Are women the weaker link? | HBR Talk 304


Show notes

In discussing the history of male suffrage and its link to the history of male military obligation, I realized there’s an aspect of this history we’re not talking about. In today’s political debates we’re told that historically, patriarchal attitudes kept women out of military service and many other harsh realities of life; dirty jobs like coal mining, dangerous work like hunting, because they have always been the fairer, weaker sex. 

The story history tells is not so patriarchal… not so gynocentric, nor so black and white. Whatever can be said about women today, the women we evolved from would probably kick all our asses.

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Ancient Women had Awesome Arms 

…a new study shows that, based on upper arm strength, the Neolithic ladies leave modern women—even elite athletes—in the dust. The work appears in the journal Science Advances. [Alison A. Macintosh, Ron Pinhasi and Jay T. Stock, Prehistoric women’s manual labor exceeded that of athletes through the first 5,500 years of farming in Central Europe.]

“We found that prehistoric women had stronger arm bones on average than most living women. That was pretty consistent through the first 5,500 years of farming or so. So this was even stronger than the arm bones of the rowers.”(Alison Macintosh)

From the research paper

The team examined evidence from a period of time between the Early Neolithic period to the Late Iron Age, while taking into consideration sex differences in norms of reaction of bone to mechanical loading as a result of the effects of hormones on how the body builds bone, and sex differences in the secretion of growth hormone and other factors that contribute to how the body builds bones. It is explained in the paper that these differences “may all result in the greater ability of male bone to respond to loading in a mechanically advantageous manner than female bone.”

The team focused on changes over time to the upper and lower limb bones in women during approximately the first 6150 years of agriculture in Central Europe, and compared them to living women of known behavior. They found evidence that in comparison to both living women, (including athletes,) and controls, all prehistoric agricultural women had higher mechanical loading of the upper arm, indicating high levels of manual labor using arm strength. Examples of this labor given in the report include carrying feed and water for livestock, milking, processing milk, meat, hides, and wool, and grinding grain with a saddle quern, which consisted of using a hand-held stone to crush the grain against a larger, flat or dish-shaped stone, in a back and forth motion. Many of these activities are stationary and some can be done while seated, but all of them would require the use of arm strength.

What is mechanical loading of the bone?

Mechanical loading stimulates bone formation following a pattern consistent with the distribution of strain energy. This process of growth directed at regions of high strain energy is similar to strategies employed by structural engineers to achieve optimum structure.

Mechanical Signaling for Bone Modeling and Remodeling

After Scientific American published an article on that study in 2017, they published one on another study in 2023 that adds more to the picture. 

Women were successful big-game hunters, challenging beliefs about ancient gender roles

The Theory That Men Evolved to Hunt and Women Evolved to Gather Is Wrong

This article, by Cara Ocobock & Sarah Lacy, begin by explaining what they call one of the most influential notions in the field of anthropology, Man the Hunter, a theory introduced in 1966, which “proposes that hunting was a major driver of human evolution and that men carried out this activity to the exclusion of women.”… “that that human ancestors had a division of labor, rooted in biological differences between males and females, in which males evolved to hunt and provide and females tended to children and domestic duties.It assumes that males are physically superior to females and that pregnancy and child-rearing reduce or eliminate a female’s ability to hunt.” This, they state unequivocally, is wrong. Their case is interesting, and it’s unfortunate that they tainted their presentation of it with gender politics. 

The evidence they present, which includes analysis of human physiology as well as fossil and archaeological records, and ethnographic studies, doesn’t paint an absolute picture of ancient human egalitarianism, but it does very strongly call the historical Man the Hunter view into question. According to the writers, “Overall, females are metabolically better suited for endurance activities, whereas males excel at short, powerful burst-type activities. You can think of it as marathoners (females) versus powerlifters (males). Much of this difference seems to be driven by the powers of the hormone estrogen.”

The first evidence they present is the mention of the Hitoshi Watanabe, who, in studying the Ainu, an Indigenous population in northern japan, documented women hunting, often with the aid of dogs.

They later delve into the role of estrogen in athletic performance. Thanks to it, females store fat differently than men in a way that makes it easier to use for sustained energy such as would be needed for long distance running, such as a chase over many miles. This is enhanced by several other factors.

Meanwhile, men are better at power activity, with 

The writers also describe gender differences in muscle tissue. “Females have more type I, or “slow-twitch,” muscle fibers than males do. These fibers generate energy slowly by using fat. They are not all that powerful, but they take a long time to become fatigued. They are the endurance muscle fibers. Males, in contrast, typically have more type II (“fast-twitch”) fibers, which use carbohydrates to provide quick energy and a great deal of power but tire rapidly.”

Next, the paper considers our differences from our prehistoric ancestors by comparing humans to other great apes; “Consider the skeletal remains of ancient people. Differences in body size between females and males of a species, a phenomenon called sexual size dimorphism, correlate with social structure. In species with pronounced size dimorphism, larger males compete with one another for access to females, and among the great apes larger males socially dominate females. Low sexual size dimorphism is characteristic of egalitarian and monogamous species. Modern humans have low sexual size dimorphism compared with the other great apes. The same goes for human ancestors spanning the past two million years, suggesting that the social structure of humans changed from that of our chimpanzeelike ancestors.”

The paper also cites a lack of gender difference in skeletal trauma patterns in Neandertal fossils, which suggests to the writers that both sexes were doing the same things. They note evidence that among Upper Paleolithic humans, evidence suggests males may have been more likely than females to throw spears, but also note that several other, more sophisticated tools existed for hunting, and that male and female corpses were interred with the same kinds of artifacts (also known as grave goods) indicating, as with the Neandertal’s skeletal patterns, that both sexes did the same things. 

Next, they explain, “Observations of recent and contemporary foraging societies provide direct evidence of women participating in hunting. The most cited examples come from the Agta people of the Philippines. Agta women hunt while menstruating, pregnant and breastfeeding, and they have the same hunting success as Agta men. 

They are hardly alone. A recent study of ethnographic data spanning the past 100 years—much of which was ignored by Man the Hunter contributors—found that women from a wide range of cultures hunt animals for food. Abigail Anderson and Cara Wall-Scheffler, both then at Seattle Pacific University, and their colleagues reported that 79 percent of the 63 foraging societies with clear descriptions of their hunting strategies feature women hunters. The women participate in hunting regardless of their childbearing status. These findings directly challenge the Man the Hunter assumption that women’s bodies and childcare responsibilities limit their efforts to gathering foods that cannot run away.”

First, we learn that in ancient agricultural communities, women’s arm strength was historically greater than we’d expect, likely due to the demands of labor done without the aid of mechanical devices that had yet to be invented. Then, we learn that the theory which established the notion of an historical male hunter/female gatherer division of labor ignores compelling evidence of women’s capabilities that indicate that women might not have “being the weaker sex” as a valid excuse. 

We can also look at evidence from a more modern era that challenge the notion that biology prevents women from being able or inclined to do hard, dirty, or dangerous work.

In an article titled “The scandal of female miners in 19th-century Britain,” originally published in BBC History Magazine, Denise Bates writes about how a report of the Children’s Employment Commission in 1842, in England, exaggerated and even mischaracterized the conditions under which female coal miners worked, portraying women and girls as working naked in the presence of men and boys. According to Bates, “Newspaper coverage of the story was sensationalist. The unambiguous sensuality of pictures commissioned by some periodicals fuelled a rapidly growing feeling that mining girls were corrupted by their surroundings, became immoral in conduct and made bad wives and mothers.” 

The commission, appointed by Queen Victoria, were instructed to report on the situation of workers aged under 18, but, as Bates writes, “were horrified to see women’s welfare compromised by work that seemed to be beyond their strength. Four of the investigators then overstepped their instructions and recommended that “such a pernicious system” was changed.” The commission’s report falsely portrayed female miners as simultaneously morally inferior and victims of a system that deprived them of their femininity and their status as homemakers. 

The Women Miners in Pants Who Shocked Victorian Britain
Natasha Frost, writing for Atlas Obscura, described how these investigators were scandalized by the fact that the female workers were wearing pants. The portrayal of the job as degrading to women, and a masculinizing, morality destroying factor worked.

“The outcome of this inquiry was swift—the 1842 Miners and Collieries Act forbade all women and girls, and any boy under the age of 10, from working in the mines. They would be replaced by pit ponies, an expensive alternative. Families felt this sudden loss of income acutely. One female miner said, afterwards, that though working underground was not pleasant, it was certainly better than starving. The penalty for employing women in mines was small enough that some women were still illegally employed below-ground—especially as mine-owners often passed this cost onto the women themselves.”

It seems that many of the sex-based biological conditions that would deter women from having anything to do with military service not only weren’t universal, but may have been far from it. While women have in recent history been far more likely than men to be exempt from any sense of obligation to do such jobs, it is apparently not because they can’t, but because elites in their society felt that they shouldn’t have to do them.

So, what is the final nail in the coffin for women’s sex-based excuses?

I found a few different articles discussing the issue of archeologists making assumptions about the sex of the dead in ancient burial sites based on viewing grave goods through a lens of modern gender norms. 

A June 2022 article  from Leiden University titled Research into grave goods sheds new light on traditional roles reported that researchers studying the Elsloo grave field in Limburg flint arrowheads and stone axes, traditionally attributed to men, are also frequently found in women’s graves there. They found that grave goods “turned out to be less gender-specific than previously thought.” While other items seem to indicate an expected division of labor, the presence of these items adds nuance to the previous understanding of what their lives would have been like. 

Ida Emilie Steinmark reports in Guardian article Archaeology’s sexual revolution that dna analysis of bone or dental pieces from corpses has upended previously accepted assumptions related to a variety of gravesites, including some in which men were believed to have been interred, because contained the possessions of warriors, but the tests showed they were female.  

One such grave was highlighted by several articles, including a New York Post article by James Rogers, Researchers confirm Viking warrior found in grave was actually a woman. According to the article, artifacts found in a 10th century grave on the Swedish island of Bjorko were those of a high-status Viking warrior. Because of this, for over a century after the grave was discovered, the interred was presumed male. However, a 2017 DNA analysis proved this to be wrong, and according to the researchers who did the analysis, “The simple and secure conclusion is that we have the right individual, who was buried alone and that this person has been proven to be biologically female.” 

They went on to state that in their opinion, this was the grave of a woman who lived as a professional warrior and was buried in a martial environment as an individual of rank. 

According to the article, “The warrior woman was buried in elaborate clothing and her grave contained a stunning array of weapons, including a sword, an ax, 25 armor-piercing arrows, a fighting knife, two lances and two spears. She was also buried with two horses, underlining her high status in Viking society.

Intriguingly, a bag of gaming pieces was also placed in the warrior’s lap and a gaming board was propped up beside her skeleton.

In Archeology’s Sexual Revolution, Steinmark also highlighted two examples of Viking graves each containing one skeleton, but which had been presumed “double burials” because they contained burial goods indicating both sexes. One could not be tested because the skeleton has since been lost, but the writer cites the opinion of Gareth Williams, a curator at the British Museum, that it “probably contained a sword-wielding woman,” because “there were strict taboos against wearing anything that could be seen as effeminate” for Viking men.” 

The other was assessed by a team led by Ulla Moilanen from the University of Turku, Finland. DNA analysis showed that the skeleton, found buried in female dress with swords, had been that of a person with XXY chromosomes, or Klinefelter syndrome, who “probably looked no different from an XY male.” It’s possible, though as the National Health Service reports on their website, in teenagers, Klienfelter syndrome can cause enlarged breasts, broad hips, poor muscle tone, and reduced facial and body hair, which means it’s possible that this individual looked more feminine than Moilanen supposes. 

And that is the issue at hand; while much can be ascertained based on our understanding of how various items were used, and patterns of distribution among grave goods can give us a lot of information about ancient cultures, we’re still basing what we think we know about ancient people, in large part, on guesswork. Modern methods have shaken up existing assumptions, but outlying examples of graves that don’t conform to scholars’ expectations don’t necessarily prove that the lives of those interred in them were typical of their culture’s gender roles.

What they do prove is that we may not know everything we think we know about gender roles in ancient cultures. At least some women were leaders, at least some hunted, and at least some were warriors. While it doesn’t mean these cultures were split-down-the-middle egalitarian, it does indicate something important to the context of our discussion about men’s suffrage and its relationship to military service.

Women’s exemption from the obligation to serve, both in terms of military obligation and resource acquisition, was not caused by a female inability to serve. Suffragettes and universal suffragists could have been confronted with the demand that if women wanted the franchise, they would have to meet the same obligatory standards as men. It was the choice of the so-called chauvinistic, misogynistic, woman-oppressing Patriarchy to not make them do so. 

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Hannah Wallen

Hannah has witnessed women's use of criminal and family courts to abuse men in five different counties, and began writing after she saw one man's ordeal drag on for seven years, continuing even when authorities had substantial evidence that the accuser was gaming the system. She is the author of Breaking the Glasses, written from an anti-feminist perspective, with a focus on men's rights and sometimes social issues. Breaking the Glasses refers to breaking down the "ism" filters through which people view the world, replacing thought in terms of political rhetoric with an exploration of the human condition and human interactions without regard to dogmatic belief systems. She has a youtube channel (also called Breaking the Glasses), and has also written for A Voice For Men and Genderratic. Hannah's work can be supported at

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