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Patriarchy, Female Resistance, and The Theory of Evolution

Patriarchy and female resistance are not exclusive to humans. These also have evolutionary roots, but only in the sexual realm.

Stories of women's subjugation and struggle against patriarchy abound in human history. All social agencies - i.e., family, school, community, workplace, church, and media - are guilty of generating and perpetuating patriarchal beliefs, values, and practices. But is male dominance and its consequent female resistance limited to humans?

According to Barbara Smuts' The Evolutionary Origins of Patriarchy (1995): "...patriarchy is the product of reproductive strategies typically shown by male primates, which in humans have undergone unusually effective elaboration." She further offers these interesting points:

Though Charles Darwin's idea on natural selection emphasizes a species' survival based on its physiological traits, Smuts clarifies that environment or "everything that influences development, both inside and outside the organism" affects such survival. Human evolution then goes beyond biology. It considers other factors that contribute to genetic mutation. Among primates, these factors include domineering sexual behaviors among males and female resistance to such aggression.

Physiological differences affect the sexual behavior of males and females, particularly among mammals. Smuts describes how males readily pounce on opportunities to fertilize, while females "are usually more careful than males to choose mates who seem likely to provide good genes, protection, parental care, or resources in addition to gametes."

Males' quest for quantity often collides with females' preference for quality. Consequently, males employ different tactics to convince females that they are worth mating with: courtship, coercion, and infanticide. When courting a potential mate, the males engage in activities to prove that they are good providers, good protectors, and good partners in rearing offspring. The impatient end up forcing themselves on whoever it is they want to fertilize, while the most aggressive of the lot kill their targeted female's kin.

In primates, as Smuts illustrates, females bear the brunt of male aggression more when they are in "estrus" (i.e., fertile and sexually receptive) than when they are not. This is the case for rhesus monkeys. Male hamadryas baboons, on the other hand, are consistently aggressive towards females. Bachelor mountain gorillas tend to attack the females' infants whose father (also called "silverback" ) is usually able to protect them. Otherwise, as Smuts notes, there is a chance for the mother "to join the killer."

Not a few species of monkeys illustrate how females bond to resist and overcome male aggression. Smuts explains that such coalition helps protect their kin from being killed and from mating with unwanted males. Moreover, females "hold considerable "king-making" power". This is shown by high-ranking females supportive of ruling males among rhesus and vervet monkeys. Such alliance protects the former from being challenged.

Females also counter aggression by befriending other males. Smuts narrates how female olive baboons would form long-term friendship with males. These friends help defend them from aggressive males and are often preferred as sexual mates.

Based on these observations, Smuts underscores how "supportive social relationships, sometimes with other females, sometimes with males, and sometimes with both" fuel female resistance against patriarchy. She also points out that "male power over females varies widely across different primates."

Further readings

All About Science. n.d. Darwin's Theory of Evolution - A Theory in Crisis.

Ginn, Jay. 2010. Gender Relations in the Earliest Societies: Patriarchal or Not?.

Harvard College. 2009. Sexual Coercion in Primates and Humans: An Evolutionary Perspective on Male Aggression Against Females. Martin Muller and Richard Wrangham (eds).

Written by Leann Zarah (

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