young.

Nature obviously did not intend every female on this planet to stay at home and take care of the children. Now one could argue that the females of our own species aren't lionesses, praying mantises or hyenas (though we're sometimes compared to all those species by men) and we were designed to just take care of the children and leave the outside world to the men. A lot of people set against Feminism did so in the past (either arguing with nature or God, depending on the time). But where is the proof to that?

With equal chances at school, girls usually do better than boys - just to stay at home afterwards? Women live about 10 years longer than men - just to spent more time raising children? Women seem to possess more of those abilities people working in high places inside companies are said to need today - just to use them at home with the kids?

In a world where pure physical strength is the only thing needed for 'work', men are in a better position, but even the very first tribes had a lot of jobs which rather required fast and nimble fingers or a good mind.

And what does the fact that males went out hunting in the dawn of time really mean? It means, in essence, that they were more dispensable than women. In a society that doesn't know the tight boundaries of marriage, but just the tribe as a such, the individual man is not needed after fathering at least one child to carry his genes (or half of them). So if he goes out and gets trampled by a mammoth, it's not tragic, the woman and the child will be fed by other males from the tribe. The woman on the other hand is needed for almost ten months to carry the child (it's actually nine full month until birth), then for a variable time to breast-feed the child (and even up to two or three years were not an exception then) and further to teach it and care for it. The more powerful and strong men had the chance to father more children (because they were less likely to get killed on the hunt), just as nature (and evolution) had intended. Today, with the chances of getting killed during a day's work very minute, nature seems to act on this and slowly minimize the 'production' of males (from a 50:50 ratio until a couple of decades ago to a ratio of 51(women):49(men) today - still falling for men).

So I don't think nature intended us to stay at home and just raise the kids. It probably didn't intend us to get married as well, as in our species genders differ greatly at first look (something which biologists see as a sure sign a species was meant for polygamy). And if we start arguing that today we have overcome the boundaries of nature (which we haven't, physically, we're just good at building tools to cancel out our deficits), then we don't have any argument for keeping women away from work left.

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