Where does sexism come from? Why do evangelicals ignore the president’s serial mistreatment of women? Why does the U.S. Constitution still not guarantee equality for women? Why do women earn less than men? Why didn’t most conservatives care whether the accusations of sexual assault brought against Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh were true?
One hint came a few weeks ago, when Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said of the sexual assault charges against Kavanaugh: “We’re going to plow right through it, and do our job.” Though it is a safe assumption that the majority leader was not aware of this metaphor’s long and essential history, he inadvertently alluded to one of the greatest sources of misogyny that has shaped human culture. It goes a long way to explaining the relationship between men and women, the modern opposition to abortion and even the paranoia today that the greatest danger of #MeToo is women will use bogus allegations to gain dominance over men. The “plow” metaphor has generated ideas about the nature of women and the process of reproduction for 6,000 years — ideas that just will not go away.
For most of human existence, the creation of new life seemed to be a mystical power possessed by females. Such terms as “Mother Nature” and “Mother Earth” are survivors from that understanding. The ostensible creative power of women, along with their role as the providers of much of the nutrition through gathering plant food, appears to have resulted in a substantial degree of equality for women in hunter-gatherer groups.
The findings of such scholars as Gerda Lerner, Elise Boulding, Margaret Ehrenberg, Jane Peterson, Tim Kohler and Jared Diamond indicate that the invention of agriculture — very likely by women, who were responsible for providing plant food — about 10,000 years ago was not an unambiguous blessing. Along with such consequences as increased inequality, this new way of life combined with the development of herding and breeding animals to slowly devalue the chief role men had held as hunters. These innovations resulted in a growing food supply and an accompanying population expansion, leading women to devote more of their time to bearing and caring for children and less to production. Men, no longer needing to hunt, began to replace women in the fields.
After the plow was invented about 6,000 years ago, men found themselves planting seeds in the new furrows, as I explain in my 2001 book, “Eve’s Seed: Biology, the Sexes, and the Course of History.” It is clear from language and culture that our ancestors noted a similarity between the furrow and the female vulva. That analogy produced the idea that semen (Latin for “seed”) is the human or animal seed and the female is the soil in which it is planted.
This seed metaphor for copulation and procreation seemed so obvious it appears to have been adopted in most places where the plow was introduced. “Who will plow my vulva? … Who will plow my wet ground?” asks the goddess Inanna in “The Courtship of Inanna and Dumuzi,” a Mesopotamian text from about 1750 BCE. “I, Dumuzi the King, will plow your vulva,” is the eager male response. The name of the consort of the Hindu god Rama is Sita, which means “furrow.” “Your wives are a place of sowing of seed for you,” proclaims the second Surah of the Koran, “so come to your place of cultivation however you wish.” In another translation, this line is rendered: “Your wives are as fields for you. You may enter your fields from any place you want.” (The metaphor lives on, appearing across modern cultures, too. One example: The protagonist of “Raising Arizona” says a “doctor explained that her insides were a rocky place where my seed could find no purchase.”)
But the concept is deeply misleading. It replaced the earlier mistaken belief that women hold the sole power to generate life with the idea that only men have procreative power. The consequence of accepting the seed metaphor was monumental. It transformed women from the powerful creators into the soil in which men plant their seed. As men were raised to the exalted status of authors of life (giving them authority), women were reduced to, well, dirt. In most cultures, they were for all practical purposes seen as property — objects that had few rights and no real agency. (It is not a large leap from there to a place where women do not get to choose whether they keep a pregnancy: Thou shalt not pull up what man has planted.)
When procreative power was reconceived as male, it followed that the ultimate creative power must also be male. And, if God is male, surely human males are closer to “Him” than are human females. The toxic fruit that grew from male monotheism was and is misogyny — which undergirds so much of the contemporary backlash against the feminism and the #MeToo movement.
“The anti-patriarchy movement is going to undo 10,000 years of recorded history,” Stephen K. Bannon warned earlier this year. “You watch. The time has come. Women are gonna take charge of society. And they couldn’t juxtapose a better villain than Trump. He is the patriarch.” The same primal male rage (which would be called hysteria if exhibited by a woman, so let’s label it as “histeria”) was evident in the sneering bitterness of Brett M. Kavanaugh, the wild rant of Lindsey O. Graham, Trump’s mocking of sexual assault victims and the attempted conversion of accused males into the real victims.
McConnell may not have realized men have been “plowing right through women” for all of recorded history, and he surely did not know sexual politics based on that metaphor drove the subordination and mistreatment of women for thousands of years. (Even in recent decades, “plow” is a common slang term for “have sex with,” as in a male boasting, “I plowed her field.”) Recognizing that the male claim to creative power is simply wrong and grasping that human procreation as a joint endeavor, is a crucial step toward genuine equality between the sexes.