3. Another element of the anarchoprimitivist myth is the belief that huntergatherers, at least the nomadic ones, had gender equality. John Zerzan, for example, has asserted this in Future Primitive and elsewhere.Probably some hunter-gatherer societies did have full gender equality, though I don ‘t know of a single unarguable example. I do know of hunting-and-gathering cultures that had a relatively high degree of gender equality but fell short of full equality.
In other nomadic hunter-gatherer societies male dominance was unmistakable, and in some such societies it reached the level of out-and-out brutality toward women. Probably the most touted example of gender equality among huntergatherers is that of Richard Lee’s Bushmen, whom we mentioned earlier in our discussion of the hunter-gatherer’s working life. It should be noted at the outset that it would be very risky to assume that Lee’s conclusions concerning the Dobe Bushmen could be applied to the Bushmen of the Kalahari region generally.
Different groups of Bushmen differed culturally; they didn’t even all speak the same language.At any rate, relying largely on Richard Lee’s studies, Nancy Bonvillain states that among the Dobe Bushmen (whom she calls “Ju/’hoansi”), “social norms clearly support the notion of equality of women and men,”and that their “society overtly validates equality of women and men.”50 So the Dobe Bushmen had gender equality, right?
Well, maybe not. Look at some of the facts that Bonvillain herself offers in the same book: “Most leaders and camp spokespersons are men. Although women and men participate in group discussions and decision making, . . . men’s talk in discussions involving both genders amounts to about two-thirds of the total.”
Much worse are the forced marriages of girls in their early teens to men much older than themselves.It’s true that practices that seem cruel to us may not be experienced as cruel by people of other cultures on whom they are imposed. But Bonvillain quotes words of a Bushman woman that show that at least some girls did experience their forced marriages as cruel: “I cried and cried”; “I ran away again and again. A part of my heart kept thinking: ‘how come I’m a child and have taken a husband?’”Moreover, “because seniority confers prestige . . . , the greater age, experience, and maturity of husbands may make wives socially, if not personally, subordinate.
Thus, while the Dobe Bushmen no doubt had some of the elements of gender equality, one would have to stretch a point pretty far to claim that they had full gender equality. On the basis of his personal experience, Colin Turnbull stated that among the Mbuti pygmies of Africa, a “woman is in no way the social inferior of a man,”and that “the woman is not discriminatedagainst.
That sounds like gender equality . . . until you look at the concrete facts that Turnbull himself offers in the very same books: “ A certain amount of wifebeating is considered good, and the wife is expected to fight back; “He said that he was very content with his wife, and he had not found it necessary to beat her at all often,”; Man throws wife to the ground and slaps her;Husband beats wife; Man beats sister;Kenge beats his sister;“Perhaps he should have beaten her harder, Tungana [an old man] said, for some girls like being beaten,”; “Amabosu countered by smacking her firmly across the face. Normally Ekianga would have approved of such manly assertion of authority over a disloyal wife.”
Turnbull mentions two instances of men giving orders to their wives.I have not found any instance in Turnbull’ s books of wives giving orders to their husbands. Pipestem obtained by wife is referred to as husband’s property. “[A boy] has to have [a girl’s] permission before intercourse can take place. The men say that once they lie down with a girl, however, if they want her they take her by surprise, when petting her, and force her to their will.”Nowadays we would call that “date rape”, and the young man involved would risk a long prison sentence.
For the sake of balance, let’s note that Turnbull found among the Mbuti no instance of what we would call “street rape” as opposed to “date rape”;husbands were not supposed to hit their wives on the head or in the face;and in at least one case in which a man took to beating his wife too frequently and severly, his campmates eventually found means to end the abuse without the use of force andwithout overt interference.
It should also be borne in mind that the significance of a beating depends on the cultural context. In our society it is a great humiliation to be struck by another person, especially by one who is bigger and stronger than oneself. But since blows were commonplace among the Mbuti,it is probably safe to assume that they were not felt as particularly humiliating . Nevertheless it is quite clear that some degree of male dominance was present among the Mbuti. Among the Siriono: “A woman is subservient to her husband”;“The extended family is generally dominated by the oldest active male”;“[Women] are dominated by the men”; “If a man is out in the forest alone with a woman, . . . he may throw her to the ground roughly and take his prize [sex] without so much as saying a word”;Parents definitely preferred to have male children;
“Although the title ererekwa is reserved by the men for a chief, it one asks a woman: ‘who is your ererekwa?’ she will invariably reply: ‘my husband’.” On the other hand, the Siriono never beat their wives,and “Women enjoy about the same privileges as men. They get as much or more food to eat, and they enjoy the same sexual freedom.”According to Bonvillain, Eskimo men “dominate their wives and daughters. Men’s dominance is not total, however . . . ..”She describes gender relations among the Eskimos in some detail,which may or may not be slanted to reflect her feminist ideology.
Among the Eskimos with whom Gontran de Poncins lived, husbands clearly held overt authority over their wives and sometimes beat them.Yet, through their talent for persuasion, wives had great power over their husbands: “It might seem . . . that the native woman lived altogether in a state of abject inferiority to the male Eskimo, but this is not the case. What she loses in authority, as compared to the white woman, she makes up, by superior cunning, in many other ways.
Native women are very shrewd, and they almost never fail to get what they want”; “ It was a perpetual joy to watch this comedy, this almost wordless struggle inwhich the wife . . . inevitably got the better of the husband. There does not exist an Eskimo woman untrained in the art of wheedling, not one unable to repeat with tireless and yet insinuating insistence the mention of what she wants, until the husband, worn down by her persistence, gives way”; “ Women were behind everything in this Eskimo world”; “It is not necessary to be a feminist to ask: ‘but what of the status of Eskimo women?’ Their status suits them well enough; and I have indicated here and there in these pages that they are not only the mistresses of their households but also, in most Eskimo families, the shrewd prompters of their husbands’ decisions.”
However, Poncins may have overstated the extent of Eskimo women’s power, since it was not sufficient to enable them to avoid unwanted sex: Wife-lending among these Eskimos was determined by the men, and the wives had to accept being lent whether they liked it or not. At least in some cases, apparently, the women resented this rather strongly.The Australian Aborigines’ treatment of their women was nothing short of abominable. Women had almost no power to choose their own husbands.They are described as having been “owned” by the men, who chose their husbands for them.
Young women were often forced to marry old men, and then they had to work to provide their aged husbands with the necessities of life.Not surprisingly, a young woman frequently resisted a forced marriage by running away. She was then beaten severely with a club and returned to her husband. If she persisted in running away, she might even have a spear driven into her thigh.A woman trapped in a distasteful marriage might enjoy the consolation of having a lover on the side, but, while this was “semitolerated”, it could lead to violence.A woman might even go to the length of eloping with her lover. However: “They would be followed,and if caught, as a punishment the girl became, for the time being, the common property of her pursuers. The couple were then brought back to the camp where, if they were of the right totem division to marry, the man would have to stand up to a trial by having spears thrown at him by the husband and his relations . . . and the girl was given beating by her relatives. If [the couple] were not of the right totem division to marry, they would both be speared when found, as their sin was unforgivable.”
Although there was “real harmony and mutual understanding in most Aboriginal families”, wife-beating was practiced.According to A. P. Elkin, under some circumstances-for example, on certain ceremonial occasions-women had to submit to compulsory sex, which “implies that woman is but an object to be used in certain socially established ways.”96 The women, says Elkin, “may often not object,”but: “They sometimes live in terror of the use which is made of them at some ceremonial times.
Of course, no claim is made here that all of the foregoing conditions prevailed in all parts of aboriginal Australia. Culture was not uniform across the continent. Coon says that the Australians were nomadic, but he also states that in parts of southeastern Australia, namely “The better-watered parts, particularly Victoria and the Murray River country”, the aborigines were “relatively sedentary.”
According to Massola, in the drier parts of southeastern Australia the aborigines had to cover long distances between fast-drying wells in times of drought.
This corresponds with the high degree of nomadism described for other arid parts of Australia, where “Aboigines moved from waterhole to waterhole along well-defined tracks in small family groups. The whole camp moved and rarely established bases.”
In stating that in “the better-watered parts” the aborigines were “relatively sedentary”, Coon doubtless means that “in fertile regions there were well-established camping areas, close to water, where people always camped at certain times of year. Camps were bases from which people made forays into the surrounding bush for food, returning in the late afternoon or spending a few days away.”
Coon says that in part of the well-watered Murray River country each territorial clan had a headman and a council consisting mainly of men, though in a few cases women were also elected to the council; whereas, farther to the north and west, there was little formal leadership and “control over the women and younger males was shared between” the men aged from thirty to fifty. Thus Australian women had very little overt political power. Yet, as among Poncins’s Eskimos, certainly in our society, and probably in every society, the women often exercised great influence their menfolk104.
The Tasmanians also were nomadic hunter-gatherers (though some were “relatively sedentary”), and it’s not clear that they treated women any better than the Australians did. “In one account we are told that a band living near Hobart Town before the colonists’ arrival was raided by neighbors who killed the men
who tried to stop them and took away their women. And there are other accounts of individual cases of marriage by capture. Sometimes when a man from a neighboring band had the right to marry a girl, but neither she nor her parents liked him, it is said that they killed the girl rather than give her up”; “The other tribes considered [a certain tribe] cowards, and raided them to steal their women”; “Woorrady raped and killed a sister-in-law.”
Here I should make clear that it is not my intention to argue against gender equality. I myself am enough a product of modern industrial society to feel that women and men should have equal status. My purpose at this point is simply to exhibit the facts concerning the relations between the sexes in hunting-andgathering societies.