Julia Stonehouse examines the recent history of the patriarchial society and finds the male biological preference for a son to be based on a fallacy, from Darwin to Christianity.
We know human life develops from ovum and sperm. That is two seeds and fusion, and two parents. This basic idea about the facts of life only became scientifically accepted around the turn of the 20th century. Before then, and in many parts of the world still, people thought there was one seed, and one parent—the father. I think this idea made patriarchy logical and inevitable.
Seeds are singular: one seed is planted in the ground and a complete plant grows from it, laden with the seeds of future generations. With the single, male-seed, concept people thought the human seed came entirely from the man and was planted into the ‘soil’ of women.
Female chastity became men’s number one concern because the children that came out of a woman’s body would be 100% her husband’s or 100% some other man’s. Women contributed 0% to the child in terms of generative seed, and did not as such actually reproduce, which is why they had no reproductive rights.
Men treated women as sex objects because women were objects of men’s sexual reproduction. A woman’s sexuality belonged to men: either the father who was the source of her entire being; or the husband she was to serve as his baby-making machine. This helps explain why, for example as it says on a Chinese government website, “In the Chinese family system the wife lives with the husband’s family and is deemed as no longer part of her own family, but the ‘property’ of the husband’s family.”
Before 1869 in England and America, a married woman came under the legal doctrine called ‘couverture’ which meant that she was not, legally, a person. The husband and wife were considered, in law, one person – and that person was the husband. The wife couldn’t own property, take out a mortgage, enter into any legal contracts, inherit money or land, or go into education. She could work, but the wages belonged to her husband.
The male-seed theory of reproduction gained logic from the fact that when a woman becomes pregnant, her menstruation stops. It was thought that menstrual blood went to make the baby, and that the woman generally provided the stuff the baby would be made of. The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle described it as “prime matter” and “the material”; the 18th century French naturalist Buffon said the foetus is “fashioned” from menstrual blood; while Charles Darwin’s grandfather Erasmus said women provide “the oxygen, food and nidus” – a place to grow.
Meanwhile men were thought to be the actual creators. They had the seed, which came from a long line of forefathers, all the way back to God, who was of course male. Erasmus Darwin said in 1794, “the embryo is provided by the male”. And while Buffon said women contributed the material, comparing it to marble, he also said in 1785 that “the male semen is the sculptor”. Aristotle said “the male semen cooks and shapes menstrual blood into a new human being”, and provides the “sentient soul”, with the male standing for the “effective and active”, and providing the “form” and the “principle of movement”. Collectively, for centuries, a long line of venerated male thinkers said that while women provided the material, men provided the seed that gave that material form or shape, motion or action, the intellectual and creative mind, and soul or spirit. In essence, what men provided was life itself. Aristotle also said “the active elements are always higher on any scale, and more divine.” So, being the source of the active elements in reproduction, men were also thought more divine.
The patriarchal male-seed idea of reproduction led to a highly polarised idea of what are the ‘nature’ of men and the ‘nature’ of women. And because ‘nature’ is designed by God, to challenge these ideas was blasphemous. To suggest that women could act as intermediaries with God by holding high positions in religious organisations was ridiculous. Men alone had spiritual authority because they were creative, like God, while women were not creative and so were very distinct from God. This spiritual apartheid continues in the structures of religious organisations to this day.
Of course men wanted sons. It’s wasn’t some mini-me ‘let’s play football’ preference. It was a profound need because if a man has no sons, there’s no continuation of the forefathers seed. The family line would come to a grinding halt because only sons have the seed of future generations in their testicles. Girl-children don’t contain within them their father’s seed, which makes girls an evolutionary dead-end. King Henry 8th brought religious war to England because he was desperate for a son. It’s been estimated that in India between 1988 and 2008 ten million female foetuses were aborted. Although sex-selection abortion is illegal in China, which has a one-child policy, there are now millions of ‘bare branches’––men who cannot find wives. So, in China too millions of females are missing, presumed dead, before or shortly after birth.
Inheritance of land went the same way as biological inheritance, along the male line. A daughter would marry a man from another family, and have children who were the grown seed of her husband. Why work hard all your life just to leave it all to another man’s family? In 1776 the writer James Boswell wrote “I … had a zealous partiality for heirs male, however remote” and gave as his first reason “the opinion of some distinguished naturalists, that our species is transmitted through males only…” He was lucky that he could consider a choice because for much of history European Salic Law and Christian Canon Law expressly forbade property going to females.
Children belonged to men because they were men’s grown seed. A farmer owns the crop that grows from the seeds he plants, and a baker owns the buns he puts in the oven. The soil and the oven are helpers, and this is how women were thought of – as helpers in men’s reproduction. Today, there are still many places in the world where mothers have few rights over the children they give birth to. In the UK it took 100 years for women to be granted equal parental rights: from 1878 when they had no rights whatsoever; to 1973 when the Guardianship Act stated “a mother shall have the same rights and authority as the law allows the father.”
When scientists first started suggesting there might be two seeds and fusion they had to do so anonymously or posthumously because it smacked of occultism, and could get them killed. Women who broke the non-creative mold were like intellectual transvestites, and brought their family disgrace and danger.
Charles Darwin had no idea where babies come from. It took an army of 19th century embryologists seven decades to establish the hypothesis that the human ovum is fertilised by a male sperm. They carried out their experiments on sea urchins, starfish, frogs, worms, and other humble creatures, so there were many people in 1900 who were still reluctant to believe that human reproduction was essentially the same. The non-believers would have to wait until photographic proof was produced in 1960. The Beatles were just tuning up.
If all this comes as a surprise to you, you’re not alone. Most people think “people have always known the facts of life” because nobody talks about reproduction theory, except people like me who study the history of embryology, and anthropologists who study the ‘kinship systems’ of other cultures.
The facts of life were extremely difficult to establish, and the patriarchs were not the only ones to get it wrong. There have been at least four major theories – all of which led to very different notions about what the male-female relationship is about. The earliest were almost certainly female-centered and did not lead to men controlling women because the source of creativity – the female – was the same person as the means of production – the female.
I think of the male-seed reproduction theory as the mortar which made the towers of patriarchy strong and powerful. When the male-seed theory changed to the two-seeds theory, around 1900, it was the quietest of revolutions for a complex of reasons including the truism ‘the nature of power is to retain your power’. But, as the logic behind patriarchy evaporated, the mortar began to crumble. However, we’re still left with the institutions, habits, and mind-sets that patriarchy engendered, and they are what we need to continue changing.