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What Do Women Want? #3 - Farm Wives

Farms work men to death.

By Lee Tydings  |  March 27, 2008

This series started by discussing the decline of customs which encouraged men to stick around and help women raise children.  The issue of marital fidelity has become a political issue as we've watched politicians being caught being unfaithful to their wives.

Marital stability impacts the long-term stability of our society, because married couples turn out to be the best environment for raising children.  The introduction noted the weakening of many of the factors which urged men to marry and settle down.

The previous article discussed the forces by which natural selection has shaped the basic emotional drives of men and women.  It's pretty clear that there is a great deal of unhappiness in how modern relationships between men and women work out in practice.

The point of discussing the fundamental forces behind your ancestors' survival is to help you decide what you really want and then help you get it.  If an engineer bases a bridge on wrong ideas about cement and steel, the bridge usually falls. When men and women base relationships on incorrect ideas about men and women, the relationship usually falls.

For the last generation or so, our society has been pushing the silly idea that men and women are alike in their wants and needs.  A husband or wife who thinks the other party to a marriage has the same desires is not going to be able to fulfill the other's needs.  Marriages suffer when major needs are neglected.

This article discusses some of the aspects of how marriages worked out in the past to help you understand how to make relationships work today.

Were Wives Property?

Given the risks to women of getting pregnant without means of support, earlier societies had laws and customs designed to regulate who can have sex with whom.  The basic custom is to insist that men agree formally to take responsibility for feeding a woman and her children before having sex with her.  Women agreed among themselves that a woman wouldn't have sex with a man unless he married her first.  To oversimplify a bit, if marriage was the only way a man could have regular sex, he'd get married.

When women's lib first started, there were complaints that marriage had treated women as property.  Women were dependent on men and some men used their power over the food supply to control women.

This was old news; in her book Herland, The Yellow Wall-Paper, and Selected Writings Charlotte Perkins Gilman pointed out around the turn of the previous century that the arrangements at the time suppressed women's creativity and wasted their potential.  She was completely correct in that observation, but what she and most feminists overlook is that the technology of the day also suppressed men's creativity and wasted their potential.

Madame Chiang Kai-shek, who married the Chinese general who fought (the future Communist Party Chairman) Mao Tse-Tung for control of China, graduated from Wellesley College in 1917 - Hillary's alma mater, as it happens.  She addressed the student body in 1943 and told them of her uncle.

He was a man with a lively sense of humor, she told them, and he was interested in almost everything, but he spent his working life sitting out in the fields pumping pedals to lift water a few feet to flood a rice paddy.  All his intelligence, all his creativity, were wasted as he pumped his life away.  The output of his entire working life, she said, could be replaced by a 5 horsepower pump running for a few hours, but the village had no pump.

That's the way it was for both men and women until the Industrial Revolution made it possible to get away from farming for a living.  It's hard to imagine what it must have been like to be bound to the land and having to work from "can't see 'til can't see" every day of the year.

I met a woman who was wearing a family reunion shirt and asked her about it. "It was great," she told me, "I met my great grandmother, she's over 100. After she and her husband got married, she didn't get to town for more than 8 years even though they lived only 5 miles out. He wouldn't let her go to town." It was clear that she disapproved of this inconsiderate, overbearing male chauvinist pig.

"That's a 10 mile wagon trip on bumpy dirt roads, right?" I asked. When she said yes, I asked her how many kids her grandma had. She'd raised eight, but she'd been pregnant more than that. "She was pregnant most of those 8 years, right?  Isn't pregnancy a 'delicate condition'?  Maybe her husband was afraid to drive her all that way on bumpy roads?  20 miles was a good day's journey by wagon.  5 miles in and 5 miles out would take most of the day.  Could he possibly have been thinking of her safety?  Why don't you ask him why she never got to town?"

"I can't. He died 55 years ago."

"He died in his 40's, she lived to be over 100.  It's a lot of work to farm by hand.  Sounds like your grandfather worked himself to death supporting your grandmother and her 8 children.  Marriage binds women and limits them, of course, but it goes both ways.  Your grandfather may have been in charge, but he had to feed your grandmother and all the children she could have.  He probably worked himself to death taking care of her."

I then told her about Madame Chiang's uncle.  I don't know if she was convinced, but she promised to think about it.

In muscle-powered societies, men need women as badly as women need men.  A strong man could farm, but who'd handle baking day or wash day if he didn't have a wife?  It wasn't unusual for a widow to hear a marriage proposal over her husband's open grave.

The fact is that without industrial sources of energy such as coal or fossil fuels, farmers make do with muscle power.  Muscle-based farming is an almost unimaginable amount of work and it's relatively unproductive.

Traditionally, the landlord took 1/10 of the crop, leaving 9/10 for the farmer.  Why didn't landlords, greedy capitalist exploiters that they were, take more?  If they took more, the farmer's family starved and there'd be nobody to pay tithes next year.  Knowing that dead men pay no taxes, medieval rulers contented themselves with a mere tithe.

Everyone's creativity and potential were stifled; being stifled was inherent in living in a low-energy, muscle-powered society, no matter what the "Small is Beautiful" crowd may say.

On the other hand, it is true that many men exercised their strength and their position to control women, often to their hurt.  The mother of a friend of mine got pregnant illicitly in her teens.  Her father more or less forced her to have an abortion.  The abortion was botched, damaging her reproductive system.

Her next child was stillborn, and her three live births all had severe complications due to the damage to her.  Issues with her children's health increased the stresses on her marriage and contributed to her divorce.

Being pregnant was more dangerous than not being pregnant, but abortions were even more dangerous than pregnancy.  People forget that laws against abortion were passed to protect women.

When women's lib came along, women had a lot to be liberated from, but as we've seen, a lot of a man's tendency to turn into a jealous control freak is based on his naturally-selected drive not to raise other men's children.  Instead of reforming men or persuading men, women went to war with men.  It's not clear that things have worked out necessarily to women's complete advantage as we'll see.

Detecting Fertility

Women weren't strong enough to farm, so a woman's reproductive success depended on a man feeding her.  His reproductive success depended on keeping other men away from her so he didn't raise other men's children instead of his own children.

It's good for a woman if her husband can't tell when she's fertile so he has to guard her all the time and feed her every day, but if a man's going to risk getting killed trying to get some other man's wife pregnant, it helps if he knows when his target is fertile. Sure enough, natural selection has found a way.

Natural selection has arranged things such that a woman's sex drive changes throughout the month.  Medical studies have shown that female interest in sex peaks at the moment she's most likely to get pregnant, and comparatively speaking, she's not much interested the rest of the time.  In an evolutionary sense, women don't have a sex drive; they have a drive to reproduce which is not the same thing.

Her current fertility level changes a woman's behavior.  Research shows that women dress to impress men more when they're near the fertile point in their cycles:

Using a sample of 30 partnered women photographed at high and low fertility cycle phases, we show that readily-observable behaviors - self-grooming and ornamentation through attractive choice of dress - increase during the fertile phase of the ovulatory cycle.

In other words, the more fertile a woman is, the more she tries to attract men.  Natural selection may not be destiny, but it sure is influential.

There's other evidence that fertility affects a woman's behavior and that men pick up on it. The Economist reports that lap dancers who are not on the pill get much higher tips when they're fertile. When they aren't fertile, their tips drop back to what lap dancers who're on the pill get every day.

A lap dancer who's on the pill doesn't ever become fertile so she doesn't do whatever it is that makes fertile women so attractive to men. Attracting men at the right time enhances a woman's reproductive success, and being able to sense when a woman's fertile increases reproductive success when a man's looking for a one-night stand.

Discussing issues with traditional marriage can and does fill many books.  The purpose of this series is to get you to think about how relationships work in the real world as opposed to whatever theories you may have been taught.  The next article discusses polygamy, which is historically one of the most common forms of marriage.