Hunter-gatherer cultures saw an arguably “more equal” distribution of labor, which in turn lead to less of a gap between the sexes. The dawn of civilization is what caused the downfall of equality roughly 5,000 years ago.
As discussed in the textbook “Envisioning Women in History,” the most important job for hunter-gatherer culture was food gathering, as it meant survival. Historians found cave paintings depicting this action and noted that woman were seen foraging alongside the men. Also, burial sites found in Scandinavia provide further evidence in the form of fish bones and fishing hooks that women took on hunting roles as well.
While the hunt for mammoths and bison is most likely to have been a male-dominated task, it makes sense that women would be charged with other forms of food gathering while they were on long expeditions. As food gathering was a very visible sign of work, it was easy to see who worked and who did not. Food was food, and whoever provided it garnered respect from the rest of the group.
Additionally, hunter-gatherer communities shared the role of childcare throughout their people. The mother who gave birth would have help from other women and men in their society when it came to caring for her newborn. Children were raised together making childcare another very visible and respected task.
The issue of devaluing “women’s work” stems from the creation of government in civilizations where caregiving became a private matter. Instead of a community taking care of children, it became a solo job for mothers as families became more distinct with the creation of jobs such as merchants and farmers. In doing so, the tasks women performed, such as weaving, preparing food and raising children, became less observed by the public and therefore valued less.
The evolution towards a systematic patriarchy began through lineage being traced only by male successors, further devaluing the importance of women. This coupled with the introduction of slavery leading to reproductive rights being the property of the father or husband made for a hard shift from shared work to separate work. This change is still echoing loudly in how our society sees women and men today.
When comparing the evolved lifestyle of civilizations to that of hunter-gatherers, it is clear to see how women were treated more equally before the dawn of civilization. By performing similar tasks, they received the same prestige as their male counterparts. This allowed for them to be “better off” than in later parts of history, including in the common era.