Gender Stereotypes during the Gold Rush.

My recent blog post titled “Nice guys finish first” about males in the tech industry was focused on breaking down the stereotypes of an average programmer. People tend to think that programmers are the “savages” of the twenty-first century incapable of feeling empathy (the kind that women truly desire in a perfect partner) or even having pleasant social interactions. But stereotypes are generally based on a series of experiences with a common pattern. This post will examine one of the roots of this particular stereotype by analyzing the gender relationships during a different economic boom – the Gold Rush.

The Gold Rush started with the discovery of gold in Sutter’s Creek in Coloma, California in 1848, which marked a mass exodus to the Golden State. Because of the physical nature of the gold mining profession, the population of California in 1850 was only 8% female, which put men in the dominant position. They Saw The Elephant: Women in the Gold Rush by JoAnn Levy, reports experiences of women during that time.

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Women in the California Gold Rush

A woman’s value escalated with her rarity. The arrival of women was anxiously awaited as Alta California noted, in May of 1850: “the bay was dotted by flotillas of young men  [who gave their welcome to the] fairer sex in full bloom.” The initial discrepancy in the gender ratio could be explained by Kanazawa and his theory of evolutionary psychology. According to popular belief, men have historically been a more competitive gender, which might explain their willingness to go through the hardships of traveling great distances and doing harsh physical labor to put themselves in a better financial situation. The necessity to do so stems from the concept of fitness variance. Kanazawa believes, that since sperm is cheaper than eggs, men have more to lose in case of failure to procreate, thus making men more desperate to find a potential mother for their offspring. Women, on the other hand, absolved from the pressure of fighting for a sperm donor, place their value on their ability to give birth to and care for their offspring. Women, on the other hand, started migrating to California only a short period of time after the initial boom, which could be considered as a strategic move to finding a husband that had the luck of profiting from the Gold Rush.

That shortage of women allowed them to have their “pick of the litter” when it came to both men and professions. Any woman who could carry herself respectably was treated with utmost esteem and enjoyed the luxury of freedoms that were previously unknown to women in the East Coast. The servicWomen with pickaxeses that were considered primarily female (like washing, sewing and cooking) were quickly taken over, even monopolized, by women. Women were also believed to have a civilizing influence on society encouraging the promotion and growth of communities. They displayed acts of benevolence for the poor, attended church and made schools a necessity for their children.

In the society of the Gold Rush, the division of genders into type E(empathetic or female) and type S(systematizing or male) defined by evolutionary psychology was incredibly prominent. It can be easily observed that women who possessed an empathetic brain benefited from being active participants of community-building. Women offered a perspective that a man normally couldn’t, since an average man was too busy looking for personal fortune. Perhaps this correlation between gender and a brain type is the reason the stereotype of men being socially impaired exists. Perhaps history makes it difficult for us to abstain from prejudicial judgement. Distinctly defined gender roles have been an important part of human culture: men were expected to be masculine, women could only be feminine. But even in the Gold Rush, women had competition when it came to the laundry business, when Chinese men took advantage of the same opportunities. Some women, inspired by the freedom that the West provided, were able to take more masculine professions and became bullfighters. Gender roles were shifting, which suggests that correlation between a barin type and a gender does not imply causation.

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