Origins is the first of four volumes of a momental, readable, and unprecedented history of women throughout the world. The internationally celebrated author of The Women's Room, Marilyn French, spent over fifteen years with a team of researchers and prominent historians examining women's lives and activities in civilizations and societies spanning the ages.
Beginning in prehistory, Origins moves on to examine women's lives in ancient Egypt, China, India, Peru, Mexico, Greece, and Rome. In her reconstruction of wars, laws, and other activities affecting both women and men, French also traces the worldviews underpinning them. In accessible writing for a broad readership, three chapters depict how women's relationship to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam changed for good and bad over the centuries.
About the Author
Marilyn French (1929-2009) was born in New York. She received her PhD from Harvard and taught English at Hofstra, Harvard, and Holy Cross College. She is best known for her novels, The Women's Room and In the Name of Friendship, and her non-fiction works, including Beyond Power, The War against Women and her memoir, A Season in Hell.
Margaret Atwood 's most popular works include The Handmaid's Tale (1983) and The Blind Assassin (2000). She was born in Ottawa, Ontario in 1939, and received her undergraduate degree from Victoria University, along with a master's degree from Radcliffe College.
Read an Excerpt
Humans are primates, kin to monkeys and lemurs, and cousins of the great apes — gorillas, gibbons, orangutans, and chimpanzees. Our muscular and skeletal structure, nervous systems, teeth, and blood types resemble those of chimpanzees, whose DNA is almost identical to ours. Humans and apes descend from a common ancestor and diverged five to six million years ago. Different enough that we distinguish each other instantly, we were once so similar that our fossil remains can confuse archaeologists.
For primates to evolve to hominids, major changes had to occur to the skeleton: the pelvis grew shorter and broader, the legs longer; the feet became less flexible; and tooth pattern altered. Essential changes occurred in women. Both higher primate females and women have clitorises (the only organ in nature dedicated solely to sexual pleasure), but women's pelvises widened considerably to permit the birth of babies with large skulls containing a large brain. Women lost estrus — they can be sexually receptive at any time — and, unlike other mammals, do not have "heat," or periods of sexual receptivity. Some scholars think that changes in female bodies alone triggered the "hominization" of earlier species.
Fossil remains of a hominid, genus Australopithecus, that walked on two legs 4.4 million years ago were found in Ethiopia. Lucy, 3.9 million years old, was around 3 feet, 11 inches (1.2 meters) tall, weighed about 60 pounds (27 kilograms), and had very long arms and a massive jaw. Her brain was not much larger than an ape's. Homo, our genus, evolved or diverged from Australopithecus. The first tool-makers (Homo habilis) lived about 2.6 million years ago. Three feet, 3 inches to 3 feet, 11 inches (one to 1.2 meters) tall, with long apelike arms and slightly larger brains, they made at least eleven different types of tools, rough flakes for hacking roots and vegetables and for scraping meat from bones (probably from dead animals or from small ones trapped in the hands). About 2 million years ago, Homo began to wander from Africa to southern Asia and northern Eurasia. Our genus, Homo sapiens, emerged 200,000 to 100,000 years ago with a brain almost four times larger than Lucy's, a thick-boned skull, and a robust body. A 120,000-year-old slender-bodied species, Homo sapiens sapiens, had the same brain capacity, but while Homo sapiens was making flake tools in Europe and Asia 90,000–80,000 years ago, Homo sapiens sapiens (our species) was making sophisticated blade tools from selected fine-grained rock, building wind-proof shelters and watercraft, tailoring clothes, and perhaps hunting stealthily in Africa.
Hominids and early humans lived differently from us, but the way we live now is rooted in their ways. We are not, so far as we know, imprinted with behaviors as, say, bees are; but the limbic brain probably retains a memory of behaviors that fostered our survival, just as our values are a heritage from and reaction against the values and ways of our fore-bears. This chapter describes that early life, an economic and political structure called matricentry, or life centered around mothers.
About forty years ago biochemists began to study genetic material to learn how life evolved. Studying DNA, the nucleic acids that transmit characteristics from parent to child, they found that most evolutionary change is caused by mutations in genetic molecules. Complex measurements of human, monkey, and ape DNA showed that humans diverged from African apes about 5 million years ago. DNA was also found outside the cell nucleus in the mitochondria — organelles found in all multicelled life, the engines of cells, metabolizing food and water into energy. Once probably separate bacteria, engulfed by larger ones with which they began to live symbiotically, mitochondria still retain their own DNA code for the proteins needed in metabolism.
Mitochondrial DNA is, uniquely, passed on only by mothers. Researchers at the University of California at Berkeley studied mitochondrial DNA in 147 people from different parts of Europe, Asia, North Africa, and the Middle East, with ancestors from sub-Saharan Africa, Australia, and New Guinea. Mutations in these samples showed that the entire human race is descended from a single woman: there was an Eve! The Berkeley group estimates that she lived in Africa 285,000 to 143,000 years ago, that human (Homo sapiens sapiens) life began in Africa, and that the species left Africa, at the earliest, 135,000 years ago. A later researcher challenged this chronology, arguing that our foremother could have lived anywhere between 100,000 and 1 million years ago. "Eve" was not the first woman in the world, but the first whose daughters gave birth to daughters who transmitted their DNA. The new species coexisted for eons with other species that eventually died out. We who live today, whatever our color, stature, or body type, are truly siblings, descendants of a woman who was the mother of us all.
History is the written record of the past, but writing did not begin until the third millennium Before the Common Era — about 3000 BCE. By then, hominids/humans had existed for over three million years. History records only a fraction of the human past. To discover how humans lived during earlier days we must turn to archaeology, anthropology, and paleontology. Some stone buildings, monuments, and artworks remain; some myths hazily reflect early attitudes. To some degree we can extrapolate from the behavior of higher mammals, especially chimpanzees, and from groups that retained Stone Age customs into this century.
For most of our past, people did not recognize paternity. Just as animals recognize their mothers (who know their young) but not their sires (who do not), early humans did not connect the sex act with its delayed and random consequence. Cave paintings and carvings from around 5000 BCE depict animals copulating in spring and females pregnant in the summer, so the male role in procreation may have been known for 10,000 years. But for 125,000–275,000 years of Homo sapiens sapiens' existence, females were seen as solely responsible for life. If paternity is not known, the mother is the only parent. Early people revered the female power to reproduce and to ensure the continuity of the community.
Females raise the young in all mammal species. This caretaking is not instinctual but learned. Experiments show that there is no biological "maternal instinct" except just after birth; animals taken from their mothers at birth do not mother their own young. Animals learn to mother: the female characteristic that most people believe is innate is learned. Early human females probably acted like other mammals, like chimpanzee mothers, carrying their babies with them, feeding them from their breasts and sharing solid foods with them. They taught the young survival techniques — which foods were edible, which animals were friendly, and where to sleep. Hominid mothers probably made a nest each night to sleep in with their young. Chimp mothers socialize the young, teaching males to share food with adults of both sexes and females to feed their offspring. The mother-child bond constitutes the base of all mammal society, and in some species it is the only society. Prides of lions and herds of elephants are generations of females and their young. Male mammals leave the group voluntarily or by force in adolescence. Some baboons and macaques live in all-male troops; other males live on the fringes of the group, isolated. Monkeys and chimpanzees, social and gregarious, live in close bisexual communities; humans probably did too.
Hungry hominids went out during the day when the forest was relatively safe: predatory animals hunt at night. They knew all the plants and herbs; they picked fruit, nuts, and vegetables and dug roots, eating as they went, foraging. They probably had some system of communication, sound patterns that meant "here are mushrooms" or "stay away from that," just as chimpanzees convey information about their environment to each other.
Walking miles each day kept hominids thin. But if food was sparse or had disappeared, they had to walk very far to find small quantities; in such cases, females lose weight and stop menstruating. Thus, in times of scarcity, no children are born: it's a form of natural birth control. Women in simple societies today know roots deep in the ground that can sustain them until they find better terrain in a new area. When food becomes plentiful again, women gain weight, resume menstruating, and conceive young.
One problem was babies, who have to be carried, grow heavy, and occupy at least one arm. Women may have invented the container, which could hold a baby on their backs or chests. They had tools — cutting and chopping flakes and digging sticks — with which they could cut leaves and bark to weave together into a carrier. They laid the baby in the holder, lifted it across their chest, and fastened it over their shoulders and around their waist with twisted vines. Then, unless a woman had to help a four year old across slimy rocks fording a stream, her hands were free.
Containers opened up opportunities. Foragers must stay near water or risk being parched. With a container of water on their heads, they could travel in search of novelties. They could collect food for more than one day — gathering, not foraging — and they could rest some days. This enlarged range improved their diet, and the rest days freed them to invent activities like weaving.
The sexual division of labor found in every society may have originated with the container, since, in extant simple societies, men rarely gather. Women take the responsibility for others, feeding the entire group. Men may occasionally share an animal or bird, and sometimes hunt, but they depend mainly on women for 80 percent of their diet. Women also take responsibility for processing the food, chopping and cooking the vegetables and herbs.
Between 100,000 to 200,000 years ago humans built shelters in a circle, with a fire in the center to keep lions and jackals away. They roasted meat and vegetables until they were tasty and tender, and they gradually lost their large rear grinding teeth. They began to hunt. When game was running, the adults in a band picked up stones and fronds and surrounded an animal. Clacking the stones together and waving the fronds, they made loud noises to frighten the animal into a corner, then moved in, driving it towards a gully. After the terrified creature leaped or fell into the gully, the band rushed to kill it. For small animals and birds, they used a sling shot. They begged forgiveness of fallen creatures for killing them, their siblings.
With tools, they made garments and baskets out of leaves, bark, woven reeds, and animal skins. They strung necklaces from small stones and shells. Most important, they spoke. We do not know when people began to speak, but they must have begun with the sounds creatures make — birdsong, monkey cries, chimpanzee vocalization — with particular meaning in each band or locality.
Half the children born died in infancy. Men often tended children when the women gathered, but children were women's responsibility. Mothers taught them about plants and animals, the trails, and how to dispose of their body wastes in the forest. The clans survived by sharing and cooperation, but women did most of the work.
No people today lives exactly as its ancestors did thousands of years ago — all have been exposed to modern ways. But isolated groups in Africa, Australia, New Guinea, and South America maintained Stone Age culture into the twentieth century, and a few gathering-hunting societies still exist. They have customs we share and customs we have renounced, in which we can see our origins.
The !Kung of the Kalahari Desert
The !Kung (the ! represents a click) live mainly on high-calorie mongongo nuts (300 have the protein of 14 ounces [400 grams] of lean beef). Two or three days a week the women, who can discriminate among hundreds of plant species and recognize each stage of plant growth, gather the nuts and eighty-nine other roots, fruits, and berries, 70–90 percent of the !Kung diet. !Kung men work only twelve to nineteen hours a week: they forage and sometimes hunt or trap small animals. No one works until marriage: children, adolescents, and old folk do not work. Ten percent of the !Kung are over sixty, yet everyone is cared for, even the impaired.
Girls marry between fifteen and twenty, boys between twenty and twenty-five. First marriages are usually arranged by parents; adultery on either side can cause divorce. !Kung men live with their wives' kin after marriage, remaining for five to ten years, doing bride-service for the family. Men who kill an animal in the hunt divide it in an elaborate ritual: first it is shared by the hunters; then the man who killed the animal gives some to his wife's parents, his wife and children, and his own parents, if they live nearby.
Only men can be healers, going into trances during dance ceremonies and claiming to cure the sick. Only men head bands or claim to "own" water holes and the vegetation around them. But both !Kung women and men are autonomous, with high self-esteem. They are opinionated and express themselves freely. They live in anarchy — that is, without leaders — in small groups. If a quarrel cannot be resolved, one member will leave. The Hadza, Ik, Dogrib, Netsilik Eskimos, Gidjingali, Mbuti, and others live in similar "anarchic" societies.
The Mbuti of Zaire
Colin Turnbull has written lovingly about the Mbuti, a people under 4 feet, 11 inches (1.5 meters feet) tall who live in the forest. Their egalitarian society centers on motherhood and hunting. "Real" men hunt — others are "clowns," a respectable occupation. Women gather and go net hunting with men. The Mbuti have only one word for elder (tata), one for child (miki), and one for peers (apua'i).
Sex is unimportant, except in adulthood, but Mbuti sexual arrangements are unusual. Once a girl is sexually mature, she can sleep in an elima house. Boys come to its door every night, begging entry. The girls and their chaperons stand in the doorway teasing, mocking, and hitting the boys. Some girls flick boys with a whip and let them enter. The youngsters spend the night together in an "embrace." The embrace is said to be ecstatic, but less so than the embrace of marriage. Intercourse is permitted with certain restrictions, yet no girl ever gets pregnant in an elima house.
Marriage is by choice and patrilocal, but the group a woman joins must replace her in the group she leaves. After giving birth, a woman rests for three days, then resumes her usual work — the hunt or gathering expeditions — taking her baby with her or leaving it in camp. But sexual intercourse is taboo for three years after a birth, guaranteeing babies three years of mother's milk. Husbands may go to the girls' hut or have an affair with a married woman, though sometimes this dalliance causes trouble. The men do not like the arrangement; Turnbull did not know how the women liked it.
The Mbuti have a lovely fatherhood ritual. When a baby is two years old the mother carries it into the center of the compound, where the father sits with some food. The mother hands him the baby, and the father puts the child to his breast. The child tries to suck, gets nothing, and cries "mother" (ema). The father then puts solid food in the baby's mouth and teaches it to say "father" (eba). The baby learns that fathers too nourish and cherish. The Mbuti foster harmony, teaching cooperation, not competition. It is unacceptable to win, for winning isolates the winner and saddens losers. Those who excel at something encourage and help others. This harmony extends to nature. The Mbuti, the children of the forest, see animals as fellow creatures. They believe that people were immortal until one of them killed his brother antelope. They will continue to die until they stop this slaughter. They kill animals only when they must, but never each other.
Conflicts between Mbuti women and men inform some of the rituals. One flute ceremony, called the molima, is for men only. The women intrude on it, claiming that the men stole the flutes and the ceremony from them. They dramatically mock the male penis, and the men in turn mock their menstruation. They regularly banter and tease each other, often about sex. (The !Kung, too, tease each other about their sexual organs, with men suffering most of the mockery.)
The Aborigines of coastal Australia, like Native Americans, were killed by disease, exploited, and pushed farther and farther inland by white settlers. By the late nineteenth century they were confined in the arid center of the continent, one of the harshest environments on the planet, yet they remained healthy and vigorous. Aborigines live by religion, a complex structure revealed to them by "the dreaming." They believe the physical world was created by gods who transmitted spiritual powers to rocks, sand, streams, and plants. Dreaming rituals tell the present or the future and are led by women or men, who may welcome the other sex.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "From Eve to Dawn: A History of Women, Volume 1"
Copyright © 2007 Marilyn French.
Excerpted by permission of Feminist Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Foreword by Margaret Atwood,
Part One: Parents,
Chapter 1: The Mothers,
Chapter 2: The Fathers,
Part Two: The Rise of the State,
Chapter 3: State Formation In Peru, Egypt, and Sumer,
Chapter 4: A Secular State: China,
Chapter 5: A Religious State: India,
Chapter 6: A Militaristic State: Mexico,
Conclusion: An Analysis of the State,
Part Three: God, Glory, and Delusions of Grandeur,
Chapter 7: Judaism,
Chapter 8: Greece,
Chapter 9: Rome,
Chapter 10: Christianity,
Chapter 11: Islam,
The Expansion of Rome,
The Expansion of Islam,
Map of the World: Peters Projection,