Pay attention to the following comparison. Back in the 6th century, in the medieval city of Istria (Romania), men and women received such profoundly unequal treatment that they suffered the higher percentages of injuries and malnutrition of the whole of society. Fifteen centuries later, in exactly that same place, inequalities between men and women persist strongly and are reflected, for example, in a less access of women to the labor market already the positions of power. Is there a link between these two discrimination scenarios or is it just coincidence? According to a study from Washington University in St. Louis, gender inequalities could be ‘entrenched’ in some cities more than in others precisely because of this cultural heritage.

The research, published this Monday in the scientific journal ‘PNAS’, presents the following data. On the one hand, analyze more than 10,000 dental remainss collected in almost 140 medieval sites from different parts of Europe and, from there, she studies the gender discrimination that existed during the Middle Ages in these places. On the other hand, it tracks studies to see what kind of gender inequalities persist in these same cities today. The result? According to the analysis, people who live in areas where men have historically been favored over women continue to show more gender inequalities compared to cities where there has been more equal treatment between genders.

inherited values

«Many of the gender biases that existed during the Middle Ages still are reproduced in contemporary opinions«, highlights the researcher Margit Tavits, first author of this study. This would explain why, despite the advances achieved by feminism in recent centuries, there are places where discrimination against women is more ‘entrenched’ than in other. The authors of this analysis argue that «just as we inherit DNA from our ancestors,» so too we inherit a set of customs and values that characterize a given society.

«Many of the gender biases that existed during the Middle Ages are still reproduced in contemporary attitudes»

Margit Tavits

United Nations very clear example, and completely opposite to that of the Istrian city, is that of the Lithuanian town of Kėdainiai (formerly known as Plinkaigalis). The study of 157 skeletons from the year 550 AD reveals that the society of the time dispensed a fairly equal treatment for men and women. The search for signs of malnutrition or trauma does not highlight a higher incidence in one gender than in another and, furthermore, other bibliographic studies highlight the existence policies to protect women’s rights in the Middle Ages. More than 15 centuries later, equality indices continue to enjoy good health in the city. men and women have similar rates of employment and access to politics and, according to some studies, there is considerable citizen consensus on the need to promote measures against discrimination.

The analysis finds a clear relationship between the levels of gender discrimination in antiquity and those that persist today. «These biases survived monumental socioeconomic and political changes such as industrialization and world wars», highlights the study. The only exception to this rule is found in those places where a «abrupt and large-scale population replacement«, like a pandemic or a natural disaster. In these places, not only are abrupt changes in the population observed, but also the dynamics between men and women also change.

The structure of the patriarchy

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Does this mean that the transmission of values ​​is the only thing that justifies the persistence of gender inequalities in our society? Tavits, as the author of this analysis, argues that in part it is and that, precisely for this reason, it is sometimes so difficult to face «deeply rooted sexist beliefs» in a certain society. «Our messages are that, beyond the specific policies to promote gender equality, we must address cultural forces that channel these beliefs», highlights the expert after the publication of this latest research.

The historian is much more skeptical about this debate Almudena Hernan, Professor of Prehistory and member of the Feminist Research Institute of the Complutense University of Madrid. As explained by this scientist in statements to the Science Media Center Spain, talking about these discriminations only as a «relic» of antiquity could overshadow more structural explanations such as, for example, the role that gender norms (and patriarchy) have played in the construction of the social order.