The Egalitarian Hunter-GathererWomen weren't always treated below men. Before agriculture, humans lived in groups of hunter-gatherers in a size somewhere around 20 individuals or about 10 to 12 adults. Everyone pulled their share in these tribes; everyone was equal when it came to being human. Sexual equality isn't an aberration nor is it something that we've come up with recently. It was the norm until humans made the switch from being hunter-gatherers to farmers. If you've ever had to hunt or live off the land, you'll find very quickly that if everyone is going to survive, everyone must do his or her share. And because the jobs are all necessary, they should be looked at as equal.
Tribes were part of a larger "clan," of sorts. Close relatives often left their tribe to form a new tribe or join another tribe. These relatives along with others from other tribes (maybe not related at all) formed the basis of a larger clan. In this way, there was more genetic diversity than in agrarian cultures that centered around hubs of certain individuals.
Not a CakewalkIt doesn't mean that being a hunter-gatherer was a cakewalk for women, though. Women still had to do things like childbirth and rearing, but the entire tribe was probably enlisted in the care of the children. What's more, when a kid could walk, he or she was expected to walk. When he or she could do something that would help the tribe, they were expected to do just that. The concept of coddling children started, oddly enough, in the Victorian Era, where poor kids were forced to do some pretty dangerous jobs like farming, coal mining, and shipyards. But, at the same time, the Victorian Era brings about some romanticism about childhood, where we get inklings of how kids need to be kids. So, hunter-gatherers did what they had to to keep everyone alive and continuing. This started changing when we went from hunter-gatherer societies to agrarian societies.
The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human RaceJared Diamond, author of Guns, Germs, and Steel states that switching from a hunter-gatherer society to an agrarian society was the worst mistake in the history of the human race. Quite honestly, I think he's right. Humans had been hunter-gatherers up until about 10,000 year ago when agriculture started to take hold. In about 1000 years, the switch had been made, with the exceptions of some holdouts like the Sami, tribes in Africa, and Native Americans.
Hunter-gatherer societies more or less disappeared due to land being defended by agrarian lords as farming took hold. Hunter-gatherers were forced to grab their own land and hold on or be forced into the more inhospitable areas. Only areas where there are few people do you see hunter-gathering. Even so, agriculture wasn't the godsend that people like to claim.
Going agrarian actually screwed up human nutrition and shortened lives. More diseases ran through humans than ever before. Famine, malnutrition and starvation were rampant because of monocultures, i.e. growing one particular crop for food. Humans started guarding their turf to keep the best lands to grow crops. Women became baby machines because there was need for labor. And while more people could be sustained by the land, most barely survived and human lifespans plummeted.
Agriculture was good for a handful of people, and crappy for the rest. Humans looked at their domesticated livestock and started thinking that because goats, sheep, and cattle have one male that breeds with many that is how life should be. However, this is an artificially imposed structure on livestock.
Who is Really in Charge in Nature?As a hunter and a rancher (albeit with a small ranch), I deal a lot with animals. In nature, the ones in charge of the herds are the does, not the bucks. Bucks are only around for one thing and one thing only: create little deer. They lead very short and stressful lives and do not hang out with the herd much.
Pronghorn antelope are set up similarly but when their rut occurs, the females look for their own suitors and decide which buck antelope they want to breed with. When looking at wolves, the pack has an alpha male and female -- and you can bet it's the female who determines who is the alpha male.
In goat herds, there are alpha does. With horses, you bet the mares are in charge, even though they can get all girly with the stallions.
What Can We Take Away with This?As a heathen, I must point out that many older religions come from our hunter-gatherer roots. Even those that agrarians have continued with show equality when the land was particularly harsh (such as the Norse lands). Everyone still had to pull their share; survival depended on everyone. Not until we had agrarian cultures coming from more temperate climes did we have the reduction of equality. Think of the religions and cultures that treated women as chattel and I can bet they were coming from temperate places where it was relatively easy to hoard resources.
While I am not suggesting we should go back to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle (but it IS somewhat appealing), I'm suggesting that maybe we look at the hows and whys humanity got to gender inequality and how we can fix it.