The Science of Sex:

Glenn Wilson on Regression in the Kibbutz



Attempts to achieve sexual equality are not unique to present-day Anglo-American society. A brave and fascinating experiment in women's liberation was conducted by the Israelis when they set up their rural communes, the kibbutzim, during the colonization of Palestine in the early part of this century. A central part of their semi-Marxist ideology was the total emancipation of women from all inequalities (sexual, social, economic and intellectual) that had been imposed upon them by traditional society.

According to Israeli Utopian theory, the burden of child-rearing and home-making was the root cause of sex-role differentiation and female inequality. Therefore radical changes in family structure were instituted. Traditional marriage was replaced by a system of cohabitation in which a man and woman were assigned shared sleeping accommodation within the commune but retained their separate names and identities. The children were removed from special contact with their parents and reared with others of the same age in community-run nurseries where they played, ate, slept and were educated. Adults were supposed to think of all the kibbutz children as joint social property and were discouraged from developing particularly close relationships with their own offspring.

Thus freed from the 'domestic yoke', women were expected to engage in agricultural and productive work to the same extent as men, and men were likewise expected to share in traditional female work. Classically feminine clothes, cosmetics, jewellery and hair-styles were rejected. In order to be equals of men, it was thought women would have to look like men as well as share traditionally male roles.

When anthropologists Melford and Audrey Spiro examined the achievements of the kibbutzim in 1950, the experiment appeared to have been largely successful and their preconception of human nature as 'culturally relative' was held to be confirmed. However, in 1975 Melford Spiro returned to the kibbutz for a follow-up study and was surprised to discover that in the intervening quarter-century striking changes had occurred in the domain of marriage, family and sex-roles which 'all but undid the earlier revolution' (Spiro, 1979). The younger generation of women, although raised with unisex models (women driving tractors and men in domestic service occupations) and taught from early childhood that men and women are the same in nature, were now pressing to be allowed fulfilment in the role of mother. 'Women's rights' had taken on almost exactly the reverse meaning to that in our society.

The kibbutz government had become predominantly male, apparently because the women showed little interest in politics, and a traditional division of labour along sexual lines had become established. Men were doing most of the productive work, while women were doing mostly community and service work such as teaching, nursing and housekeeping. Marriage had reverted to its original form, with a full wedding ceremony and celebration, and public displays of attachment and 'ownership'. previously almost taboo, were now commonplace. The units of residence had changed from the group to the married couple, and couples were now claiming and gaining the 'right' to enjoy the company of their own children. Children slept with their own parents and spent a great deal more time with them. Women had also shown a return to traditional 'femininity' in terms of appearance, temperament (empathy and lack of assertiveness) and hobbies. 'In the one place where feminists thought their ideal existed, the feminine mystique is ripening as fast as the corn in the fields' (New York Times, April 1976).

This collapse in what had seemed to be a successful campaign to abolish gender differences might be explained in terms of exposure to outside – for example, city – influences, but on close examination Spiro found this explanation to be unsatisfactory. Studies of play preferences of kibbutz children revealed that the girls most often played 'mother' (bestowing care and affection on a doll or small animal), while the most common game played by boys was imitating animals (not the domestic animals with which they were familiar, but wild and ferocious animals like snakes and wolves). Social learning theory cannot easily explain why girls should adopt a culturally appropriate model (the parenting woman) in their fantasy play, while boys adopt a culturally irrelevant model (wild animals). Biological pre-dispositions towards nurturance and aggression in girls and boys respectively seems far more plausible as an explanation of this difference. A careful examination of evidence like this led Spiro to conclude that the sex-role counter-revolution that he had observed in the modern kibbutz represented a reassertion of nature, rather than conformity induced by reactionary social influences. For a person previously committed to 'cultural relativity theory', this was a considerable turn-about in attitude.

The first sign of a confrontation between nature and ideology in the kibbutz concerned the issue of public nudity. The ideological authorities had early on determined that sexual equality would best be promoted by disregarding all differences in male and female anatomy. Boys and girls in the children's houses were therefore raised in a theoretically 'sex-blind' atmosphere, using the same toilets and showers and dressing in front of each other. This worked perfectly well until the girls reached puberty, at which point (quite spontaneously and contrary to prevailing social attitudes) they developed intense feelings of embarrassment and began to demand privacy. The girls began to rebel actively against these mixed-sex arrangements, refusing to admit boys into the showers with them and undressing with the lights out, or in some private place. For some time the authorities refused to change the system but were eventually convinced that the discomfort of the girls was to be taken seriously, and today most kibbutz high schools have separate bathroom facilities for boys and girls.

Again, it is difficult to see how cultural influences could be held responsible for this failure of ideology. Why should shame associated with nudity strike selectively at pubescent girls and not at boys of the same age, or younger girls? The modesty that girls develop at puberty is apparently not due to social guilt induction; much more likely, it is an aspect of the female coyness which is biologically preprogrammed because it served the mating strategy of high partner selectivity and general sexual reserve.



Glenn Wilson, The Great Sex Divide, pp. 63-66. Peter Owen (London) 1989; Scott-Townsend (Washington D.C.) 1992.




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