Egalitarianism across Gender Roles

Hunter/Gatherers vs. Pastoralists

For years, sociologists and anthropologists have made certain assumptions about humanity. Among these suppositions was the belief that all human societies exhibited a division of labor according to gender role. In the recent past, in our own civilization, men and women were viewed as possessing different talents and abilities, qualities that suited them for different functions in society. Men were supposed to be the physically stronger and more rational of the two. This fitted them for work outside the home in the (admittedly opposing) positions of manual laborer or creative thinker. On the other hand, women were envisioned as being physically more delicate, and also decidedly more emotional. Society place women, therefore, within the confines of the home and family. Women were best suited to raising children, being good and attentive wives, and on the whole - when they chanced to work outside that environment - to provide functions that were still regarded as "feminine": nurse, teacher, domestic, etc. In general, however, it has always been the belief of serious students of humanity that these gender roles are even more strictly defined among those human societies that have not yet reached the level most would term "civilized." Primitive man, so called, was represented as being even more completely bound by prehistoric tradition. Within these societies, men and women fulfilled the roles handed down to them by ancient archetypes; life being in great measure an endless reenactment of prior conditions. One did as one's ancestors' had done, and so one's descendents would continue to do all through time which, more often than not, was not perceived of as having any definite end. Rather, it was cyclical, had always been son, and would always continue to be so. Nevertheless, different kinds of societies were held to allow for greater equality between men and women than others. This was particularly true in the case of two major kinds of "primitive" society - the hunter/gatherers on the one side, and the pastoralists on the other. Taken without question was the premise that the female hunter/gatherer was noticeably more "free" and equal to her counterpart among the pastoralists. but, is this really true?

Sadly, there are not many true hunter/gatherer societies left in the world. Not long ago, large parts of the planet were still inhabited by these peoples, but modern society has made such destructive inroads almost everywhere that it is difficult to find pristine or nearly pristine examples of the hunter/gatherer that can still be observed by scientists. The Pygmies of Central African, the Khoisan Peoples of Southwestern Africa, the Aborigines of Australia, and various peoples such as the Tiwi, who live on islands in the South Seas are all examples of this general way of life. The following describes elements that are characteristic of basically all of these hunter/gatherer societies:

The number of the members of a given community depends on various factors: ecology, technology, and social relations. The community is adaptable to various ecological environments. The land and its resources are common property, while personal property rights are exercised on objects of individual use. The division of labor within the community is based on age and sex, with emerging individual specialization, while sharing distributes the products. Various forms of exchange connect different communities or parts of them.

(Schweitzer 40)

As can be seen, the concept of division of labor by age and gender is common to all. Men are generally the hunters while women are the gatherers.

On the whole, hunter/gatherer societies are distinguished by the fact that each unit of that society performs essentially the same function as any other unit. As stated above, the typical unit of that society is the family consisting of men, women, and children. As a result of the quality across families, there is really no one family that is ever of higher or lower rank than any other. An individual's usefulness to both his or her family, and to his or her society, is based directly on that individual's ability to perform the functions necessary to survival. So long as one performs these functions adequately, one can be assured of enjoying good relations with one's peers i.e. with everyone else. But to neglect one's duties, is to upset the social order and to invite criticism or even ostracism. "Women's work" is no less valuable than "men's work" - only a particular man or woman can be seen as less or more valuable than any other man or woman. The hunter who is always more successful than the other men. The gatherer who is always more successful than the other women. However, a woman who refuses, for example, to contribute to the overall welfare of her people, who becomes "selfish" is despised. The following is a real-world example of this situation, and regards a hunter/gatherer woman by the name of Niqi:

Band members were resentful of her family as would-be free riders who were deemed stingy and jealous, and also as people who did not keep their emotions under control.... The quiet grumbling and factional hostility that developed out of these tensions, and... very direct hints [that] were made that Niqi should participate in the camp women's tasks, such as cooking fish heads for everybody. At length, these well-masked but hostile signals drew Niqi away from her own family's subsistence activities, if only briefly, to make a contribution to group subsistence. But she quickly went back to her former ways, and the social distancing of her family continued. The tensions rose and fell, and Niqi's social status vacillated between grudging acceptance and semi-ostracism. The rest of the group distanced Niqi's family mainly because of Niqi's bad temper, stinginess, and failure to help, and the family tended to camp away from the core group.... However, one of the features advocated by an egalitarian ethos is sharing, and Niqi did not share very well.

Boehm 56)

As Niqi's case well illustrates, it was the proper, or improper, performance of her duties that influenced the social position of her and her family.

In contrast, among pastoralists, there are often very real determinants of social standing such as might be understood by civilized peoples. Certain activities and objects are literally valued more than others. Among the Masai of East Africa, for example, cattle are prized above all else. To herd cattle, therefore is to engage in an honorable occupation, while the more cattle one owns the wealthier one is esteemed to be. Such notions have a direct bearing on the equality of the sexes for the simple fact that, as labor is still apportioned by gender, cattle-raising, the prestige occupation is performed only by men. Therefore, anything a woman does is automatically less-valuable than the cattle-raising work done by her male counterparts. Even more interesting is the notion that the more successful Masai man possesses not only a large number of cattle, but also a large number of women. Women, in other words, far from being viewed as the equal of their men, are seen as symbols of their men's status and wealth:

Being Maasai'... [is] in fact, crucial to their success. They were able to employ Maasai age-set organization and military tactics successfully against their highland neighbours, gaining large numbers of cattle and women to build their own economy in the process... is dramatic testimony of the openness of Maasai societies and the degree to which ethnicity itself was as much a function of economic form as a birthright.

Spear and Waller 23)

Much as Niqi's status was lowered by behaving in a manner inconsistent with that expected by her people, so a Masai man gains in status by being as Masai as he possibly can be.

The social expectations of a people determine the value it places upon both objects and individuals. So long as wealth is not tied to a particular activity, or a particular object, "wealth" such as we understand it is available equally to all. Once however the concept of wealth becomes tied to specific activities or objects, the question then arise, "are the performance of these activities, and the acquisition of these objects open in equal measure to all. " Clearly, in the case of the Masai, and other pastoralists, this is not so. As only men can undertake the most prestige occupations, and so accumulate the greatest amount of visible wealth, it follows then that women are necessarily relegated to a somewhat secondary status.

Among the Datoga of Northern Tanzania, also a pastoral people, the status of women is also linked to the status of their husbands. Unlike among the Masai, the Datoga women can actually control "valuable property."

Sellen) They can own cattle for example. However, rather than giving the Datoga woman a status equal to that of the Datoga man, it is through another refinement that the woman of the tribe is made dependent upon the men of the tribe.

The Datoga are unusual among East African pastoralists in that women haveā€¦