catalyst: n. a substance that speeds up a chemical reaction catalyze: v.t. to change by catalysis
To understand why women are the key to social stability and a host of other positive changes, including an end to war, we need to understand some things about human evolution and biology. We need to appreciate the ways natural selection adapted women to be successful reproductively, and why it also adapted men to have some very different social proclivities. In other words, we need to understand what kind of animal we are.
Two previous essays explain how and why those differences came to be: “Empower Women” and “Biological Differences Between Men and Women with Respect to Aggression and Social Stability.” Reading at least one of them would be helpful background for what follows.
In War and Sex and Human Destiny (Hand 2018, p. 45) important human male/female differences were summarized this way: “Some evolved behavioral sexual differences between men and women, in most stripped-down essence, reflect natural selection resulting in men keenly interested in securing social dominance and/or maintaining their social status, and selection resulting in women keenly interested in securing and maintaining socially stable and nurturing communities.”
These differences—cases of behavioral sexual dimorphism—are generalities, to be applied to men in general and women in general, not to individuals. But they are very real. They explain why most cultures recognize a yin and yang, a sun and moon, a “vive la difference.” They have profound impact on broad patterns of our social lives, many of which we don’t consciously recognize.
They explain why groups of women may make different choices and have different goals compared to groups of men. In particular, the preference for social stability within a nurturing community that is much more characteristic of women than men is a difference that underlies many social choices women make that can be the catalyst for changing, positively, the course of human history.
Men, dominance hierarchies, and using power
Men, like many other male primates, are instinctively motivated by a drive for status or dominance. Although strongly inclined to “be their own boss,” in social groups of more than a few men, their nature is to operate within dominance hierarchies where leadership is exercised from the top down. And if they find themselves following a leader who wants war, the result is unfortunately likely to be war. As a group compared to men, women are extremely reluctant to engage in war. (Goldstein 2001; Hand 2003, 2014, 2018; Potts & Hayden 2010).
With the exception of rare egalitarian cultures where customs, laws, and even punishment are used to prevent it, the human male social world is saturated with behaviors driven by status seeking. Men jostle with each other daily, if not hourly, to gain as much status as they can and to avoid losing the status they have. They are not opposed to shaking up or even overturning the social order to improve their status. In dominator cultures, changing the social order is what much of male social lives is all about, and sometimes this is expressed in physical fighting. When men achieve top status in any social dominance hierarchy they are empowered to influence that group in ways that reflect men’s fundamental proclivities.
Women, dominance hierarchies, and using power
For both men and women, high social dominance can translate into social power. That men, in general, are very focused on social status and its relationship to power over others doesn’t mean that women are not. It’s not that women don’t have dominance hierarchies or don’t understand or don’t sometimes seek power. They do. Evolutionary reproductive pressures on women did not result in women being by nature pacifists or saints or unconcerned with their status within their group.
Like men, as members of a hierarchically inclined species, women engage in power struggles. But they typically establish and maintain their social status using nonviolent forms of aggression (e.g., bad-mouthing a rival, excluding someone from their clique, resorting to witchcraft). They can use violence. For example, a wife might get into a physical fight with one of her husband’s other wives over who should be the one to decide household affairs, or gang up on and beat a girl their clique wants to “put down.” But compared to men, women rarely do such physical things purely to establish their dominance.
Moreover, rather than engage in confrontation, disorder, upheaval, or conquest to resolve serious social conflicts, women much prefer compromise, mediation, negotiation, and other forms of win/win resolution. (Blum 1997, Fisher 1999, McDermott & Cowden 2001, Hudson et al. 2012, Hand 2018) This doesn’t necessarily result in establishing power or dominance over the opponent; it results in a working social stability likely to be sustained over time. Also, in general compared to men, after women find their dominance position within their social group they are more inclined to live with it rather than create turmoil to gain status or power.
In an ultimate sense, social status and power to influence others are equally important for women because of their need to acquire resources for their children. But if given power, women tend to use it somewhat differently. For example, women, in general, are much more highly motivated to use power to influence community decisions to put in place conditions that foster favorable conditions in which to raise children…not an environment in disarray that might endanger children.
In political terms, they are much more focused then men on “women’s issues.” Their priorities will reflect that nurturing preference in using a community’s human and financial resources when considering how to direct taxes, or what groups should be given special aid, or whose vision would best qualify someone to be a community leader.
The resulting significance of these broad gender-based psychological and behavioral differences is that the empowerment of women as co-equal decision-makers with men is not only one of several necessary conditions for creating and maintaining a warless future, it is why empowered women are the catalyst for many other positive changes as well. The more they are empowered, and the more of them that are empowered, the greater and faster changes will take place for the better.
Some examples: women and social progress
Many real-world examples illustrate what women’s influence might do and has done to improve living conditions for individuals and communities.
Consider poverty. The non-profit Heifer International gives income-producing livestock, like a cow or a hive of honeybees, to people in poverty. When the animals produce offspring, the recipient must pass this same gift to a neighbor. HI was among the first to confess openly that best results were achieved when they gave to a woman. She was more likely to use the gift in a way that benefitted her family, but also her community. Finding that men resented stress on “giving to women” and felt “left out,” the project subsequently played down gender preference, shifting to encouraging women and men to share in deciding how to manage the resource. Sharing, it seems, gets the best results.
Muhammad Yunus, winner of the Nobel Economics Prize for giving micro-loans to poor people, also discovered that women were more likely to successfully create businesses. Perhaps not surprisingly, too often men tended to spend on things that immediately increased their social status: like frequently paying for a round of drinks or buying a car. Women, in general, were also better at repaying loans. (Esty 2014)
In their book, Half the Sky, Nicholas Kristoff and Sheryl WuDunn tell stories from across the world that unequivocally demonstrate that if a woman is given education or financial means, it regularly leads not only to pulling her family out of poverty, but also to spreading resources to her community’s benefit. (Kristoff & WuDunn 2009)
Another reality with wide applicability is the effect of educating girls. Boys often leave their community, frequently to find work. If there is war, they’re commonly pressed into military service and may die, never to return. Girls are more likely to stay (at least until they marry), and they go home from school and educate their mothers. Over time the mothers grow reluctant for their sons to be dragooned into being soldiers. They begin to see other positive prospects for both girl and boy children. The educated women begin to lift the entire community. The education of girls has charmingly been called the “girl effect.” An Internet search will reveal a number of groups that have adopted this cause.
In the late twentieth century, books began highlighting positive effects of women as leaders—in government, business, and communities. (e.g., Fisher 1999, 2005; Freeman 1995; Wilson 2004, 2007; Myers, 2009; Kristoff & WuDunn 2009; Potts & Hayden 2010; Hudson et al., 2012; Sandberg 2013; Ngunjiri & Madsen 2015).
Cross-cultural research has been done to compare different kinds of societies on things like internal and external rates of violence, peace building, governmental corruption, and giving public goods. For example, one study compared social giving in “matriarchal” vs. patriarchal cultures in India and found, somewhat surprisingly, that men contributed more to public goods in the matriarchal societies than in patriarchal ones. (Andersen et al. 2008) One possible explanation might be that the men anticipate or trust that their contribution will be put to best use.
In another study sponsored by the World Bank, analysts found that governments with more women in power had less corruption (Dollar, Fisman, & Gatti 1999)
Other works examined the level of female empowerment, judged by things like levels of women’s education and numbers of women in leading positions in government and business. (e.g., Caprioli 2005) They all document positive effects when women’s preferences are influential in shaping social priorities and choices.
Primed to create nurturing communities for children, women have also profoundly influenced environmental and conservation issues. This is despite operating inside patriarchies that were busily exploiting the environment for personal profit. (Pierrat 2015) Rachel Carson, a biologist, wrote Silent Spring, a book that alerted the world to the environmental effects of pesticides. (Carson 1962) Wangari Maathai was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for taking up the cause of deforestation, resulting in the planting of 51 million trees by a movement that has outlived her.
I think what the Nobel committee is doing is going beyond war and looking at what humanity can do to prevent war. Sustainable management of our natural resources will promote peace. Wangari Maathai
The primatologist Jane Goodall has made it her life’s work to protect endangered species and endangered habitat. Marine biologist Sylvia Earle, activist for gender equality, brings focus to preserving oceanic diversity. Julia Butterfly Hill lived for 738 days high up in an old-growth redwood tree to save it from being cut down, a high profile resistance that raised awareness of the need for sustainable forest management. Search the Internet for Laurie David, Peggy Shepard, Lois Gibbs, Frances Beinecke, Winona LaDuke, Vandana Shiva, Mei Ng, and Marina Silva. These and legions of other women labor in efforts to create healthy and environmentally sustainable communities.
A quote from former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, a man broadly familiar with human societies and who was addressing economic growth, business performance, peace agreements, and social issue legislation, provides a succinct summation: “equality for women means progress for all.” (Ban Ki-Moon 2014)
The exact percentage of independent women required to reach a critical mass that tips the balance in decision-making bodies in favor of nonviolence and other “women’s issues” is unknown. Some research suggests that a shift in the “chemistry” of organizations with respect to many issues (e.g., health, family, community, justice, competition vs. cooperation) occurs when women make up rough 27% - 35%, depending on circumstances.
What does not and will not work is token female representation—placing a few women here and there in responsible positions. With respect to war, this absolutely will not tip the balance against the majority of men who are more easily drawn into physical struggles for domination. (See “Promote Nonviolent Conflict Resolution”)
Independence for women in the context of governing and leadership means that a women has a power base that is her own, not dependent on someone else, such as a husband. To be independent, women likely have control of their own financial assets, and in politics they have a political base that supports them personally. When an Afghan woman was asked if she was excited about the new constitution that required that 25% of the governing members should be women she said, “It depends on who the women are. If they are merely a spokesperson for their husband, nothing will change.” When independent women occupy roughly half of the seats of power in legislative bodies, there is a markedly different outcome. In making decisions about war and peace—whether to fight or to compromise, to contain or to conquer—men’s innate urges for physically aggressive confrontation will be tempered. If such a parity legislature is entrusted to make decisions about what kinds of social and environmental projects we want to invest in, the face of society will change, and we will take much more seriously the nurturing and protection of our children and of Mother Earth.
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