A cultural link between women and cattle seems unlikely in this age of turbo-powered technology. Yet, cows are all around us as decorative symbols, from the large fiberglass art-cow statues that decorated the streets of Chicago and New York recently, to their widespread presence in gift shops and department stores. Their whimsical countenances appear on a myriad of kitchen towels, coffee mugs, and cookie jars. This surge of interest in all things bovine by giftware manufacturers, who market a plethora of calendars, aprons, refrigerator magnets, and so on, all depicting clever or cute cows, is directed at women.
At first encounter, we may think the bovine décor theme silly and contrived, yet it harks back about 3,500 years, to the beginnings of cattle domestication. Bovine-related home décor has been around since ancient Egyptians, Mesopotamians, and Etruscans featured horned cattle on their walls, dishes, and jewelry. By tacking up cow calendars or filling cute, cow-shaped cookie jars, women unknowingly make connections to their ancestral past.
Today’s ubiquitous black-and-white cattle images represent Holsteins, a dairy breed, and the animals are all cows: females. No Texas longhorns or chunky black Angus-animals raised for their meat. Women are attracted to dairy animals that signify the female, the domestic, the mother of all. The roots of such attraction are not new; they came about long before Walmart’s kitchen design crew realized that Holsteins appeal to female shoppers. Ages ago, women linked themselves inextricably and symbolically with cows.
In ancient Egypt, the goddess Hathor, the great mother, was depicted as a cow whose body was the heavens and whose udder spewed out the Milky Way. Every day she gave birth to the sun, the Golden Calf. Other Mediterranean cultures were equally entranced with the power of the cow. The name “Italy,” for example, means “calf-land.” Milk-latte in Latin-was revered and respected for its power to nurture. Goddesses were adorned with headdresses representing cow’s horns. Yes, indeed, today’s diamond-studded tiara links back to priestesses who donned head pieces stylized with horns, symbolic of the much-revered cow.
Myths from the Near East, Japan, and India tell of a world created by the curdling action of milk, and of a universe that was “curdled” into being. Some told of human bodies being curdled from the goddess’s milk. Renenet, a lady with inexhaustible breasts in Egyptian lore, held out her breasts to nurture the world, her head adorned with a cow’s head or horns. Rennet, the enzyme found in bovine stomachs that causes milk to curdle, was sacred.1 It’s still essential in cooking today.
The Romans enjoyed a pantheon of gods and goddesses, including Cornucopia. The cornucopia, or horn of plenty, symbolized a cow’s horn spilling out the fruits of the earth. The cow, wet nurse to humanity, has a long history. But cows are invoked as symbols of milk and the feminine; meat is another matter all together. It makes sense that women connect with dairy cattle, whose milk has saved many a human infant. Women have a connection to beef cattle, too, but meat is a more political food. For hunters, obtaining meat and distributing it reflected power. Meat was a masculine possession-in hunting societies. For cattle keepers, things were different.
The rise of pastoral animal-herding societies changed the gendered roles that suited hunting societies. The role of meat-and dairy-in cattle-based cultures that existed during the long period between the prehistoric and the present developed a far different society. Females in herding societies had more equality and more power. The entire social system was built on nurturing skills and attitudes.
Cattle keepers nurtured their stock and emphasized breeding and rearing of the young animals, while cooperating as a clan to share the tasks. A lone hunter could survive, but a lone person trying to maneuver and control cattle-well that’s a different story. Cattle require a clan to move them from place to place, as well as to retrieve them when they stray.
Cattle keepers were focused on the future, as hunters were not. A herd meant long-term survival and a future for one’s children. Women easily took up livestock tending, because the animals could be kept near the house-some cultures kept them right in the house-and fed or watered with the help of children and the elderly.
Cows were valued, because they were female and could provide additional stock by bearing a calf every year. Milking cows provided extensive dietary protein; and milking was an essentially feminine task, until mechanization put it in male hands. Women processed the dairy products that made survival possible: cheese, butter, yogurt, whey. As clans began to base their politics and survival on the nurturing of cattle, women gained respect, ate better, and had clout.
The Celtic Irish people were such a cattle culture. The Celts were known for their iron-work, especially weaponry. More importantly, they also made iron tools: axes, plowshares, and scythes-tools that made growing and harvesting fodder for cattle much easier. They practiced intensive farming and cattle raising and dominated most of Europe for over 400 years, before Rome spread its empire outward, replacing Celtic practices with Roman ways. Culturally, Celtic art and design are the underpinnings of European traditions, but they were pushed to the perimeters of the British isles, mainly Wales, Cornwall, Scotland, and Ireland. They were a fierce, independent, cattle-raising people, who controlled their cattle with whips and dogs and strategically placed salt licks.
Celtic religion emphasized May Day-Beltaine-the day marking the divide between winter and summer. To purify the cattle, the herd was run through sacred bonfires to sanctify them for the coming summer grazing season. Celtic feasts, held in the tribal leader’s home, included boiled pork, beef, game, and fish, along with honey, butter, cheese, curds and milk, wine, mead, and beer.2 Celts were the first to use soap, made from beef fat and wood ashes. Celtic currency was in two forms: cattle and slaves. One female slave equaled the value of six heifers or three milk cows. Females, not male slaves or male cattle, were valued most highly.3
The Irish-Celtic goddess Brigit was worshipped all over Ireland. She was a healer and watched over women in childbirth and nursing ewes and cattle. She was a patron of crafts and poetry. When Christianity arrived on Ireland, Brigit underwent a change to St. Brigit, the most important female saint in Ireland. She was said to own cows that gave a lake of milk, which could provide a never-ending supply of food for the poor.4
Cattle were currency: children of freemen-who typically held seven cows and a bull, seven pigs and a sow, seven sheep and a horse, and grazing land to feed seven cows for a year-went to live with a foster family, a cultural tradition that lasted through the Middle Ages in Britain. The foster family was paid for keeping and training the child. Boys cost six heifers or one and a half milk cows, while girls’ fees were set at eight heifers or two milk cows. Girls cost more to foster out, because boys were thought to be less trouble to raise.5
Cattle could be kept easily by women: heifers were kept for breeding, while young bulls were butchered before they grew too big to handle. The environment made it easy for women to build stone fences, tedious work which took stamina, but not great physical strength. Grass hay could be cut with hand scythes, then bundled and stored for winter. Butter and cheese, made by hand at home, were kept cool in pits dug in the ground. The entire process could be handled by females, with animals sent out to graze under the watchful eye of children. Women tended the cattle while the men were absent on long voyages or at war. Cattle-keeping lends itself to a matriarchy, evident in Africa, another seat of ancestral cattle keeping, as well.
Women’s involvement in cattle keeping is evident in Irish folklore and myth. The most famous Irish tale describes how warrior-queen Maeve sought only the best bull for mating her cows.6 The story involving Queen Maeve is called the Tain Bo Cuailnge, “The Cattle Raid of Cooley,” and was probably first told about the time of Christ; the manuscript, written in the eighth century, dates from an earlier oral tradition.
Viking women were cattle keepers, too. They lived near the sea, but their lifestyle centered on keeping livestock, and cattle were their mainstay. They cultivated grains and vegetables, but the harsh northern climate made livestock more reliable. Norse stock raisers kept their cattle and horses in stables during the long winter and fed them from stores of fodder harvested during the summer. Vikings ate mostly beef, some mutton as well, and plenty of dairy products.
Between 800 and 1050 A.D., the Vikings expanded their domain, pushing out into the rest of Europe, going “a’viking” to return with plunder from abroad. They spread out in colonial settlements in North America and Greenland and traveled far into the heart of Europe and the Baltic. Their expansion was possible, because they kept livestock-and took many along with them. Viking cattle were small by today’s breed standards, which made them easy keepers, particularly when they were crowded into the longboats along with the family.
The Norse settlements in North America around that time are fascinating, because they reveal so many interesting dichotomies. The Norse settlers were remarkably healthy; their remains show an absence of nutritional deficiencies and much better general health than groups on the Continent. They ate meat and dairy products almost exclusively. They based their lifestyle on livestock keeping, hunting, and fishing. The settlements were based on cattle; the people’s lives were centered on their animals, which in the harsh climate had to be kept indoors most of the year.
They needed ample fodder in order to be able to continue milking through winter. Obtaining that all-important fodder structured the basic economy of the Viking settlements. The largest and richest farmsteads were located in grassy meadows that could be cut to provide stocks of hay for winter feeding.7 It probably took at least a decade for the number of cattle to grow so that newcomers did not have to keep bringing their stock with them. The Vikings, with their emphasis on cattle, were like other cattle cultures, in that women were much the equals of men, with much more standing and freedom than in crop-growing patriarchal societies.
American settlers are another example. Most Americans lived on small farms until the 20th century, and most women relied on a cow or two for economic stability. Making and selling butter had been a woman’s route to financial freedom for centuries, beginning in ancient times when butter was sacred, and moving into the northern European countries where climate made dairying successful. In America, by the mid-19th century, making and selling butter had replaced the home spinning and weaving industry of colonial times. Women in rural areas continued the pattern they had learned from their mothers of producing butter for urban markets.
Butter, a tasty source of energy that traveled well, was in demand to supply sailing ships, the military (margarine was invented to provide a cheap substitute for Napoleon’s army), and mining and logging camps. By 1860 Eastern farm families had already come to depend on butter for a cash income to supplement farming, and as the West was settled, making butter became the chief occupation of farm women and girls. In Spokane, Washington, cream sold for 32 cents per pound in 1907, and a woman could earn between $6.00 and $10.00 per month from one good cow. The butter money often surpassed any other cash crop.
Butter was ideal for women’s entrepreneurial energies: It was a product that kept longer than fresh milk-before refrigeration-because it was salted, and it was easier to transport to market than milk, because it was compact and solid. Country stores took butter in trade, allowing women to barter for items they needed. Women sold garden produce, eggs, and poultry, too, but butter was the economic mainstay.8 Butter was a cultural commodity from northern Europe, Africa, and India, but Native American women adopted it, too. The Coeur d’Alene women at the Sacred Heart Mission shipped butter to Walla Walla-by boat across Lake Coeur d’Alene, then by wagon-to exchange for supplies, and the Osages in Oklahoma turned to it as a cash source, producing thousands of pounds of butter each year.9
Women in the United States no longer rely on butter for economic freedom. Nor could they, even if they wanted to: the market has been taken over by industrial giants and threatened by margarine. But throughout most of history, a milk cow represented economic freedom for a woman.
Women and cows share another, more recently discovered bond: hormones. Cows are nature’s most protective mothers-they will not hesitate to attack anything that threatens their calf. Scientists have found that the cow’s pituitary gland, located next to the brain, contains a powerful hormone that drives maternal behavior. The hormone has been extracted from cow brains at slaughter, then administered therapeutically to pregnant women as oxytocin. Given intravenously, it causes pregnant women to go into labor, saving the lives of both women and infants. By the 1970s oxytocin was commonly used to put women into labor who otherwise would have been forced to have cesarean surgery or not been able to give birth at all.
The thousands of women today who raise cattle, and find themselves anxiously waiting up nights during spring calving time, share a maternal bond with their animals. They nurse, and coax, and pull the calves from the mothers if needed to save the calf or the cow. Linda Hasselstrom, an environmental writer and Wyoming rancher, calls these cattlewomen “midnight heifer midwives.”10 Nancy Curtis, editor and publisher of her own High Plains Press, writes and ranches in Wyoming. She tells about a call from a New York editor that caught her during calving season. She asked her mother to take the call, instructing her, “Don’t say I’m out checking on my first-calf heifers. Say I’m meeting with my production staff.” Her staff, she reported, turned out some nice calves that year.11
A doctoral candidate in the Department of History at Washington State University, Laurie Carlson is the author of Cattle: An Informal Social History (Ivan R. Dee, 2001), from which this article was excerpted; A Fever in Salem: A New Interpretation of the New England Witch Trials; On Sidesaddles to Heaven: The Women of the Rocky Mountain Mission; Seduced by the West: Jefferson’s America and the Lure of the Land Beyond the Mississippi; and the award-winning children’s book, Boss of the Plains: The Hat That Won the West.
Read more about Carlson in “Laurie Carlson: Doing the things she likes” (Fall 2006)