Gender Roles in Economics

In old Samoa, wealth derived from land, proprietorship of which was based in titles. These entitlements were pursued in two primary ways: through ceremonies (largely a male province) and through hypergamous begetting; that is, bearing offspring with better genealogies than that of one's own family, who might make claims to status and titles. Genealogical recitations at ceremonies were, in essence, claims to titled lineages, or bolstered such claims by representing a family as so distinguished in ancestry as to have natural claims to the dignity that titles bestowed. Titled men as orators were responsible for gathering genealogical knowledge and making ceremonial speeches that asserted their extended family's distinguished genealogy. Ceremonies created alliances between villages; in wartime, allies supported one another's putative rights to titles. So clearly was war a male task that women from rival camps might picnic together on the outskirts of the battle.

Women had a significant indirect role in ceremonies. Women produced fine mats, which were the currency of ceremonial exchange. Certain mats were linked to certain titles, so that it was possible to capture a mat and the title with it. Wealth in fine mats in the maternal line was a criterion used to select a person for a high title. Females forwarded family and village entitlements more directly through hypergamous begetting, which is explained below.

A village's major resident titles determined its status. A taupou drew high titles into her communities' compass by wedding a high title. After becoming pregnant, she returned to her natal village. High-title holders were selected on the strength of paternal and maternal lines. Taupou were chosen for their ancestry. Upon that chief's death, therefore, the taupou's son had a weighty claim and might bring the title back to his village. Like taupou, all high-status girls were to remain virginal; their elders furthered family entitlements through arranged marriages with title-holding males or their sons.

Undistinguished families encouraged their girls to lure scions of ranking families in informal marriages (avaga) because the children who descended from these unions had rights in the father's family estate. A girl who became pregnant from an elopement qualified for a piece of land from the boy's family that she shared with her group. If she bore a son who was serviceable, bright, and talented, his father's family might give him a minor title. If his sons married well, they had better title prospects.

With missionization, women's economic role became increasingly defined as domestic. Mission schools taught sewing and housekeeping to women. Girls and women were expected to perform many domestic tasks, although cooking in the traditional earth oven remained a male task. Many of women's subsistence fishing and horticultural responsibilities were unchanged. Samoans also participate in a modern economy in which jobs are to a degree gender typed. Secretarial jobs and jobs in beauty salons, for example, are performed either by women or by male transvestites. Nonetheless, status trumps gender in Samoan society: as long as a woman is perceived to be high status, she can hold posts such as college president or head of a government agency.

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