If any tenet of feminism receives even more widespread assent than that which maintains that women today are oppressed, it is that which asserts that women were even more oppressed in the past before modern feminism liberated them.
Van Creveld’s book turns the conventional wisdom on its head. Far from being oppressed, women are privileged and have been throughout recorded history – “Judged by almost any criterion, women are, and always have been, the privileged sex” (p238).
The bulk of his book is therefore concerned, not with contemporary conditions, but with history. However, surveying the entire course of human history is such a vast project that errors are unavoidable.
For example, Van Creveld asserts, “a famous 18th century law ordained that a husband beating his wife should use a rod or switch no thicker than the base of his right thumb” (p162). Actually, the "famous law" is a feminist fabrication (see Who Stole Feminism?: p203-7). Wife-beating has been illegal in the UK since at least Anglo-Saxon times (George 2007).
It is curious that Van Creveld, although sceptical of other feminist claims, accepts this particular feminist fabrication at face-value.
“Three Legends” In addition to making errors unavoidable, surveying the relative status of the sexes in every society that ever existed is obviously impossible. Van Creveld is therefore obliged to be selective. This is particularly evident in Chapter One, which focusses on 'Three Legends’.
The first of these, women’s alleged seclusion in ancient Greece is a controversy restricted to classicists. Moreover, seclusion can be interpreted as evidence of protection, rather than oppression. Thus, in later chapters, Van Creveld acknowledges, “concern for women’s health, and not oppression, explains why they usually stayed at home more often, and for longer than men” (p215) and why their work “did not take those engaged in it far from their homes” (p73), since “housing provides comfort as well as shelter against hear cold wind, rain, hail and snow” (p211).
Certainly, Greek women were better-off than their menfolk. In Sparta, boys were subject to an austere regime of military training (and institutionalized sexual abuse) from early childhood. Yet, according to Aristotle, Spartan women lived lives of “every intemperance and luxury” and socially and politically dominated the city-state.
Likewise, the third 'legend’ Van Creveld debunks, namely that the Nazis persecuted women as they did Jews and other groups is not widely believed. Actually, Van Creveld shows, the Nazis were the first government to extend child benefits to unmarried mothers (p19). Even non-Aryan females fared better than their untermenchen male equivalents, with only a fifth as many foreign females used as slave labour as men (p25) and only one woman killed in the regime’s early days (p18).
Witch-Hunts In contrast, the second 'legend’ identified by Van Creveld – namely, the persecution of women in medieval witch-hunts – remains a feminist cause célèbre some three centuries after the practice ended.
The scale of the phenomenon is exaggerated. American suffragist Matilda Joslyn Gage is credited with popularising the figure of nine million women executed (The History of Witchcraft: p123). Recent estimates put the number at less than a hundredth of this.
There are two reasons medieval witch-hunts cannot be viewed as evidence for the oppression of women. First, the accusers were not all male - “women participated in witch-hunts at least as much as men did” and “most maleficia were directed by women at women” (p11).
Second, victims were not all women. In Switzerland and Britain, most victims were male (p14); while “before 1350, nearly three times as many men as women were tried for witchcraft” and “for Europe as a whole, between 1300 and 1499 the number of accused men is said to have nearly equalled that of… women” (p13).
Yet even these figures are misleading because, Van Creveld explains, witchcraft “formed part of a much larger complex of 'spiritual’ offences that included heresy, apostasy and blasphemy, among others” and “comprised only a small fraction of the cases brought before the Inquisition” – yet “most of those charged with other spiritual offences were men” and “women accounted for only 10 percent of all those executed during the period in question” (p13).
As Van Creveld demonstrates in a later chapter, female defendants have long enjoyed preferential treatment before the courts. This explains the feminist fixation on medieval witch-hunts – “perhaps the only time in history when more women than men were charged with a serious crime and executed for it” (p152).
Explaining Female Privilege Whereas other chapters seek to document female privilege, Van Creveld's second chapter seeks to explain it.
Female privilege, for Van Creveld, begins with biology. Even in the womb, “biologically speaking becoming female is taking the path of least resistance” (p31) whereas “simply becoming male is a risky enterprise” (p37).
Whereas a girl, on reaching a certain age, automatically becomes a woman; a boy must prove himself a man – “like an erection, manhood cannot be taken for granted” (p47).
Van Creveld is an historian not a biologist, so, unsurprisingly, he fails to identify any ultimate explanation for female privilege. The closest he comes is in suggesting that “the lesser efforts demanded of women may have something to do with the psychology of mating” and the fact that “to gain access to women [a man] has to perform and pay” (p62) – i.e. what biologists call 'sexual selection’.
Similarly, Van Creveld, in the book’s final paragraph, concludes, “nature having made us [men], as Nietsche put it, the 'unfruitful animal’, and forced us to compete for women, has turned us into the superfluous sex” (p287). This echoes both Warren Farrell’s description of men as “The Disposable Sex” and Robert Trivers' theory of differential parental investment (Trivers 1972).
Education Much is made of the lack of education afforded girls in pre-modern societies. Actually, this reflects the pragmatic consideration that women, being provided for by husbands, had no need of vocational training. Far from evidencing female oppression, it is an indirect reflection of female privilege.
In other respects, girls had greater educational opportunities. “Unless they came from well-to-do families, and often even then," Van Creveld reports, "most boys were pushed to take up paid work while in their early to mid-teens” (p56). Whereas “secondary education for girls was sometimes free… boys’ parents had to pay fees” (p56) and “as late as 1987, women received more financial support for attending college than… men” (p58-9).
Thus, “by 1900, girls in American high schools outnumbered boys three to two” (p56).
Meanwhile, “only the most Spartan schools… did not have a female equivalent” (p61), such as military and monastic institutions that “often resemble[d] prisons or concentration camps” (p50).
Workshy Women? Men function, Van Creveld explains, as “humanity’s beasts of burden” (p41); while “women represent the leisure class” (p105).
Whereas “most women settle into a life in which they are provided for and protected… most men step into one in which they provide and protect” (p64). “In the whole of nature,” he declares, “there is no arrangement that is more demanding and more altruistic” (p43).
As a result, “men’s lot in life is endless hard work whose fruits will be enjoyed largely by others” (p46). Should they fail in this endeavour, “only too often the first to desert them are their wives” (p64), such that they “lose both what they made and those to whom they gave it” (p46).
Throughout history and across the world, the hardest and most dangerous work remains the exclusive preserve of men (p96).
Thus, women were “all but absent from miners’ and loggers’ camps, construction sites and garbage dumps” as well as “offshore oil rigs [and] arctic weather stations” today (p208). Similarly, “the tradition… that women at sea [even slaves] should be given the most secluded and comfortable quarters available has continued for thousands of years” (p212).
Indeed, “throughout history, wherever immigrants are numerous or conditions are hard and life difficult [e.g. the American frontier], women tend to be few and far between” (p211).
Moreover, “the smaller the relative number of women, the more precious and exalted they became in the eyes of the men” (p209). Thus, “in California mining camps during the middle of the 19th century men would pay large sums just to watch a (fully dressed) woman walk around” (p208).
Men also do more work. A 1995 “United Nations survey in 13 different countries found that men spent almost twice as much of their total time working than women, 66 percent to 34 percent” (p98).
In the West, whereas “men normally stay in the labour force throughout their adult lives… two-thirds of [women] are constantly drifting in and out of employment” such that “over a lifetime career women… work 40 percent fewer hours” (p102-3).
Double-standards apply – “a man who does not work for a living will probably be called a playboy or a parasite, while such a woman will be called a socialite or a housewife” (p66).
Thus, “the biblical term eved, ‘slave’ has only a male form” (p70) and “when God drove the first human couple out of Eden, it was Adam and not Eve whom he punished by decreeing that 'by the sweat of thy brow shalt thou eat bread’” (p69).
Is Work Wonderful? “During most of history,” Van Creveld reports, “work tended to be seen as something unpleasant, hard and even dangerous” (p66) - as indeed it often was. Work was “a burden imposed on man as a punishment–one which, monks and protestants apart, most people tried to avoid” (p88-9).
The privileged were those exempt from work – the 'idle rich’ and 'leisure class’. The oppressed those who worked – slaves, serfs and the 'working-classes’. Yet women’s increased labour-force participation over the last half-century is strangely celebrated as 'liberation’.
Work is, almost by definition, something one does, not because one enjoys the activity of itself, but rather because of the recompense offered in compensation.
Most people work because they are forced to do so – whether literally (slaves) or by circumstance ('wage-slaves'). Mark Twain famously concluded: “Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and… Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do”.
Only with the rise of Protestantism did the curious notion emerge that work was somehow liberating. Yet, Van Creveld explains, what is forgotten is that originally “Protestantism glorified work precisely because it was unpleasant and therefore well suited to doing penance” (p69).
The 'Protestant Work Ethic’ is therefore analogous to religious practices such as fasting and self-flagellation.
Van Creveld deals with the notion that work is liberating with caustic cynicism – “The same claims were made by the 'Arbeit macht frei’ ['Work Sets You Free’] signs that stand at the entrance to Auschwitz” (p69).
'Too Weak to Work’? Yet, Van Creveld insists, expecting women to work is hopelessly utopian. Women are unsuited to work as a matter of basic biology.
Thus, “in China during the Great Leap Forward, the attempt to make women do agricultural work… led to mass starvation” (p77); in the USSR, making women work “led literally to the country’s collapse” (p104); and “over the seventy years communism lasted, its attempt to emancipate women by making them work on equal terms with men caused their very will to live and give life to be extinguished” (p93).
The link between increased female labour-force participation and declining fertility is plausible. However, Van Creveld exaggerates.
The claim that women are unsuited to work may have been tenable when work usually involved hard physical labour. However, in the post-industrial West, where most men work in offices not coal-mines, it is obsolete.
Van Creveld’s claims do, however, prove that feminists got one thing right: Men like Van Creveld do use an ideology of 'Biological Determinism’ and 'Male Supremacy’ to justify the Status Quo. However, Male Supremacism is used to justify, not women’s oppression, but rather imposing greater burdens on men, who, being superior, are perceived as able to bear them, while women, being weak, are, like children, protected and provided for.
On this view, being biologically inferior seems like quite a good deal!
The Redistribution of Wealth If women cannot work, how do they survive? The answer, Van Creveld explains, “is because they were fed, clothed, housed and looked after by men” and “a society in which this was not the case has yet to be discovered” (p106).
He identifies three institutions that facilitate this: 1) Marriage; 2) Charity; 3) Welfare.
Marriage “The family is,” for Van Creveld, “an economic institution” whose primary “purpose is to guarantee that… women will be provided for” (p107).
Thus, “the duty of husbands to provide for their wives according to their means is universal” (p110), and evidenced as far back as ancient Egypt (p109) and Greece (p111).
Thus, “a French royal decree of 1214 gave a wife the rights to half her husbands’ property” (p108); while “the husband’s duty to support his wife was… written into… Roman wedding charters” (p110). Accordingly, “before a man can marry he must work and pay and after joining hands in matrimony he must continue to work and pay” (p107).
Even if the marriage dissolves, the husband’s burden continues – “in ancient Egypt, divorce entailed heavy financial penalties for the husband, but none for the wife”; while “both Hindu and Muslim law oblige husbands to support their divorced wives” (p118). ____________
Van Creveld rationalizes these arrangements thus: “Compensating women for their lesser earning capacity has always been among the most important purposes of marriage” (p121).
However, in the post-industrial West, where heavy labour is rare, women can earn as much as men. Indeed, once potential earnings in the sex industry are considered, women’s 'earning capacity’ probably exceeds men’s.
Van Creveld has his causation backwards. Instead of divorce law compensating women for their lesser earnings, it is probable that women’s reduced earnings are themselves a rational response to current divorce law.
In short, why bother earning money when you have the easier option of marrying it? ____________
As a result, although men earn more than women, women spend more. Van Creveld reports that, as early as the Victorian era, advertisers had already begun to target “Consuming Angels” (p116).
Traditionally in France and Britain, “most of the earnings of working-class married men ended up in the hands of their wives [and] many surrendered their pay packet without even opening it, receiving back only what they needed to buy their daily ration of wine and tobacco” (p116).
Charity Charity also functions to redistribute wealth to women. Often, “the mere fact that a person is female may entitle her to benefits which, had she been male, she could have only gotten if she were sick or incapacitated” (p123).
Beneficiaries included widows, ex-prostitutes, orphans in need of dowries, spinsters, unmarried girls – in short, any female lacking a husband.
Conversely, men were eligible only if they were married and hence obliged to support a wife, such that the latter was an indirect beneficiary. Thus, “a poor man received assistance if he had a woman, while a poor woman received assistance if she did not have a man” (p128).
In New York in 1820, many relief organizations “specifically designed to assist women… [yet] no similar organizations for men”, while “even the largest 'co-ed’ charitable organization… aided 27 percent more women than men” (p129). Sixty years later, “the Charitable Organization Society… the largest of its kind in New York… assisted four times as many women as men” (Ibid.).
Similarly, today, many charities (e.g. shelters for so-called 'battered women’) serve only females (p130). Yet “whereas women are always entitled to share in any… charity provided to men, men are not permitted to share in many forms of charity provided to women… even if they are … divorced, deserted, widowed, and… have a brood of young children” (Ibid.)
Welfare Increasingly, the function of both charity and marriage is usurped by the state.
Thus, in the first attempt to create a ‘welfare state’ after the French Revolution, “women, particularly single mothers occupied an important place… on a par with wounded or disabled war veterans” (p126-7).
The first social benefits in the USA were “mothers’ pensions”, which, unlike other pensions, “neither required an investment of capital nor… contributions” – and “by 1935, all but two states had them” (p131).
Like modern child benefits, the “Aid to Dependent Children program” involved payments to mothers, not children – and, in all states but one, single fathers got nothing (p132).
Social Security also favoured women. Whereas “men only got benefits if they worked and contributed… married women received benefits irrespective of work”; and “a widow past retirement age would be entitled to receive benefits” whereas a widower past retirement age received nothing (p133).
On the death of their husbands, wives continued to receive the benefits their husbands had earnt – “having supported their wives during their entire lives, [men] were now expected to continue doing so after their deaths” (p134).
In other jurisdictions – Norway, Italy, France – “in all cases women started receiving benefits years, often decades before men did” (p134).
In the US, these inequalities were only remedied in 1975. Then the benefits in question were scaled back under Reagan. Thus, “as soon as women’s benefits were extended to men, those benefits came to be regarded as unnecessary” (p134).
This appears to be a universal pattern. Thus, to take an example not discussed by Van Creveld, in the UK for fifty years, women were eligible for a state pension at 60, whereas men had to be 65. This inequality is scheduled to be phased out only in 2020. By this time, neither sex will be eligible until they are 68. ____________
Van Creveld concludes: "On the face of it, a husband, a charitable institution and a modern welfare state are entirely different. In fact, though the details differ, the principle is the same. All are designed partly - and some would say primarily - to transfer resources from men… to women" (p137).
One thing has remained constant – namely, the burden imposed on men. Thus, in Sweden men paid 61.5% of tax revenue – although women had 50% greater taxable wealth, received more allowances and received a greater proportion of their income as state welfare (p135).
Yet, whereas charitable donations and marriage are voluntary, taxes are mandatory.
Thus, we have gone from the traditional family to what Warren Farrell calls “a new nuclear family: woman, government and child” or “Government as a Substitute Husband” (see The Myth of Male Power).
Unequal Before the Law Countless studies demonstrate that, in the criminal courts, female defendants are dealt with more leniently than men (e.g. Starr 2012). Likewise, the pro-female bias of the family courts is well-documented.
Van Creveld shows that this favouritism is no new thing. Under ancient Salic Law, a person could be fined thrice as much for assaulting or killing a woman as they would be for the equivalent offence directed against a man (p141). Meanwhile, “in Yemen the blood money demanded for the death of a woman was 11 times that demanded for a man” (p141) – just as today criminals who victimize females are sentenced more severely (Curry et al 2004; Curry 2010)
Meanwhile, “medieval German even had a special term, frauenfrevel, or ‘women’s trifle’ for reducing the penalty levied against women [which] amounted to 50 percent of the fines imposed on men” and “there existed a whole class of sanctions which, regarded as light, were known as 'women’s punishments’” (p148).
Similarly, to take an example not discussed by Van Creveld, in Britain, the whipping of women was abolished in 1820, but remained legal for males, even boys as young as seven for offences as minor as theft, until well into the twentieth century (see 'corporal punishment’ entry, 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica).
In common law jurisdictions (e.g. England, America), under the doctrine of coverture, husbands were punished for their wives’ transgressions (p142). In one case, “the jury was asked to consider whether a crippled and bedridden husband should be held responsible for a murder his wife committed in his presence” (p155).
Feminists protest 'sexual double-standards’. However, where adultery and premarital sex were unlawful, although the offence was defined by reference to the female partner’s marital status, the male partner was more severely punished. Thus, “in republican Rome, the law permitted a husband to kill his wife’s lover but not the woman herself” (p144).
Ditto for other sexual offences. Leviticus 20:17 prescribes that only the male party be punished for brother-sister incest, (p145), while, from the Bible onward, male homosexuality was severely punished, yet lesbianism ignored. The Nazis sent only gay men to concentration camps and, as recently as 1993, 22 US states prohibited gay male sex, but not one criminalized lesbianism (p146-7).
War The next chapter deals with warfare. This replicates much of the material in Van Creveld’s earlier work, Men, Women & War, which I have already reviewed. I will therefore say little about this chapter save to conclude that Van Creveld convincingly shows that, in wars throughout history, it is men who are conscripted and who represent the overwhelming majority of casualties, including civilian casualties. Meanwhile, women are, as Van Creveld puts it, “The Protected Sex”.
Lifespan Chapter Seven is titled “The Quality of Life”. However, the whole book has dealt with this topic. Much of Chapter 7 is concerned, not so much with quality of life, as its duration.
Biological factors have been invoked to explain women’s greater average longevity. However, Van Creveld disproves these theories. He demonstrates, in a deluge of data, that, throughout most of history, men actually outlived women. Only in the last few centuries has this pattern reversed.
This occurred first in northwest Europe. By 1990, only seven countries remained where men still outlived women and, by 2011, women outlived men “in every single one of the 194 countries surveyed” (p219).
Rejecting the counter-intuitive yet fashionable notion that women are somehow 'stronger’ than men, Van Creveld attributes men’s greater longevity under pre-modern conditions to “men’s greater robustness” and “the fact they did not have to bear children” (p205).
Women’s greater longevity today is attributed to technological advance. Yet “from the forceps to the condom to the pill, practically all these discoveries and inventions were made by men” (p207). Likewise, “the most important amenity men have provided for women is housing” since construction workers are overwhelmingly male (p211).
Additionally, “women’s longevity… reflected their privileged economic position – the fact that they were supported by men” (p217).
Today, if men still outlive women in a few of the poorest countries (e.g. Afghanistan), this is taken as incontrovertible proof of oppression.
However, “what is usually regarded as the 'normal’ sex ratio… is not really normal at all” but results from “men providing women with all the amenities of civilized life” (p211). To do so, “they had to engage in backbreaking labor and often they paid the price by dying a lonely death… [without even] a sign to mark their grave” (p211).
Mental Health Van Creveld’s penultimate chapter, discusses the treatment of mental illness.
Until recently, the treatment of the insane was draconian and the vast majority of inmates at mental institutions male. Today this pattern is reversed - women are more likely to be diagnosed with psychiatric conditions and their treatment is sympathetic.
Van Creveld is sceptical regarding the scientific status of psychiatry - “mental diseases are simply labels invented to fit patients’ complaints into whatever intellectual framework exists at a given time and place” (p251; see also The Myth of Mental Illness).
He traces to history of psychiatric diagnoses, from the nineteenth century epidemic of 'hysteria’, to the twenty-first century fashion for 'chronic fatigue syndrome’. He contrasts the sympathetic treatment accorded the ostensible victims (overwhelmingly female) of these dubious diagnoses of unknown aetiology with that accorded men suffering from 'shell shock’ ('post-traumatic shock disorder’) during WWI.
Why Women Whinge? This chapter also seeks to explain why, despite female privilege, women still complain. He concludes women are simply “The Complaining Sex” and proposes “feminism itself may be just a manifestation, writ large, of this particular predisposition” (p237).
As to why women whinge, he purports to paraphrase Nietzsche – “everything about women… is a complaint, and the complaint has one cause: namely the plain fact that a woman stands a much better chance of getting her way by complaining” (p274).
Whereas “the sole way men can attract attention is by succeeding… women can attract attention almost equally well by failure or by complaining” (p276). In contrast, “if they complain, [men] are much more likely to be met with indifference or contempt” (p278).
This then explains why women are more likely to attempt suicide as a 'cry for help’, whereas men are more likely to actually kill themselves without seeking treatment (Ibid.).
In short, the reason women whinge is because, on hearing them, male 'white knights’ are all too ready to ride heroically to their rescue.
Conclusion Van Creveld concludes the best cure for feminism is war – “war is an unfavourable breeding ground for feminism because, as long as it lasts, women desperately need men to defend them… [and] because… while men are away on campaign women do exactly as they please” (p281). Thus, “if the price of peace is… feminism… then perhaps it is a price worth paying” (p281).
This is intuitively plausible. When men are forced to fight, surely no woman could envy the male role.
However, the historical record does not support this theory. It was after WWI, when unprecedented numbers of men were conscripted and killed, that women were first enfranchised in both Britain and America. Meanwhile, in Britain, those men whose contribution to the war effort was comparable to that of women (i.e. conscientious objectors) were actually disenfranchised for a decade as punishment (A Question of Conscience: p70).
In the absence of war, Van Creveld proposes that feminists will increasingly eschew integration in favour of segregation and special privileges (p282-3). The alternative is that “feminism will collapse under the weight of its own contradictions” since “today, as in the past, men and women want each other and cannot live without each other” and women still seek demand a man act as breadwinner (p283).
Indeed, Van Creveld proposes, “much of feminism should be understood as an attempt by women who have failed to attract and keep a man to avenge themselves on their more fortunate sisters” (p284).
However, one thing is certain, women’s privileges will continue – “so it has always been, and so – unless the nature of people of both sexes changes suddenly and fundamentally – it will always be” (p279).
Neither, he suggests, “in our heart of hearts, would we like the situation to change” (p287).
In this, he is right. As he has amply demonstrated in preceding chapters, men are naturally chivalrous and protective of women.
As for why men feel this way, he ventures, “after all, it was women who gave us life. In a way, all we are doing is returning a debt” (p287).
This is unconvincing. If men do owe a debt, it is not to womankind as a whole, but rather to a specific woman, namely their mother. Moreover, fathers also play a vital role in the conception of offspring. Finally, the alleged pain of childbirth is hardly equal to the hardship men endure throughout entire lifetimes to protect and provide for their womenfolk.
In short, if, on balance, any debt exists, then, on the evidence of Van Creveld’s previous chapters, it is clear in what direction it is owing.
Van Creveld admits as much later in the same paragraph, when, in his final sentence, he suggests that all men really require in return for their sacrifices is an occasional ‘thank you’.
Curry 2010 The conditional effects of victim and offender ethnicity and victim gender on sentences for non-capital cases. Punishment & Society 12(4):438-462
Curry, Lee & Rodriguez (2004) 'Does Victim Gender Increase Sentence Severity? Further Explorations of Gender Dynamics and Sentencing Outcomes', Crime & Delinquency, 50(3):319-343.
George (2007) 'Skimmington Revisited' Journal of Men's Studies 10(2):111-127
Starr, (2012) Estimating Gender Disparities in Federal Criminal Cases (August 29, 2012). University of Michigan Law and Economics Research Paper, No.12-018
Trivers, R.L. (1972) Parental investment and sexual selection. In B. Campbell (Ed.), Sexual selection and the descent of man, 1871-1971 (pp. 136–179). Chicago, IL: Aldine