Sexual reproduction has the inevitable result that one sex, by definition female, will invest more resources in the offspring than the other. Thus the mother’s egg has significant nutrient content while the fathers sperm has none; the mother is essential to the infant for the supply of milk, the father is not. We find at this basic biological level that the father is redundant after conception.
Life is hazardous and children are vulnerable and need protection. In the event of a dire threat, for example a wild beast, it is common sense that, although either parent might be capable of fighting it, the children have a better chance of survival if the father is killed or maimed than the mother. Here again we see that the man is the more disposable. Unlike the previous examples, this has strong positive aspects. The man chooses to be disposable and is rewarded by being a hero. Most cultures encourage this with innumerable myths and legends. St George has always been ready to slay the dragon and rescue the maiden.
It is not extreme threats but also routine gathering of resources that can be hazardous. Common sense dictates that if one parent might be lost while the resource is being hunted, then the children are more likely to survive without a father than without a mother. The mother may still have to work and probably to work harder and at more unpleasant tasks than the man but they will not involve obvious danger. In fishing communities the men will go out to sea to catch the fish and risk drowning while the woman will stay on shore to perform the arduous and unpleasant task of gutting the fish. Men are once again disposable.
Today infant mortality has gone down, efficient contraception is available and large families are no longer seen as desirable. This means that child rearing is no longer the major component of most women’s lives. Fathers were economically important; now welfare benefits allow mothers to survive on their own. Nearly all the professions are being opened up to women now that they can usually undertake not to interrupt their career by an unintended birth. Most dangerous jobs have become safer. The common sense reasons for excluding women from dangerous tasks don’t apply to those who are not involved in child rearing. The overall results of these changes is that men can be displaced from traditionally male roles.
To survive, societies had to maintain their population level, which meant that women sometimes had to be coerced into their child bearing role. Paternalism was part of this coercion but today it is another male role that has become redundant.
In preliterate cultures the only way of passing on knowledge was aurally. There will have been considerable amounts of knowledge important to survival. This knowledge is inherited by the family just as is genetic information. The distinction between cultural and genetic is arbitrary. For example the culturally inherited knowledge of hygiene is just as important to survival as the genetic information that allows the body to make a particular antibody to fight diseases.
The amount of cultural information that an individual can learn and pass on faithfully is limited. Also, to be safe from chance deaths, a sufficiently large group of individuals needs to be assigned to passing on particular topics. It is inevitable that the safest demarcation is between women’s knowledge and men’s knowledge. Because a family or tribe can only survive if some of both sexes survive, it follows that some of each type of knowledge will survive with them. The successful tribe would tend to partition some areas of knowledge strictly and dissuade men from wasting learning potential on women’s knowledge and vice versa. I am not suggesting that there is a deliberate plan but just that various customs and institutions gradually emerge. Incidently, it seems likely that the knowledge that is most vital to survival will be in the heads of women as a direct consequence of the men being disposable. It is possible that the reason that humans, and particularly women, live well beyond child rearing age is to do with the propagation of cultural information
Passing on knowledge must have been a major preoccupation for preliterate people. They would have spent a lot of their time and energy on teaching the next generation by means of stories, rituals and dances. The invention of writing provided an alternative and mostly more efficient means of inheriting knowledge. The first written records must have seemed magical and sacred to them. The new medium was probably applied mainly to men’s knowledge because it would have been of less everyday usefulness and more vulnerable. However the body of written knowledge will tend to contain definitions of what is important in terms of itself, which inevitably devalues women’s knowledge. Thus written history is largely men’s history. A certain amount of guilt and conflict arises because of the deep-seated institutions and traditions that held men’s and women’s knowledge separate.
Paradoxically, if men’s role in passing on knowledge is taken over by the system of written records, their importance as individuals is decreased. Men can be disposed of as carriers of knowledge.
In primitive societies the young men would be taken into the jungle by their elders and initiated into their adult role. More recently they would become apprentices or cadets, or maybe belong to men’s groups devoted to keeping alive all sorts of arcane skills and knowledge, for example: hunting lore, steam railway technology, stealing cars, barber shop singing etc. Today developments in manufacturing techniques have tended to reduce the numbers of workers needed and to “deskill” many jobs that are left. There has been a trend towards losing the distinction between men’s and women’s knowledge. For example Dr. Spock is a man, there are women soldiers, the “new man” is supposed to be a capable baby minder. This means that male initiation today is more uncertain and less specifically male.
This theme of the disposable male is of course a sweeping generalisation but it can be a useful means of focusing on what is important when there is trouble. It is too easy to assume that what is obvious to one person must be obvious to all. Men and women are troubled for different reasons and have different ideas on how they might be alleviated. Women are troubled because of enslavement; men because of banishment. Men will tend to see strong and silent Iron John as a hero to be emulated; women may see him as a subversive social outcast to be pitied and feared.
The people who try to help the troubled, friends, leaders, therapists will tend to have different views of the best progress and outcome of therapy. The female helper will tend concentrate on building the communication links which provide solidarity of the enslaved; the male helper will see success in actions: gaining entry into relationships, letting go of failed ones or adjusting to the solitude of rejection.
Men will know from their own experience the significance of men’s groups and recognise their underlying agendas of purposeful activity. Women will tend to draw on their experience of women’s social groups which tend to have an underlying agenda of mutual emotional support.
Men’s and women’s language is different. Women’s conversation is the cooperative intimacy of fellow slaves; men’s conversation has the guarded competitiveness of banished strangers yearning for acceptance.
Finally both men and women may are troubled because of uncertainty of roles caused by the rapid and profound changes in our society. For women these can offer escape from slavery but for men it means more rejection: fewer children and state support for single mothers means less fathering; childless women are available to invade traditional male roles; universal literacy and the deskilling of work has eroded the mystique of male knowledge and reduced the scope for male initiation. At the same time there is decreasing scope for finding the positive side of rejection, warrior man is out of fashion, there are no dark continents left and princesses now prefer to deal with their own dragons and stay free.