The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Power and Gender

Image by Nick in Exsilio

Image by Nick in Exsilio

Many years ago I took a sociology course which really turned out to be about anthropology.  Indeed the two disciplines are so close that Carleton U used to offer a 100 level course called “Introduction so SocioAnthropology” or something fairly similar to that.

Anthropologists roughly divide societies into basic groups by how they extract a living from the environment. The basic groups are hunter/gatherers, horticultural (take a stick, push it in the ground, drop a seed in), agricultural (plows) and industrial (nomads exist off to one side). What’s interesting about this is that that with very few exceptions (the Inuit are one) hunter gatherer bands are the most egalitarian societies, by far – even more egalitarian than modern industrial societies.

Agricultural societies, on the other hand, are the least egalitarian societies in general.

My Prof at the time posited the following: the more a gender contributes the more powerful they are. In typical hunter gatherer bands women account for 60% to 70% of the food – while the men are out hunting, they gather, and they gather, in fact, more food than the hunters bring in. In agricultural societies, on the other hand, men do the plowing, and women are generally relegated to the home.

But this begs an obvious question, one I immediately asked. If power is based on contribution, why aren’t hunter gatherer bands matriarchal? After all, the women are actually contributing not an equal amount of food – but much more than the men!

The answer was interesting, and I think, has a lot of truth to it. Gatherers don’t work in tight teams. Hunters, as a rule, did (remember, these guys didn’t have guns.) So the men had stronger social ties than the women.

And it is true, in general, that wherever you see women with low status, they are kept from interacting much – from forming ties with other women, or even more so, with men outside their families.

In our own society, it is striking that when things go really bad it is often with women who have become practically house bound. And it is also notable that the 50’s had women practically confined to the house.

None of this, really, should come as a surprise.

If you have the ability to produce more money, you’ll be more powerful. And who you know is one of the biggest determinants of how influential and powerful you are. Simply mentioning that you are friends with a noted lawyer, or being known to hang out with powerful people, can make you money or scare off potential predators. Not to mention give you leverage against an abusive spouse.

The housebound period then, that many modern women go through when they have their children, reduces their power both directly by reducing their earning power, and indirectly because it is often accompanied by a collapsing social circle. Likewise the tendency of many to lose friends once they become married is something to be guarded against.

The general principles, however, suggest hope for those who prefer more egalitarian societies. Because, in general information societies, should we manage to attain such, will increase the ability to maintain and extend social ties despite physical circumstances, and upper body strength will be even less necessary than it is now to earning a living. The hangover of old attitudes, the glass ceiling and so on will still be there, but there should be more cracks in that ceiling, and more power and influence to use in combating those attitudes.

Originally published at the Agonist, or maybe BopNews.


I’m Sure There’s a Difference Between the Bush/Paulson, Obama/Geithner Approaches to Bailouts


Libby: Washington December 2006


  1. Cool, your own space. Now one of the few blogrolled at mine.

    Thomas Ware

  2. Formerly T-Bear

    Your application of Social Anthropology to the question of gender equality in groups may suggest a new way of approaching economics, through that of ecologic studies, how mankind has made its livelihood from the environment, and the economic superstructures that have been developed to aid that economic process (e.g. early on writing clearly had economic purpose in record keeping, as did the development of money as base for economic trades).

    All too often one hears terms thrown about, ostensibly economic, but better suited to political demagoguery and ideological propaganda. Rich and wealth are two such icon words that suffer abuse for political ends. In strictly economic terms, rich describes a surfeit of income from participating in economic processes where economic needs, wants and desires are satisfied; and wealth is the accumulation of unconsumed economic income from participation in economic process. Both terms have been burdened with untoward moral baggage that obstructs any rational economic considerations. In both cases, the presence of both is an indicator of economic (and social) health when observed spread throughout a society (and a contra-indicator of economic health when observed unnaturally concentrated within a society). At the end of the day, it is the society that harbors wealth in all its members that is the most likely to survive the onslaught of economic adversity, the French Revolution has shown the results of an unnatural concentration within a society if example is required.

    Thanks Ian for producing some of the most informative economic writing and educating available, it is a joy to read.

  3. Ian, I don’t think your professor’s theories are particularly persuasive. It is frequently true that the more a particular group contributes, economically, the less power it has (i.e. that group is being hyper-exploited). Capitalism is dependent on labor; labor doesn’t rule. The Southern Confederacy was dependent on the economic contributions of its African American slaves; the slaves clearly didn’t rule.

    Personally, I’ve found Marvin Harris’s theories far more persuasive. Basically, the development of agriculture, warfare, and inegalitarianism were all aspects of the same process which produced the first pristine states in Mesoamerica, the Middle East, and Asia. The high-protein diets of hunter-gatherers allowed relatively benign forms of birth control (i.e. prolonged lactation) and encouraged small and dispersed camps. However, in those areas where megafauna became relatively depleted, humans switched to agriculture and high carbohydrate diets and population levels began to increase, leading to the all-too-familiar Malthusian dynamics which inevitably produced military conflict.

    It is the need for strong military prowess (and male superiority in hand to hand combat) that produced the cultural elements we generally recognize as ‘patriarchal’.

  4. lysistrata

    ….Ega…..what?????? Is this more self-myth creation, or a hope-crumb drop off for women????

    Thanks for the effort, ballgame.

  5. No, these are anthropological theories. You may not like ’em, but they exist. I’d say they are prefferable to “big violent men beat women down” if you’re judging based on ideology, but each to their own.

    Are they correct? That’s another question. But violence alone can’t handle the variables, otherwise the Inuit would have been egalitarian like most other hunter/gatherer bands, and they weren’t.

    None of this is to say that organized (and unorganized) violence isn’t an issue in gender roles in comparative societies, it definitely is and I’ve even written that article (perhaps I’ll repost it here at some point). But it’s not the only variable.

  6. Deb

    Do you know the Irish blog site Bock the Robber? Is there anything like this in Canada?

  7. lysistrata: Um … you’re welcome??

    I simplified Harris to an absurd degree; his own words might convey more nuance:

    The nature of sex roles and of the relationship between the sexes in band societies is obscured by a lack of information on the paleolithic modes of reproduction. One set of cultural materialist theories depicts females as homebodies and specialists in the gathering of plant foods, while males are seen as specialists in big-game hunting. Many believe that this hypothetical division of labor reflects the relative immobility of women because of their frequent pregnancies and their need to nurse children. Men are free of such encumbrances, enjoy a height and weight advantage, have narrower pelvises, and therefore can run faster — all of which combine to make them more efficient hunters. While this theory is supported by the actual division of labor in the surviving hunter-gatherer groups of modern times, I am reluctant to project the modern-day picture of sex roles back upon the entire paleolithic period.

    It seems to me not unlikely that women played a more active role in the hunting of big-game animals during Pleistocene times, when such animals were more abundant than they are now. This alternative cultural materialist theory of hunter-gatherer sex roles begins with the hypothesis that prolonged and intensive lactation was an important means of fertility control throughout much of the paleolithic. The effectiveness of the lactation method for spacing births appears to be related to the balance between protein calories and carbohydrate calories in the diet …. A diet high in protein and low in carbohydrates is optimal for the lactation method because it prevents the accumulation of body fat, the putative signal for the resumption of postnatal ovulation, while sustaining the health of the mother through the strain of producing milk for three or four years at a time. According to this theory, there would be few benefits to be derived from making women into specialist homebodies and plant gatherers. Women are not continuously pregnant, nor are they always nursing helpless infants. There are long intervals between births, and nursing children are big enough to be left at the campsite in the company of older children or other camp-mates. Since the paleolithic hunter-gatherers appear to have hunted big-game herd animals mainly by driving them into pitfalls, over cliffs, and into bogs, women would be important at least as drivers and beaters and would also render valuable service as butchers and bearers once the wounded animals had been dispatched. Nor is there any reason to suppose that women did not carry spears and participate in the actual killing of the trapped animals.

    Under optimum ecological conditions, therefore, the relatively slight degree of human sexual dimorphism (slight in comparison with those of the pongids [chimps, gorillas, and orangutans —ballgame]) would not impair the highly egalitarian bent of hunter-gatherer social life. Theoretically, the more abundant the game and the more effective lactation as a means of fertility control, the less common such alternative fertility control measures as abortion and infanticide would be. Abundance of game would also have a dampening effect on intergroup hostility, so warfare would be infrequent; this in turn would dampen any tendency to overvalue males and undervalue females. Women would not be used as the reward for male bravery in combat, sex ratios would be in balance, and serial monogamy for both sexes would prevail. [Cultural Materialism: The Struggle for a Science of Culture, Marvin Harris, 1979, p. 82-83]

    As for “hope-crumb drop off for women,” all I can say is … baroo?

    Ian: I don’t quite understand your response (“violence alone can’t handle the variables”), FWIW.

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