Sex, Time and Power ›     Art & Physics ›
While McLuhan, Logan, and others have explored many of the effects that alphabetic literacy has had upon Western history, I wish to narrow the focus to a single question: how did the invention of the alphabet affect the balance of power between men and women?

The proposition that the alphabet has hindered women's aspirations and accomplishments seems, at first glance, to be antithetical to historical facts. Western society, based on the rule of law and constitutional government, has increasingly affirmed the dignity of the individual, and in the last few centuries Western women have won rights and privileges not available in many other cultures. Most people believe that the benefits that have accrued to women are due primarily to a high level of education among the populace. But a study of the origins of writing in less complex times thousands of years ago reveals how writing, first, and then the alphabet, altered the balance of power to women's detriment.

Anthropological studies of non-literate agricultural societies show that, for the majority, relations between men and women have been more egalitarian than in more developed societies. Researchers have never proven beyond dispute that there were ever societies in which women had power and influence greater than or even equal to that of men. Yet, a diverse variety of preliterate agrarian cultures-the Iroquois and the Hopi in North America, the inhabitants of Polynesia, the African !Kung, and numerous others around the world-had and continue to have considerable harmony between the sexes.

Anthropologist Claude LÈvi-Strauss was one of the very few scholars to challenge literacy's worth.

There is one fact that can be established: the only phenomenon which, always and in all parts of the world, seems to be linked with the appearance of writing . . . is the establishment of hierarchical societies, consisting of masters and slaves, and where one part of the population is made to work for the other part.

Literacy has promoted the subjugation of women by men throughout all but the very recent history of the West. Misogyny and patriarchy rise and fall with the fortunes of the alphabetic written word.

The key to my thesis lies in the unique way the human nervous system developed, which in turn allowed alphabets to profoundly affect gender relations. The introductory chapters will explore why and how we evolved in the manner we did. In later chapters, I will reinterpret a number of myths and historical events, making correlations based on circumstantial evidence. Correlation, however, does not prove causality-the disappearance of the stars at dawn does not cause the sun to rise. As we examine various sets of facts, I will appeal, therefore, to the court of what archaeologists call competitive plausibility, and I will ask the reader to consider with me which of the hypothetical explanations of historical events is the most plausible.

Although each of us is born with a unique set of genetic instructions, we enter the world as a work-in-progress and await the deft hand of the ambient culture to sculpt the finishing touches. Among the two most important influences on a child are the emotional constellation of his or her immediate family and the configuration of his or her culture. Trailing a close third is the principal medium with which the child learns to perceive and integrate his or her culture's information. This medium will play a role in determining which neuronal pathways of the child's developing brain will be reinforced.
« previous page Chapter 1: Image / Word

page 2
next page »