“The Animal Question in Feminism”: Women and mothers as biologically determined, men and fathers as culturally ‘evolved’

Even where the origin of humanization is not attributed to male social activities such as hunting or male bonding, a central role is still attributed to paternity. As it is generally believed that among non-human primates paternity is not recognized, contrary to maternity, the recognition of fatherhood is seen as the key to humanity.

Maternity is considered inherently conservative since the transformation of an adult woman into a mother would appear to be an automatic biological process. Fatherhood, on the other hand, is viewed as a cultural rather than a biological relationship: it constitutes a social institution and is seen by many as the foundation of all kinship systems. Motherhood, which by itself resembles an animal state, requires `husbandry’ (denoting the status of husbands) to move to a human state. Paternity is not founded on the immediate biological fact of conception-  instead it is an indirect relationship based on two direct relationships both of which are believed to be purely biological.

The idea that the female core of an average animal group should be seen as a purely biological unit, in itself incapable of developing culture and sociality, is by no means a novel thought. Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his Discours sur l’inegalite made a similar suggestion… Like Marshall Sahlins today, Rousseau apparently did not consider animal relations between kin and inter-animal compassion as social qualities. The mother-child bond was in his eyes no occasion for social transmission, and the feeling of compassion was biologically induced rather than socially acquired.

All these scenarios more or less convey the general idea that mother-daughter-sibling-infant groups cannot possibly constitute societies. Relationships between females, and between females and offspring, apparently simply cannot have risen above the instinctive and purely biological level. Males were needed to lead our species across the nature-culture boundary.
It should be acknowledged that many sexist theories indeed base their arguments on the notion that woman is more biological and therefore closer to animals than man, and that this woman-animal continuity forms a major barrier for social equality between the sexes. And like Simone de Beauvoir many feminists are in their turn showing a typical example of Anti-Biological Reaction in their attempts to dismiss or belittle anything in women reminiscent of animals. They have come to believe that human-animal continuity, or at least its female version, woman-animal continuity, has played a major role in the oppression of women. And, indirectly, they are right.

However it is not woman-animal continuity per se which is oppressive; rather it is the social construction and interpretation of this continuity which has caused women to be discriminated against. Discrimination has occurred on the basis of a woman’s body, her sexuality, her sex hormones, her reproductive function. She has even been discriminated against on account of her (allegedly) greater emotionality, indeed, on account of anything which can also be detected in animals. Body size, menstruation, pregnancy, motherhood and child care all have been used to bar women from other rewarding activities and opportunities in society and, in Western society at least, this has made women dependent on men. Sexists and anti-sexists alike have generally assigned a low status for maternity and have regarded it as a handicap for participation in wider society.

Humans and Other Animals: Beyond the Boundaries of Anthropology – Barbara Noske (1988). Noske on “The Animal Question in Feminism” part III: Women and mothers as biologically determined, men and fathers as culturally ‘evolved’.

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