Feminists of the Natural World
The concept of feminism is an issue that has been receiving increasing media attention over the last year. With the launch of Emma Watson’s HeForShe UN campaign, and support from other notable celebrities such as Lena Dunham, Benedict Cumberbatch, Taylor Swift and more, the issue of gender equality is slowly receiving the attention it deserves, paving the way for a more equal and just social system.
The notion of feminism (not to be confused with man-hating) is an approach that seeks to eliminate gender discrimination and inequality, and instead accepts and celebrates the abilities and rights of both men and women, on an equal footing. It relies upon the support of one sex for the other, and vice versa, so that gender equality may one day be achieved.
A notable instance that demonstrated a distinct lack of support for the gender equality movement, were the shocking comments made by Fox News presenter Erik Erickson. He commented that ‘Anyone with a basic knowledge of biology knows that nature intends males to be the dominant gender’, and that those who support gender equality, or those who support women taking on the role of family breadwinner, are ‘very anti-science’. Understandably, this comment was met with outrage from men and women alike, not only because of its rude and sexist implications, but also because it is fundamentally untrue. The animal kingdom is built on a combination of effective patriarchal and matriarchal systems, with each species using the system that works most effectively for them. Nature itself is actually a prime example that one gender does not, and should not, take precedence over another; in fact, it is the combination of both male and female led systems that allows the natural world to function as it should.
Inspired by the work of Beth Buczynski, in this article I will look at a small handful of species, out of many, that rely on the capability and leadership of female individuals in order to survive. I thus seek to demonstrate the value of female lead systems, alongside male systems, and also to disprove the ignorant and un-supportive comments made by Erikson.
Meerkats are a species known to exhibit complex and carefully structured social systems, based on rank and dominance. In a group, it is the alpha female matriarch who selects a partner, this partner therefore becoming the only mating male in the group. The female continues to mate exclusively with this partner, until she deems that replacing him may benefit the safety and productivity of the group. She is, therefore, usually the mother of all meerkat pups within the social group. The other females in the group endeavour to support the alpha by helping to take care of the young, and also by lactating to help feed them. However, there may come a time when subordinate females begin to compete for the spot as alpha, meaning that the current alpha must defend her position. The alpha female is also in charge of making group decisions; she chooses when they should forage, leave the burrow, where to burrow and where to sleep. Bonobo Apes
Another species shown to reside in a female dominated society, is the Bonobo. Bonobo females often independently raise offspring, and rely upon the support of other females in the group to exert power. Bonobo females may use their alliances with each other to help prevent infant deaths, caused by male rivalries, and to allow them to access better quality food and select their own mates. Female Bonobos have also been seen to hunt and distribute meat throughout their social groups. Male Bonobos obtain their social rank from their mother; as a result, throughout their lives they continue to have a strong mother-son bond. Lions
Perhaps one of the most famous matriarchal animal societies is that of the lions. Lionesses work in female groups to collectively raise and hunt for offspring. It is thought that by acting in this way, they are able to use their energy more advantageously and provide a safer and healthier environment for cubs. Their lighter and more agile body capabilities mean that they are more suited to collecting food, in comparison to the heavier males, and by using carefully constructed hunting tactics relating to the size and ability of females in the group, are able to efficiently work together to maximise prey gain. Research by San Diego Zoo has even suggested that they can adjust hunting strategies to become more specific to the situation, depending on what females are available to hunt and what prey type is being hunted. Killer Whales
Killer Whale individuals build their social groups, or ‘pods’ based upon matriarchal lineages. Even after they have become fully grown, adult orcas continue to live and travel with their mothers, developing life long bonds. These matrilineal family groups are considered to be the most stable of any animal species, with groups exhibiting highly complex vocalisations and hunting techniques that are individual to the pod, and continue to be passed down through generations. Some researchers go as far as to describe this behaviour as manifestations of culture. Female individuals can live to be as old as 90 years of age, with as many as four generations travelling together in a group. Individuals only separate from groups for a few hours at a time; apart from one exception, in the wild no permanent separation of an individual whale from its matrilineal group has ever been recorded. Elephants
Another well-known animal matriarch society is that of elephants. Elephants form deep family bonds within their herds, living in close knit matriarchal family groups led by the oldest and often largest female, regarded as the matriarch. Herds can vary in size, from around 8-100 individuals. When a baby elephant is born, the entire matriarchal herd contribute to its rearing and protection. If the offspring is male, it will reside with the group until it is 12-15 years old, before leaving to lead a solitary life or join a group of males. When attacked by predators, the females will gather in a group, with the calves at the centre in order to provide better protection. If the matriarch dies, research has shown the levels of stress hormones increase in the remaining females. Similarly, if another member of the group is injured or killed, the group appears to try and aid the individual or show ‘concern’. Where some argue this may be an anthropomorphised interpretation of behaviour, others suggest that elephants exhibit clear signs of grief if a member of the matriarch is lost. Bees
Bees also live in a matriarchal family, with the queen bee acting as head of the hive. During the average 3 year life expectancy of a queen bee, she will continually lay eggs to create and maintain an approximate colony of around 25,000 bees. In some species, around 95% of this offspring become female worker bees, and the remaining 5% become male drones. The queen bee relies upon her daughters for support during her task of supporting the hive’s birthing capacity. Research conducted by famous feminist Evelyn Reed even suggests that it was through the development of matriarchal socities that humans were able to develop into their advanced state seen today. In her work, she says:
“Although both sexes were equally endowed with hand, brain, and other anatomical preconditions required for human activity, it was the female that led the way over the bridge from animalism to humanity. The mothers alone were equipped with the maternal and effective responses that were extended into the human world in the form of social collaboration”
In conclusion, there are many animal social groups founded on the strength and ability of females, proving that biology does not favour the dominance of the male gender, but rather relies upon the capabilities of both genders in equal measure. Both male and female individuals are regarded and respected as necessary for survival in the animal kingdom; just as the abilities and strength of both male and female humans should be treated with equal respect in the human world.
If nature itself can respect the equal value of male and female ability, shouldn’t we, as part of nature, also be able to?
Image credits: Maria Lombardic Aaron Englander Mike Birkhead Associates Ella Davies Meerkat Manor Media Matters Shah Rodgers HD Wallpaper
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