'Womb Envy' and the 'Devalued Man': How Women Invented Agriculture and Men Have Punished Them For It Ever Since

"The Birth of the Myth That Men are Closer to God" is the title of an article carried recently in The Washington Post, written by Robert McElvaine, a professor of History at Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi. It starts out more or less about the Taliban, but it quickly moves on to that much more dangerous movement, the Religious Right in America (well, he says Judaism and Christianity, and appears to mean any traditionalist interpretation of either).

While McElvaine's piece purports to explain religious "myths" about men and women, to my mind he, as a believer, retells one version of our official modern myth. The article is all the more appealing as a result: myths are fun, and McElvaine retells a good one, with feeling and gusto: the story of how women invented agriculture. (As they taught us in school, a myth is a story set in the distant, unverifiable past that explains some feature of our lives, right? (And it would be really hard to verify who invented agriculture!)) So, according to this recently conceived myth, long ago, men were hairy, violent, and stupid, and inordinately (and foolishly) proud of their superior hunting skills. (Women painstakingly and non-violently gathered seeds and roots, while men killed mastodons.) Then, women (being superior mentally, as they still are) began noting, in a creative leap, the connection between seeds in the ground and the plants that sprang up later. Cleverly, they began sacrificing some of the seeds they gathered, placing them in the ground, and some months later reaping the results. Soon they were providing more food than men. Feeling that their hunting role had been "devalued," the men were jealous! (The explanatory power of this myth is obvious already.) At this point, in their jealous rage, men wickedly made the false deduction that the male role in human reproduction was like the female (or later, human) role in agriculture: planting the seed in the ground, which only provided a warm, dark, wet place for the seed to grow. Male jealousy (which persists to this day), made men assign this creative element to themselves, leaving women, dirt-like, to provide nothing but a place for the seed to grow. Additional male revenge for being driven from the joys of hunter-gathering to the sweat of agriculture with sticks and hoes included the assigning of creative powers to male gods, even though "earlier" stories referred to "Mother Earth and to nature as a feminine force." (I had a little fun with my own summary, but I think the elements of the story are there as McElvaine told it.)

It's an engaging myth, with some intriguing explanations of how the modern world came to be! If only it had been presented as a myth, so more people could enjoy it as such! As science, it's devoid of any scintilla of evidence, which might cause some people, not realizing its proper value as an amusing myth, to dismiss it. A shame. Even as myth, however, I have to question some of the details. For example, if the invention of agriculture led to the notion of impregnation as planting a seed, did early people really think of Earth as Mother, but not of Sky as Father? Didn't the earlier stories (if they really were earlier) about Mother Earth suggest that She got impregnated by Father Sky? The clouds and rain and the lightning bolts and all that? (No rain, no growth.) Wouldn't that imply that fertility was seen, from the earliest days of the "Mother Earth" paradigm, as a collaborative effort, with an important male contribution, rather than a purely female quality? Moving forward in mythical time, if the invention of agriculture led to these "creative male" myths that devalue women, why do we have goddesses of earth and harvest getting sacrifices from the oh-so-patriarchal Greeks and Romans? In both theory and practice, they seemed to believe the female contribution to fertility was extremely important. But that doesn't fit too well with the myth at all. Anyway, isn't Earth, rather than a degrading comparison, a rather natural, benevolent, even majestic metaphor for woman as reproducer? After all, anyone can see that the great, beautiful earth gives us life. How? A seed goes in, and then there is quiet, mysterious growth for months, hidden from view, growth that never occurs with a seed on a shelf or in a jar. Finally, new life springs forth. That's a degrading comparison? And, in the end, let's not forget it's a metaphor. If women are Dirt in this kind of story, are men violent, senseless, ephemeral airheads, as they would be if the thundercloud image is taken as literally as the Earth image? Maybe the Mistaken Metaphor of Woman as Dirt has been pushed too far as an explanation for men feeling superior.

Now I come to Genesis, in which, McElvaine asserts, the Fall is women's discovery of agriculture. It seems odd to me, if the Genesis creation story makes women dirt-like, that the story does not simply portray woman as created from dirt. In fact, the Genesis story makes woman the last and most refined product of creation, "Human 1.1″ as it were. The “dirt woman” theme he reads in Genesis (as elsewhere) would work far better if woman were made next to last, from dirt, and Adam were made from Eve. That way, she would be closer to dirt, and he would be the refined one, the final product. Since it's the other way around, the effect is quite spoiled. It also seems to me that McElvaine goofed on a rather important verifiable detail. This professor of history asserts baldly that “in many languages, starting with Hebrew, woman means “out of man.” I wish he would name one language other than Hebrew, for in that language, "ish" is man, and "ishah" is woman, according to my Bible footnotes. Sounds more like the feminine form of the same word, to me–I believe it's simply the standard Semitic ending for a feminine word. Genesis actually says nothing about the meaning of the word, it simply quotes Adam as saying, "She shall be called woman, because she was taken out of man." I’ll believe McElvaine's "fact" about the "many" other languages when I see them cited, in a dictionary.

I don’t mean to say, in all my McElvaine bashing, that there’s nothing to “womb envy.” The fear and envy of women are real, I believe, and based on reality, not modern myths. Women have the power, not only to bring forth children, the most astonishing and worthwhile talent there is in a world where we all die (and creative, come to think of it), but they shape the children in a way fathers can only do with extraordinary care and investment of time. At any given time, they really do hold the future of the world in their hands, despite the patronizing males who spring up in every generation. And, they are tough in some areas where men are jelly. (And they are often deeply good in areas where few men score any points at all.) I think Camille Paglia has some very interesting things to say on why men fear women, and on the relations between the sexes. If you want deep, chthonic stuff about where male fear comes from, try Paglia. It's better written, too.

McElvaine has other serious points besides explaining why men are jealous. At one point he says,"Women can do all the important things men can, but there are some essential things that women can do that men cannot: bear and give birth to children and nourish them from their bodies." Pardon me, but doesn't that first phrase beg the question? What are "all the important things men can do"? Maybe he never saw a big, international-level mixed doubles tennis match. Seriously, maybe he's forgetting the fact that physical strength made an undeniable difference in your chance of survival in battle until very recently, and still does, for all we know–there's never been any test of the hypothesis that a group of women could carry off a modern battle. Perhaps McElvaine never read Michael Levin's Feminism and Freedom, or Goldberg's The Inevitability of Patriarchy. String me up: just as I really think women, on average, do some things much better than most men (and not just having babies), so I actually believe that men, on average, do some things better than most women. Now, I have recently developed more appreciation than I used to have for the argument that war is an ugly and destructive occupation–I'm more or less with the feminists on that point. But if my country actually has to be defended, I'd rather have men on the front lines doing it. And I suspect that all the stories of risk-taking male entrepreneurs and daring male traders are not lies cooked up by the patriarchy. I've nothing against women proving themselves in any field of endeavor whatsoever, but the assertion that "women can do all the important things men can" is an unqualified and meaningless (but very politically correct) assertion.

At one point McElvaine casually mentions Thomas Aquinas, as a kind of throw-away icon of male prejudice. He doesn't even provide an out-of-context quotation, just tosses in his name. That's interesting to me. I'm not a great Aquinas scholar, and I don’t know the quotes that enrage the feminists, but I know what Aquinas said to Muslims about polygamy. He said the end (telos) of marriage is friendship, but the condition of friendship is equality. However, the possibility of taking other wives, Aquinas told Muslims, destroys the possibility of equality in marriage, thereby keeping marriage from achieving its end, friendship. (Summa Contra Gentiles III, 123 and 124) Funny, he doesn’t sound like the Taliban monster he’s supposed to be.

In another sour note for me, McElvaine appears to take Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale as a serious warning for America. The premise of Atwood’s paranoid parable has always struck me as so bizarre that it makes an excellent litmus test for lunacy — anyone who takes it the least bit seriously has a tenuous connection with reality, at best. I once looked around at a group of "Promise Keeper" friends of mine and thought of Atwood’s parable. I had seen these monstrous males with their wives–being gently corrected, being teased, asking permission, seeking favor, having their very lives organized. The idea that this was the germ of an American Taliban movement was beyond hilarious exaggeration, it beggared belief.

Speaking of the Taliban, the proximate cause of McElvaine's piece, a friend just told me he read a book about the Taliban, and learned that the Taliban themselves said it was not that they did not want to educate women, but that it was not their priority, and they were afraid of foreigners corrupting women. They said they would get to it when they had time. It's a small thing, and it doesn’t make me a Taliban fan by any means, but it did make me ashamed that I had taken at least part of my view of the Taliban from CNN. Aarrggh! That's sort of like getting any part of your view of Yasir Arafat from Ariel Sharon. Or, perhaps, your view of anything important from the Washington Post, which apparently takes seriously half-baked myths from a History professor who states as fact that women invented agriculture and that "woman" in Hebrew means "out of man."

December 26, 2001