Friday Feminist – Elaine Morgan

Cross posted

According to the Book of Genesis, God first created man. Woman was not only an afterthought, but an amenity. For close on two thousand years this holy scripture was believed to justify her subordination and explain her inferiority; for even as a copy she was not a very good copy. There were differences. She was not one of His best efforts.

There is a line in an old folk song that runs: ‘I called my donkey a horse gone wonky.’ Throughout most of the literature dealing with the differences between the sexes there runs a subtle underlying assumption that woman is a man gone wonky; that woman is a distorted version of the original blueprint; that they are the norm and we are the deviation.

It might have been expected that when Darwin came along and wrote an entirely different account of the Descent of Man, this assumption would have been eradicated, for Darwin didn’t believe she was an afterthought: he believed her origin was at least contemporaneous with man’s. It should have led to some kind of breakthrough in the relationship between the sexes. But it didn’t.

Almost at once men set about the congenial and fascinating task of working out an entirely new set of reasons why woman was manifestly inferior and irreversibly subordinate, and they have been happily engaged on this ever since. Instead of theology they use biology, and ethology, and primatology, but they use it to reach the same conclusions.

Elaine Morgan, The Descent of Woman, 1972


4 responses to “Friday Feminist – Elaine Morgan

  1. ‘The Descent of Woman’ has been on my bookshelf since the mid 70’s, and just makes so much sense. These days it has to be read and handled very gently – a not very well-bound paperback.
    The book was a revelation to me — not so much in relation to my own strongly matriarchal background, but in understanding some of the stresses and strains imposed on friends, as we were all in our early child-bearing and -rearing years.
    And it is a “scientific fact” – based on an admittedly small ‘test’ population, that the men who have confident, capable, supportive mates, are themselves more relaxed, happier people better able to ride out the bumps of life. Funny that………… And we haven’t even got to the benefits for the children of such families.

    Gae, in Callala Bay

  2. This brings back memories. It was seeing this title in the bookshelves of a new acquaintance in 1973 that sparked my interest in him. I’m still finding out about his feminist beliefs 37 years later – and we’ve been married for most of those years…

  3. I fell a little churlish even saying this but…

    Much as like the quoted passage, Morgan’s ideas about human evolution are very odd. I know they were written partly in response to people like Desmond Morris, but I think ultimately she makes the same mistakes as he did – trying to construct a grand narrative that explainaeverything about our species by emphasizing bits and pieces of data that suit the story and disregarding the rest. Perhaps that’s the point, a pastiche of androcentric narratives, but it’s not clear from here books if that’s what she was up to.

  4. I loved her books, ‘though I don’t buy into the aquatic ape theory. Even so, it does seem to me that she gave the anthropology world quite a shake-up, and made them think hard about evolution of the species, rather than just the evolution of man. A one-woman ginger group.