This is Part 2 in a series. To read Part 1 click here.

In this second installment, I examine the historical roots of women’s subordinate status around the world, but I must begin with a brief discussion of levels of causation.

In psychotherapy we attempt to explain behavior by identifying the reasons it occurs. The search for causation is the same whether our theoretical system is expressive, experiential or existential. Many events have multiple causes, some whose influence is distant and general, others with closer effect, and one or more that are the immediate source. These levels are the ultimate, intermediate and proximate causes. Intermediate causes, themselves, can be distant or near to the observed effect.

For example: you’re holding an egg, a loud noise startles you, you drop it and the egg fragments on the floor. What causes this event? The proximate cause is your loosened grip that allowed the egg to start its downward journey. A near intermediate cause is the loud noise. A distant intermediate cause is the human nervous system startle reflex, hard-wired into our bodies. The ultimate cause is gravity. If any one of these factors was absent, the egg would still be in your hand. You might describe the event as, “I dropped an egg”; in other words, by its proximate cause alone, but the observed result requires all four causes. Without the ultimate cause, gravity, the egg would remain intact.

Ultimate causes, even powerful ones, exist in the background and seemingly at a distance from the event. Their influence is often unrecognized or ignored, and sometimes even denied. We typically concentrate on proximate and near intermediate causes to explain why things happen and assign to them all the credit or blame. If we asked the women on the TV panel (the example given in Part 1 of this article) about their choices of clothing, make-up and jewelry, they might explain them in terms of current fashion (an intermediate cause) rather than how those choices emphasize their property value and contradict their professional reputations. Women’s property status is an ultimate cause. Although its cultural impact may not be apparent, it has a persistent adverse effect on the lives of women.

The origin of women as a form of property can be traced to the earliest moments in the record of our species when small groups of Homo sapiens roamed in unrestricted territory. As their populations increased, tribes began to encroach on one another’s land and the first wars began. Archeological evidence suggests this change occurred “only” 30 to 50 thousand years ago, a split second of geological time, and too recent for any meaningful evolutionary change in our species. We are biologically and, in many ways, culturally the same people now as were those ancient tribes. When those prehistoric clans fought over territory, the winners killed the men and took the women as the rewards of victory. One benefit of these acquisitions (an intermediate cause) was to enhance the tribe’s genetic diversity and reduce inbreeding, but from the female standpoint these looted women were simply chattel. They had no power or freedom of choice. Often, they were used as slaves.

Today we see the same male behavior in modern wars. The Imperial Japanese used Korean “comfort women” to service their soldiers. Nigerian militants seized hundreds of young women from a Chibok school to distribute as sex slaves and wives to their soldiers. The ISIS caliphate slaughtered Yazidi men but kept the Yazidi women for the same sexual purposes. The leaders of these contemporary tribes acted exactly like our primitive forbears when they distributed the spoils of war to their modern warriors. In the United States, women who serve in the army may still be treated as property. Sexual predation toward female soldiers constitutes a major problem not only among the active duty forces, but also within the academies training future officers.

As a corollary, consider the inclination women have to attach themselves to strong, powerful, wealthy men. This behavior also arose in the earliest days of our species, when our ancestors lived in a hostile, dangerous environment, food was not always available, and children could be killed by fellow tribe members, especially other females. In this setting, high status tribal males offered protection from imminent dangers, the promise of sufficient food to survive, and security for the offspring. Today, a Harvey Weinstein or a Steve Wynn or a Bill Clinton — or any powerful, predatory man who offers financial benefits and career enhancements in return for sexual compliance — can treat women as chattel because his power and money stir those ancient fears and appeal to the same primal needs in his female prey.

As societies became more organized, the blatant acquisition of women as the spoils of war receded. Female status was determined by contractual arrangements (marriage) that sought to enhance social stability and prevent aggressive threats from disturbing the social order. A public ritual acknowledged and witnessed this legal relationship (the wedding) and established that the woman belonged to only one man. The core principle of marriage, in other words, was to convey title to a property and the wedding was the public recognition of this transfer. In some cultures, men used their affluence and high social status to acquire multiple wives. Sometimes they displayed this wealth openly and in other societies concealed it behind harem walls. Today, as men gain wealth and power they may use an attractive woman as “arm candy” or discard the original wife for a new, younger model, the “trophy wife,” as another sign of their enhanced social status.

The marriage contract included a “bride price,” money or goods the groom’s family paid to the bride’s family. The more valuable the bride-property, the larger the payment. The bride price or its equivalent was often put on public exhibition and, to demonstrate her property value, the bride herself might be showcased in special clothing and costly jewelry. (As an intermediate cause, the bride price was also a way of protecting the supposedly more vulnerable woman, since a husband who had paid a significant sum for his new property would presumably take better care of it.) The bride price persists today, even if not openly acknowledged. In Western societies, for example, rather than a crass exchange of money, a man proposes marriage with an engagement ring, usually the largest diamond he can afford. In contract law, this down payment might be termed “earnest money.” If the engagement later falls through, this bride price will normally be returned. Kay Jewelers (unintentionally) perpetuates this connection between jewelry and female procurement with their slogan, “Every Kiss Begins with Kay.” Translation: a diamond will buy a woman, or at least her affection.

A related monetary exchange was the dowry, the capital the bride brought into the marriage as a help to establish the new household, especially when women were barred from earning money or owning any assets themselves. The larger the dowry, the more valuable was the woman. The dowry is like a corporate acquisition in which the buyer receives both stock (the property itself) and a cash payment to close the deal. (Last year, a husband in India sold his wife’s kidney without her consent because he was dissatisfied with the amount of her dowry.)

These financial arrangements are sometimes indirect: instead of an obvious cash offer, for example, the woman’s family will pay for the wedding. The more costly the production, the more enhanced is the woman’s property status. A popular TV show exploits our interest in these transactions as the bride’s family and friends gather to select an extravagant gown. Her property status is concealed by giving her the choice, “saying yes to the dress,” and ignores her need for this physical sign of her worth. The thousands of dollars paid for the bridal gown helps establish her property value.

In English Common Law the doctrine of coverture decreed that a woman was legally considered her husband’s chattel. Her property became his and she was prohibited from signing contracts or taking part in a business. The wedding itself is designed to acknowledge the transfer of property. In one traditional marriage ceremony, for example, the bride’s father “gives her away,” conveying his title to the new owner. Nobody has to give away the groom; he’s not a property. After the ceremony the bride who takes her husband’s name confirms her new property status. She then wears a second ring (the wedding band) that, like a real estate “sold” sign, signals she is now off the market. These various rituals and traditions of modern weddings might be considered only quaint vestiges of earlier and now-discarded markers of female status were it not for the current evidence of women’s property status.

Even protected by marriage, however, the wife can still be viewed as chattel. The preponderance of domestic violence is directed at women. An abusive man might kick his own dog although he would never attack his neighbor’s pet. The same abuser would beat his own wife but never touch another man’s. In earlier times, when divorce was forbidden because of religious prohibitions, the husband could cash in by selling his wife. In 19th Century England, for example, the husband could auction off his wife to the highest bidder. The plot of Thomas Hardy’s 1886 novel, The Mayor of Casterbridge, is set in motion by such an auction. The practice of wife-selling can be found in the histories of many countries and even, rarely, exists today. Children are also often considered property. Proud parents express this idea when they refer to their children as “our most valuable possessions.” These precious assets can be converted into cash, as when some desperate and impoverished parents sell their female children to sex traffickers and pedophile rings. Although boys and girls are both considered property, many cultures believe that female children are less valuable. In China, the “one-childrule designed to control overpopulation (the proximate cause of the policy) resulted in an excess of boys, as families chose abortion, and even infanticide, to select male fetuses and eliminate unwanted females. In some countries, a wife who fails to produce a male child may be abandoned, returned to her family in disgrace, or worse. The popular story of the English king, Henry VIII, illustrates this idea. Girls’ devalued property status carries over into cultural attitudes toward adult women.

Women may be required to shield themselves entirely from public view or to conceal female attributes, such as their hair, under opaque apparel. The message behind these practices is that a display of property value will entice other males to covet and appropriate them. As mere property, wives cannot be trusted. To carry this concept to its extreme, women in some cultures may be mutilated or killed to protect the family. These “honor killings” are never directed against male family members; only women can end up as damaged property (through their own “non-property” behavior). They must be destroyed, like a bad family dog that is euthanized because it bites.

Extreme examples of female property status reveal the extent of this problem.

  • Young women undergo female genital mutilation (FGM) as a cultural ritual to ensure chastity, the proximate cause. Chastity, itself, is a property issue, an effort to protect the man’s exclusive ownership. (So is virginity: a sign that the property is new and unused. The woman loses value after a single sexual encounter the way a new car turns into a used car when the buyer drives it off the dealer’s lot, even with scarcely one mile added to the odometer.) FGM degrades women to the status of domestic animals, like pet cats spayed to prevent unwanted pregnancies or stallions castrated to create more manageable geldings. From a property standpoint, FGM can be considered “preventive maintenance.”
  • In sexual trafficking, millions of women are captured through deceit or force and then kept as concubines or slaves or rented out — prostituted — as a profitable business property. Prostitution and pornography are highly lucrative business enterprises that rely on female “products” as their stock-in-trade.
  • The crime of rape goes largely unreported, in part because of the same social stigma of “damaged property.” In property status terms, rape is comparable to carjacking or armed robbery, an exercise of power by a perpetrator who wants something he can’t otherwise have, with more serious and devastating consequences.
  • Finally, serial killers use women as objects (stolen property) to satisfy their sadistic sexual fantasies. Although rare, their crimes are sensationalized in news and fiction, and therefore gain a more important influence on cultural attitudes than they might otherwise have.

But it doesn’t require these extreme examples to recognize the demeaning and dangerous qualities of property status in today’s “enlightened” society. Anjali Dayal, an international relations professor at Fordham University, in a recent piece, describes the daily struggle that property status invites:

The structure of everyday violence against women is reflected in the battlements we build to protect ourselves: the little accommodations, the things you do reflexively to keep yourself from being hurt while you walk around, all the subtle ways you protect yourself from being alone with some men in offices and other men in cars and all unknown men in large empty buildings; some of the men you know; the strange men you don’t know; every single dark stairwell… the voice shouting at you in a meeting, because how dare you speak; the constant knowledge that your time is weighed cheaply and your work will always be discounted, so you will have to do twice as much of it; every taxi you’ve ever taken instead of walking through the park; every time you’ve ignored the lewd comment from a man on the street or at a bar or at a party, because who knows what he’ll do if you lash out… a thousand transgressions so small and so regular that you never name them to anyone, even while you decry structural inequality, even when you work to advance a feminist agenda, because that’s just the way life is.

The next installment of this article will discuss the contemporary consequences of women’s property status.

Click here to read Part 3 in this series.