DNA is not the only thing we inherit from our ancestors. From generation to generation, practices and beliefs are transmitted that permeate our way of seeing the world. Also in relationships between men and women. Unique research from Washington University in St. Louis suggests that gender inequality in Europe it has deep historical roots dating back to the Middle Ages and beyond. And, they warn, no matter how much progress has been made in the fight against machismo, these biases are so deeply entrenched that it is very difficult to eradicate them.
As the authors explain in ‘Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences’ (PNAS), people living in areas where men were historically favored over women now show more macho prejudices than those in areas where gender relations have been more egalitarian. To reach this conclusion, the team has analyzed the dental records of more than 10,000 people of 139 archaeological sites around the year 1200 of our era throughout Europe. Two of them are in Spain: one in Roquetas (1300-1400 AD) and another, an Augustinian convent from 1700 AD.
The idea of checking for gender inequality in the teeth may seem atypical, but previous archaeological investigations have already used linear enamel hypoplasias, permanent tooth damage caused by trauma, malnutrition or disease, to analyze prehistoric gender equality. Since lesions are formed exclusively in cases of sustained bodily stress, their presence or absence can inform people’s health and living conditions. Furthermore, differences between male and female teeth in the same location are an indication of which sex received preferential treatment in terms of health care and dietary resources at the time.
To illustrate their hypothesis, the authors give two examples. In Istria, a small urban Greek settlement on the Black Sea in the present-day Dobruja region of Romania, the researchers studied the dental records of 49 skeletons from AD 550. C. 58% of the women showed signs of malnutrition and trauma to the teeth, something that only happened to 25% of the men. Today, inequality persists, by modern measures. Only 52% of women participate in the labor market compared to 78% of men, and only 18% of the representatives in the modern municipal council are women. In addition, more than half of the residents believe that men have a greater right to access to paid work than women and there is a general belief (89%) that a woman must have children to be satisfied.
things change in Plinkaigal, a rural community in present-day western Lithuania made up of a population of Balts. Of the 157 skeletons at this site, which also date to AD 550. C., trauma and malnutrition affect 56% of men, but only 46% of women. Separate studies have also found evidence that gender norms here were favorable to them.
In the modern era, this place, now called Ke ̇dainiai, remains relatively egalitarian. Employment levels do not vary much by gender: 76% of men versus 72.7% of women. And women are almost proportionally represented in local politics (48%). Similarly, less than a quarter of the residents of the modern location believe that men are more entitled to a job, and just over half believe that women need children to feel fulfilled.
According to the researchers, historical biases remain that strong because they are passed down from generation to generation, surviving monumental socioeconomic and political changes, such as industrialization and world wars. “We were surprised to see such a clear relationship,” acknowledges Margit Tavits, co-author of the study. For example, people who lived in a historically egalitarian area were 20% more likely to have “pro-feminine” attitudes than people who lived in historically more “pro-masculine” areas.
exception to the rule
They found only one exception to the rule: in regions that experienced a abrupt and large-scale population replacement, such as a pandemic or natural disaster, the transmission of these values was interrupted. This occurred in areas hardest hit by the bubonic plague of the 14th century or following the arrival of European colonists in the 16th century, which caused large-scale displacement of Native Americans.
“In the world of sub-Saharan Africa, the women of many populations had significant power in some aspects that were completely nullified when the European colonizing populations arrived, who did not understand them as interlocutors and these women lost power,” explains Marga Sánchez Romero, professor of Prehistory at the University of Granada, who did not participate in the study.
The incredible stability of these norms over hundreds, if not thousands, of years also explains, according to the authors, why it has been difficult in some regions to make progress towards gender equality despite the important advances made by the international rights movement. of women in the last 100-150 years. “There has been a widespread belief that gender norms are a byproduct of structural and institutional factors such as religion and agricultural practices. Our findings draw attention to the fact that gender equality norms passed from one generation to the next can persist even if institutions or structures encourage inequality, and vice versa,” says Tavits.
For Sánchez Romero, the hypothesis proposed by the article “is quite logical, because we are talking about patriarchal societies in which the idea of inequality between women and men is at the base of their functioning and, therefore, they use all possible strategies to that inequality is maintained. Education, norms, laws… are written to reinforce it. In fact, patriarchy continues to reinvent itself constantly.”
The study authors caution those working to advance gender equality that rules and policies will not be enough to undermine deeply held sexist beliefs and maintain equality. “We must also address the cultural forces that channel these beliefs,” they emphasize.