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Reaction: archaeological study reconstructs the persistence of gender discrimination in Europe since the Middle Ages

A study has analysed around 10,000 teeth from 139 archaeological sites in Europe dating from around 1200 AD in the Middle Ages. The differences between the teeth of men and women make it possible to establish who had better living conditions and received more attention in each place. Comparing the data with the contemporary situation, they conclude that greater gender discrimination in the past correlates with greater inequality today. According to the authors, this persistence is most likely due to intergenerational transmission, as it is interrupted when there is a large population replacement. The results are published in the journal PNAS.

13/03/2023 - 20:00 CET
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Hernando - Género Europa EN

Almudena Hernando

Professor of Prehistory and member of the Institute for Feminist Research at the Complutense University of Madrid

Science Media Centre Spain

The study published in the journal PNAS brings a single novelty: it argues, with empirical data of unquestionable quality, that there is a continuity in the degree of gender inequality that characterises the societies of certain European territories since the Middle Ages - when there was more inequality in the Middle Ages, there is still more inequality today in that same territory.  

However, I believe that the work suffers from a fundamental problem: it attributes this continuity to the intergenerational transmission of norms and values - from fathers/mothers to sons/daughters - which, according to the authors, has so far only been demonstrated over two or three generations. In doing so, they equate these norms with any other norms - they claim that current inequality is, among other things, the result of a 'relic' of pre-modern gender norms - without taking into account the basal and structuring character of gender norms in the construction of the social order. This is patriarchy, a notion unknown in this article.  

This explains, for example, why they attribute the lack of persistence of gender norms between preconquest Native American societies and present-day societies in those same territories to generational disruption, instead of thinking about the very different socio-political orders characteristic of both. Finally, they ignore the abundant evidence generated by feminist archaeology to demonstrate the presence of such inequality - and of gender norms - since prehistoric times.

The article examines data on gender inequality in medieval times and today in selected European territories to conclude that the degree of inequality inherent in the gender norm is continuous in each. The conclusion is that this norm has been transmitted generationally through the education of boys and girls over these centuries, demonstrating that it is a norm that may have endured longer than others.  

There is no objection to that conclusion, and there is certainly no shortage of studies that help to reinforce the evidence of the gender inequality that has historically characterised European societies, so this study is welcome. But in my opinion, there is a major objection to the relevance of the study. On the one hand, because what does it contribute? Does it prove that the values of a society are transmitted generationally, because yes, of course, that is precisely what we call culture (what else is socialisation?). But above all, on the other hand, because to consider that demonstrating a long-lasting gender norm is a relevant contribution in itself, shows that the essential difference between the gender norm and any other norm or social value is ignored, ignored or diluted.  

Unlike the others, the gender norm has a structuring character in the social order, as feminists such as Kate Millet have been demonstrating since the 1970s, referring to the "sex-gender system or patriarchy". It is because of this structuring character that it lasts as long as there is historical continuity, which obviously requires population continuity. In fact, there is abundant bibliography generated by feminist archaeology on the presence of this inequality since prehistoric times in these same territories, that is, on the continuity of the norm in historical trajectories from the beginning. And it would seem superficial to attribute the lack of continuity of the norm to demographic disruption, as they do when comparing Native American populations and the current North American population, rather than to attribute it to the cultural fracture brought about by colonisation. I would argue that my objection has to do with the depth of the analysis, not the data itself.


The author has declared they have no conflicts of interest
Persistence of gender biases in Europe
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