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women of note 1: Mary Anning, palaeontologist

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She sells sea-shells on the sea-shore,
The shells she sells are sea-shells, I’m sure
For if she sells sea-shells on the sea-shore
Then I’m sure she sells sea-shore shells. 

Terry Sullivan, 1908 – said to be inspired by Mary Anning’s fossickings

Unfortunately, I want to write about everything.

So now I begin an occasional series about women to be celebrated and never forgotten.

Mary Anning was born in the seaside town of Lyme Regis, Devon, in 1799 and died there, too young, of breast cancer in 1847. According to Brian Ford, author of Too big to walk: the new science of dinosaurs, she was ‘the first full-time professional palaeontologist anywhere in the world’. It’s a fair statement; those before her were generalists, given the name ‘naturalists’, and made their livings as pastors or physicians, or were independently wealthy. The term ‘palaeontology’ was just starting to gain traction in the early nineteenth century, replacing the intriguing but probably short-lived ‘oryctology’, though fossil-finding and speculations thereon (mostly infused with religious or mystic beliefs) date back to civilisation’s dawn.

Fossil-hunting had become quite trendy from the late eighteenth century, and Mary’s dad, a cabinet-maker by trade, supplemented his income by selling fossil bits and pieces, discovered himself on the nearby cliffs, to locals and tourists (the region had become something of a haven for those escaping the Napoleonic wars). The cliffs around Lyme Regis on England’s south coast form part of the Blue Lias, alternating sediments of shale and limestone, very rich in fossils from the early Jurassic, around 200 mya.

Richard and Molly, Mary’s parents, had ten children, but only two, Joseph and Mary, survived infancy. Childhood diseases such as measles were often killers, especially among the poor – a reminder of how lucky we are to be living in an economically developed country in the 21st century. The Anning family was never well-off, and Richard died when Mary was just 11 years old. Mary herself just managed to escape death by lightning strike when she was a baby. The strike killed three women, one of whom was tending her at the time. But the family suffered many hardships besides infant mortality. Food shortages and rising prices led to riots in the neighbourhood, and Richard himself was involved in organising protests.

As kids, Joseph and Mary sometimes accompanied their father on fossil-hunting trips on the dangerous cliffs, which were subject to landslides. They would sell their finds, which were mostly of invertebrate fossils such as ammonite and belemnite shells, in front of their home, but clearly life would’ve been a real struggle in the years following Richard’s death, during which time they relied partly on charity. It wasn’t long, though, before Mary’s expertise in finding and identifying fossils and her anatomical know-how came to the attention of well-heeled fossickers in the region. In the early 1820s a professional collector, Thomas Birch, who’d come to know the family and to admire Mary’s skills in particular, decided to auction off his own collection to help support them. This further enhanced their reputation, and Mary became something of a local celebrity, reported on in the local papers:

This persevering female has for years gone daily in search of fossil remains of importance at every tide, for many miles under the hanging cliffs at Lyme, whose fallen masses are her immediate object, as they alone contain these valuable relics of a former world, which must be snatched at the moment of their fall, at the continual risk of being crushed by the half-suspended fragments they leave behind, or be left to be destroyed by the returning tide: – to her exertions we owe nearly all the fine specimens of ichthyosauri of the great collections.

Bristol Mirror, 1823 – quoted in Too big to walk, by Brian Ford, p61

As this article mentions, Mary Anning’s name is often associated with ichthyosaur fossils, but she also discovered the first plesiosaur, the identity of which was confirmed by Georges Cuvier – though he at first accused her of fraud. Amongst other contributions, she was the first to recognise that the conical ‘bezoar stones’ found around the cliffs of Lyme were in fact fossilised faeces of ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs.

plesiosaur skeleton, beautifully sketched by Mary Anning

For my information, ichthyosaurs were marine reptiles dated from the early Triassic to the late Cretaceous periods (250-90 mya), though most abundant in the early period, after which they were superseded as the top marine predators by the plesiosaurs (approx 204-66 mya).

Anning’s exact contribution to palaeontology is impossible to determine, because so many of her finds were snapped up by professional collectors, in an era when attributions weren’t preserved with much care, and this would have been compounded by her status as an ‘uneducated’ amateur, and a woman. Contemporary commentary about her expertise was often infused with a subtle condescension. There’s little doubt that, had she been male, her admirers would have seen to it that her talents were sufficiently recompensed with scholarships, senior university posts, and membership of the prominent scientific societies. Instead, she remained a fixture at Lyme Regis – there’s no indication that she ever travelled, apart from at least one trip to London, though her expertise was recognised throughout Europe and America. It’s also likely that, coming from a family of Dissenters – a reformist Protestant group – she was regarded with suspicion by the Anglican-dominated scientific hierarchy of the time. Let’s take a look, for comparison, at some of the males she associated with, and who associated with her, and how their professional lives went:

Sir Henry de La Beche – KCB, FRS. That first TLA means ‘Knight Commander of the Bath’ or something similar. I seem to recall bestowing a similar title upon myself while commanding battleships in the bathtub at age six or so. Never received a stipend for it though. FRS means Fellow of the Royal Society of course. Son of a slave-owner who died young, Beche was brought up in Lyme Regis where he became a friend of Anning, sharing her interest in geological strata and what they contained. It’s not unlikely that she was an inspiration for him. He was able to join the male-only London Geological Society at age 21, and later became its President. He became a FRS in 1819 at the still tender age of 24. He was appointed director of the Geological Survey of Great Britain in the 1830s and later the first director of the Museum of Practical Geology in London (now part of the Natural History Museum). He was knighted for his genuine contributions to geology in 1848. Beche was in fact an excellent practical and skeptical scientist who gave support to Anning both financially and in his published work.

William Conybeare – FRS. Born into a family of ‘divines’ (at least on the male side) Conybeare became a vicar himself, and a typical clergyman-naturalist, with particular interests in palaeontology and geology. Educated at the elite (and all-male) Westminster School and at all-male Oxford University, after which he travelled widely through the country and on the Continent (all paid for by ‘a generous inheritance’) in pursuit of geological and palaeontological nourishment. He became an early member of the Geological Society, where he met and advised other notables such as Adam Sedgwick and William Buckland, and contributed papers, including one with Beche which summarised findings about ichthyosaurs and the possibility of another species among them, the plesiosaur. This was confirmed by Anning’s discovery and detailed description of a plesiosaur, which Conybeare later reported to the Geological Society, delighted to be proved correct. He failed to mention Anning’s name. In 1839 Conybeare, together with two other naturalist heavyweights, William Buckland and Richard Owen, joined Mary Anning for a fossil-hunting excursion. Unfortunately we have no smartphone recordings of that intriguing event.

William Buckland, DD [Doctor of Divinity], FRS. Born and raised in Devon, Buckland accompanied his clergyman dad on walks in the region where he collected fossil ammonite shells. He was educated at another elite institution, Winchester College, where he won a scholarship to Oxford. In 1813 he was appointed reader in minerology there, and gave popular lectures with emphasis on geology and palaeontology. He seemed to cultivate eccentricities, including doing field-work in his academic gown and attempting to eat his way though the animal kingdom. His most important association with Mary Anning was his coining of the term ‘coprolite’ based on Anning’s observation that these conical deposits, found in the abdomens of ichthyosaurs, were full of small skeletons. Clearly, Anning knew exactly what they were, but had no real opportunity to expatiate on them in a public forum. Women were often barred from attending meetings of these proliferating scientific societies even as guests, let alone presenting papers at them.

Gideon Mantell, MRCS [Member of the Royal College of Surgeons], FRS. Mantell was himself a rather tragic figure, whose association with Anning was less personal, though he did visit her once at her Lyme Regis shop. He was inspired more by news of her ichthyosaur discoveries, which reinforced an obsession with fossil hunting in his own region of Sussex, where many fossils of the lower Cretaceous were uncovered. Born in Lewes in Sussex, the fifth child of a shoemaker, he was barred from the local schools due to his family’s Methodism. He underwent a period of rather eccentric but obviously effective private tuition before becoming apprenticed to a local surgeon. Though worked very hard, he taught himself anatomy in his free time, and wrote a book on anatomy and the circulation of the blood. He travelled to London for more formal education and obtained a diploma from the Royal College of Surgeons in 1811. Returning to Lewes, he partnered with his former employer in treating victims of cholera, smallpox and typhoid epidemics, and delivering large quantities of babies, building up a thriving practice, but also somehow finding time for fossil-hunting, corresponding with others on fossils and geology, and writing his first paper on the fossils of the region. He started finding large and unusual bones and teeth, which turned out to be those of an Iguanadon, though it took a long time for this to be recognised, and he was mocked for his claims by experts such as William Buckland and Richard Owen. Although he was becoming recognised for his many writings and discoveries, he always remained something of an outsider to the establishment. He later fell on hard times and suffered a serious spinal injury from a horse-and-carriage accident, from which he never really recovered. He apparently died from an overdose of laudanum, used regularly as a pain-killer in those days.

Returning to Mary Anning, we see that class as well as sex was a barrier to intellectual acceptance in early nineteenth century Britain – but sex especially. Mary struggled on in Lyme Regis, recognised and sought out by other experts, but never given her full due. In the 1840s she was occasionally seen to be staggering about, as if drunk. In fact, she too was dosing herself on laudanum, due to the pain of advancing breast cancer. She died in 1847, aged 47.

I should point out that, though Mary Anning’s name is largely unknown to the general public, so are the male names mentioned in this article. We generally don’t fête our scientists very much, though they’re the ones that really change our world, and help us to understand it. Mary was helped out by luminaries such as Beche and Buckland in her later years, and received a small annuity from the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Upon her death, Beche wrote a modest eulogy, which he presented at a Geological Society meeting, which, had she been alive, Anning wouldn’t have been allowed to attend. It was later published in the transactions of the Society. Here’s how it begins:

 I cannot close this notice of our losses by death without adverting to that of one, who though not placed among even the easier classes of society, but one who had to earn her daily bread by her labour, yet contributed by her talents and untiring researches in no small degree to our knowledge of the great Enalio-Saurians [now known as Euryapsida], and other forms of organic life entombed in the vicinity of Lyme Regis ..

Mary Anning by her beloved cliffs, tool in hand, pointing to her not yet dead dog Tray, killed in the line of scientific duty…

References

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Anning

https://ucmp.berkeley.edu/history/anning.html

https://www.nhm.ac.uk/discover/mary-anning-unsung-hero.html

https://www.britannica.com/biography/Mary-Anning

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ichthyosaur

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plesiosauria

https://www.bgs.ac.uk/discoveringGeology/time/Fossilfocus/ammonite.html

https://www.bgs.ac.uk/discoveringGeology/time/Fossilfocus/Belemnite.html

https://www.britannica.com/biography/Henry-Thomas-De-La-Beche

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_De_la_Beche

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Conybeare_(geologist)

https://www.strangescience.net/conybeare.htm

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Buckland

https://www.theguardian.com/science/2019/feb/03/gideon-mantell-play-fight-over-first-dinosaur

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gideon_Mantell

Written by stewart henderson

September 24, 2019 at 11:14 am

women and power: China

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Members of the ‘feminist five’ take part in a 2012 protest against domestic violence in Beijing. Photo courtesy of Media Monitor for Women Network.

Jacinta: We missed the boat with International Women’s Day, 10 days ago as we start this post, because of some unfortunate personal events, but of course any time is a good time to write about women and power. I’ve marked the day in a little way by reading a book, Betraying Big Brother, by Leta Hong Fincher, about the uphill struggle feminists face in both defying and positively influencing the increasingly repressive macho dictatorship/oligarchy in China. So I want to talk about events there, and then maybe we can go on to talk about the global picture.

Canto: Yes, am I right in saying there’s never been a woman on the politburo?

Jacinta: Well I won’t go into the details of China’s political system here, but if you’re talking about the Standing Committee of the Politburo, which currently has seven members (the numbers have ranged from five to eleven), you’re right. The Politburo itself is a larger body, but female representation there and in the Communist Party is depressingly small – and it gets worse the further up the tree you climb. But I want to talk about the regular harassment of feminist activists, who by western standards are by no means extreme, and what it says about China’s all-male leaders and their weird attitudes. Betraying Big Brother tells a depressing but also inspiring story which centres around the arrest of five women as a result of events commemorating International Women’s Day (IWD) in 2015. The story gives us a glimpse into the power elite’s obsessions as well as how it tries to maintain power and why.

Canto: I think you mean ‘succeeds in maintaining power’. The ‘power elite’ as you call it seems to have, for the time being, forced down any threat of democratisation, and to have managed a lot of modernisation and a great deal of capitalist enterprise while actually tightening its stranglehold on power.

Jacinta: Well yes, but I try to be optimistic and to look to the long term. The Chinese diaspora, from which Betraying Big Brother springs, is one source of hope for the future. The five arrested women, Li Maizi, Wei Tingting, Wu Rongrong, Zheng Churan and Wang Man, were planning to hand out material protesting sexual harassment – on public transport – as part of IWD. They chose this issue – such harassment is apparently a real problem in China – precisely because it seemed less controversial than other issues confronting women. Nevertheless they were arrested – three in Beijing and in two other cities – for ‘creating a disturbance’.

Canto: The same term used by the Israeli government whenever any protests occur about the mistreatment of Palestinians.

Jacinta: However, the timing of these arrests, coinciding with IWD and with ‘preparations for Chinese president Xi Jinping to cohost a UN summit on women’s rights in New York to mark the 20th anniversary of Beijing’s World Conference on Women’*, couldn’t have been worse for the Chinese government. There was an international outcry, suffused with mockery, and we know how macho thugs hate being mocked.

Canto: Even more than they hate being told what to do? By women?

Jacinta: Well they released the women within a month, make of that what you will. It was probably due to international pressure. Saving face. But what I learned most from this story was how the Chinese dictatorship harasses its subjects in subtle and not so subtle ways. These women and many of their associates are now under constant surveillance, and receive regular visits from party sycophants checking their activities. These thugs harass the feminists’ parents, scolding them for not controlling their ‘little girls’. They harass their employers, their teachers, their associates. They insist that they’re the dupes of ‘hostile foreign forces’, a favourite and very telling phrase, worthy of an entire separate post. And yet this clamp-down has backfired, to an extent. The feminist five were unknown before their arrest, now they’re the Famous Five – but only in a small way, and more overseas than in China itself, due to their government’s overwhelming control of social and other media.

Canto: So why is the Chinese government so afraid of feminism? I get that it’s an all-male government, but women’s education is well supported there, and the Chinese women I’ve met – granted that they’re outside of China – seem pretty strong-minded and outspoken, if just as politically naive as their male counterparts (granted that I meet mostly young students). You’d think the government would have other priorities, and if there’s a real problem with sexual harassment, shouldn’t they support these women for highlighting the problem?

Jacinta: The Chinese leadership is obsessed with total control – they’ve sold their soul for it. At the moment, apparently, they’re trying to turn women into breeders. The one-child policy, their once-proud piece of social engineering, is currently seen as disastrous, so they’ve switched to a two-child policy, but women aren’t buying into it. So maybe that’s why there’s a bit of a war on women at present.

Canto: So if ‘sexual harassment’ leads to more women getting pregnant that’s a good thing? Yuk!

Jacinta: Well I don’t think it’s quite that crass, but they hate the idea of any decision coming from below rather than above. So they crush any ‘dissent’, take note of the complaint, and then act on it months or years later if they feel it’s in their interest. For example, last year they enacted a domestic violence law for the first time, and I’d like to think that feminist pressure, no doubt thoroughly suppressed over the years, has influenced that decision.

Canto: Not to mention hostile foreign forces, haha.

Jacinta: But they haven’t actually criminalised DV. It’s treated as a civil offence. Nor do they have any law criminalising marital rape – one of only ten countries in that category. And rape can lead to pregnancy, after all.

Canto: Why are they so obsessed with engineering the nation’s population? Imagine an Australian, or any other western government trying to do that. They’d be instantly ousted.

Jacinta: Maybe, but clearly this kind of social engineering has become more acceptable to the Chinese. Of course they’ve created different rules for the Han Chinese than for the Uyghur of north-west China and other minorities, a not-too subtle form of discrimination. There have been rumours, though, that the government plans to give up on child-control policies. That would be a good thing. Governments need to just deal with the decisions of their citizens. Currently, women are being forced to retire early (in China). This would force them into dependence on their husbands, if they have one. It just doesn’t accord with the fact that women there are more highly educated than ever before, and form an increasing percentage of the workforce. The Chinese are producing more and more of a particular resource – female competence, skill and know-how – and refusing to utilise it effectively. Then again, that doesn’t make China very much different from other countries…

Canto: But getting back to that one child/two child policy stuff, which really intrigues me – they’re trying to get their economy right for the future. Ageing population is bad, that’s the mantra. And yet, modern economies are changing. It’s more brain than brawn nowadays, more geared, arguably, to an older, more experienced and knowledgable population. And people in retirement don’t all sit and watch TV. They’re active members of the community, active within families, they spend money on travel and so forth.

Jacinta: Yes, but this sign that they might give up on social control in one area, the production of children, is a positive. They might recognise that trying to control other things like workforce participation might backfire on them. They don’t want to be blamed for things going wrong. In Australia, it’s not about forced retirement, but availability of the pension – it might be like that for China too. And that has been complicated by the rise of superannuation.

Canto: In any case, I don’t see any great changes, in a more liberal direction, as long as their current dictator holds the reins. And with the government’s firm control over social media, demonstrations like the one pictured above will continue to be sad, solitary affairs.

Jacinta: But they’ll continue to be staged, there will still be brave, self-sacrificing women, and they’ll continue to be supported, in China and overseas, in all sorts of hidden and not so hidden ways. They have right on their side after all.


Written by stewart henderson

March 24, 2019 at 9:54 am

random thoughts 1

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Ilhan Omar

Bogus claims of anti-semitism veil the real issue

It seems Ilhan Omar, a new member of the US congress, is getting a lot of stick over there because of some comments she made about the power and wealth of Jewish lobbyists, but she is surely correct. I’ve not followed this in detail, but I know enough to say that the US political process is very much a captive of these lobbyists vis-à-vis the treatment of Israel. I agree with Paul Heyward-Smith, an Australian supporter Of the Palestinian people, that what is happening in Israel today is worse than what was happening in South Africa under the apartheid system. Never did the white minority in that country seek to ethnically cleanse South Africa of its native non-white population. Zionist monoculturalism is contrary to all the humane values of modern western culture.

hard times for feminists in China – their government rarely allows any demonstrations

On speaking the language of hostile foreign powers

As part of their harassment of feminist activists in China, feminists are regularly interrogated by MSS thugs as to what ‘hostile foreign powers’ they are working for or in collaboration with. This regular, automatic conjoining of ‘hostile’ and ‘foreign’ speaks volumes for the mindset of the current political elite. It speaks to the attempted inculcation of a xenophobic nationalism, at a time when the Chinese nouveaux riche are travelling more widely than ever before, and their children are learning English – in China – from the age of 4 or 5. Yet English is virtually never spoken in the country. So why bother to learn a ‘hostile foreign language’? It seems there’s something in the international power and reach of that language that the Chinese, or at least their government, wants to utilise, in its muddled or maybe not so muddled way, for its own expansionist ends.

women, Afghanistan

a world turned upside-down

Currently some 14% of the world’s political leaders are women – or is it 14 out of the 190 or so leaders? No matter, women are vastly in the minority, in politics and in business. Maybe less so in science and academia, but probably not much less so. Men dominate. So what if the world were turned upside-down and men were vastly in the minority in all these fields? It isn’t crazy to consider this counterfactual any more than it’s crazy to see our social world as it is. Would the world be a better place? It would surely be very different. And maybe the time is coming, or has come, for this difference to begin to appear. We’ve achieved dominance of the biosphere, now it’s time for a better collaboration with its other inhabitants. Women are no less smart, inventive and competitive, and it all depends in any case on context and social positioning, the best environment for blossoming. In general, women form groups more naturally and readily, sharing ownership of goals and production. A woman’s world would be calmer, less volatile, more supportive. I feel sad that I’ll never be able to experience it.

Written by stewart henderson

March 20, 2019 at 8:41 pm

women and warfare, part 2: humans, bonobos, coalitions and care

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bonobos, or how to be good (without gods)

Shortly before I started writing the first part of this article, I read a sad and disturbing piece in a recent New Scientist, about an Iron Age citadel in modern Iran, called Hasanlu. Its tragic fate reminded me of the smaller scale tragedies that Goodall and others recount in chimpanzee societies, in which one group can systematically slaughter another.

Hasanlu was brutally attacked and destroyed at the end of the ninth century BCE, and amazingly, the massacred people at the site remained untouched until uncovered by archeologists only a few decades ago. One archeologist, Mary Voigt, who worked the site in 1970, has described her reaction:

I come from a long line line of undertakers. Dead people are not scary to me. But when I dug that site I had screaming nightmares.

Voigt’s first discovery was of a small child ‘just lying on the pavement’, with a spear point and an empty quiver lying nearby. In her words:

The unusual thing about the site is all this action is going on and you can read it directly: somebody runs across the courtyard, kills the little kid, dumps their quiver because it’s out of ammunition. If you keep going, there are arrow points embedded in the wall.

Voigt soon found more bodies, all women, on the collapsed roof of a stable:

They were in an elite part of the city yet none of them had any jewellery. Maybe they had been stripped or maybe they were servants. Who knows? But they were certainly herded back there and systematically killed. Its very vivid. Too vivid.

Subsequent studies found that they died from cranial trauma, their skulls smashed by a blunt instrument. And research found many other atrocities at the site. Headless or handless skeletons, skeletons grasping abdomens or necks, a child’s skull with a blade sticking out of it. All providing proof of a frenzy of violence against the inhabitants. There is still much uncertainty as to the perpetrators, but for our purposes, it’s the old story; one group or clan, perhaps cruelly powerful in the past, being ‘over-killed’, in an attempt at obliteration, by a newly powerful, equally cruel group or clan.

Interestingly, while writing this on January 4 2019, I also read about another massacre, exactly ten years ago, on January 4-5 2009. The densely populated district of Zeitoun in Gaza City was attacked by Israeli forces and 48 people, mostly members of the same family, and mostly women, children and the elderly, were killed, and a number of homes were razed to the ground. This was part of the 2008-9 ‘Gaza War’, known by the Arab population as the Gaza Massacre, and by the Israelis as Operation Cast Lead. The whole conflict resulted in approximately 1200-1400 Palestinian deaths. Thirteen Israelis died, four by friendly fire. And of course I could pick out dozens of other pieces of sickening brutality going on in various benighted parts of the world today.

Attempts by one group of people to obliterate another, whether through careful planning or the frenzy of the moment, have been a part of human history, and they’re ongoing. They are traceable as far back, at least, as the ancestry we share with chimpanzees.

But we’re not chimps, or bonobos. A fascinating documentary about those apes has highlighted many similarities between them and us, some not noted before, but also some essential differences. They can hunt with spears, they can use water as a tool, they can copy humans, and collaborate with them, to solve problems. Yet they’re generally much more impulsive creatures than humans – they easily forget what they’ve learned, and they don’t pass on information or knowledge to each other in any systematic way. Some chimp or bonobo communities learn some tricks while others learn other completely different tricks – and not all members of the community learn them. Humans learn from each other instinctively and largely ‘uncomprehendingly’, as in the learning of language. They just do it, and everyone does it, barring genetic defects or other disabilities.

So it’s possible, just maybe, that we can learn from bonobos, and kick the bad habits we share with chimps, despite the long ancestry of our brutality.

Frans De Waal is probably the most high-profile and respected bonobo researcher. Here’s some of what he has to say:

The species is best characterized as female-centered and egalitarian and as one that substitutes sex for aggression. Whereas in most other species sexual behavior is a fairly distinct category, in the bonobo it is part and parcel of social relations–and not just between males and females. Bonobos engage in sex in virtually every partner combination (although such contact among close family members may be suppressed). And sexual interactions occur more often among bonobos than among other primates. Despite the frequency of sex, the bonobos rate of reproduction in the wild is about the same as that of the chimpanzee. A female gives birth to a single infant at intervals of between five and six years. So bonobos share at least one very important characteristic with our own species, namely, a partial separation between sex and reproduction.

Bonobo sex and society, Scientific American, 2006.

Now, I’m a bit reluctant to emphasise sex too much here (though I’m all for it myself), but there appears to be a direct relationship in bonobo society between sexual behaviour and many positives, including one-on-one bonding, coalitions and care and concern for more or less all members of the group. My reluctance is probably due to the fact that sexual repression is far more common in human societies worldwide than sexual permissiveness, or promiscuity – terms that are generally used pejoratively. And maybe I still have a hankering for a Freudian theory I learned about in my youth – that sexual sublimation is the basis of human creativity. You can’t paint too many masterpieces or come up with too many brilliant scientific theories when you’re constantly bonking or mutually masturbating. Having said that, we’re currently living in societies where the arts and sciences are flourishing like never before, while a large chunk of our internet time (though far from the 70% occasionally claimed) is spent watching porn. Maybe some people can walk, or rather wank, and chew over a few ideas at the same (and for some it amounts to the same thing).

So what I do want to emphasise is ‘female-centredness’ (rather than ‘matriarchy’ which is too narrow a term). I do think that a more female-centred society would be more sensual – women are more touchy-feely. I often see my female students walking arm in arm in their friendship, which rarely happens with the males, no matter their country of origin (I teach international students). Women are highly represented in the caring professions – though the fact that we no longer think of the ‘default’ nurse as female is a positive – and they tend to come together well for the best purposes, as for example the Women Wage Peace movement which brings Israeli and Palestinian women together in a more or less apolitical push to promote greater accord in their brutalised region.

October 2017 – Palestinian and Israeli women march for peace near the Dead Sea, and demand representation is any future talks


Women’s tendency to ‘get along’ and work in teams needs to be harnessed and empowered. There are, of course, obstructionist elements to be overcome – in particular some of the major religions, such as Catholic Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism, all of which date back centuries or millennia and tend to congeal or ‘eternalise’ the patriarchal social mores and power structures of those distant times. However, there’s no doubt that Christianity, as the most western religion, is in permanent decline, and other religions will continue to feel the heat of our spectacular scientific developments – including our better understanding of other species and their evolved and unwritten moral codes.

The major religions tend to take male supremacy for granted as the natural order of things, but Melvin Konner, in his book Women after all, has summarised an impressive array of bird and mammal species which turn the tables on our assumptions about male hunters and female nurturers. Jacanas, hyenas, cassowaries, montane voles, El Abra pygmy swordtails (a species of fish) and rats, these are just a few of the creatures that clearly defy patriarchal stereotypes. In many fish and bird species, the females physically outweigh the males, and there’s no sense that, in the overwhelming majority of bird species – whose recently-discovered smarts I’ve written about and will continue to write about – one gender bosses the other.

Turning back to human societies, there are essentially three types of relations for continuing the species – monogamy, polyandry and polygyny. One might think that polyandry – where women can have a harem of males to bed with – would be the optimum arrangement for a female-centred society, but in fact all three arrangements can be turned to (or against) the advantage of females. Unsurprisingly, polygyny (polyandry’s opposite) is more commonly practiced in human society, both historically and at present, but in such societies, women often have a ‘career open to talents’, where they and their offspring may have high status due to their manipulative (in the best sense of the word) smarts. In any case, what I envisage for the future is a fluidity of relations, in which children are cared for by males and females regardless of parentage. This brings me back to bonobos, who develop female coalitions to keep the larger males in line. Males are uncertain of who their offspring is in a polyamorous community, but unlike in a chimp community, they can’t get away with infanticide, because the females are in control in a variety of ways. In fact, evolution has worked its magic in bonobo society in such a way that the males are more concerned to nurture offspring than to attack them. And it’s notable that, in modern human societies, this has also become the trend. The ‘feminine’ side of males is increasingly extolled, and the deference shown to females is increasing, despite the occasional throwback like Trump-Putin. It will take a long time, even in ‘advanced’ western societies, but I think the trend is clear. We will, or should, become more like bonobos, because we need to. We don’t need to use sex necessarily, because we have something that bonobos lack – language. And women are very good at language, at least so has been my experience. Talk is a valuable tool against aggression and dysfunction; think of the talking cure, peace talks, being talked down from somewhere or talked out of something. Talk is often beyond cheap, it can be priceless in its benefits. We need to empower the voices of women more and more.

This not a ‘fatalism lite’ argument; there’s nothing natural or evolutionarily binding about this trend. We have to make it happen. This includes, perhaps first off, fighting against the argument that patriarchy is in some sense a better, or more natural system. That involves examining the evidence. Konner has done a great job of attempting to summarise evidence from human societies around the world and throughout history – in a sense carrying on from Aristotle thousands of years ago when he tried to gather together the constitutions of the Greek city-states, to see which might be most effective, and so to better shape the Athenian constitution. A small-scale, synchronic plan by our standards, but by the standards of the time a breath-taking step forward in the attempt not just to understand his world, but to improve it.

References

Melvin Konner, Women after all, 2015

New Scientist, ‘The horror of Hasanlu’ September 15 2018

Max Blumenthal, Goliath, 2013

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zeitoun_incident

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gaza_War_(2008–09)

Written by stewart henderson

January 11, 2019 at 11:25 am

The bandwagon of macho thuggery rolls on

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it’s reignin’ men!

Brazil has just elected a macho thug to lead its country down the descent to demagogic doom. So now, just off the top of my head, we have the USA, Russia, China, North Korea, Cambodia, the Philippines, Poland, Turkey, Syria, Israel, Belarus, Iran, Saudia Arabia, all full of shit leaders.

Tears of rage, tears of grief. Women, women, we need you to save us! Rise up, flush these scumbags down the toilet, and never never let a man run your country again! Never!

Written by stewart henderson

October 30, 2018 at 4:13 pm

Essai a la facon de Montaigne – a discursive piece, mainly about women

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Mary Somerville, physicist, mathematician, autodidact, genius, now featured on the Scottish ten pound note

I’m at Adelaide writer’s week, in the book tent. I’ve not been to writer’s week for some years. These days I read almost entirely non-fiction, mostly science for the scientifically challenged. I feel as if, over the years, I’ve been suffering the literary version of a gender crisis. You might call it a genre crisis. I’ve been categorised wrongly – I’ve categorised myself wrongly – in the arts instead of the science section. Though of course I want to feel comfortable in both. Mostly I feel comfortable in neither.

I glance at a book called Beyond Veiled Clichés. It looks to be a book about western misrepresentations of women under Islam. Ah, the veil. I’m with Ayaan Hirsi Ali on this, to obsess over women’s headgear misses the point. To me the point is patriarchy.

I loathe patriarchy. I really mean that. I’d like to stab it in the eye and watch it die slowly, writhing in agony. I often have these nasty macho fantasies. The other day I read the opening to Robert Sapolsky’s book Behave, which describes a fantasy of torturing and murdering Hitler. It validates, in some sense, my own brutish fantasies, vis-à-vis Trump, Putin, Stalin, and others I’m ashamed to admit. At least I’ve never had such fantasies about women, which goes to the fact that men are in all cultures more violent than women, and their violence is directed mostly – but far from always – at other men. But I know also that some women have such fantasies; we’re different in degree, not in kind, I hope.

But I wonder if Beyond Veiled Clichés has much to say about patriarchy. Certainly a book called Beyond Patriarchy would interest me more. And I certainly don’t want to get started on middle eastern cultures, our own is bad enough. On the way to writer’s week I passed through the ground floor of a major department store, a cathedral-like space dedicated to the worship of beauty culture, someone’s idea of femininity. Or fem-inanity. Here, and only here, is where I declare myself a new-ager, favouring the natural over all those chemicals. And they don’t even have to reveal the ingredients. Selling a dream that mostly isn’t worth having, at inflated prices. Women’s clothing, hairstyles and other paraphernalia all cost more than their mostly perfunctory male counterparts, yet I can’t help but notice women earn, on average, quite a bit less than men. I’ll be long dead before it all gets overturned, yet I’m confident it will, which will help ensure the survival of the species.

And now it’s International Women’s Day, how coincidental. We don’t have an International Men’s Day, we certainly don’t need one, and that’s the indicator of women’s situation, when there’s no need for an IWD, we’ll have made it. So, a bit of history. March 8 was first mooted as an IWD of sorts way back in 1910, at an International Socialist Women’s Conference in Copenhagen. Unlike women, socialists are a bit thin on the ground these days, so it’s fascinating that in Russia – that country that Putin is so happy to drive backwards at full tilt – March 8 was declared a national holiday in 1917, when women gained universal suffrage. On March 8 of that year, women textile workers held a massive demonstration in Petrograd, which some historians claim to mark the beginning of the Russian revolution. Hoping for another one there soon. But that March 8 date seems to have resonated since 1910. On that date in 1914 Germany held an IWD to promote women’s right to vote, but they had to lose a war first, and women didn’t get the vote there till 1919. Interestingly on that same day, March 8 1914 there was a march in London for women’s suffrage, during which Sylvia Pankhurst was arrested. So, definitely a worthy day.

A day to look back and look forward. And to examine the state of things for women right now. We still have a big problem, in Australia and other advanced nations, with women in STEM (Science Technology Engineering Mathematics) fields. Our 45th parliament is composed of 32% women (44% Labor, 21% Liberal). Compare 31% New Zealand, 29% Canada. These percentages are gradually increasing, not fast enough. A quick look at a government website shows that of 41 front-benchers (ministers, junior and assistant ministers), 8 are women, not sufficient, and of course we’ve only had one PM in our history. In the US congress, again the left outperforms the right in female representation, though by a higher percentage. There are currently 106 women of the 535 reps from both houses – that’s only 19.8%. There’s 79 Democrats versus 27 Republicans, almost a 3:1 ratio. All this is a crude measure of political power, but it indicates something, and it certainly makes me frustrated. I dare not look at the corporate sectors of these nations, where arguably the real power lies. Interestingly, the proportion of female judges across Europe is 51% (as of late 2016), but Britain lags behind (England and Wales 30%, Scotland – my birth country – only 24%). Surprisingly, Romania’s judiciary is 74% female – whuda thunkit? It might be worth doing a deeper dive into this conundrum in the future. Percentages are also high in Montenegro and Bosnia-Hercegovina.

In a report published on March 8 last year, 15 nations had female political leaders, eight of whom were the first female leaders of their countries. Three contentious figures were excluded – Park Geun-hye, South Korean President, who was then being impeached; Tsai Ing-wen, President of Taiwan, presumably because the report is worried about the macho thugs in China, and Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma/Myanmar who is the effective leader but constitutionally barred from bearing that title. So, adding some backbone to the report, it’s fair to say we have 17 national female leaders. Of these, I might single out Sheikh Hasina, current PM of Bangladesh, who has held that position, not without interruption, for 14 years, and Angela Merkel, now in her 13th year as Chancellor of Germany. Nice to see that in the Baltics, both Lithuania and Estonia have female leaders.

Of course we’re still scratching the surface, but it’s worth taking the long view – comparisons with 100 years ago, 200 years ago, etc. I’m speaking to myself here, I’m impatient for change. It’s unlikely we’ll get rid of all the macho thugs soon, no use railing about it, we just have to get on with it, and celebrate and and make a noise about the many great female scientists and artists and teachers and mentors and sacrificers who struggle and endure and sometimes succeed. I hope to feature more of them in future posts.

a heroine of a different kind – the very topical Park Yeon-mi

Written by stewart henderson

March 10, 2018 at 10:53 pm

three quite pleasurable little rants and rallies

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Bai Ping Ting

on Chinese women, fantasy and reality

I’ve been watching The General and I, a charming if generally ludicrous multi-million dollar Chinese historical fantasy series about a woman whose leadership abilities all men defer to. Fat chance of that happening in the real China, where the dictatorship of macho thugs has reigned supreme for decades. But could today’s fantasy – minus all the superhero powers – ever become tomorrow’s reality?

China, like every other country, has traditionally been highly patriarchal, and to be fair the dictatorship (I refuse to endorse the charade of calling the country a people’s republic) is moving with the times in calling for greater gender equality. However the political reality is clear. China’s dictatorship is essentially based on the nine members of the ‘Politburo Standing Committee of the Communist Party’, and of course these individuals are regularly replaced over time. No woman has ever been Standing (or even Sitting) on this Committee, and according to Wikipedia, ‘since 1997, China has fallen to 53rd place from 16th in the world in terms of female representation at its parliament, the National People’s Congress, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union’.

Soong Ching-ling

It’s a disastrous situation, especially considering that in terms of women in the workforce, China is one of the world’s most egalitarian nations, outdoing the USA, Japan and many other developed countries. There seems to be little motivation to encourage women into the really important political jobs – the jobs they’d be best suited for as the more collaborative gender, and Angelababy’s Bai Ping Ting (actually not the most collaborative of females) is unlikely to change the situation. There doesn’t seem to be any woman of anywhere near the political stature of Cixi or Soong Ching-ling today. So I’d urge the smart women of China – there are millions of them – to rise up and demand their government to open its doors and let them in. They can’t do a Tianenman Square on you this time!

Cixi

 

on the archbishop of everywhere and nowhere

The same-sex marriage/marriage equality no-brainer has dragged on for far too long here. The other day I heard a fat archbishop of somewhere-or-other being introduced by the ABC to put the nope case. He started on about marriage being meant to be between a man and a woman, and I switched him off. Ahhh, but to have spent some time alone with him…Ok, I’d promise to have my hands tied behind my back. I’d ask him, how may female archbishops are there, mate? I mean, throughout history? In round figures? How many female bishops? Cardinals? Popes? You don’t think that’s relevant? Are you prepared to admit that your organisation’s hierarchy is extremely patriarchal? Like, the most patriarchal institution in the western world by a million miles? No, don’t blether on about your Mamma Superiors, I’m talking about the big decision-makers, you know that. And have you noticed how the most patriarchal societies in the world – look at the Middle East, Africa, parts of Asia and Eastern Europe – are also the most homophobic? You think that’s coincidence? Bullshit, patriarchy and homophobia hang together like a pair of testicles, and if you were a female archbishop, as you should be, you wouldn’t be sitting there spewing shit. But no, the Holy Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church would rather collapse under the weight of its own criminality than appoint a female to high office. So let me now turn to women everywhere, but especially to educated women who identify as Catholic. What the fuck are you thinking? How can you sleep at night? How can you more or less passively support the most retrograde and destructive institution in the western world? If you haven’t the sense to recognise your own interest, do it for other women, straight or gay, religious or no, and make a stand, surely you can do no other.

don’t ban, just abandon

 

on the history of marriage

‘Marriage has always been between a man and a woman, and I see no reason to change it.’ These, from memory, were the words of our former PM Julia Gillard, who was otherwise a good leader. Of course, even it it were true that marriage had always been between blokes and sheilas, that wouldn’t be sufficient reason to continue with that exclusive system. It’s a bit like saying ‘blacks have always had to sit at the back of the bus and use the back entrance and eat the leftovers…’ But has marriage always been between men and women (or little girls)? Or even between humans (I’m sure I’ve heard of a few blokes marrying horses and such). Who of us has witnessed the first marriage? Or the second or the fiftieth or the 500th? Where and when did they take place? Ten thousand years ago? Fifty thousand? Presumably at the time of mitochondrial Eve, some 180-200,000 years ago from memory, humans – and she was most definitely Homo sapiens – didn’t marry. There was little need for it as far as I can see, as there wouldn’t have been much in the way of property to protect and hand down to your legitimate heirs. And that’s interesting because, since mEve definitely had children, and we’re all descended from them, that makes us all bastards.

We don’t even know if humans were particularly monogamous at that time – we know sweet FA about their sexual liaisons, though it seems likely they were more free and easy than they are now – together with plenty of fighting over best mates. Of course the romantic in me likes to think that a twist of fate could’ve taken us the way of the bonobo, but there’s still time, and I’ll fight for that twist for the rest of my days. Meanwhile, marriage, if we must have it (and I’d rather not) is always what we make it, and making it as inclusive as possible is surely the best for us, and will maybe bring us full circle…

love isn’t blind, just blinkered

Written by stewart henderson

September 27, 2017 at 10:53 pm