Barefoot, Pregnant and Ready to Fight

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Instinct," in its human applications, can be a fighting word. Prefaced with "maternal," it's often deployed as a warm-up for the old "barefoot and pregnant" prescription for feminine fulfillment. In fact, if motherhood is a mindlessly instinct-driven occupation, why bother with feet at all? In their zeal to reduce women to reproductive devices, the ancient Chinese eliminated the female foot, at least as a means of locomotion. More recently, in 1981, a male biologist implied in the esteemed journal Science that human females evolved to stand upright long after males did because what did females have to do anyway, except root around in the cave with the babies?

To a celebrator of the alleged maternal instinct, "modern woman"--with her contraception, abortion rights, career and nanny--can only be a pitiful freak. Mid-20th century Freudians urged women to put aside ambition and masochistically (their word) submit to the maternal instinct. In the 19th century, gynecologists warned that any use of the female intellect--from novel reading to higher education--could foreclose motherhood by causing the uterus to, quite literally, wither away. Happiness was a full womb and a vacant mind.

In the past, feminists have responded to this kind of talk by arguing that women have no biologically scripted inner nature to violate. Hey, girls just wanna have fun! But the truth, according to anthropologist Sarah Hrdy, is that women are biologically hard-wired for motherhood, only not in the ways men imagine. We are primates, after all, not spiders or guppies, and this means we are not scripted for indiscriminate reproduction but for well-spaced offspring, each requiring lengthy care.

Hence the elaborate symphony of hormonal responses that prompts us to fall in love with our drool-faced, incontinent offspring. Hence too the many cunning and often unladylike features of primate motherhood: the sexual promiscuity that, in some species, may help ensure the acquisition of top-grade sperm; the scheming for status, since primate babies, including human ones, often inherit mom's social position; the use of alternative caretakers when mom is tired or busy.

In the "natural" human condition--the Paleolithic lifestyle that prevailed for at least 90% of our existence--women probably spaced their births up to four years apart through prolonged lactation. As in surviving hunting-gathering societies like the !Kung, infrequent births mean that each baby can be cherished and, of course, fed. It is this script--not some commandment to multiply nonstop--that has been violated by human societies for the past few thousand years. By the time of the ancient Mediterranean civilizations, women were already having far more babies than they could care for--as evidenced by the widespread practice of infanticide and abandonment.

What makes a primate species start breeding more like bunnies than bonobos? Hrdy points to that great watershed of prehistory, the dawn of the Neolithic era, with the invention of agriculture, about 10,000 years ago. For one thing, the changing diet allowed girls to fatten up for puberty earlier and wean their babies faster, thus bearing more babies per lifetime. Men began to define land and animals as property and sources of prestige, it would seem, and women as chattel to be fought over.

With the "domestication" of women, and their consignment to frequent childbearing, patriarchy was born. The cultural pattern found in so many tribal horticultural societies--including warfare, male domination and polygyny--began to take hold worldwide. By the dawn of "civilization," the venerable female tendencies Hrdy tells us are so essential to successful primate motherhood--ambition, ingenuity and sexual adventurousness--had been redefined as immoral or at least "unnatural."

But maybe we're finally waking up from our species' 10,000-year-long mistake. Perhaps family planning, working moms and child-care centers aren't bizarre modernist digressions from the "natural" but the hallmarks of ancient primate family values. After all, the female primate's goal has never been hordes of offspring--just a few good kids. And if there's anything unique about our species compared with most other primates, it's that human males are so often motivated to serve as hands-on parents too. Thanks to contraceptive technology and, yes, feminism, we may have a chance to get back to nature at last--our special human primate nature, that is.