Women's status in egalitarian societies (excerpt)

Much is made of Australian Aboriginal society in arguments for universal deference of women toward men. The data needs ethnohistorical review, since the vast changes that have taken place in Australia over the last two centuries cannot be ignored in the consideration of ritual life and of male brutality toward women. Disease, outright genocidal practices, and expulsion fro their lands reduced the population of native Australians to its lowest point in the 1930s, after which the cessation of direct genocide, the mission distribution of foods, and the control of infant mortality began to permit a population increase. The concomitant intensification of ceremonial life is described as follows by Godelier.1

This ... phenomenon, of a politico-religious order, of course ex­presses the desire of these groups to reaffirm their cultural identity and to resist the destructive pressures of- the process of domination and acculturation they are undergoing, which has robbed thetn of their land and subjected their ancient religious and political prac­tices to erosion and systematic extirpation. (1973: 1:3) (Translation mine. E.L.)

Thus ceremonial elaboration was oriented toward renewed ethnic identification, in the context of oppression. Furthermore, on the reserves, the economic autonomy of women vis-a-vis men was undercut by handouts to men defined as heads of families and by the sporadic opportunities for wage labor open to men. To assume that recent ritual data reflect aboriginal Australian sym­bolic structures as if unchanged is to be guilty of freezing these people in some timeless "traditional culture" that does not change m develop, but only becomes lost; it is to rob them of their history. Even in their day, Spencer and Gillen (1968: 443) noted the probable decline in women's ceremonial participation among t he Arunta.

Allusions to male brutality toward women are common for Australia. Not all violence can be blamed on European colonialism, to be sure, yet it is crass ethnocentrism, if not outright racism, to assume that the grim brutality of Europeans toward the Austra­lians they were literally seeking to exterminate was without pro­found effect. A common response to defeat is to turn hostility inward. The process is reversed when people acquire the political understanding and organizational strength to confront the source of their problems, as has recently been happening among Austra­lian Aborigines.

References to women of recent times fighting back publicly in a spirited style, occasionally going after their husbands with both tongue and fighting club, and publicly haranguing both men arid women bespeak a persisting tradition of' autonomy (Kaberry 1939: 25-26, 1 8 1). In relation to "those reciprocal rights and duties that are recognized to be inherent in marriage," Kaberry writes:

I, personally, have seen too many women attack their husbands with a tomahawk or even their own boomerangs, to feel that they are invariably the victims of ill treatment. A man may perhaps try to beat his wife if she has not brought in sufficient food, but I never saw a wife stand by in submission to receive punishment for her culpable conduct. In the quarrel she might even strike the first blow, and if she were clearly in danger of being seriously hurt, then one of the bystanders might intervene, in fact always did within my experience. (142-143)

Nor did the man's greater strength tell in such a struggle, for the wile "will pack up her goods and chattels and move to the camp of a relative ... till the loss of an economic partner . . . brings the man to his senses and he attempts a reconciliation" (143). Kaberry concludes that the point to stress about this indispensability of 'a woman's economic contribution is "not only her great importance in economics, but also her power to utilize this to her own ad­vantage in other spheres of marital life."

A further point also needs stressing: such quarrels are not, as they may first appear, structurally at the same level as similar quarrels in our own society. In our case, reciprocity in marital rights and duties is defined in the terms of 'a social order in which subsistence is gained through paid wage labor, while women supply socially, essential but unpaid services within a household. t1 dichotomy between "public" labor and "private" household ser­vice masks the household "slavery" of women. In all societies, women use the resources available to them to manipulate their situation to their advantage as best they can, but they are in a qualitatively different position, structurally, in our society from that in societies where what has been called the "household economy" is the entire economy. References to the autonomy of women when it comes to making decisions about their own lives are common for such societies. Concomitant autonomy of attitude is pointed out by Kaberry, again, for the Kimberly peoples: "The women, as far as I could judge from their attitudes," she writes, "remained regrettably, profane in their attitude towards the men." To be sure, they much admired the younger men as they paraded in their ceremonial finery, but "the praise uttered was in terms that suggested that the spectators regarded the men as potential lovers, and not as individuals near unto gods" (130). In summary, Kaberry argues that "there can be no question of identifying the sacred inheritance of the tribe only with the men's ceremonies. Those of the women belong to it also" (277). As For concepts of "pollution," she says, "the women with regard to the men's rituals are profane and uninitiated; the men with regard to the women's ritual are profane and uninitiated" (277).

1"Ce ... phénomène, d'ordre politico-religieux, traduit bien entendu la volonté de ces groupes de réaffirmer leur identité culturelle et de résister aux pressions destructrices du procès de domination et d'acculturation qu'elles subissent, qui les a privés de leur terre et soumet leurs anciennes pratiques religieuses et politiques à un travail d'érosion et d'extirpation systématique."

This is an excerpt from Women's Status in Egalitarian Society, Implications for Social Evolution, by Eleanor Leacock, first published 1978, as reprinted in Myths of Male Dominance, Montly Review Press, 1981. The works quoted in the passage are :