After the Neolithic Revolution, two kinds of agricultural societies emerged. In Eurasia, patrilineal societies transmitted land and animals to sons. In southern Africa and southeast Asia, horticultural societies tended to be matrilineal, tracing descent and property down the female line. In the former, female chastity was tightly policed; whilst in the latter, women moved freely. Native Americans were mostly bilateral and recognised the importance of women's contributions.
Eurasia itself saw another important division several thousand years ago - between societies which grew even more endogamous (the Middle East and South Asia) and those with nuclear families (Europe). As long as families were trapped in rural poverty, this variation in kinship may not have made an enormous difference to gender relations. Women worked on the family farm, marriages were arranged, and male elders governed village life.
The Great Gender Divergence really occurred in the 20th century. Structural transformation and technological innovations alleviated domestic drudgery and tightened markets for skilled labour. Firms in prosperous countries increasingly ran out of men, so hired and promoted women. Women pursued careers: they gained status, autonomy and much broader friendships. This progress was mediated by kinship and growth. If prevailing wages were too low to compensate for the loss of honour, female seclusion persists (as in much of India today). These effects are compounded by political trajectories. Only in democracies could working women leverage their newfound friendships to campaign for equal rights.
Dr Alice Evans is a Senior Lecturer at King's College London, she is writing "The Great Gender Divergence". This book examines why all countries have become more gender equal, but why some are more gender equal than others.
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