Why Women Were Less Politically Powerful

How we make our living affects the power structure.

Posted Jun 14, 2018

Women may be achieving greater representation in government around the globe today but the backdrop is male dominance. Why were women so politically powerless? Why are they asserting political control today?

Historians often claim that human societies were always hierarchical (1) but that is not true if one can go far back enough–to hunter-gathering societies (or foragers).

The Hunter Gatherer Background

Foragers spread widely over the globe and had quite varied diets and habitats. Nevertheless, their social structure lacked hierarchy with a few exceptions.

Headmen and head women had slightly higher social status. This was purchased at a cost of being constantly available to solve disputes–a sort of unpaid social worker.

Religious leaders (shamans) were female as well as male. Their status depended upon their success at interceding in the spirit world to improve hunting success.

The other exception to the flatness of forager societies was the fact that good hunters had higher status that was derived from distributing meat.

Otherwise, foragers were definitely egalitarian and anyone who got too pompous was aggressively taken down a peg (2).

Yet, even in that egalitarian existence, women had lower status than men. They worked longer hours than their husbands (3). Their first marriages were often arranged by fathers but they could leave an unhappy marriage and asserted romantic freedom in subsequent unions (4).

Extramarital relationships were common and so was domestic violence. In such aggression, women were at a disadvantage in terms of size and strength.

Even so, women asserted a level of freedom in forager societies that was better than subsequent societies up to the twentieth century. The emergence of organized warfare initiated a male monopoly on political power that is only now being broken.

Warfare and Inequality

Archeological evidence suggests that warfare was highly unusual (or absent) in most forager societies but became more common with the advent of crop cultivation.

The rationale is that agricultural land was a valuable resource worth defending. Warfare was largely a masculine business. That may be because men are more expendable from the perspective of population stability.

If a quarter of the male population died in skirmishes–as was common–survivors could easily take up the reproductive slack through polygamy. If women were lost, the population declined steadily and disappeared. Natural selection evidently eliminated societies having female warfare.

Whatever the reasons, the fact that men did the fighting meant that they were involved in putting together protective political alliances amongst neighboring communities.

Martial societies were thus very male dominated which has never been good for women. At an extreme, there were frequent wife-raiding attacks amongst the warlike indigenous people of the Amazon basin.

Once agricultural societies began to store food, there was an increase in societal complexity, and social inequality that was also bad for women because men held the reins of power and controlled most of the wealth.

Right up to World War II, these gender differences in power remained much the same. So why has the pendulum swung towards feminine empowerment?

The Decline of Gender Specialization

There are several reasons why female employment is converging with that of men, and female political empowerment follows on from rising economic clout. Control of fertility through effective contraception was critical because it liberated women from constant service to children and economic dependence on husbands.

During the economic boom of the 1920's more women sought higher education and made an entry into careers although most were still restricted to fields such as education and nursing that were then deemed gender appropriate.

Women were liberated from housework by a decline in family size and the emergence of labor-saving gadgets. (In earlier societies, married women of reproductive age were generally pregnant, breastfeeding, or caring for dependent children that made other activities, including politics, impractical).

The birth of the service economy also opened up new occupations, such as telephone operators, where female social skills and manual dexterity were at a premium.

Further entry of women into masculine fields, such as ship-building and welding, was promoted by the scarcity of men due to World War II and Rosie the Riveter from wartime posters was a real person who subsequently opened a construction business.

A decline in wages of unskilled male workers during the 1960's meant that many married women needed to work so as to earn sufficient income to support their families (5).

More young women pursued college degrees so as to improve their job prospects. There was a steady recruitment of more married women into the workforce and a slow advance of gender equality at work.

Given the decline in gender specialization at work, it made sense that women would seek representation in government, a phenomenon that is more advanced in Europe currently than in the US.



1 Ferguson, N. (2018). The square and the tower: Networks an power from the Freemasons to Facebook. New York: Penguin (p. 59).

2 Boehm, C. (2000). Hierarchy in the forest. Cambridge, MA; Harvard University Press.

3 Johnson, A. W., and Earle, T. (2000). The evolution of human societies, 2nd ed. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press

4 Shostak, M. (1981). Nisa: The life and words of a !Kung woman. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

5 Wilson, W. J. J. (1997). When work disappears: The world of the new urban poor. New York: Vintage.