Women have been oppressed throughout the course of human history. In order to oppress others and enforce their will, a dominant group is required to have power. Without power, any human and humanitarian rights have no support and protection. For women, real changes began with the industrial revolution and the revolution within the household, enabling them to become financially independent. As it stands, women’s rights in western countries are protected by state laws. To ensure the longevity of these winnings, women must become physically equal to men as well.
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The 21st century is often called the century of female liberation, with women reclaiming their rights, agency over their actions and their bodies, and tarnishing down the last bastions of male privileges, such as the pay gap, the glass ceiling, and the underrepresentation of women in nearly every political institution on the planet. Numerous researches on the subject show that the enslavement of women throughout history was reinforced by various social institutions, such as religion, education, employment, tradition, military, and politics.
However, in order to understand the evolution of human society, one needs to study history from the very beginning, back when humans were little more than animals, with primitive tongues, cultures, tools, and societal organization. At some point in humanity’s early history, women were equal to men, if not superior. The purpose of this paper is to evaluate the social evolution of women in relation to the sociology of power.
What is Power?
Before evaluating the evolution of women’s rights throughout human history, one must understand the relationship between rights and power. The definition of power fluctuated over the years, as different schools of sociology provided different meanings to the word. One of the most popular definitions of power was developed by Max Weber in 1922, stating that the word describes the ability to exercise one’s will over others (Wrong 2017).
The power lies at the core of dynamics in any social group, ranging from the smallest dyads and expanding towards families, organizations, and governments. There are different kinds of power, such as physical, intellectual, social, financial, political, and others (Wrong 2017). Some sorts of power are derived from others, with physical and intellectual powers being the primary parameters available to human beings.
The concept of power is invariantly connected to the concept of rights. It was created by humanistic philosophers, who theorized that individuals have certain unalienable rights to themselves, some of the most basic rights being the right to live, believe, and express oneself (Coates 2017). However, the legitimacy of rights is typically supported by moral values rather than physical power. In events of war and civil disorder, rights are often violated and broken, with no regard for the people suffering or moral retribution.
Based on these evaluations, it could be concluded that rights not protected by power are subject to being violated. In modern society, the rights of individuals are protected by the government and the police, who wield political and physical power in order to protect individuals whose rights are being violated and coerce the violators into submission. In the absence of legal power, lesser forms of power are being wielded by individuals to impose their own will upon others unchecked. Therefore, the aspect of rights in sociology is invariably submissive to the aspect of power.
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Female Rights and the Historical Development of Human Race
As it has already been established, certain forms of power precede others. The majority of powers we know today, such as political, financial, social, and other types, exist within the realm of the state, which sets up the playing field and establishes the rules for others to follow. At the beginning of human existence, governments and other similar institutions did not exist. Humans as a species formed primitive groups and tribes, similar to animal packs (Stearns 2015).
Just like with animals, the primary type of power available to individuals was physical power. In addition, physical power could be used to purchase other kinds of power (such as social power) through physical performances to benefit themselves and the tribe (Stearns 2015). Hunting and gathering were the primary methods of providing sustenance, and doing so more successfully than others earned a person more goods and materials, which, in turn, could be turned into a rudimentary economic power over others.
If we compare an average male and female against one another, it will become obvious that physiologically, males had several advantages that females did not possess. On average, males are stronger than females, thus providing the potential to use physical power as a way of enforcing one’s will upon others. The second disadvantage females had was the necessity to give birth. However, during the period of pregnancy as well as birth, women are extremely vulnerable, unable to effectively hunt and gather, thus forced to rely on others for protection (Stearns 2015).
Unlike wild animals, who have specialized skills and physiological capabilities to help them survive and raise families on their own, the strengths of humans as a society lie in numbers, intelligence, and collective action. Thus, from the beginning of humans as a species, women were at a physiological disadvantage in terms of their capability to use certain forms of power.
Thus, in a tribal society, women were placed in a position where they were necessary for the survival of the tribe (thus more valuable to the group than the average male) while at the same time lacking the ability to exercise power to the same degree (Stearns 2015). Early states and governments that evolved from large tribes following the switch from a hunter-gatherer society and towards farming communities allowed males to limit women to the role they perceived fit them the best – the role of the mother and housekeeper. These parallels can be found in nearly every society, from Aztec and Mayan cultures to Europe and China (Hughes and Tripp 2015).
The rights of women were further obstructed by religion, which was used by many countries to solidify the power of a monarch (male) over others by lending them divine authority over their domain. Although nearly every country has an example of a strong and powerful female ruler at some point in their history, neither of them managed to create lasting change or significantly undermine the position of males in power within their society (Little and Winch 2017). The position of women thus worsened, when compared to their standing in early societies, as in addition to physical power, they now (as a class) lacked social, economic, political, and religious power.
The situation for women started to change only with the increased technological progress. With industrial growth and the development of home products that significantly improved the speed and quality of household chores, it became possible for women to enter the workforce, giving them one source of power they rarely possessed – financial independence (Oakley 2016). This significantly reduced the reliance of women on men as home providers. At the same time, the significance of physical force became much less of a factor in the majority of law-abiding western societies. With the relative equalization of opportunities, women became capable of purchasing other forms of power, including political, social, economic, and educational forms.
Matriarchy as a Historical Anomaly
Although there is no conclusive evidence about the existence of large societies and states with women holding the dominant position on all levels of societal hierarchy, there have been tribes and localities with women holding more power than in other countries around the world (Goettner-Abendroth 2018). These cases typically resulted from events that led to significant reductions in the male population (such as wars), which forced women to take their place and fill in the power vacuum left behind. One such example includes Vietnam, which traditionally had more women in positions of power when compared to their neighbors, such as China or Japan (Peou 2017). Even then, however, males were able to replenish their population and, in time, wrestle the power in the society back to the patriarchate.
Historical oppression of females started in the early history of humankind and continued throughout its course up to the present day. In the 21st century, women have more sources of power than they had 200 years ago, thanks to automatization and the introduction of women into the workforce. However, the security of women’s rights relies completely on the capability of the government to protect and enforce them. In other areas of the world, where the rule of law is not enforced (Middle East, Africa, parts of Asia), the position of women is much more vulnerable. In order to ensure complete equality and resilience of female rights, it is required for women to acquire physical power to enforce their will in order to compete with males in eventualities where all other systems of control and enforcement go down.
Coates, Rodney D. 2017. “If Human Rights Mattered.” Sociological Forum 32(1): 217-291.
Goettner-Abendroth, Heide. 2018. “Re-thinking ‘Matriarchy’in Modern Matriarchal Studies Using Two Examples: The Khasi and the Mosuo.” Asian Journal of Women’s Studies 24(1): 3-27.
Hughes, Melanie M., and Aili M. Tripp. 2015. “Civil war and trajectories of change in women’s political representation in Africa, 1985–2010.” Social forces 93(4): 1513-1540.
Little, Ben, and Alison Winch. 2017. “Generation: the politics of patriarchy and social change.” Soundings 66(66): 129-144.
Oakley, Ann. 2016. “Interviewing Women Again: Power, Time, and the Gift.” Sociology 50(1): 195-213.
Peou, Sorpong. 2017. Cambodia: Change and Continuity in Contemporary Politics. New York: Routledge.
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Stearns, Peter N. 2015. Gender in World History. New York: Routlege.
Wrong, Dennis. 2017. Power: Its Forms, Bases and Uses. New York: Routledge.