A Human Universal Essay, Research Paper
In this essay I will look at whether the inequality between men and women is a human universal, or whether there are or have been societies in which women shared power equally with men, or even exercised power over them. In order to do so, I will look at the writings of a number of anthropologists.
In “The Subordinance of Women: A Problematic Universal”, author Ruth Bleier indicates that a central premise in the biological explanations inequality between women and men in present-day cultures, is that the subordinate position of women is a universal – across all time and all cultures. She tells us that these assumptions and conclusions have always invited the biological explanations that woman is subordinate because childbearing and motherhood limit her productive contributions, her mobility, and her participation in the public sphere of human activity. These same assumptions are used to explain that man is aggressive and universally dominant because of his genetic makeup that has given him his hunting prowess, successful sexual competition and his male sex hormones.
Bleier tells us that this claim that women have always had an inferior status makes it necessary to look at some of the important recent conceptual and empirical work of feminist and other anthropologists, that calls into question this viewpoint and assumption. In doing so, we examine the validity of those universals that have been important assumptions in anthropological research
Bleier looks at the variety of relationships and responsibilities to characterize the position of women throughout prehistory in history, and analyzes some of the factors that may account for the particular patterns in a culture. Her other purpose has been to examine evidence, and propose hypothesis relating to the question of how in the cultural evolution of civilization, women came to lose control over most aspects of their lives in patriarchal societies. Recognizing that the subordination of women to men is a historical development characterizing patriarchal cultures that have come to dominate world civilization, Bleier tells us it then becomes possible to reject the ideology that this subordination is both natural and inevitable, and to work for the elimination of that subordination.
Bleier points out that the anthropological evidence simply does not support traditional assumptions of universals such as the subordinance of women, or their biological segregation to reproductive and other nonproductive labors. She finds that the assumption of universals such as the subordination of women, has placed it outside of any analysis of the dynamics of change and interaction, making explanation impossible and unnecessary. She also tells us that such mystification invites further mystification, by automatically assuming an equally universal explanation. Since the only phenomenon as universal is women’s presumed subordination is women’s reproductive capacity, biology becomes the obvious explanation for the inferior position of women.
To Bleier, the significance of women’s biology, of her reproductive capacity, is culturally constructed. Not only are universals not reflective of the truth, but the very concept or idea of universals plays an integral role in culture-bound ideological frameworks.
Bleier tells us that in recent studies there have been egalitarian, classless societies, in which there were no hierarchical relationships between individuals, or relations of domination and subordination between the sexes. She feels that this probably characterized all or most societies until changes occurred in the organization of subsistence activities, and productive relationships in particular societies. Bleier suggests that in those cultures that evolved toward patriarchies, sexual division of labor following sedentarization facilitated the formation male networks of control, authority, and information. With their the increasing importance, the roles and authority of women became more circumscribed, as women were separated both from control of their products of the labor, and from positions of authority in kinship networks.
According to Bleier, the state represents the most complete codification and institutionalization of patriarchal authority, and the separation of women and men into private and public spheres. With the establishment of the state, monogamy for women was enforced by law, patriliny succeeded matriliny, and the patriarchal family was established to bring women’s sexual autonomy under male control. This same male control ensured paternal descent lines, established patriarchal authority at home, and ensured the ideological development and socialization of children for their proper gender and class position. By controlling the content and flow of information and ideology, the state’s patriarchal function instituted education, and the restriction of access to it to the ruling and managerial classes. Women were effectively excluded from formal education for the past four thousand years.
Bleier also tells us that state ideologies, particularly Western state ideologies, elaborate, ritualize, mystify, and institutionalize motherhood as the core elements in the enforcement of patriarchal relationships of power. According to Bleier, motherhood became the means and metaphor for women’s subordination.
In their article, “Aboriginal Woman: Male and Female Anthropological Perspectives” by Ruby Rohrlich-Leavitt, et al., we are told that in studies by male and female anthropologists, it is evident that the androcentrism of male scholars results in an a perspective which blinds them to the actual realities of aboriginal life. It is this androcentrism which prevents male scholars from recognizing that the natives fully acknowledge the importance of the women’s economic contribution. This same androcentrism leads male scholars to exaggerate the importance of political power and technology for the natives, while ignoring or minimizing the importance of the ritual life for the women.
Androcentric male scholars project on the aborigines the patriarchal notion that physiological differences between the sexes determine all sex role differences, as well as patriarchal concepts that deny the female generative principal, by attaching to the female uncleanliness, menstruation, asserting the subordinate status on the wife and mother, and identifying women with evil and danger.
Feminist anthropologists show us men and women living together in equal partnership, the rights, self-respect, and dignity of the members of both sexes being guaranteed. Although men are seen to play a more important political role in intergroup relationships, political institutions are not highly developed and are geared to economic survival, in which women play a central role.
We are told that aboriginal women are shown to have complete control over their reproductive function, and they are not regarded as contaminated, polluting, unclean, or dangerous. These women gain the same benefits as the men from their ritual experiences: emotional security, and opportunities for drama, recreation, and display.
It is explained to us that the basic inference to be drawn from the differences between the male and female ethnographers is that many Western male anthropologists are unwilling or unable to excise their ethnocentrism (androcentrism and sexism)which leads to the misinterpretation and distortion of the status and roles of women in non-Western cultures.
In Sharon Tiffany’s, “Introduction: theoretical issues in the anthropological study of women” she explains that to view women as the second sex reflects a male orientation that has affected anthropological theory and methodology. Again we are told that assuming universal male dominance says relatively little about relations between the sexes in different societies, but reflects the androcentric perspective that many anthropologists have.
She points out to us that a major area of social organization involving women’s participation in large-scale exchanges of valuables has been ignored by previous anthropologists. The Trobriand Island ethnography is used as an example of how women have been rendered invisible in anthropology. Anthropologists have disregarded the economic, ritual, and symbolic significance of women, producing an incomplete picture which distorts the dynamics of the male and female relationships in the society.
We are told by Tiffany that anthropological studies of women are beginning to produce a reassessment of the concepts, theoretical models, and methodology, which will yield insights into traditional concerns and open new directions of research. She points out that the exclusion of women from earlier studies of social organization requires continuing fieldwork that focuses on women’s institutional roles, social change, as well as ideology and language.
Tiffany’s work helps to counterbalance the male bias in anthropology, by illustrating the diversity of male-female relations involving production, reproduction, power, marriage, ritual, and ideology. She notes that bringing women back into the anthropological study of humanity is a challenging task that is long overdue.
In !Kung Women: Contrasts in Sexual Egalitarianism in Foraging and Sedentary Contexts” by Patricia Draper, it is explained that in the hunting and gathering society, women have a great deal of autonomy and influence. Features of the foraging life which promote egalitarianism include women’s subsistence contribution, and the control women retained over the food they have gathered. In addition, the lack of rigidity in sex typing of many adult activities includes domestic chores and aspects of child socialization.
Draper explains that a number of features of sedentary life appear to be related to a decrease in women’s autonomy and influence, including the increasing rigidity in sex typing of adult work, the more permanent attachment of the individual to a particular place and group of people, the dissimilar childhood socialization for boys and girls, a decrease in the mobility of women as contrasted with men, and the changing nature of women’s subsistence contribution. Having a richer materials inventory (with the inherent implications for women’s work), the tendency for men to have greater access to and control over important resources like domestic animals, the Bantu language and culture, wage work, entrance into extra-village politics, the settlement pattern, and increasing household privacy are also factors which contribute to women’s decrease in autonomy and influence.
Draper points out differences in sexual egalitarianism in the hunting and gathering groups versus the settled groups of the !Kung, and discusses factors in the bush setting which favor high autonomy for females and freedom from subordination by males. Finally, she points out that once the !Kung shifted their subsistence to animal husbandry and crop planting, a number of changes occurred in the area of sex roles; one major aspect of this change being the decrease in women’s autonomy and influence relative to that of the men.
In “Matrifocus on African women”, Wendy James tells us that matriliny as a formal jural structure may fluctuate, as there are limits to the potential occurrence of jural matriliny. This she associates with the limits of the matrifocal way of thinking about biology and mortality.
According to James, the economic contribution of women in those communities may be vital; as women they are entitled to personal respect and affection; and they exercise a good deal of independent action, even occasionally in the public sphere. However, the basic theoretical view of women defines them in a dependent relationship to their men, and circumscribes the contribution they may make, because of the nature of women.
James points out that in a range of the societies, including all societies with a formal jural principle of matriliny and a number of societies with a formal jural rule of patriliny, there is a deeper and more enduring level at which the nature and capacities of women are given primacy in the definition of the human condition. We are told that a matrifocal orientation is a basic prerequisite for the development of jural matriliny, and that where the basic definition of human circumstances is matrifocal, even though women may have important as persons, jural matriliny could scarcely develop, what ever the historical and material changes that might take place.
James tells us that it is this persistent patrifocal thinking of our society which is frustrating to the present generation of the women’s movement, as the more equal the legal and economic rights of men and women, the greater the sense of fury and frustration among women. It is these women who realize that it is extremely difficult to dislodge and reform a whole way of thinking about biological sexuality and the moral bases of the family.
In “Eating bitterness: the past and the pattern”, Marjorie Wolf discusses the cultural revolution in China, which was the first major campaign that focused with any depth on women’s needs in China since the 1950s. It was followed in the early 1970s by the Anti-Lin Biao, Anti-Confuscius campaign, which attacked traditional family structure and explored the causes of women’s subordination.
The effect of the campaign has been negligible for women. This is evidenced because, although in 1980 women occasionally repeated slogans from the ACC in answer to Ms. Wolf’s questions, they also told her it was ” natural” for men to rule outside the home and women to rule within. She found that many of the women felt their limited voice within the house signified victory.
Wolf believes that a revolution dominated by men, and a post-revolutionary government organized by men, accepts a different set of priorities than would a government or a revolution shared by both sexes or led by women. We are told that although sexual equality as a principle has not been vacated, it is been set aside at each economic downturn. Ms. Wolf doesn’t think this was a conscious effort on the part of CCP to keep women subordinate, but a consistent failing on the part of an all-male leadership to comprehend their own sexist assumptions. As a consequence, their ignorance of the effects of gender inequality in their society continues, and as a result, women are being encouraged to give up their jobs in favor of their children and to value their roles as socialist mothers and wives.
Duley and Edwards, in “Male Dominance: Men or Reality?”, tell us that considerable controversy surrounds the debate over whether male dominance has been a universal and cross-cultural feature of societies, and that anthropological views are androcentric as well as ethnocentric.
Feminist anthropologists now argue that the development of anthropology in this cultural milieu explains, in part, why men were thought to be the only significant social actors.
According to Duley and Edwards, a reexamination of certain cultures in which women were presumed to be submissive pawns in male manipulations revealed unnoticed or unreported dimensions of female participation. As such, it is thought that the concept of universal female subordination may reflect Western cultural bias, with its denigration of domesticity and devaluation of informal power. Duley and Edwards note that there is a tendency to treat present circumstances of traditional cultures as if they were identical to past circumstances, and to assume that the societies are static. Accordingly, the study of women has often been accorded second-class status within anthropology.
The idea of a matriarchal society in which women dominated men dates back to the work of several 19th-century anthropologists who argue that in an early civilization, along with the invention of agriculture by women, women ruled both the private and public domains, while religion was centered upon the earth goddess. Property passed to children through their mothers. This “primitive” matriarchal stage, was replaced a “higher” stage of cultural evolution — patriarchy. Feminist anthropologists argue that the concept of a lower order of matriarchy, which was replaced by a superior patriarchal system, was popular because it reinforced Victorian notions of male superiority.
Duley and Edwards tell us that some anthropologists believe that a rough equality between males and females has existed, especially in hunting gathering societies. We are told that the issue of egalitarian societies revolves around whether some hunter-gatherer cultures provide illustrations of societies in which women and men have equal and complementary power.
Based on the readings provided by these anthropologists, I have come to the conclusion that the inequality between men and women in our society is a not a human universal. Instead, it would appear that in societies like the !Kung and the Trobriand Islanders, there are or have been societies in which women shared power equally with men, or even exercised power over them at times.
The discrepancies in anthropological that have been conducted in the past by androcentric and ethnocentric male anthropologists, have failed to correctly identify those cultures as equal for women and men, and recognize the importance of the contributions made by women in every culture.
In this essay I will look at whether the inequality between men and women is a human universal, or whether there are or have been societies in which women shared power equally with men, or even exercised power over them. In order to do so, I will look at the writings of the following anthropologists, “The Subordinance of Women: A Problematic Universal”,by Ruth Bleier; “Aboriginal Woman: Male and Female Anthropological Perspectives” by Ruby Rohrlich-Leavitt, et al.; “Introduction: theoretical issues in the anthropological study of women” by Sharon Tiffany; !Kung Women: Contrasts in Sexual Egalitarianism in Foraging and Sedentary Contexts” by Patricia Draper; “Matrifocus on African women”, by Wendy James; “Eating bitterness: the past and the pattern”, by Marjorie Wolf; and “Male Dominance: Men or Reality?”, by Duley and Edwards.