Book Reviews

Women's Roots: The History of Women in Western Civilization
by June Stephenson, Ph.D.

Diemer Smith Publishing Co., 5th Edition, March 2000

Book review by William A. Spriggs, October 6, 2003

A most interesting and enlightening book.
I found an advertisement for this book inside a National Organization of Women's semi-annual flyer and ordered the book through a 1-800 number. After two unsuccessful attempts at trying to talk to a live person at the publisher's number, I then sent off a check via the enclosed snail mail address. Do not let the fact that the book most likely was the project of one individual with enough persistence to convince a small publisher willing to print her work detract from your faith in the book; the research found in the book is quite accomplished and well-rounded. Even though it is obvious that Dr. Stephenson is not an academic scholar, there is little doubt that she is deeply committed to her research and has followed the subject for many years.

Although not written from an evolutionary perspective, students of evolutionary psychology will find this book to be very valuable research tool in providing a totally female perspective to women's roles in western history. It truly is refreshing to witness "the other side" wholly represented as opposed to the normal "male tales" told in Western history textbooks. The reason I say that there is a valuable tool presented here, comes from the undeniable tone presented -- not vitriolic, but subtle -- throughout the book, that there is a "female reluctance with the status quo" and that there is a willingness to change the female's circumstance and path. This is important because if you are a Darwinian feminist, you believe that human evolutionary change takes place when the female is dissatisfied about her surroundings and begins to maneuver the "willing" male into making changes that will enhance her genetic advantage; having the ability to identify and classify "the dissatisfaction," such as presented in this book, can be valuable asset.

I suspect that Ms. Stephenson wrote the book reflecting her own frustrations, but targeted future generations of women so that they would be become more informed of the true passage of their gender through time. Her quest is noble. As each individual female becomes better educated and "enlightened," the cascading effect of change would become inevitable; being "correctly" educated and informed, the female would then have more free "choices" and opportunities in which to attract the male companion willing to "put up with her new ideas and demands" in exchange for constant access. I argue, along with Ms. Helen Fisher, that the female will dominate the next century in the Western world, but that her biggest battle to dictate change will not be with the male, but with her "comfortable sisters" in suburbia and conservative fundamentalist institutions who have a genetic advantage and will make every effort to retain that advantage.

Copyright, Evolution's Voyage 1995 - 2006

The book is divided into five sections with concluding remarks:
" Prehistoric 50,000 BC - 2500 BC, First social groups, Gender roles, Puberty rites, totems and taboos, Sexual mores, Age of cultivation, Advent of property, Knowledge of paternity, Pair-bonding and marriage, Goddesses to Gods, Matriarchy vs. Patriarchy.
" Antiquity 2500 BC - 400 AD, Historical background, Feudalism, Chivalry and courtly love, Religion, Male/Female relationships, Notable medieval women.
" Medieval 400 AD - 1400 AD, Historical background, Religion, Witch-hunts, Industrial revolution, Male/female relationships, Notable renaissance women.
" Renaissance 1400 AD - 1700 AD, Historical background, Religion, Witch hunts, Industrial revolution, Male/female relationships, Notable Renaissance women.
" Modern 1700 AD to present -- France: French Revolution; England: working conditions, Education, Property laws; United States: Colonists, revolution, abolitionists, frontier movement, suffrage, employment, and notable American Women.

The most important chapter for evolutionist is the first; this is where the human brain architecture has already been hardwired; it is here that we see the human species, evolving from nomadic hunter-gathering tribes, into established, location-based clans. The author stresses more than once that these hunter-gathering tribes did not have a gender bias, in fact: "All children were protected and nourished by all women, and all women were therefore mothers to all children. Girls the same age were sisters, and boys the same age were brothers. The male who was important to a woman was her brother. A male child looked to his mother's brother for guidance in learning the male skills of hunting animals and enemy people. The female child looked to her mother for learning the skills of softening hides, gathering foods, and building temporary shelters. The patriarchal family as we know it today with the father of the children as the head of the group was unknown in pre-history." p. 4 & 5, Ms. Stephenson quotes this passage mostly from pages 24-27 of Franz C. Muller-Lyer's 1921 book, Social Development, AMS Press, New York.

I found the part where the author describes male puberty rites to be significant because it compels me to conclude that it was here that the beginning roots of male dominance and female submission began in earnest as a result of the emphasis on these rites. "One of the important rites of passage which have descended to today's tribal peoples is the puberty rite. This is the ritual, different from tribe to tribe, and almost non-existent for girls, which marks a boy's passage into manhood. These rituals affect the way boys are conditioned to value "manhood." Also, because the rituals reserve the knowledge of the secret tribal myths for males only, they create a sense of male importance by excluding women...Boys, in order to become men, have to prove that they are unafraid, and they can take pain "like a man." Only then can the boys see the sacred objects, learn the secrets of the clan, and history of the clan's great achievements...All of these activities create a bonding and a brotherhood of males, collectively shocked into manhood by pain and fear. The initiates form a bonding which lasts all their lives." 10 & 11.

One can not understate the importance to the individual male in succeeding the initiation feats; failure to do so could prove disastrous for him genetically. As the author points out: "No tribal women would be mated with a male who did not have the scars to prove that he had successfully passed the test of manhood." p. 14. And so I suspect that gender bias began: The separation of the genders based on strength and endurance which were intimately tied to the concept of "the public good" of defending the tribe: Strong is good because it helps the clan to survive; weak is bad because it does not, and those that can't contribute could easily be seen as a drain on the group's survival efforts. We see this theme over and over again in recorded history right up to the 2003 political news reports in America -- a country's might is tied proportionately to its military strength -- and the poor and old are seen as worthless strains on the system -- Social Darwinianism is reborn.

I argue that the initial tests of manhood also give evolutionary psychologists a glimpse into the beginings of homophobia and misogyny; both based on exclusionary mechanisms of domination and control. The "strong, bonded" males, because of their ability to dominate through violence, most likely passed negative social attachmets to all in the tribe who could not contribute to the the public good of its defense -- both male and female. I argue that males, who could not pass the test perhaps, would be killed, exiled, or shunned; it is known for a fact that in some Native American tribes, males who failed the "test of manhood" were given "women's work" to do. There were no "gay communities" in large cities to which the "inferior" males could escape.

As mentioned above by Dr. Stephenson, the cultural initiation test into manhood is mostly universal for males, but what about the female? It appears that history has "cursed" them with puberty rites commencing with their first menstrual cycle: "Puberty rites for girls were and more inclined to mark them in a tabooed condition, that is, with red power on their bodies to mark their "untouchability" or menstruation visible so nobody will come near them." p.14 Although there have been other taboos from history that began to separate the male from the female, such as incest and group gender food consumption social norms, nothing has been passed on into social tradition which such disastrous impact for the female than the mythical taboos regarding the normal menstrual flow emanating from their bodies. "Menstruating women, and women after childbirth, were then, and in some major religions today, and in all tribal groups, considered contaminators and polluters...In most societies a special hut is provided to which women must resort during their menstrual period." p. 18 & 19. "The Hebrews attached the greatest importance to the primitive taboo. 'If a woman have an issue and her issue in her flesh be blood, she shall be put apart seven days; and whosoever toucheth her shall be unclean until evening. Anyone who touched her bed or anything that she sat upon was required 'to wash, his clothes, and bathe himself in water, and be unclean until the evening.'" p. 20. (Underlined emphasis mine). And one more time: "As these instances show, the taboos are not derived from any abstract principle, but from dread of the dire effects of contact with women in these conditions. The Dene believe that a contact with menstrual blood will turn a man into a woman. The Tlinkit are persuaded that a single look from a menstruating woman would completely destroy the luck of a hunter, fisherman,(someone to blame for his failure as a great hunter? Insert mine) or gambler, and that it might even, like the Medusa's head, believe that contact with a menstruating woman will deprive a man of his manhood…" p. 21. [This last quote came from Robert Briffault's, The Mothers: The Matriarchal Theory of Social Origins, (abridged ed. In 1 vol.) New York: Mcamillan Publishing, 1931].

No one, of course, was there in the beginning to observe and record the male-dominated thinking that evolved concerning the female's menstrual cycle, but it isn't very difficult to understand how or why, in the timeline before sanitation practices, that negative reactions by males could have been set in motion by the emotion of disgust associated with any possible odors or unsightly discharges. The emotion of disgust is the innate reaction to possible harmful elements in our local environments that our species may smell, taste, or touch that the body senses "may be harmful." Disgust is one of the most powerful emotions in our species' protective arsenal, and I would like to see more studies published as to how this particular emotion affects human behavior in social settings. (For more, see Handbook of Emotions, 2nd Edition, The Guilford Press, New York, 2000. See Chapter 40 -- Disgust). In the new human sphere of group living, in combination with the evolving "public good" requirements, and the lingering myths concerning "bad luck" associated with menstruating women, it's not an imaginary leap to see why bonded, "warrior" males would consider this a serious enough issue to isolate and subordinate the females

Since we on this specific subject, I am going to jump a bit to the early medieval times -- perhaps 200 AD -- when the Catholic church was emerging in the West as totally dominate in society and relate to you a passage written by a religious scholar, a one Broderson, familiar with that time: "I must...emphasize that the biological fact of menstruation is the main obstacle to women's participation in liturgical functions: one always shied away from it with fear. The demand for cultic cleanliness won out against the deconness." p. 131, as quoted from Religion & Sexism, by Rosemary Radford, Ed., Simon & Schuster, 1974, p. 273.

This concept that menstruation is somehow "unclean" and "impure," is found principally in the teachings of the Jewish faith and based solely on the premise that one must be "clean" and "pure" before one enters a house of worship or presents oneself before God; thus equating clean and pure as essential before one can be "holy." This concept of excluding persons because of their "unclean" status could have evolved in history from the Hindu concept that separates several layers of populations into hierarchies, with each "lower" group member assigned to a life of "untouchability" to the group higher up in the hierarchy because of their "unpure" status.

The religious exclusion process against "unpure" women can be seen expanding into everyday social norms and "normal social thought" as societies grew in our western civilizations. These exclusions continued to work against the female's advancement in societies as communities grew larger and moved away from the church's influences; the reason for this is that these new city-states required an educated population to run them. But since the Catholic Church controlled the education of the populace, what group was denied advanced teachings? "Women had to remain in their own niches inside declining religious bureaucracies while men filled the new secular bureaucracies of the state. The linking of higher education with training for the priesthood effectively barred them from preparing for entry into the new state machinery." p. 197, as quoted from Elise Boulding, The Underside of History: A View of Women Through Time, Westview press, Colorado, p. 423.

But it wasn't just the Catholic Church in Western culture keeping women from entering the mainstream; it started with the Greeks, and with the great "scientist" Aristotle. "Aristotle, the Greek philosopher who lived from 384-324 BC. had been considered a great scientist. For about fifteen hundred years his "scientific" opinions were accepted, among them that the female is a defective male, and that, in human reproduction the woman is merely the vessel, holding the embryo which is totally the male's. Also because the female is passive, he asserted, and the male is active, the female is not fit for freedom or political action." p. 175, as quoted from H.G. Well's The Outline of History, p. 309, Macmillian Publishing, 1921, New York.

This scientific "fact" spread and influenced the Romans, and then spread throughout the middle ages into Europe. In particular, the "teachings" of Thomas Aquinas, a monk who later became a saint and wrote 21 volumes of a treaties defending the Christian doctrine and relied on Aristotle's "science" to argue and prove his positions on God, society, and the subordination of women. "The defeat of the Greek Catholic Church at Constantinople had dashed the hopes of united church power; In addition, Protestantism was gaining ground. Church leaders believed that at least part of the blame must be put on Satan and Satan was believed to do his work through witches. Most witches, it was also believed, were women. p. 218

"The Inquisitors explained at length why witchcraft was far more common among women than among men. Basically, woman is a weak, inferior creature; moreover, she is afflicted with insatiable carnal lust. This makes her easy prey to the advances of the Devil who offers to satisfy her desires. P. 219, from Morton Hunt's The Natural History of Love, 1967, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, pp. 195-7.

And once again concerning the female's bad "reputation" spread by male domination: "The thrust of the Adam and Eve myth that came from the Hebrew Old Testament put new burdens on women. True, women had been considered contaminators and polluters in primitive times, but Judaism emphasized the need to avoid sin and for man to protect himself from his "inborn evil tendencies inherited from Adam…Man's greatest weakness was the lure of sexual pleasures. The urge for sexual satisfaction made man almost a helpless victim in the eyes of Satan. Woman after all to the male mind is often equated with sex. She keeps reminding him of his sexual nature and therefore she must be evil." pp. 70 & 71. From Vern L. Bullough's The Subordinate Sex: A History of Attitudes Toward Women, pp. 40-2, Penguin Books, 1974, Maryland.

It all sounds logical, right? Of course I'm being facetious -- how could anyone blame the fall of their well established empire on the female based upon this evidence? Well, it makes sense when you understand the power of the church at that time, the level of science, the communicated common knowledge by the populace of that science, and the social norms of the times that molded that human behavior. This then leaves us at the door's entrance of the social psychology science known as social dominance; the mechanisms done by all levels of groups found on the planet in recorded history in which powerful elites do everything that they can to remain in power: they demean, berate, and force submission on those least likely to strike back.

The way I see the common "thread" that weaves its way through Women's Roots, is that this a grievance being vented by a woman that was not allowed to develop to her maximum potential because of culture and social norms that surrounded her; she sets out to lay at the feet of humanity a version of history she feels is "balanced" and interjects her own personal perspectives regarding these circumstances. I think I can safely sum up the book, and the history of the female, in one sentence: Women have been "kept in their place" because of male dominated views reflecting the female's "ability to drive men crazy with lust;" their menstrual cycles interfering with religious laws requiring that persons be "pure" and "clean" before presenting themselves to God; and the entrenched Western cultural bias that women are "inferior" to men in physical strength and mental abilities.

The unwritten part of this book that will unfold in the 21st Century is the group gender enlightenment of the female realizing the evolutionary fact that she has "accepted" and chosen this path as the best one available for survival of her children. In choosing this path the female will also realize that accepting and pursuing the elite male for his resources that will benefit her children also takes away resources and harms her fellow sisters whom are lower in their perspective hierarchies. The female in the 21st Century will come to realize that she is the savior of humankind and will do so by lifting up her fellow sisters on the planet. Studying Roots of Women, setting the historical records on a balanced and scientific path is a good beginning.

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