The Underside of History: A View of Women Through Time
by Elise Boulding
Westview Press (1976)
Published at the height of the women’s movement, this is a remarkable read. The first book of its kind, it employs extensive anthropological and historical evidence to trace the contribution of women to the rise of civilization. In most historical accounts, the role of women in development has been largely invisible
Beginning with the appearance of our hominid ancestors in Africa two million years ago, Boulding traces their migration to the Middle East, Europe, Asia and North and South America – highlighting the early civilizations that developed in each of these regions. She concludes with the current role of women in each of these geographical areas.
The part of the book I found most surprising describes the role women played in inventing tools from pebbles, bones and skulls to use in food preparation. They also invented ceramic pots and bags made of animal skins to store it and built huts to provide a protected space for child rearing.
During the hunter gather period, men and women played an equal role in production activities and decision making. After they learned to grow their own crops (following a decline in large game animals), women tended to be dominant because hunting was precarious and men relied on women for food. Women also had charge of the first domesticated animals (goats, sheep and pigs) and passed control of their land and livestock in a matrinlineal pattern.
Better access to food increase population density, which in turn necessitated an increase in food production. This led to the discovery of the plow and the domestication of cattle, which shifted basic control of food production to men. They, in turn, assigned women secondary tasks, such as weeding and collecting firewood and water.
The discovery of mining and metal working technology occurred around the same time, which would lead to the rise of trading economies and armies to protect settlers against raiding hunter gatherers. With the rise of cities and militarization, societies were “stratified” for the first time. “Stratification” and the rise of an idle ruling elite (kings and priests) would lead to the development of a social hierarchy that tended excluded women from public spaces and confined them to domestic labor at home.
According to Boulding, women still played a number of public leadership roles during antiquity and the Middle Ages – a privilege they lost during the Industrial Revolution.