Evolving Oppression: How Societies Keep Women Down

by Catharine Nienaber

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A social science perspective on gender violence broadens the way we define violence against a person or persons based on their gender, and it also provides nuance to what we consider as violence. Cultural violence is evident in the different beauty standards that women are expected to possess, be it from corsets or foot-binding, and these expectations are put upon young girls by the older women they are close to, like their family. Sexual violence was and still is a tool for controlling and silencing women, as female genital mutilation is used for taking body autonomy away from young women of marrying age. Structural violence is even more oppressive and damaging when it is a cycle of violence that is perpetuated by higher-ranking women onto those of lower status. However, it also should be noted that some women did not passively accept attacks on themselves or their homes but engaged in combat and even leadership positions. Gender violence evolved over time and space across cultures and is still very relevant today.

Gender violence is a plague across most societies historically and presently. Bioarcheology is uniquely situated to shed more light on the subject, since the human body is culturally shaped by the practices of groups (Perez 2012: 36). Studying gender violence through markers on bones can tell a story of what a particular society’s attitude toward women was and with the help of ethnographic accounts to supplement details, a social science approach becomes more practical and informative. Also, the bioarchaeological evidence can challenge the historical narrative, and can be used to disprove stereotypes and reinterpret misconceptions. A social science approach can help bioarchaeologists puzzle out the way of life that they see mapped out on the bones and burial sites and this in turn can help professionals connect with issues that the general public face today. Movements for equality have mobilized and united women across cultural borders and it is beneficial to study the different forms of oppression that women had to endure in past societies because, some of the problems brought up in this paper are still highly relevant today.

To study this widespread humanitarian issue, it must be recognized that gender violence can be cultural/structural, sexual, and physical, Sometimes, there are inequitable power structures amongst women, and other times we find evidence of women who resisted and fought against external violence. It is important to note the distinction between direct and indirect harm that affects women. Physical and/or sexual abuse, such as domestic violence or rape, is direct harm on a person. This can take form as blunt force trauma, healed fractures, and chipped facial bone. Structural violence is more on how a power dynamic or a ‘social norm’ negatively affects a plural group of people that shared a common trait. Johan Galtung in “Violence, Peace, and Peace Research,” explains it as such: “There may not be any person who directly harms another person in the structure. The violence is built into the structure and shows up as unequal power and consequently as unequal life chances” (Galtung 1969: 170-171).

Cultural Violence: Beauty is Pain

Some of the most dramatic and best examples of structural violence as seen on the bones of women is the work done by Dr. Pamela K. Stone. If we were to look at modern society today, and what it has been doing to damage young girls’ self-worth, what is most prevalent is body-shaming and idealism of beauty. What is considered ‘beautiful’ or ‘attractive’ is all rooted in social context and the generally accepted norms. In modern North America, the image of an ideal woman is long, silky hair, big breasts, narrow hips, unblemished skin, and the list goes on. These notions of what is beautiful and how women and young girls are expected to be are not new social constructs, rather they have just been evolving over time and space for centuries. Stone states that bioarcheology should focus on the skeletal markers of body modifications on female remains, as they are a direct reflection of indirect cultural violence (Stone 2012: 53). Some examples of this is the well-known and studied practices such as foot-binding, wearing neck rings, and Victorian corsets.

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“Cast of women’s foot deformed by foot binding” from Wellcome Images [CC BY 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Foot-binding was a popular Chinese practice that was exclusive to women. Mothers would start binding their daughters’ feet at age five when the bones are more malleable and would compress the feet so tightly that the four smaller toes were turned until they were on top of one another. Dirty bandages were replaced only once a month creating a significant risk of toes falling off from lack of circulation and contracting a gangrene infection. The process stunted the growth of the feet and the damage was nonreversible. In x-rays, the bones do not appear deformed but just rotated and lost (Stone 2012: 56). In 2005, Steven R. Cummings examined elderly women in Beijing who had deformities from bound feet. These women were more likely to fall and get hip fractures due to the lack of stability. Without that, they were unable to do weight-bearing activities and move their muscles enough, resulting in generally poor bone health overall. The examined women reported life-long disability and were at a higher risk for conditions such as osteoporosis (Cummings et al. 2005: 1678-1679).

In another Asian tradition, the Padaung people in Burma practiced coiling women’s necks in rings. It was tied to wealth and marriageability, so it became part of the woman’s identity and self-image. Like with foot-binding, girls started wearing neck rings at age five and by forty could wear up to thirty-two rings. The weight pressing down on their clavicles and ribs would have caused tension between their head and shoulders. This would have the illusionary effect of a long neck; however, the women would also have limited mobility. The practice continues today, and now researchers have a better understanding of its impact on the human skeleton. In 2005, Donjai Chawanaputorn examined sixty-one women who had worn neck rings since childhood and found that developmental changes ranged from shorter faces and narrower widths of the mandible. With removal of the rings and a neck brace, the women could perform exercises that could reverse the effects of the rings (Chawanaputorn et al., 2005: 642-644).

In the Victorian era, it was considered fashionable for elite women to wear tightly bound corsets. The corsets exacerbated problems of childhood rickets, and young girls were encouraged to stay out of the sun and to stay as thin as possible, resulting in malnourishment. This resulted in lasting impacts on the pelvic girdle such as flattening it in the front and back. The added pressure from the corset would result in a decreased waist size and subsequently would make pregnancy and childbirth even more dangerous for the life of the mother and the fetus (Stone 2012: 58). Just like the women who bound their feet, or wore neck rings, the high-status ladies of the Victorian London society had suffered from chronic health issues for the rest of their lives. All due to their community’s misguided conception of what is beautiful.

All of the above acts of internalized violence are kinds of structural violence towards women, in these cases abusing younger women and girls. When it was time for girls to start binding their feet, wearing neck rings, or being trapped in tight corsets, it was their mothers who got them started. This is the extent of how ingrained harmful cultural practices and the structure of unequal power can be.

Sexual Violence

Gender violence cannot be discussed without bringing up sexual abuses and rape. The difficulty of discussing rape in the bioarchaeological context is that it can rarely be showcased in the archeological record. Bluntly put, someone’s rape does not make marks on their bones. What we do know of are historical patterns of mass rape specifically during times of war. Dr. Paul Kirby discusses moral responsibility and the unconscious social roles that men act in during armed conflict. The more patriarchal the structure, the less space for challenging or defiant attitudes, and therefore the less morally responsible actors (Kirby 2012: 105). So, when the mass rape of women occurs during conflict the perpetrators do not suffer consequence from their superiors, and the men who do not participate do not intervene. Not all men in these positions commit rape but the social agenda is set up to facilitate, encourage, and protect those who do.

Female genital cutting is slightly different. It falls under, again, structural violence and is still practiced today in Africa and Asia. Artwork attests that the Egyptians were practicing circumcision on boys and girls for as far back as the VI Dynasty, or 2340-2180 B.C.E. (Kennedy 1970: 175). Though both sexes went through the operation to ‘initiate’ them into adulthood, the ceremony and attitude surrounding the events were starkly different. For a boy’s circumcision, there was feasting and dancing on the morning of the operation and the boy bathed as well as dressed in white. Those invited to the event donated a product of a monetary product to the father, while the mother received gifts from the attending women. During the procedure, the boy’s parents would sit next to him, his female relatives would hold him down, and the barber would sever the foreskin. More singing and dancing followed as he was bathed again (Kennedy 1970: 177-178). For boys, though it was painful, circumcision was quick, and the apprehension of discomfort was quickly swept away by the celebration afterwards.

For a young bride, it was the complete opposite. The girl was bedecked splendidly in a white gown, gold jewelry, makeup, and henna, but with little fanfare and preparation was put under the knife. Another woman would excise the labia majora and labia minora with a knife or razor and the clitoris was completely cut away. All of this without anaesthesia. When it was done, the girl’s legs were tied together and kept so for seven to fifteen days, although it was sometimes for forty while her genitals healed. The healing process left scar tissue that sealed shut the vulva, except for a small orifice for urination kept open by a reed tube (Kennedy 1970: 180). The rationale for such a severe mutilation was the belief that it would preserve a girl’s virginity and prevent a shameful pregnancy: with a direct assumption that all women were wanton to sexual wildness if their behavior was not curbed. Once again, the set-up for female genital cutting is facilitated by older women who went through it themselves, and their mothers and aunts before them, symbolizing a cycle of structural violence.

Self-Perpetuating Violence: Women Hurting Women

As mentioned before, gender violence is not just exclusive to men abusing women; in fact, sometimes it is self-perpetuating. Dr. Debra L. Martin’s article on the Pueblo populations of the Southwest U.S. argues that women also used violence to obtain a desire, wherein they used violence against other women to assert their own power. Martin offers a bioarchaeological perspective on violence through studying the patterns of skeletal pathology. Osteological trauma can provide insights on inequalities linked to gender and social status (Martin 2010: 3). In the La Plata Valley a group of female human remains had healed cranial depressions, which indicates they suffered a nonfatal blow to the head. The way some of the women were oriented when buried, and the lack of grave goods, also indicated that they were not considered an integral part of the community (Martin 2010: 10). Given that the skeletal trauma and cavalier burials were only applied to certain women, it is obvious that these individuals were considered ‘outsiders’ and the archeological evidence supports large-scale raiding in the region.

Martin also argues that the community’s women encouraged the raiding of other women to have less of a burdensome workload from their own society. There are indicators on the remains showing that some of the women were ‘worked to the bone,’ such as muscular stress markers, indentations on the tibiae, and raised irregular areas of the clavicle near the shoulder. An analogy for women-on-women violence is best witnessed in the human’s closest relative, the chimpanzee. Females move out of the group they are born in to decrease the risk of mating with their father, but risk injury and death when establishing themselves in a new group. Their offspring is specifically targeted by established, older females and sometimes males, who are most likely to rout them out (Wilson and Wrangham 2003: 371). Another analogy that Martin herself uses is the dominant control between the women of the Turkana, a nomadic pastoralist people in eastern Africa. She states, “It is particularly interesting that it is socially acceptable, and fairly common, for higher status women, such as the first wife, to beat the lower status women, i.e. the second wife” (Martin 2010: 12).

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Women can be just as violent as men. In a social context the actions they can resort to are violent even if it is less confrontational than traditional aggression. From what we know of structural violence, however, it is rational to draw the conclusion that the Pueblo women in the Southwest oppressed and abused each other due to the existing power dynamic that was already present. Given that the captive women were being worked to death, the established women probably escaped long term back and joint problems by shrugging it off to the unlucky prisoners. The power structure that was imposed and maintained by the existing leaders did not make it easy to live and work as a woman, and unfortunately, the slaves had to bear the brunt of the punishment since they were outsiders with no rights.

War and Conflict: The Female Fighter

On the other hand, bioarchaeologists know that women were sometimes active participants in battle and war. Consider the Viking skeleton found in Bika, Sweden in the 1880s that was assumed to be a high-ranking male warrior, given that the grave was full of weapons, shields, a chess piece game (indicating that the Viking was a tactician and leader), and the sacrificial remains of two horses. It was only after DNA analysis in 2017 that the warrior was confirmed to be a woman (Hedenstierna-Jonson 2017: 855). This not only cemented the long held suspicion that Viking women could participate in raiding and warfare like the men, but that they could also rise above the ranks and lead other warriors. Evidence of warrior life that could be identified on a skeleton are traumatic injuries consistent with battle, such wounds that are mostly on the front of the body, and repetitive stress markers consistent with the use of weapons like archery, swordplay, or horseback riding. Vikings are not the only example however. Dr. J. Bengtson studied forty-three individuals at Morris Village in the Central Illinois River Valley. The group consisted of eighteen females, seventeen males, and eight of indeterminate sex. Two of the women had survived projectile point injuries, while three others had survived scalping. Another six of the women had healed cranial depression fractures. Bengtson concluded that the injuries sustained did not appear degenerative or age-related and were potentially the result of interpersonal violence (Bengtson 2017: 235). What was also investigated was the faunal and flora diversity in the village’s diet. The village was still eating much of the same things, even during war time. Some of the women’s bodies showed not just traumatic wounds but taphonomy markers such as sun bleaching and gnawing from scavengers. This suggests that they died away from the village and had to be recovered later. Bengtson argues that all of this points to the fact that the women were taking the risks of ambush to get food for their community, and were going out ready to defend themselves, possibly armed. This might explain the healed injuries that some of them possessed (Bengtson 2017: 238-239).

These women would have possessed the same presence of male warriors that survived the battle and had brushed up close to death and would have the scars to prove it. Should this case in particular be considered ‘gender violence’ when it’s clear the community was feuding with its enemies? This could have been a ‘wrong place at the wrong time’ scenario. However, if this were a group of men out foraging for food, or even if a sizeable number of men were assigned to protecting the women, it is highly likely that they would have lessened the risk of an ambush. Gathering food was considered a female task, so even during a turbulent period between neighbors the women were still expected to do their part. Despite the likeliness that they carried weapons, the women would have been seen as weak enough to risk an attack by a group of male warriors, especially if they were outnumbered. It remains to be discovered if any Native American people actively trained their women to fight alongside the men and let them participate in roaming war bands, thus recognizing them as venerated fighters by societal standards. Most likely with the Morris Village case, the women who survived and healed from their near-death experiences were treated with the respect of individuals that were expected to defend their home and family, but no more than that.


What many of these case studies have illuminated is not just a list of the symptoms of female oppression such as body shaming, image idealism, mass rape, genital mutilation, toxic masculinity, higher status women exploiting those beneath them, and the difficulty of recognizing female wartime leaders in the past and modern day; rather, all of these contribute to the root of the problem that women are still struggling with today: structural violence, the unlevel playing field. Gender violence is not something that has faded from existence and cannot be comfortably put to rest in the ancient history books. Structural violence is a common theme in most societies, taking shape in varying ways. This term umbrellas the others: physical, sexual, and cultural violence all lend to unequal power structures that perpetuate cycles of violence that are not easily purged from any society. It has taken form in concepts of beauty that surround impressionable girls, psychologically coercing them to modify themselves to extreme degrees that do more harm than good. It is present in traditional practices that mutilate female genitals with the belief that it will keep brides from infidelity, and the mass utilization of rape during conflicts. On the other hand, it is true that women commit violence against each other for reasons that can include power dynamic. Lastly, women fighting for themselves, their families, and their communities shows that not all of women could passively accept an unkind fate. Therefore, the behavior change studied in many populations across time and space is not just altering methods to keep women down but the women themselves that change their self-perceptions and are working to change other female lives for the better.

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Bengtson, J., O’Gorman, J. (2017). Women’s participation in prehistoric warfare: A central Illinois River Valley case study. International Journal of Osteoarchaeology, 27(2), 230-244.

Chawanaputorn, D., Patanaporn, V., & Malikaew. (2007). Facial and dental characteristics of Padaung women (long-neck Karen) wearing brass neck coils in Mae Hong Son Province, Thailand. American Journal of Orthodontics and Dentofacial Orthopedics, 131(5), 639-645.

Cummings, S. R., Ling, X., & Stone, K. (2005). Consequences of foot binding among older women in Beijing, China. American Journal of Public Health, 87(10), 1677-1679.

Galtung, J. (1969). Violence, peace, and peace research. Journal of Peace Research, 6(3), 167-191.

Hedenstierna-Jonson, C., Kjellstrom, A., Zachrisson, T. (2017). A female Viking warrior confirmed by genomics. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 853-860.

Kennedy, J. G. (1970). Circumcision and excision in Egyptian Nubia. Royal Anthropology Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, 5(2), 175-191.

Kirby, P. (2012). Refusing to be a man?: Men’s responsibility for war rape and the problem of social structures in feminist and gender theory. Men and Masculinites, 16(1), 93-114.

Martin, D. L., Harrod, R. P., & Fields, M. (2010). Beaten down and worked to the bone: Bioarcheological investigations of women and violence in the ancient Southwest. Landscapes of Violence, 1(1), 1-15.

Perez, V. R. (2012). The bioarcheology of violence: Infusing method with theory. The Magazine of the Society for American Archaeology, 12(3), 35-38.

Stone, P. K. (2012). Binding women: Ethnology, skeletal deformations, and violence against women. International Journal of Paleopathology, 2(2-3), 53-60.

Wilson, M. L., & Wrangham, R. W. (2003). Intergroup relations in chimpanzees. Annual Review of Anthropology, 32, 363-392.

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