Prehistoric folk were pretty keen on gender equality - after all, women could pick fruit just as well as men. Even in the palaeolithic, they worshipped a mother goddess. It is only later, during hunter-gatherer society, that we speculate the gender divide grew, and even then we are unsure - numbers were scarce, and women were able-bodied much of the time, and while they probably couldn't deliver the killshot to a mammoth skull, they could easily fish, gather eggs, kill small game.

Regardless, the gender divide was certainly in place by the time humans grew toward an agricultural society, and transformed into a sedentary society. They lived in villages, started building complicated structures, and introducing social classes etc. The mother goddess was married to and later replaced by a warrior deity, a ruling god. And it only grew from there.

My question is: what if it didn't? What if young girls joined their male counterparts in training? What if childless women had sleepless nights over bringing down a mammoth? What if mothers handed off their infants to the ill and the old and got down to business?

Throughout history, there have been millions of people repressed by society, who may have been exceptionally intelligent if only they had been educated. This obviously does not only go for women but let's keep this to gender for now.

I am aware that this question has a large scope, but I am interested in any answer, be it addressing psychology, culture, wars, inventions, science, etc. I am obviously not asking for specifics, merely general discussion of how this society would have developed.

What would the society in a world of today's comparative technology level look like? How would the world have been shaped?


closed as too broad by dsollen, James, HDE 226868, Ghanima, Vincent Apr 10 '15 at 20:19

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  • $\begingroup$ For what it's worth, the male / female divide didn't start becoming prominent until Agriculture came about. In hunter gatherer states and 'horticultural society' (read horticulture as pre-agricultural gardening) the genders were decently balanced as were the deity spectrum (deities were about 50/50 split between male/female, and even favoring females. This drastically changed with agriculture. $\endgroup$ – Twelfth Apr 9 '15 at 23:30
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    $\begingroup$ You know, we don't actually have any way to tell what Paleolithic people worshipped. And it's also not true that having gender equality = valuing gender equality (even assuming Paleolithic humans had gender equality, this might not have been a conscious position but just a fact about the way they lived). Just a counterpoint to Twelfth's comment--while it's good to recognize that the current condition might not be the way it always was, we shouldn't automatically assume that the past was totally different, either. $\endgroup$ – sumelic Apr 9 '15 at 23:56
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    $\begingroup$ I'm also confused about which cultures you are referring to. The entire world is not one culture; in modern times and across history, the level of gender equality has been different in different cultures. For all cultures, at all times, to value gender equality, it seems like you would have to fundamentally change the psychology or biology of human beings. It seems like saying "Imagine a world where racism never existed" or "where war never existed" or "where marriage never existed". $\endgroup$ – sumelic Apr 9 '15 at 23:59
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    $\begingroup$ While I agree that the idea of gender roles in western society were quite rigid, there is huge merit in division of labor. Running a family requires a large array of skills, and having each spouse specialize in different chores or jobs is very beneficial. Gender roles naturally fall out due to the simple fact that a same-gendered parent is more likely to pass along their skills to their same gendered child, then tradition takes those roles and over time writes them into the social contract. Sure they change over time and are sometimes limiting, but having predefined roles is very efficient. $\endgroup$ – Emmett R. Apr 10 '15 at 1:05
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    $\begingroup$ @user6760 all species evolve uniquely. Hyena women have psudo-penises and bully males, Angler fish have males that are tiny parasites, many ants have nearly all female with men used for reproduction. there are species of mites where the male exists only long enough to mate with his own sisters in the womb and dies before he is even born. On the other side we have males with harems, ducks who practice drive by rape, snails that penis fence for the right to play the guy, and bed bugs reproduce by literally stabbing females in the abdomen with their penis. There is no 'right' way in nature. $\endgroup$ – dsollen Apr 10 '15 at 18:45

I appreciate the spirit this question is in, but it's exceedingly hard to answer.

The biggest limitation of a woman's role in much of humanities history is in regards to this:

What if mothers handed off their infants to the ill and the old and got down to business?

There was no such thing as formula through most of our history, the infant would flat out starve without it's mother there to feed it. You have to remember that through much of our history, the child mortality rate was somewhere in the range of 1 in 3 children died within the first year of life and in many cases, less than half of everyone born made it past the age of 10. A woman was required to be a mother for most of her adult lifespan (and would be considered an adult at an age that people today would consider a young teen beneath the age of consent) just to continue on the next generation of humans.

War, hunting, and other heavily physical activities are somewhat ruled out by this...I'm not sure if I could think of a quicker way to induce a miscarriage than put a preganant woman on horseback and send her out hunting daily...for a woman to adopt some of these roles, she basically needed to remove herself from the breeding population to do so, which hinders a peoples ability to spawn the next generation. And from a efficiency standpoint, why train a woman to fight when she's going to become pregnant and never be able to fight? To make it a bit more harsh...Medicine wasn't much of a field at that time and mothers very frequently died during child birth as well...all this time to train a girl in the skills she needs just to have them become adults and die with her from complications in her first pregnancy.

I know it's a rough conclusion, but without the dedication of woman to raise the next generation at the expense of themselves...I'd go as far as suggest the gender equal society may never have sustained it's future generations during our dark ages.

This is in very sharp contrast to parts of today's society where our lifespans have significantly increased, family sizes greatly decreased, and child mortality exceedingly low (and surviving through diseases and conditions they never would have lived through previously). Baby formula is readily available and a mother can re-enter the workforce very shortly after her pregnancy. These traits allow for the rise of 'gender neutral society' much more readily.

Not sure if I answer your question how you'd like to see and I hesitate to post it...

  • $\begingroup$ Interesting... While I appreciate your point (although, a baby can be breastfed by someone other than its mother), I think I worded my question badly - I'm not suggesting women left their babies full time, simply that they be treated fairly and regarded as legitimate people with legitimate views. $\endgroup$ – Piper Apr 10 '15 at 1:15
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    $\begingroup$ @piper - I just can't resolve how to answer a question of 'what if woman were treated fairly...' during some of the time period here. A peasant was not treated as a legitimate person during feudal times regardless of sex...a 'barbarian' that was not of Roman blood was always a lesser to a true Roman. Usually the method of which a man gained legitimacy came by birth (women too) or by sword. If we narrowed the time frame down to either post-wollstonecraft (say the women rights movement succeeded from it's birth) or maybe if the agricultural revolution didn't develop to full on patriarchy. $\endgroup$ – Twelfth Apr 10 '15 at 17:42
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    $\begingroup$ @piper the baby can be breastfed by someone other then the mother, but that someone is still a women. Generally speaking one women can produce enough for at most two babies. Regardless of who the nurse-maid is that's allot of women forced into a gender specific role that can't be avoided. $\endgroup$ – dsollen Apr 10 '15 at 18:26
  • $\begingroup$ Didi you know that men can also breastfeed? $\endgroup$ – Sabrine Crystal Santos Jun 27 at 5:34

This is not a question that can be answered, because trying to do it would create an unrealistic world.

A culture is derived from the circumstances, limits, and enviroment a society lives in. Roles, taboos, practices etc etc are developed because they make sense and fit with what is required by that society, generalized in rules that everyone is raised to abide by until they become unconscious habit passed on through generations. In essence culture evolves, in a way very similar to the way animals evolve. Over time it will naturally adapt and change to fit the constraints of that society.

A realistic culture must be one that evolves from the world it is set into. This is a pet-peeve of mine because I see so many would-be authors create worlds with a culture they thought was cool without any thought to how it would evolve, and it breaks suspension of disbelief if the culture doesn't make sense. I can be as offended by a culture that doesn't fit it's enviroment as I would an author that tries creates a creature a 'more efficient' animal where 4 females are born to every one male without regard for the fact that evolutionarily this wouldn't happen due to Fisher's principle

Horrible things have evolved in creatures, from species were one creature has all power, be they queen ants or gorilla alpha males, to evolve increasingly elaborate rape techniques-most horrible being the bedbug's "traumatic insemination" where they literally stabs females in the gut to force impregnation. to lots inevitable horrible deaths, like say any R strategy creature that produce thousands of young knowing almost all of them will die a quick painful death. There are mites where the male lives only long enough to mate with his own sisters while still in the womb then dying before being born, which is still better then a breed of shark where the young have to literally fight and kill their siblings while still in the womb to earn the right to be born. However, these are the results of evolution, rather we like them or not they proved adaptive to pressures placed on the species.

Likewise a proper consideration of culture relative to one's world will occasionally lead you down some dark paths you really don't like, infanticide, racism, infidelity, and of course gender inequality being examples. It's not right, it's not fair, and it's not something we should tolerate today, but it is a very likely result of the 'evolutionary pressures' placed on the culture of the past.

You can't ignore such pressures or what they would create out of hand without breaking suspension of disbelief. If you don't like the end result of a given 'evolution' the correct world building solution is to modify the pressures placed on your culture so it will evolve in a different way, in other worlds change your world. but don't change your culture without touching the world that surrounds it.

I would in particular note that many, in fact the vast majority, of pre-modern cultures around the world have developed gender-unequal societies. Truly gender equal, or even close to gender equal, pre-modern societies are very very rare. In some cases the women have had the gender advantages, on others there have been situations were the two sides had gender advantages in very disparate areas. However, the fact is that the statistical majority of cultures, even those isolated and developing culturally independently of each other, have developed cultures in which women were placed in an unfair gender role relative to men. I don't like it, I've faught to try to fix our current culture, but the fact that this culture independently evolved in so many societies shows that the evolutionary pressures on pre-modern humans are ones that will encourage gender inequality, that is the likely outcome. Thus it's up to the author to put in effort to justify modifying these evolutionary pressures if they want a different evolution.

In the particular case of gender equality the cultural evolutionary pressures comes down to child rearing predominantly. In the past women had to devote extensive effort to wearing children or children would not be developed. Children died frequently and many many children had to be raised simply to ensure some made it to adulthood. They had to be breastfeed by a women, no formula existed. The need to be available to breast feed, the limitations of being pregnant on a semi-regular basis (at a time when it was harder to be pregnant and risk of complications preventing carrying a child to term were greater) meant that women who wanted a family had to stay close to home.

This in turn lead to men having both jobs that required travel and also jobs that were more dangerous, because frankly men are less important sex from a reproductive standpoint.

Now factor in the fact that men are, on average, physically stronger then women. The men are the ones who are trained to fight, because soldering involve both danger and being away from home for long lengths of time which were not options for child-rearing women. Men are now both better armed naturally and better training in fighting then a women. Additionally, Since a women is limited in her ability to work by pregnancy, breast feeding, and other child rearing tasks that would naturally fall on the person who has to be around to breast feed anyways, the man is in a better position to do work outside of the home to earn money.

Therefore you have a clear imbalance of power, men have physical strength and additional resources (money) that women don't. Men would likely be tempted to abuse this imbalance of power to get what they want, make a women more dependent on them and they can then make more demands from her. Part of exploiting this power difference is by further limiting women's resources so as to ensure that you will maintain your advantage, thus the tendency to discourage education, forbid voting, claim a superior male intellect that didn't exist, and many other unfair restrictions placed on women in the past.

To claim that gender inequality did not occur ever in the past would require you to say either

1) That men did not have a clear power-advantage compared to women due to of physical and also inevitable necessary gender role divisions (child rearing).

2) That men would not take advantage of a power-advantage to gain privileges and enforce their will on others. And to think ANY group of humans would not exploit a power advantage to take what they wanted from another at any point in our history is....well to ignore about 85% of that history.

Now the first option can be done, as an exercise in world building you can always change parts of your world to encourage evolution of different societies. Here's an example:

The far better gender roles of today are likely due to the decrease of the inherent imbalance thanks to modern technology. There is less of a need to pop out child after child with mortality rates so much lower. Women do not suffer nearly as much from their statistically lower strength now that guns and other technology serve as a force equalizer, and there is no need for a women to stay at home to breast feed a child instead of working to provide for herself if she so chooses (though breast-milk may be a little healthier for a child, depending on what research you look at). Finally, our needs in the job market are now predominately for intellect, where women and men are equal footing, and to a lesser extent social skills (think Human resources, communication, planning etc) which women may actually have a slight evolutionary advantage.

In short technology has removed many of the imbalances between the sexes. This has resulted in societies with this technology evolving culturally. There no longer are the same evolutionary pressures on our culture, and so it slowly adapts to make optimal use of the skills and talents of both sexes.

Now keep in mind that culture, like regular evolution, can be slow to adapt. Take a snapshot of any time period and your find 'legacy culture', things from a past culture that made sense in that culture, but are not applicable to the current enviroment. Just as species take a few generations to adapt to sudden changes in enviroment our culture takes awhile too. I would argue that most of the current gender issues of today are largely due to this legacy culture that hasn't fully adapted yet to our modern society and technology. I think we have a very real hope that in a generation or two we will be...well still not perfect because humanity is never perfect, but at least mostly have forgotten current gender disparity in favor of 'better' gender roles (ideally no gender role would exist, but it's not realistic to expect that given flawed human nature, at least the roles will be less pronounced and not place one sex at a clear disadvantage when fulfilling whatever it's new gender role is).

To give an example of good culture evolution let me point to my favorite author, and one that I like particularly because she clearly shows her work when justifying cultural evolution and world building.

In the Lois Mcmaster Bujold's Vorkosigan Saga she wanted a world with modern technology but with a feudal style government and military/culture obsessed culture that felt more at home with a swords and sandles style book (effectively she wanted Klingon...no really it was inspired by star trek Klingons, even if they aren't that much like Klingons in the final version) .

She correctly recognized that normally a feudal military cast culture would not normally evolve within the world, and technology, she had in mind. She wished to justify it though, so she modified her world. Specifically her home planet, Baryar, was cut off from the rest of the universe by accident many generations ago, and revert in both technology, government, and culture, as they struggled to survive in desperate situation. The 'present' baryar is set a 2-3 generations after Baryar reconnects with society and future technology. Their culture has not yet adapted to the technology, and in many cases shows foolish decisions because they are still stuck in old ways that don't make sense. Infanticide for mutations, once required due to the small genetic pool making the risk of mutations severe enough to risk collapse of society, is still occasionally practiced in the backwaters of a world where they can use gene sweepers to prevent mutations from being passed on and possible fix the damage done by it. People refuse to use new Uterine replicators which are safer then 'body births' etc. Further more, upon realizing the inevitable ingrained cultural fear of mutation would evolve from such a small gene pool and high risk of mutation she ended up using that cultural hatred of mutation to great effect by having it's effects on her protagonists, who appears to be a 'mutant', complex psychology and need to prove himself.

She uses the slow speed of cultural evolution to have her cake and eat it too by justifying a culture that otherwise would feel out of place with enviroment. More importantly she then asked what else would evolve from such societal pressures as a small group of strangers stranded on inhospitable world, realized a cultural hatrid of mutation would evolve from inbreeding concerns, and used that fact to help further create her world and characters. This is how world building should be, ask how your culture evolves, adjust the world to encourage the evolution you want, and then deduce what other accidental evolutions come from those changes, repeat until you have a fully fleshed out world.

The point of my tangent being that this is how any question of equality in pre-modern societies should be addressed if you want to see it happen, change the pressures on the society to justify it, then see what kind of interesting world evolves out of those changes. The greatest harm to consistent worlds you can make is to choose to ignore the evolution and implications of the world you created on the inhabitants of it, even if they are things you don't like. For your world to be real you must either acknowledge what you don't work or find a way to change the world so it doesn't evolve.

  • $\begingroup$ longgggggggggggg $\endgroup$ – Bryan Feb 19 '18 at 23:06

I like this question (I've only seen it post-edit), and I think I understand what you're getting at because I've thought about this question quite a lot myself.

I remember seeing an episode of Sliders (where people visited alternate realities) where women had changed roles with men, and women were the gender that had most of CEO positions and made up the majority of governments etc. It was a nice idea, but they made every woman in this alternate universe as if they were a sexist male in our universe.

I think in the bygone eras it was based on what men and women can't do. Women can do everything a man can do, the physiology of women might mean generally they aren't as naturally strong as men, but that doesn't necessarily mean women couldn't take down a mammoth.

However, there is one significant thing that a woman can do that men can't, and that's bear children. This makes them very important for reproduction, because whilst a woman takes 9 months to grow a child, a single man can impregnate every woman in a tribe. This means that more women are needed than men.

So it is likely that in the days of hunter/gatherer, women were kept home for their own safety, so that they could survive in order to have more children.

Being at home all the time, they will have naturally wanted to contribute to the survival of the tribe in some way, so will have developed other skills. People will have figured that women may as well learn these skills in the first place, as they will need them eventually.

Sure, once the child is born they could hand them off to the infirm, but the human brain is wired to want to protect their own child, so that we don't eat or kill our own children. It's an evolutionary thing so that our species survives.

Handing off the child to someone else, there's no certainty that that person would look after the children as well as its own mother or father would. However, if a father has children to multiple women in a tribe, he is unlikely to be able to take care of them all, thus it falls to the mother.

As for differences:

Without any significant changes to the development of mankind, like "what if men bore children?", I don't think that there is much that would have happened differently. The only thing I can think is if women were allowed equal rights to men sooner.

Very few people, including men, were educated in medieval times, so I don't think there would have been much difference there. Humans would have still waged war over land and religions, no matter their gender.

I think the only difference would be in the last 200 years or so. We would have potentially progressed further as a society, but women would be having fewer children as they wouldn't be forced to stay home and look after them as they were, because women weren't encouraged (allowed?) to have jobs. So whilst there might be more women working, there would be less people in general.

The biggest differences would be society and culture. They would be very different, but I could do a full SE site on a discussion of that. I would suggest looking at what society was like ~50 years ago and compare it to today, and then extrapolate what you think that might develop into in the future, but with today's technology.


Primitive human societies didn't have gender equality. Sure women could pick fruit as well as men, which is why picking fruit was women's work. Men went off on hunting expeditions where women couldn't compete as well, and made a big deal about it, too. Training to hunt was also training to have wars with other tribes, which is another regime where the male's strength was an especial advantage.

  • $\begingroup$ FWIW, early woman could be as productive in the food production domain as men were via Horticulture (pre-agricultural gardening) as well as general foraging. I'd have to dig through scholarly articles, but I'm under the impression that Gods during this time were a heavy mix of male and female. Enter Agriculture and suddenly men are almost exclusively providing food and a few men can suddenly feed many, allowing men to specialize further while women remained in the homes with children...gods switch to almost exclusively male dominated and the first roots of our patriarchy are established. $\endgroup$ – Twelfth Apr 10 '15 at 18:34
  • $\begingroup$ Actually, women often did far more to pick up foods. In some societies, such as in New Guinea, they contribute almost all of the food, even meat by raising pigs. But in a social context, the stuff the men did was deemed important, because men did it, even if it was marginal from an economic aspect. The explanation I read was that there is one thing only men can do - fight other men raised as warriors. So a society needs to raise its own warlike men in self defense, which means making them important socially. $\endgroup$ – Oldcat Apr 10 '15 at 18:46

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