Epistemic status: mostly facts, a few speculations.
TW: lots of mentions of violence, abuse, and rape.
There is a tremendous difference, in pre-modern societies, between those that farmed with the plow and those that farmed with the hoe.
If you’re reading this, you live in a plow culture, or are heavily influenced by one. Europe, the Middle East, and most of Asia developed plow cultures. These are characterized by reliance on grains such as wheat and rice, which provide a lot of calories per acre in exchange for a lot of hard physical labor. They also involve large working livestock, such as horses, donkeys, and oxen.
Hoe cultures, by contrast, arose in certain parts of sub-Saharan Africa, the Americas, southeast Asia, and Oceania.
Hoe agriculture is sometimes called horticulture, because it is more like planting a vegetable garden than farming. You clear land with a machete and dig it with a hoe. This works for crops such as bananas, breadfruit, coconuts, taro, yam, calabashes and squashes, beans, and maize. Horticulturalists also keep domestic animals like chickens, dogs, goats, sheep, and pigs — but never cattle. They may hunt or fish. They engage in small-scale home production of pottery and cloth.
Hoe agriculture is extremely productive per hour of labor, much more so than preindustrial grain farming, but requires a vast amount of land for a small population. Horticulturists also tend to practice shifting cultivation, clearing new land when the old land is used up, rather than repeatedly plowing the same field — something that is only possible when fertile land is “too cheap to meter.” Hoe cultures therefore have lots of leisure, but low population density, low technology, and few material objects.
I live with a toddler, so I’ve seen a lot of the Disney movie Moana, which had a lot of consultation with Polynesians to get the culture right. This chipper little song is a pretty nice illustration of hoe culture: you see people digging with hoes, carrying bananas and fish, singing about coconuts and taro root, making pottery and cloth, and you see a pig and a chicken tripping through the action.
Hoe Culture and Gender Roles
Ester Boserup, in her 1970 book Woman’s Role in Economic Development , notes that in hoe cultures women do the hoeing, while in plow cultures men do the plowing.
This is because plowing is so physically difficult that men, with greater physical strength, have a comparative advantage at agricultural labor, while they have no such advantage in horticulture.
Men in hoe cultures clear the land (which is physically challenging; machete-ing trees is quite the upper-body workout), hunt, and engage in war. But overall, hour by hour, they spend most of their time in leisure. (Or in activities that are not directly economically productive, like politics, ritual, or the arts.)
Women in hoe cultures, as in all known human cultures, do most of the childcare. But hoeing is light enough work that they can take small children into the fields with them and watch them while they plant and weed. Plowing, hunting, and managing large livestock, by contrast, are forms of work too heavy or dangerous to accommodate simultaneous childcare.
The main gender difference between hoe and plow cultures is, then, that women in hoe cultures are economically productive while women in plow cultures are largely not.
This has strong implications for marriage customs. In a plow culture, a husband supports his wife; in a hoe culture, a wife supports her husband.
Correspondingly, plow cultures tend to have a tradition of dowry (the bride’s parents compensate the groom financially for taking an extra mouth to feed off their hands) while hoe cultures tend to practice bride price (the groom compensates the bride’s family financially for the loss of a working woman) or bride service (the groom labors for the bride’s family, again as compensation for taking her labor.)
Hoe cultures are much more likely to be polygamous than plow cultures. Since land is basically free, a man in a hoe culture is rich in proportion to how much labor he can accumulate — and labor means women. The more wives, the more labor. In a plow culture, however, extra labor must come from men, which usually means hired labor, or slaves or serfs. Additional wives would only mean more mouths to feed.
Because hoe cultures need women for labor, they allow women more autonomy. Customs like veiling or seclusion (purdah) are infeasible when women work in the fields. Hoe-culture women can usually divorce their husbands if they pay back the bride-price.
Barren women, widows, and unchaste women or rape victims in pre-modern plow cultures often face severe stigma (and practices like sati and honor killings) which do not occur in hoe cultures. Women everywhere are valued for their reproductive abilities, and men everywhere have an evolutionary incentive to prefer faithful mates; but in a hoe culture, women have economic value aside from reproduction, and thus society can’t afford to kill them as soon as their reproductive value is diminished.
“Matriarchy” is considered a myth by modern anthropologists; there is no known society, present or past, where women ruled. However, there are matrilinear societies, where descent is traced through the mother, and matrilocal societies, where the groom goes to live near the bride and her family. All matrilinear and matrilocal societies in Africa are hoe cultures (though some hoe cultures are patrilinear and/or patrilocal.)
The Seneca, a Native American people living around Lake Ontario, are a good example of a hoe culture where women enjoyed a great deal of power.  Traditionally, they cultivated the Three Sisters: maize, beans, and squash. The women practiced horticulture, led councils, had rights over all land, and distributed food and household stores within the clan. Descent was matrilineal, and marriages (which were monogamous) were usually arranged by the mothers. Of the Seneca wife, Henry Dearborn noted wistfully in his journal, “She lives with him from love, for she can obtain her own means of support better than he.” Living, childrearing, and work organization was communal within a clan (living within a longhouse) and generally organized by elder women.
Hoe and Plow Cultures Today
A 2012 study  found that people descended from plow cultures are more likely to agree with the statements “When jobs are scarce, men should have more right to a job than women” and “On the whole, men make better political leaders than women do” than people descended from hoe cultures.
“Traditional plough-use is positively correlated with attitudes reflecting gender inequality and negatively correlated with female labor force participation, female firm ownership, and female participation in politics.” This remains true after controlling for a variety of societal variables, such as religion, race, climate, per-capita GDP, history of communism, civil war, and others.
Even among immigrants to Europe and the US, history of ancestral plow-use is still strongly linked to female labor force participation and attitudes about gender roles.
Patriarchy Through a Materialist Lens
Friedrich Engels, in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, was the first to argue that patriarchy was a consequence of the rise of (plow) agriculture. Alesina et al summarize him as follows:
He argued that gender inequality arose due to the intensification of agriculture, which resulted in the emergence of private property, which was monopolized by men. The control of private property allowed men to subjugate women and to introduce exclusive paternity over their children, replacing matriliny with patrilineal descent, making wives even more dependent on husbands and their property. As a consequence, women were no longer active and equal participants in community life.
Hoe societies (and hunter-gatherer societies) have virtually no capital. Land can be used, but not really owned, as its produce is unreliable or non-renewable, and its boundaries are too large to guard. Technology is too primitive for any tool to be much of a capital asset. This is why they are poor in material culture, and also why they are egalitarian; nobody can accumulate more than his neighbors if there just isn’t any way to accumulate stuff at all.
I find the materialistic approach to explaining culture appealing, even though I’m not a Marxist. Economic incentives — which can be inferred by observing the concrete facts of how a people makes its living — provide elegant explanations for the customs, traditions, and ideals that emerge in a culture. We do not have to presume that those who live in other cultures are stupid or fundamentally alien; we can assume they respond to incentives just as we do. And, when we see the world through a materialist lens, we do not hope to change culture by mere exhortation. Oppression occurs when people see an advantage in oppressing; it is subdued when the advantage disappears, or when the costs become too high. Individual people can follow their consciences even when it differs from the surrounding pressures of their culture, but when we talk about aggregates and whole populations, we don’t expect personal heroism to shift systems by itself.
A materialist analysis of gender relations would say that women are not going to escape oppression until they are economically independent. And, even in the developed world, women mostly are not.
Women around the world, including in America, are much more likely to live in poverty than men. This is because women have lower-paying jobs and struggle to support single-mother households. Women everywhere do most of the childcare, and most women have children at some point in their lives, so an economy that does not allow a woman to support and care for children with her own labor is not an economy that will ever allow most women to be economically independent.
Just working outside the home does not make a woman economically independent. If a family is living in a “two-income trap”, in which the wife’s income is just enough to pay for the childcare she does not personally provide, then the wife’s net economic contribution to the family is zero.
Sure, much of the “gender pay gap” disappears after controlling for college major and career choice . Men report more interest in making a lot of money and being leaders, while women report more interest in being helpful and working with people rather than things. But a lot of this is probably due to the fact that most women rationally assume that they will take time to raise children, and that their husband will be the primary breadwinner, so they are less likely to make early education and career choices on the basis of earning the most money.
Economist Claudia Goldin believes the main reason for the gender pay gap is the cost of temporal flexibility; women want more work flexibility in order to raise children, and so they are paid less. Childless men and women have virtually no wage disparity.
Since women who will ever have children (which is most women) are still usually economically dependent on men even in the developed world, and strongly disadvantaged if they don’t have a male provider, is it any wonder that women are still more submissive and agreeable, higher in neuroticism and mood disorders, and subject to greater pressure to appeal sexually? Their livelihood still depends on finding a mate to support them.
In order to change the economic incentives to make women financially independent, it would have to be no big deal to be a single mother. This probably means an economy whose resources were shifted from luxury towards leisure. Mothers of young children need a lot of time away from economic work; if we “bought” time instead of fancy goods with our high-tech productivity gains, a single mother in a technological economy might be able to support children by herself. But industrial-age workplaces are not set up to allow employees flexibility, and modern states generally put up heavy barriers to easy, flexible self-employment or ultra-frugal living, through licensing laws, zoning regulations, and quality regulations on goods.
Morality and Religion under Hoe Societies
It’s hard to trust what we read about hoe-culture mores, because these generally aren’t societies that develop writing, and what we read is filtered through the opinions of Western researchers or missionaries. But, as far as I can tell, they are mostly animist and polytheist cultures. There are many “spirits” or “gods”, some friendly and some unfriendly, but none supreme. Magical practices (“if you do this ritual, you’ll get that outcome”) seem to be common.
Monotheist and henotheist cultures (one god, or one god above all other gods, usually male) seem to be more of a plow-culture thing, though not all plow cultures follow that pattern.
The presence of goddesses doesn’t correlate that much to the condition of women in a society, contrary to the (now falsified) belief that pre-agrarian societies were matriarchal and goddess-worshipping.
The Code of Handsome Lake is an interesting example of a moral and religious code written by a man from a hoe culture. Handsome Lake was a religious reformer among the Iroquois in the 18th century. His Code is heavily influenced by Christianity (his account of Hell and of the apocalypse closely follow the New Testament and are not found in earlier Iroquois beliefs) but includes some distinctively Iroquois features.
Notably, he was strongly against spousal and child abuse, and in favor of family harmony, including this touching passage:
“Parents disregard the warnings of their children. When a child says, “Mother, I want you to stop wrongdoing,” the child speaks straight words and the Creator says that the child speaks right and the mother must obey. Furthermore the Creator proclaims that such words from a child are wonderful and that the mother who disregards then takes the wicked part. The mother may reply, “Daughter, stop your noise. I know better than you. I am the older and you are but a child. Think not that you can influence me by your speaking.” Now when you tell this message to your people say that it is wrong to speak to children in such words.”
Are Hoe Societies Good?
They’re not paradise. (Though, note that Adam and Eve were gardeners in Eden.)
As stated before, horticulturalists are poor. People in hoe cultures don’t necessarily have less to eat than their pre-modern agrarian peers, but they have less stuff, and they are much poorer than anyone in industrialized societies.
Polygamy also has distinct disadvantages. It promotes venereal disease. It also excludes a population of unmarried men from society, which leads to violence and exposes the excluded men to poverty and isolation.
And you can’t replicate hoe societies across the globe even if you wanted to. Hoe agriculture is so land-intensive that it couldn’t possibly support a population of seven billion.
Furthermore, while women in hoe societies have more autonomy and are subject to less gendered violence than women in pre-modern plow societies, it’s not clear how that compares to women in modern societies with rule of law. Hoe societies are still traditionalist and communitarian. Men’s and women’s spheres are still separate. Life in a hoe society is not going to exactly match a modern feminist’s ideal. These aren’t WEIRD people, they’re something quite different, for better or for worse, and it’s hard to know exactly how the experience is different just by reading a few papers.
Hoe cultures are interesting not because we should model ourselves after them, but because they are an existence proof that non-patriarchal societies can exist for millennia. Conservatives can always argue that a new invention hasn’t been proved stable or sustainable. Hoe cultures have been proved incredibly long-lasting.
Braudel, Fernand. Civilization and capitalism, 15th-18th century: The structure of everyday life. Vol. 1. Univ of California Press, 1992.
Boserup, Ester. Woman’s role in economic development. Earthscan, 2007.
Goody, Jack, and Joan Buckley. “Inheritance and women’s labour in Africa.” Africa 43.2 (1973): 108-121.
Jensen, Joan M. “Native American women and agriculture: A Seneca case study.” Sex Roles 3.5 (1977): 423-441.
Alesina, Alberto, Paola Giuliano, and Nathan Nunn. “On the origins of gender roles: Women and the plough.” The Quarterly Journal of Economics 128.2 (2013): 469-530.
Warren, Elizabeth, and Amelia Warren Tyagi. The two-income trap: Why middle-class parents are going broke. Basic Books, 2007.
Daymont, Thomas N., and Paul J. Andrisani. “Job preferences, college major, and the gender gap in earnings.” Journal of Human Resources (1984): 408-428.
Zafar, Basit. “College major choice and the gender gap.” Journal of Human Resources 48.3 (2013): 545-595.
Waldfogel, Jane. “Understanding the” family gap” in pay for women with children.” The Journal of Economic Perspectives 12.1 (1998): 137-156.