Gender in Egalitarian Societies
by Eleanor Leacock
From Becoming Visible: Women in European History, 2nd edition, edited by Renate Bridenthal and Claudia Koonz (Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1987).
Instructor's Supplemental Information & Reading Guide Questions for Introduction:Introduction
- Context: Leacock was an anthropologist who argued very strongly that pre-civilized peoples generally did not live in societies dominated by agression, and that in this situation the male gender did not yet dominate the female one. In this reading she talks about a number of Paleolithic Hunter-Gatherer as well as some Neolithic early farming and herding peoples. Her overall argument is that cooperation rather than violent competition was the key to the survival of relatively small groups needing all members' contributions and in competition mostly with the forces of surrounding nature. Leacock begins her introduction by attacking the assumption that humans have always been agressive and competitive and thus that men, as the more agressive, have always been dominant.
- What arguments does she make for cooperation, rather than competition, being the key to early human groups' survival? How does she interpret the importance of human hunting?
- Leacock then argues that civilization's basic habits and structures (permanent leaders capable of compelling obedience, inequalities of social status, complex warfare against members of one's own species, etc) should not be assumed to also have been true of simpler human communities before civilization's first emergence in the 3000s BCE. What process does she see producing civilization's "institutionalized inequalities"?
Much has been written about the fact that our primate ancestors turned to hunting for meat as a supplement to foraging for vegetable foods. One reads that the killing of animals at an early stage in human history led to deeply embedded aggressive drives. The argument has been persuasive, especially since it can be used to rationalize the dominance drives of ambitious politicians and the powerful financiers who back them, by blaming their actions on our human nature. People forget that, among animals, to kill other species does not lead to killing their own kind, but that to kill one's own species is specifically human. One must ask, what significance does killing animals actually have for people who depend on hunting to live?
A few peoples, beyond the reaches of industrialization, until recently sustained themselves largely by gathering wild vegetable foods and by hunting. They paid great attention to hunting skills, but aggression as we know it in our society was played down. Hunting was unusually hard work - certainly at times an exciting challenge, but also drudgery. The feeling for the animals killed, especially for large animals, did not resemble our egoistic pride in conquest; it revealed instead attitudes of gratitude and respect. Animal gods were commonly honored, and in stories humans and animals interacted closely; they intermarried, gave birth to one another, taught one another, and entered into compacts sealing their relations. Such peoples cooperated in the obtaining of meat and shared the animals procured. From the Bushman gatherers and hunters of the Kalahari Desert in southwest Africa to the Eskimo sea mammal hunters of the Arctic, the social arrangements of foraging peoples were similar. Societies that lived by gathering and by hunting (and fishing) were cooperative. People shared food, and thought of greed and selfishness much as we might think of mentally ill or criminal behavior. People made and valued fine possessions, but as much to give away as to keep.
People did not follow a single leader but participated in the making of decisions - codes stressed the importance of muting animosities and of restraining jealousy and anger. Sometimes personal enmity was ritualized as in the Eskimo drum duel, where two opponents hurled insults back and forth at one another in song. People criticized each other through banter and teasing, which usually led to outbursts of laughter in which even the person being criticized joined. When serious fights led to a person hurting or killing another, atonement, not punishment, was sought. Warfare was rare or unknown. When it occurred, it took the form of short-lived raids, not organized conflict for lands, slaves, or tribute. Two hunting peoples have recently been filmed and written about, the gentle and cheerful monkey-hunting Tasaday of the Philippines, and the unfriendly and grimly competitive Ik of Kenya.3 It is the Tasaday, until recently living their own free life, who give us the better approximation of our gathering and hunting forebears, for the Ik have been removed from their hunting lands and, totally demoralized, they seem bent on collective suicide.
Private property, social stratification, political subjugation, and institutionalized warfare with standing armies are all social inventions that evolved through the course of human history. They do not automatically express some innate human nature. Otherwise the vast majority of us today would not seek so hard to work out some minimally satisfying, secure, and friendly way of living but would wholeheartedly revel in the competition, aggression, and violence allowed and encouraged by our social structure.
The institutionalized inequalities so familiar to us, the dominance hierarchies and the constant concern with large-scale warfare, first arose in the fourth millennium BC (BCE) during what has been called the urban revolution. In the long course human history, various egalitarian gathering and hunting, and later horticultural societies elaborated ritually on various forms of social and ceremonial rank, but still maintained, as far as can be determined, the equal right of all to basic sources of livelihood. Then, as a result of human ingenuity and inventiveness, specialization of work gradually developed and removed part of the population from basic food production. Barter became transformed into commerce and traders into merchant intermediaries. Priest-chiefs increasingly manipulated the goods that were stored with them for redistribution, and what had been ritual rank was transformed into exploitative elitism. Equal access to land became restricted as free lands were turned into privately controlled terraced, irrigated, fertilized, or otherwise worked fields. In short, class systems were created although not quickly or without resistance and attempts to preserve cooperative mores. Fully stratified societies emerged first in southwest Asia and northeast Africa, in Mesopotamia, Egypt, Jerusalem, Persia. In the Western hemisphere, urban, stratified societies evolved independently among the precursors of the Incas, Mayas, and Aztecs. In subsequent millennia, mercantile urban centers with stratified, competitive social and political forms repeatedly developed from societies that had been organized around egalitarian clans, as reconstructions of early history in Africa, Asia, Europe, and the New World indicate.
Nearly 5000 years after cities arose in Asia and Africa, the next social
transformation, the Industrial Revolution, took shape. Inextricably bound
up with European colonial and imperial expansion, the Industrial Revolution
brought to a close the relative autonomy of the earth's myriad cultural
traditions. Gradually, the peoples of all continents became enmeshed in
a single world system of miliary, political, and economic exploitative
relations. A constant theme recurs in careful ethnohistorical reconstructions
of the many lifeways developed by different peoples. Archaeological data,
accounts by early explorers, missionaries, and traders, as well as -later
ethnographic material, reveal that systematized cooperativeness has repeatedly
been undercut by systematized competitiveness. Fortunately, increasing
numbers of the world's people are now seeking to create new forms of cooperation.
It is urgent indeed that we succeed, lest we render our planet unfit for
Where does this leave us in relation to the social status and role of women in classless societies? What insights do anthropological data offer us in the effort to understand the basis for women's present low status and the sources for change?
The dictum most commonly expressed in contemporary anthropological writing is blunt: the general egalitarianism of nonstratified societies did not fully apply to women. Anthropologists agree that women in such societies were by no means oppressed in the ways that developed in the classical patriarchal societies of the Mediterranean world and the Orient. Nonetheless, in the view of most anthropologists who write on the subject, women have always been to some extent subordinate to men. Hence, one may read such statements as: "It is a common sociological truth that in all societies authority is held by men, not women"; "Men tend regularly to dominate women"; "Subordination of females happens to occur with remarkable persistence in a great variety of cultures"; "Men have always been politically and economically dominant over women"; and "Regardless of the form of social structure, men are always in the ascendency."4 It is admitted that the widespread institution of matrilineality - the reckoning of descent through women - enhanced women's status, but, it is argued, matrilineality merely substituted the authority of maternal uncles and elder brothers for that of fathers and husbands. A rough and ready equality of the sexes is generally seen as existing among foragers, but men are still said to have slightly higher status. "Men's occupations are always the focus of greater cultural interest and prestige. . . . Women can exert influence outside the family only indirectly through their influence on their kinsmen. Therefore, however important the woman's work may be to the domestic economy, it does not elicit the public esteem accorded the work of men. Women's role is always "private," men's "public," it is asserted. Women's work is... bounded by the domestic framework, concerned with the familial, private sectors of society. Roles within the public sphere are the province of men, and the public sphere is the locus of power and prestige. . . . In effect, whatever the nature of women's work, or its economic value, it is never invested with glamour, excitement, or prestige.5 Contemporary studies of women in history and society promise to force the revision of such views. The thesis that a stage of egalitarian economic and social organization - primitive communism - preceded the emergence of stratification in human history has only recently become widely accepted by anthropologists - not long ago such a notion was laughed at as nineteenth-century naivete'. Careful analysis reveals the influence women held in such societies and the great measure of autonomy with which they functioned. It is hoped, then, that the next decade will see the stereotyped characterization of women's roles in terms of the cliche' of male dominance discredited.
Four main distortions perpetuate confusion about women in classless societies. First, societies that are not part of the specific historical traditions of either Europe or the Orient are commonly lumped in a single category, designated "primitive." Yet stratified and urban societies had emerged or were emerging in many parts of the world at the time of European expansion. Only a few of the societies called "primitive" retained fully egalitarian institutions at that time Therefore, general statements about women's status in primitive society reflect the wide variations that existed around the world and deflect attention from the analysis of their status in truly egalitarian societies.
Second, the cultures that anthropologists are not autonomous for the most part, but exist in the context of a colonial world. Generalizations about tribal cultures are too commonly drawn from twentieth-century ethnographies without account being taken of colonialism and imperialism and their worldwide effects. The societies that American Indian elders described to early anthropologists also do not represent aboriginal life in unchanged form. Trade with Europeans, conquest and resistance, work and in some cases enslavement, intermarriage, and missionizing, all created problems with which native Americans have been dealing for the last 400 years or more. In Africa, for two, three, or four hundred years (depending upon the region) peoples were willy-nilly involved, directly or indirectly, in the development of capitalist Europe and an imperialist world order. They traded and politicked; went to work on plantations and in mines to pay newly imposed taxes; were missionized or themselves became mission-aries; were conquered or enslaved or otherwise subjugated; and resisted and fought for political independence.
Patriarchal practices and attitudes brought by Europeans who imposed imperialist control accelerated the decline in the status of women in several ways. Public positions of prestige and influence were relegated to men, first informally by European emissaries and traders, later formally by colonial administrators. Women's rights to land were eroded or abolished altogether. Reciprocal economic ties within clans and lineages were undermined, and women and children became dependent on individual, wage-earning male family heads. Finally, missionaries extolled European ideals and exhorted women to obey and be sexually faithful for life to a single man.
The third impediment to an objective cross-cultural analysis of women's roles is the bias that [works] like this are seeking to overcome. Anthropologists have on the whole been men who interview other men, and assume that the data collected thereby are sufficient for understanding a society. Women anthropologists have generally gone along, and only recently have begun in any numbers, as women, to examine the distortions that have resulted. As a group of women anthropologists recently put it:Anthropology, at its present stage of development, is lacking a theory of women that is complex enough to account for almost anything we do. Our mostly male colleagues have been content to describe women's behavior as men would like it to be. A lot of essential questions have never been asked - the result of male anthropologists' chewing the fat with male informants has been a view of women that proceeds almost directly from male norms. In part, this state of affairs grows Out of the lack of semantic differentiation for what women do and are. But, beyond this, it involves the startling failure of some anthropologists to comprehend that women are as much people as men are...6The fourth difficulty in arriving at a clear picture of sex roles and functioning in preclass societies follows from an ethnocentric approach to social organization. Two pervasive and misleading assumptions are: 1) that male-female dyads exist as the core of basic social-economic units in all types of societies and function with respect to dependent children much as they do in Western society; and 2) that social action is everywhere divided into a public, formal, and politically crucial male sphere, and a private, familial, and informal female sphere, much as it is in our society. Where data are thin, the ethnographer can always dispatch the discussion of women's activities with a paragraph or two about producing and preparing food and caring for children and home. In monograph after monograph such allusions recur with a lack of rigor or explicitness, although the restriction of women to these activities may be belied by a close reading between the lines of the monograph itself. The practice perpetuates the conventional wisdom reflected in casual generalizations about, in the words of one text, the "normal importance of men." 7
Given these problems, is it possible to define with any certainty what the role of women was in egalitarian societies? The answer is yes; the foundation for an adequate definition of women's roles cross-culturally is now being laid as anthropologists (mostly but not exclusively women) turn to collecting new data on women's participation in different kinds of societies and to reexamining allusions to women scattered through old data. The picture that emerges falls, in my estimation, within the broad outlines proposed by Frederick Engels in his now classic Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State: the initial egalitarianism of human society included women, and their status relative to men declined as they lost their economic autonomy. Women's work was initially public, in the context of band or village collectives. It was transformed into private service within the confines of the individual family as part of the process through the specialization of work and increase of trade, both women and men lost direct control of the food and other goods they produced and economic classes emerged. The process was slow, and one that women apparently banded together to resist in various ways, judging from what we know of West African women's organizations and of patterned hostility between the sexes in Melanesia and other areas.
In Europe, no enclaves of foraging or horticultural peoples were left by the urban and industrial revolutions as direct representatives of egalitarian lifeways. For such cultures we have only archaeological evidence. Written historical records, however, indicate two broadly differing streams in the later social history of Europe: 1) that of the Mediterranean world, where... the classical patriarchy of the ancient Middle East finally succeeded in submerging what had been the formal public participation of women in social, political, and religious matters; and 2) that of the northern European periphery described by Tacitus, where women, though far from equal to men, nonetheless retained a relatively higher status than in Mediterranean cultures, a status that persisted long enough to have its effect on early medieval society. Tacitus noted that the "Britons make no distinction of sex in their appointment of commanders," and his assessment of the "reverence" felt for women leaders among the Germans is interesting. He referred to it as "untainted by servile flattery or any pretense of turning women into goddesses," which suggests a real respect, rather than the self-serving pattern of placing women on a pedestal as evidence of upper-class status.8
Mediterranean patriarchal traditions and northern traditions that suggested earlier, more egalitarian mores were both late, of course, in terms of human history as a whole. Archaeological remains indicate that they were preceded by egalitarian horticultural societies, that were in turn preceded by societies based on some combination of fishing, hunting, and gathering of wild vegetable foods. In order to make educated guesses about women's changing roles among these past European peoples, it is necessary to describe societies in parts of the world where egalitarian forms were not destroyed as early.
In the Western hemisphere, urbanization and stratification developed
in Mexico and the Andes, but by the time of Columbus's voyages had not
engulfed the far-flung peoples of what are now the northern United States
and Canada. Therefore, we can look to these groups for an understanding
of how egalitarian societies functioned. I shall take as examples the Innu
(Montagnais-Naskapi) hunters of the Labrador Peninsula in eastern Canada
and the Iroquois villagers of northern New York State, for early writers
gave some indication of how these peoples lived in early colonial days
before their lives were completely transformed. This is particularly true
of the Innu (Montagnais-Naskapi), for in the winter of 1633-1634 a Jesuit
missionary, Paul le Jeune, lived with a Montagnais band and wrote a detailed
account of his experiences in his mission report to his superiors in Paris.
Le Jeune's letters afford an invaluable record of the mores and ethics
of an egalitarian people, and he made explicit references to the prestige
and autonomy of all individuals, women as well as men.
The Montagnais-Naskapi lived almost entirely on fish and game in pre-Columbian times [that is, the era before Columbus's 1492 voyage when Europeans first appeared in the Americas]. The collecting of roots and berries was minimal. People moved camp many times during the winter, but during the short summer fairly large numbers came together at lake and river shores, to visit and court, and to prepare snowshoes, canoes, and clothing for the next winter. Some fifteen or twenty people, several nuclear families, lived together in a large skin- or bark-covered lodge. In the winter two or three lodge groups traveled and camped together or somewhat near each other. They would join with others from time to time for short periods of feasting if hunting was good or would turn to one another for help if the hunt was poor.
There was no division of labor except by sex, and all adults participated in the procuring of food and manufacture of equipment necessary for life in the north. In general, women worked leather and bark, while men worked wood, with each making the tools they needed. For instance, women cut strips of leather and wove them onto the snowshoe frames that were made by men, and women covered with birch bark the canoe frames the men made. Women skinned game animals and cured the hides for clothing, moccasins, and lodge coverings. Everyone joined in putting up lodges; the women went into the forest to chop down lodge poles, while the men cleared the snow from the ground where a lodge was to be erected.
All able-bodied members of the camp, women, men, and older children, participated in collective hunts, when migrating caribou were driven into compounds or across rivers to be speared from canoes. Men in twos and threes hunted solitary game in the forests. Women hunted occasionally when they wanted meat and the men were away, or if they wished to join their husbands on a hunting trip. Both sexes procured small game around camp, setting traps and snares. Cooking also involved the cooperation of both sexes. Large animals were roasted in pits with hot stones placed on top, or cut in chunks to be skewered on stakes held over the fire, or boiled in bark dishes into which heated stones were placed. With the advent of the copper pot, a valued trade item from the sixteenth century on, meat could be simmered over an open fire without requiring much labor or attention. Everyday cooking fell to the women although men helped prepare food for feasts or cooked for themselves when on a hunt.
Virtually everyone married, although divorce was easy and could be obtained at the desire of either. An inept or lazy person might have trouble keeping a spouse, and a man might be ridiculed for doing work usually done by women as evidence that he could not keep a wife. Some men had more than one wife, a practice that the seventeenth-century missionaries deplored. Le Jeune wrote, "Since I have been preaching among them that a man should have only one wife, I have not been well received by the women; for, since they are more numerous than the men, if a man can only marry one of them, the others will have to suffer." 9
Children observed almost the entire gamut of work, recreation, and religious life that went on around them; their training was therefore largely informal as they played, helped, listened, and watched. While the care of infants devolved mainly on their mothers, fathers were not inept or impatient with small children. Le Jeune wrote of a man soothing a sick baby with what he considered "the love of a mother" as well as "the firmness of a father."10 Over three centuries later, I observed the unquestioning patience with which a man sat cradling his sick and fretful infant in his arms, crooning over it for hours, while his wife occupied herself at the long and demanding task of smoking a deerskin.
Le Jeune wrote of the "patience" shown in daily life, and of how well people agreed. "You do not see any disputes, quarrels, enmities, or reproaches among them," he stated, as people went about their work without "meddling" with one another.11 During the summers of 1950 and 1951, I myself witnessed an ease in the course of daily interaction that persisted despite the fact that the economic basis for Indian autonomy was fast being whittled away, and there were growing reasons for new anxieties. Not that everyone was at peace: a woman in one camp had a reputation for always scolding; a man in another became drunk whenever he could procure molasses or sugar for making beer. But it was beautiful to see the sense of group responsibility that still obtained for children, and the sense of easy autonomy in relationships unburdened by centuries of training in deferential behavior by sex and status.
Not surprisingly, however, there was an evident feeling of constraint when whites were around. In an earlier period, this had not been the case. Le Jeune described the bawdiness, the banter and kidding, the love of sharp talking and voracious eating that characterized relaxed periods in the daily life of the Montagnais-Naskapi in the early seventeenth century. "They have neither gentleness nor courtesy in their utterance," he wrote, "and a Frenchman could not assume the accent, the tone, and the sharpness of their voices without becoming angry, yet they do not."12 To his dismay, both sexes indulged freely in language that had "the foul odor of the sewers,"13 and in the ribald teasing that to his surprise was usually taken with great good humor by the victims themselves. Today we understand ridicule as an important means of reinforcing group mores in a society devoid of formal controls. As le Jeune saw it, their slanders and derision do not come from malicious hearts or from infected mouths, but from a mind which says what it thinks in order to give itself free scope, and which seeks gratification from everything, even from slander and mockery.14 Some observers said of Montagnais-Naskapi women, as they said of other native American women, that they were virtual slaves. Their hard work and the lack of ritualized formalities surrounding them contrasted sharply with ideals of courtesy for women in the French and British bourgeois family and were taken as evidence of low social status. Those who knew the Indians well reported otherwise. "The women have great power here," le Jeune wrote, and exhorted the men to assert themselves. "I told him then that he was the master, and that in France women do not rule their husbands."15 Another Jesuit father stated, "The choice of plans, of undertakings, of journeys, of winterings, lies in nearly every instance in the hands of the housewife."16
It is important to recognize that these decisions about movements were not private family affairs but were community decisions about the main business of the group. There were no formal chiefs or superordinate economic or political bodies to which people had to defer, either with or without direct orders being given. In fact, the Jesuits bemoaned the independence of Indian life. Le Jeune complained, "Alas, if someone would stop the wanderings of the Savages, and give authority to one of them to rule the others, we could see them converted and civilized in a short time."17 Recurrent themes in the seventeenth-century letters and reports of the Jesuit Relations were the attempts to establish the authority of elected chiefs over their bands and of husbands over their wives.
Spokespeople for a group vis-a-vis outsiders were those respected for their rhetorical abilities. Their influence was personal only. They would be ridiculed if they tried to exert any power in their group. Le Jeune wrote that the Indians "cannot endure in the least those who seem desirous of assuming superiority over the others; they place all virtue in a certain gentleness or apathy."18 Knowledgeable people would come forth to lead the hunting groups, but their responsibilities as temporary chiefs would terminate with the end of a hunting trip. Shamans, religious practitioners who communicated with the various gods, held no formal power, but merely personal influence. Formerly, women as well as men became shamans. One Jesuit father tried to stop a powerful female shaman who was rallying her people to fight against the Iroquois. She drew a knife and threatened to kill him if he did not stop interfering.
A lack of formalized authority was possible since the small groups that lived together and depended upon each other also shared common interests in group survival and well-being. Also, people could easily leave one group and join another if they wished, a flexibility that enabled those who felt animosities toward others to move away before too great discomfort or disruption occurred. Anger might burst out in violence or even lead to murder, but it could be handled by separation. At worst, then, personal animosities functioned at a distance. Illness was sometimes attributed to the manipulation of supernatural forces by a personal enemy.
The kind of power over others familiar to our society did not govern egalitarian societies. Since we find it difficult, however, to interpret how such societies did in fact function, we commonly project the terms of our own social order upon them, an error especially common with respect to the status of women. As noted before, by failing to collect adequate data on women or to interpret data from the vantage point of women, anthropologists may all too casually distort the true state of affairs. The kind of statement le Jeune has made available remains rare; most of the time one must read between the lines of ethnographic accounts for indications of women's actual roles. When one does, assumptions about brutal men pushing women around among hunting peoples become revealed for what they are contemporary mythology.
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The People of the Long House, known as the Iroquois, included from west to east in New York State the Nun-da-wa-o-no, or Great Hill People (Seneca), the Gwe-u-gweh-o-no, or People at the Mucky Land (Cayuga), the O-non-da-ga-o-no, or People on the Hills (Onondaga), the O-na-yote-ka-o-no, or Granite People (Oneida), and the Ga-ne-a-go-o-no, or People Possessors of the Flint (Mohawk), as well as later, to the south of the Oneida, the Dus-ga-o-weh-o-no, or Shirt-Wearing People (Tuscarora). Recently, a group of Mohawks, along with members of other Indian nations, has moved back onto a piece of former Mohawk land in the Eagle Lake area of the Adirondack State Park. They wish to return, in their words, "to the cooperative system of our ancestors, and to re-create "a people's government" with broad community participation in decision making. These contemporary pioneers come from urban as well as rural areas, but they differ from other cooperative movements primarily in their sense of their history and former traditions.
At the time of European intrusion in the sixteenth century, the Iroquois lived in villitges of 2,000 people and more, and worked as gardeners and hunters. The women farmed, using digging sticks and hoes with deer scapula blades. They planted some fifteen varieties of maize, as many as sixty different kinds of beans, and eight types of squash. They also collected wild fruits and nuts, roots, and edible or medicinal leaves. The men hunted deer, bear, and small game, and fished and took birds, using a variety of snares, traps, and nets, as well as bows and arrows. Both sexes worked together to build the fairly permanent large, bark-shingled frame houses that were shared by up to twenty-five families. These longhouses had anterooms at either end for storage and a row of fireplaces down the center. Families that lived across from each other used the same fireplace, and back from the fireplaces, family sleeping quarters were set off from each other by partitions.
During the course of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Iroquois became heavily involved in the fur trade, and when they exhausted the beaver in their homelands, they either acted as intermediaries in the trade with outlying peoples or fought with them to extend their own sphere of operation. They became the enemies of the Montagnais [Innu], and in the competition between the French and English for control of American lands that came to a head during the eighteenth century the Iroquois allied with the English and the Montagnais with the French.
By the nineteenth century, when the anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan wrote League of the Ho-De-No-Sau-Nee or Iroquois, published in 1851, longhouse life was a distant memory, although the longhouse remained a strong symbol of the still-functioning Council of the Confederacy. Fundamental changes had been taking place in Iroquois society since the sixteenth century, following from the fur trade and the warfare engendered by competing colonial powers and by the loss of Indian lands to them. The confederacy of the six tribes acted as a powerful unifying force, and the formal powers of the council increased in order that it might deal effectively with the political and economic rivalries and pressures of the Dutch, French, and British. At the same time, however, the fur trade enabled economically independent entrepreneurs to detach themselves from responsibilities toward their people. The effect was eventually to undermine the previously unchallenged communism practiced by the families sharing a longhouse, a process aided both by missionary teaching and governmental policies. Descriptions of Iroquois society, therefore, and especially of women's position, abound in contradictions, as people with different viewpoints and sources of information make judgments at different points in time.
That women at one time held a relatively high status in Iroquois society, however, no one questions. The Iroquois counted descent matrilineally, a common practice among horticultural peoples, and usufruct rights to clan lands passed down from mother to daughter. A man usually moved into his wife's household when he married and could be sent home if he displeased her. The matrons of a longhouse controlled the distribution of the food and other stores that made up the wealth of the group; they nominated and could depose the sachems or chiefs that represented each tribe in the Council of the Confederacy; and they "had a voice upon all questions" brought before the clan councils.20 Women and men held in equal numbers held the important positions of Keepers of the Faith, influential people who admonished others for moral infractions and sometimes reported them to the council for public exposure. Compensation to her kinfolk for a murdered woman was twice that for a murdered man. An early eighteenth century missionary, Lafitau, writing either of women among the Iroquois or the similar Huron, or both, stated that "All real authority is vested in them....They are the souls of the Councils, the arbiters of peace and of war."21 Well over a century later, Reverend Wright, a missionary to the Seneca, wrote: The women were the great power among the clans, as everywhere else. They did not hesitate, when occasion required, "to knock off the horns," as it was technically called, from the head of a chief, and send him back to the ranks of the warriors.22 In his book The Inevitability of Patriarchy, however, Steven Goldberg three times makes reference to the statement made by Lewis Henry Morgan that "the Indian regarded women as the inferior, the dependent, and the servant of man, and from nurture and habit, she actually considered herself to be so."23 Morgan also wrote that women's influencedid not reach outward to the affairs of the gens [clan], phratry [grouping of clans], or tribe, but seems to have commenced and ended with the household. This view is quite consistent with the life of patient drudgery and of general subordination to the husband which the Iroquois wife cheerfully accepted as the portion of her sex.24 How do these statements square with the previous account of women's high status among the Iroquois?
Part of the answer lies in the changes that took place as women's control of the longhouse became replaced by their dependence on wage-earning husbands in the context of the individual nuclear family. Such institutions as the dormitories where adolescent girls had lived and courted their lovers, alluded to disapprovingly in sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century accounts, were not even a memory by Morgan's time. Chastity had since then been enjoined for unmarried women, along with the double standard and the public whipping of women for adultery.
Part of the discrepancy in evaluations of Iroquois women's status also lies in the failure to understand their control over the household in its full significance. In modern times, to speak of women's high position in the household and of their prestige and influence in male councils would imply no more than the usual power behind the throne, whereby women manipulate their families to gain some measure of control over their lives in a fundamentally patriarchal society. In the Iroquois case however, the fact that the households constituted the communities meant that women's decision-making power over the production and distribution of food and other goods gave them a large measure of control over the group economy itself. Such decisions did not have the private character they have in our society, where production and distribution of any importance are carried on by corporate business, and power lies with complex and formidable institutions far beyond the community.
Council decisions were not backed up with the kind of power held by a modern state, but rather expressed group consensus in relation to inter-village affairs and policies toward outside groups. In a paper on women's position among the Iroquois, Judith Brown gives an example of the practical power inhering in their economic role: they could choose to support or to restrain a proposed war party by agreeing to furnish, or by withholding, necessary supplies. Were societies like the Iroquois, then, matriarchal? The answer is yes if the term means that women held public authority in major areas of group life. The answer is no if the term alludes to a mirror image of judeo-Christian and Oriental patriarchy, where power in the hands of men (or an occasional woman) at the top of hierarchical structures is reflected in the petty power men exercise over their wives in individual households.
In precolonial Iroquois society, it was necessary to regularize the
production and distribution of food by and among hundreds of villagers
who lived together. This must have lessened somewhat the kind of personal
autonomy that characterized Innu (Montagnais-Naskapi) life. Nonetheless,
Irouois society remained basically communal and egalitarian. The artistic,
ritual, and other cultural elaborations that a settled life made possible
were participated in by everyone according to interest. People of personal
prestige and influence live, worked, and ate along with everyone else.
At worst, prisoners of war who were adopted into a clan might have to do
the more tiresome chores for a while, but they partook of the same food
and housing as the others and could with time win a respected place in
the group. In his classic work Ancient Society, Morgan wrote:
Morgan, however, referred to the Iroquois gens as a brotherhood"; although he recognized the high status of women in such a society, he did not perceive the full significance of their parallel "sisterhood."
. . . . . . . section omitted . . . . . .
[Over almost all of the world] women's position was transformed from early autonomy and equality to one of lesser status and, subsequently, of oppression. What was responsible for this transition?
The theme that innate human drives toward dominance, and especially
the aggressiveness of males, have determined human history threads through
most answers given to this question. Precise formulations vary, but in
general, arguments run along the following lines: Human populations recurrently
grow to the limits of their different environments, given the technical
skills at their disposal. This leads to competition for resources, and
to warfare. As the technological means for producing food and other necessities
improve, populations grow, and so does the competition for land. Warfare
increases, which enables the more ambitious and aggressive men to acquire
surplus wealth and assert dominant status over others in their group and
over women, as well as over other groups. From the viewpoint of recent
history, the assumption seems reasonable enough. From the perspective of
cultural history as a whole, however, the argument turns out to be oversimplified
to the point of serious distortion; it does not really work.
The Transformation of Egalitarian Society
As mentioned earlier, everything known about foraging life indicates that human hunters and gatherers were not engaged in an unremitting struggle with each other for survival as they wrested food from a stingy world and faced the problem of population always growing to the very limit of its resources. Human society evolved through the application of ingenuity and the expression of sociality, not merely some drive to dominate. With skills and knowledge, earIy humans were able to use an extremely wide variety of plants and animals, and they moved into new environments as they learned how to handle new resources. Fighting was apparently disliked and avoided by foraging societies, and such societies persisted far longer than have the warring societies that succeeded them. All indications are that there was abundant leisure for the sheer fun of talking, joking, and storytelling in foraging/hunting societies, and for artistic and ritual pursuits. Le Jeune complained of the Montagnais that "their life is passed in eating, laughing, and making sport of each other, and of all the people they know."29
Furthermore, group size and composition was apparently maintained at a level well within limits of environmental resources. All evidence points to conscious population limitation in egalitarian societies. A variety of means was employed, some more, some less effective: periods of abstinence, prolonged lactation, herbs for birth control or abortion, mechanical attempts at abortion, and, as a last resort, infanticide. Infants who followed siblings so closely as to overburden the mother, and hence the group, were not allowed to live. The Jesuits commented on the early Montagnais families, with two, three, and rarely more than four children, by contrast with the large families of the French."30
The transformation from egalitarian society to societies built on inequality and stratification was not due to a psycho-biological combination of dominance drives and population pressures. Instead, a profoundly social process - sharing - sparked the change, for sharing developed into barter, which in turn developed into the systematic trade and specialization of labor that eventually led to the innovation of individually held wealth and power. The exchange of resources from different areas is as old as human society itself. In ancient sites, seashells occur many miles from ocean shores. Flint, obsidian, and other desirable stones have wandered far from their original locations. Such rarities as fascinatingly beautiful amber have been passed from hand to hand great distances from their sources. In the course of human history, the increasingly stable village life made possible either by agriculture or by unusually dependable seasonal supplies of wild foods (such as the salmon runs that supported the coastal villagers of British Columbia) called for more and more regularized exchange - both within and among groups. In turn, specialization became common in the production of goods to traded for luxury items and special tools and foods. The process enriched life and promoted skill. As an unforeseen result, it ultimately transformed the entire structure of human relations from the equality of communal groups to the exploitativeness of economically divided societies.
Networks of exchange relations were originally egalitarian in form, for profit was not involved. However, the production and holding of goods for future exchange created new positions and new vested interests that began to divide the commitments of some individuals from those of the group as a whole. The role of economic intermediary developed and separated the process of exchange from the reciprocal relations that had bound groups together. Concomitantly, the holders of religious and chiefly statuses, traditionally guardians of produce that was redistributed as needed, acquired novel powers from the manipulation of stores of locally unavailable and particularly desirable merchandise. As Engels outlined in his Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, the seeds of class difference were sown when people began to lose direct control over the distribution and consumption of the goods they had produced. Simultaneously, the basis for the oppression of women was laid, as the communal kin group became undercut by conflicting economic and political ties. In its place, individual family units emerged, in which the responsibility for raising future generations was placed on the shoulders of individual parents, and through which women's public role (and consequent public recognition) was transmuted into private service (and loss of public esteem).
Contemporary analyses of the structural components of women's social status indicate the critical role played by their degree of control over goods and resources. In an article comparing twelve societies with respect to women's position, Peggy Sanday wrote that for this sample "the antecedent of female political authority is some degree of economic power, i.e., ownership or control of strategic resources."31The importance of control over resources is illustrated by Judith Brown's comparison of early Iroquois society with the nineteenth-century Beinba of Zambia. Among the latter, women no longer controlled their produce and they held relatively lower status. Among the Iroquois, Brown wrote, the hospitality of women in the dispensing of food redounded to their own prestige; among the Bemba it reflected the prestige and power of the male household heads. In Bemba society, inequality and individual family units had replaced communal groups, and a man's right to his labor was "subject to the superior claims of certain older relatives and ultimately to that of the chief himself."32 Chiefs held and distributed food to reinforce their own economic and political power.
Karen Sacks compared four African societies, the hunting/gathering Mbuti of Zaire, the horticultural Lovedu and pastoral/agricultural Pondo of South Africa, and the stratified Ganda of Uganda. She showed the relative decline in women's status as the societies moved from "collective social production by women, as against that by men: equal in Mbuti and Lovedu, unequal in Pondo, and absent in Ganda."33 These differences persisted in spite of the effects, both direct and indirect, of colonialism. Where women were traders and marketers, as in many West African societies, they retained greater economic autonomy and resultant status than when trading was carried on by men. The Ibo of Nigeria afford an unusually well-documented example of women marketers. When their status became threatened by the external economic ties - negotiated by men - that expanded rapidly following World War I, women protested publically, rioting and demonstrating first in 1919,then again in 1925 and 1929. Accordingly, women's organizations among the Ibo were studied in detail, while elsewhere we have only hints of their existence. Women sat together in public meetings, and through their organizations, they made their "own laws for the women of the town irrespective of the men," regulated the markets, protected women's interests, and negotiated legal cases where women and men were implicated. Their protests emphasize the close relation between their economic position and their personal rights vis a' vis men. Issues included both proposed new taxes by the British and the threat to the traditional right of women to have sexual relations with men other than their husbands.34
African political and social systems were either destroyed or subverted
to the service of colonial administrations. But oral history and early
accounts both indicate many parallels with the state- societies that arose
in the Mediterranean area. In West Africa as in the Mediterranean, specialization
of labor and commodity production were tied in with far-flung trading and
kingdoms that rose and fell according to the geographical availability
of routes and resources and other accidents of history. In both areas there
was a long-term strengthening of economic classes and a decline in the
status of women, accompanied by conflicts over lineality, over land rights,
and over family and kin commitments. This is the point at which written
allusions to women in European history begin.
1. Robert Ardrey, African Genesis: A Personal Investigation into the Animal Origins and Nature of Man, Atheneum, New York, 1961, and The Social Contract, Atheneum, New York, 1970; Desmond Morris, The Naked Ape, Dell, New York, 1966.
2. For an evolutionary summary and further references, see Eleanor Leacock's introduction to "The Part Played by Labor in the Transition from Ape to Man," Frederick Engels, The Origin of the Family, Pricate Property and the State, ed. Eleanor Leacock, International Publishers, New York, 1972. Were humanity by nature that disposed to fighting, we would all be fully involved in the contemporary melee with great enjoyment. Instead, despite our competitive socialization, most of us try to find some reasonably peaceful niche in which to gain some pleasure from life.
3. Cohn Tumbull, The Mountain People, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1972.
4. T. 0. Beidelman, The Kaguru: A Matrilineal People of East Africa,Holt, Rinehart & Winstor, New York, 1971, p.43; Walter Goldschmidt,Man's Way: A Preface to the Understanding of Human Society, Holt, Rinehart & Winston, New York, 1959, p. 164; Marvin Harris, "Women's Fib," Natural History (Spring 1972), and Culture, Man, and Nature.' An Introduction to General Anthropology, Crowell, New York, 1971, p. 328;F. E. Evans-Pritchard, The Position of Women in Primitive Societies and Other Essays in Social Anthropology, Faber & Faber, London, 1965,p.54.
5. Dorothy Hammond and Alta Jablow, Women: Their Economic Role in Traditional Societies, Addison-Wesley Module in Anthropology, No.35, Reading, Mass. 1973, pp.3, 8, 26, 27.
6. Ellen Lewin, Jane F. Collier, Michelle Z. Rosaldo, & Janet S. Fjellman, "Power Strategies and Sex Roles," paper presented at the 7oth Annual Meeting, American Anthropological Association, New York, 1971, pp.1-2.
7. John Honigman, World of Man, Harper & Row, New York, 1959, p.302.
8. Tacitus, The Agricola and the Germania, Penguin, New York, 1971; pp.66, 108.
9. R. G. Thwaites, ed., The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents,vol.12, Burrows Brothers, Cleveland, 1906, p. 165.
10. Ibid., vol. 11, p. 105.
11. Ibid., vol. 6, p. 233.
12. Ibid., vol. 6, p. 235.
13. Ibid., vol. 6, p. 253.
14. Ibid., vol. 6, p. 247.
15. Ibid., vol. 5, p. 181; vol 6, p. 255.
16. Ibid., vol. 68, p. 93.
17. Ibid., vol. 12, p. 169.
18. Ibid., vol. 16, p. 165.
19. Ralph S. Solecki, "Neanderthal Is Not an Epithet but a Worthy Ancestor,"Anthropology, Contemporary Perspectives, eds. David F. Hunter and Phillip Whitten, Little, Brown, Boston, 1975, p.30-31.
20. For a summary statement of the position of Iroquois women, see Judith K. Brown, "Iroquois Women: An Ethnohistoric Note," Toward an Anthropology of Women, ed. Rayna R. Reiter, Monthly Review Press, New York, 1975.
21. Ibid., p.238.
22. Lewis Henry Morgan, Ancient Society, ed. Eleanor Leacock, Peter Smith, Gloucester, Mass., 1974, p.464.
23. Lewis Henry Morgan, League of the Ho-De-No-Sau-Nee or Iroquois,vol.I, Human Relations Area Files, New Haven, 1954, p.315; Steven Goldberg,The Inevitability of Patriarchy, Wm. Morrow, New York, 1973, pp.40, 58, 241.
24. Lewis Henry Morgan, Houses and House-Life of the American Aborigines,University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1965, p.128.
25. Morgan, ancient Society, pp. 85-86.
27. Ibid., p. 119.
28. Ibid., p. 123.
29. Thwaites, vol. 52, p. 49.
30..Ibid., vol. 52, p. 49.
31. Peggy R. Sanday, "Female Status in the Public Domain," Women, Culture, and Society, eds. Michelle Zimbalist Rosaldo and Louise Lamphere, Stanford University Press, Stanford, 1974, p. 193.
32. Quoted by Brown from Audrey I. Richards, Land, Labour and Diet in Northern Rhodesia, Oxford University Press, London, 1939; pp. 188-189.
33. Karen Sacks, "Engels Revisited: Women, the Organization of Production, and Private Property," Rosaldo and Lamphere, Women, Culture and Society, p. 215.
34. G. T. Basden, Among the Ibos of Nigeria, Barnes & Noble, New York, 1966, p. 95. See also G. T. Basden, Niger Ibos, Seeley, Service, London, 1938, and C. K. Meek, Law and Authority in a Nigerian Tribe, Oxford University Press, London, 1937.