or Four Legs Good, Two Legs Bad
What does biology have to do with the History of Art? If women had had full control over their bodies, history would be quite different. Art-world equality between the genders could have happened far back in time, rather than us still waiting for it. And the Gorilla Girls, the activist art group that points out the disparity between men and women in the art world, would never have been necessary.
What does biology have to do with sexism? Major developments in human biological evolution made sexism an almost inevitable (though NOT moral) consequence due to bipedalism (walking on two legs), enlarged brains, and hidden ovulation. Humans are the only extant bipedal primate species, that is, we are the only primates currently living who walk on two legs. When we evolved from our quadrupedal (four-legged) ancestors, natural selection pressures worked against women because for a bipedal gait, smaller hip widths give a more efficient locomotion (unlike in four-legged animals where hip width is much less relevant).
Narrow hip widths are fine for males, but females still have to pass the fetus through the birth canal, and as human brains enlarged through evolution, so did skulls. These enlarged skulls and narrowed hips cause childbirth to be far more difficult and far more deadly for humans than for any other primate. Prior to modern medicine, women were often injured or killed, eliminating them from fully contributing during their adult lives (to say nothing of breast feeding children for years before the advent of baby formula). For females, as the pigs of Animal Farm say, “Four legs good, two legs bad.”
This trend towards narrower hips also led to earlier births and more altricial (opposite of precocious) babies that had to be carried by the mother rather than clinging to her or riding on her back as the young of other primates do. For humans, the years it takes to reach full independence from the mother are double or triple what it takes for chimps, our closest living relatives. The time and energy that might have gone toward other activities instead had to be devoted to keeping the young alive.
Another difference between humans and other primates that makes our history less egalitarian is hidden ovulation. Ovulation is the time when egg/s are released from the ovaries and the female can conceive. In all other primates (and all other mammals), the female is sexually attractive and receptive only during times close to ovulation, when they are likely to conceive. For example, in chimps, the female’s backside swells huge and red as a signal she is ovulating, ready for sex, and likely to conceive. To humans, these enlarged, red protuberances are not attractive, but they drive male chimps to distraction. In humans, there are no overt signs of ovulation. Human females remain basically equally sexually attractive to males throughout their reproductive cycle.
This means that instead of dealing with male attention only during times likely to conceive, human females are considered sexual beings to men throughout their lives. Although they cannot conceive again during the nine months of gestation (pregnancy) and the three to four years of lactation (nursing) between births (before the agricultural revolution), women are still targets of male sexual attention and, therefore, likely to be marginalized by threats of sexual violence.
Even the woman is unaware of the time of ovulation, thus these days the need for ovulation kits and temperature monitoring for women hoping to conceive on a particular cycle. Prior to the invention of good birth control, women could not easily choose to NOT conceive unless they forewent mating altogether during their reproductive years. This was not and still is not always under the woman’s control in many cultures.
Throughout history there have been occasional women who have participate more fully in culture, more like men, but they have been the exception, not the majority. If women had not been of sexually interest to men during most of their adult lives, men would not have had the same urge to possess and control them. Also, women could have controlled whether they had children or not, giving them the freedom to participate in culture rather than being kept on the side-lines. And we would celebrate women’s achievements solely on the basis of merit, not because they are women.
As Sally Ride, the first female astronaut on the space shuttle said in 1983, “It’s too bad that society isn’t to the point yet where the country could just send up a woman astronaut and nobody would think twice about it.” Thirty-four years later we are getting closer in some ways, but slipping backward in others.