On the Origins of Gender Inequality

Authored by: Joan Huber

Handbook on Evolution and Society

Print publication date:  January  2015
Online publication date:  November  2015

Print ISBN: 9781612058146
eBook ISBN: 9781315634203
Adobe ISBN: 9781317258339


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The forager groups who represent 99 percent of human time on earth were relatively egalitarian, but 10,000 years ago the invention of the hoe and then the plow entailed a food surplus that led to warfare and a system of social stratification based on birth. The non-fit of reproduction with warfare let men monopolize both war and politics and consigned women to secondary status, but the reproductive constraints were poorly understood until the 1990s. Infants had been suckled at intervals of about fifteen minutes by day (less often at night) for two years, and at a lesser rate for at least two more until the invention of a safe substitute for human milk in the 1880s. The pattern evolved because frequent suckling precluded ovulation; the contraceptive effect maximized survival. If a forager mother gave birth before her older child could join the daily food search, the older one starved. A forager mother thus carried her youngest child everywhere and slept with it at night, for her low-fat milk sated its hunger only briefly. In the 1950s, demographers were still unaware of the contraceptive effect of prolonged lactation, but by the 1990s they agreed that prolonged breastfeeding was universal before the demographic transition. The invention of a safe alternative to human milk induced huge behavioral changes. Biggest and least recognized was the decrease to nearly zero in the number of three- to five-year-olds whose primary food was breast milk. Augmenting the fertility decline, the revolution in child feeding enabled women in modern economies to increase the range of their public activities by a substantial margin.

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