Production Control and Public versus Private Worlds

The relative status of men and women is affected by their roles in the production and distribution of important resources, public versus private settings, the dynamics of kinship, and the presence or absence of warfare, as well as other systems of inequality related to rank, social class, and race. Such systems may produce dimensions of power or oppression apart from gender so that men's and women's gender status and power relations may be crosscut by other hierarchies and ideologies of inequality.

Some of the early theories regarding the status of women and men have been abandoned in light of additional data, while others still hold promise for analyzing gender hierarchies cross-culturally. Such theories ask under what conditions are male dominance and female subservience found? What are the social, political, and economic arrangements that give rise to equality or inequality between the sexes?

A once popular theory linked women's status to their contribution to subsistence. The assumption was that in societies in which women made significant contributions to producing food, their status would be higher than in those in which their contributions were insignificant or nonexistent. However, no systematic cross-cultural study to date supports the notion that the size of women's contribution to production leads to their higher status across several domains of social life (C. R. Ember & Levinson, 1991).

This theory was linked to another hypothesis suggesting that women's participation or non-participation in production depended upon how compatible subsistence activities were with simultaneous childcare (Brown, 1970). If an activity placed a child in danger, required rapt attention, was not easily interrupted, and resumed or involved long-distance travel, it was incompatible with simultaneous childcare. Such activities included hunting large game animals, herding, plowing, and deep-sea fishing. But other activities, like gathering, market trading, and many of the tasks associated with horticulture, could be done while minding small children. According to this theory, by knowing a society's primary subsistence activity, one could predict the degree of women's participation and, in turn, their status.

Subsequent research has shown that such a straightforward link between female status and subsistence is not supported by the data (Sanday, 1973; Whyte, 1978). Women's economic contribution is likely a necessary but not sufficient condition for high female status. While in societies in which women contribute less than 30% to subsistence their status tends to be low, if women's contribution to subsistence were the primary or sole determinant of their status we would expect that women would have high status in societies like Tikopia, an island culture in the southwestern Pacific, where women are responsible for about 75% of the food supply. But Tikopia women do not enjoy high status across a range of social and political domains despite their large contribution to subsistence. In this case, while women produce a considerable amount, they have no control over what they produce and hence low status. One important finding is that women seem to enjoy the highest status in those societies in which they produce about the same amount— neither a great deal more nor a great deal less—as men (Sanday, 1974).

Production alone is not the key to female status; it is also women's right to distribute what they produce. Using this insight, Sanday (1973) suggests that female status is linked to the degree to which women have power to make decisions that effect the political unit as a whole—band, village, community—not just decisions that impact their own families. She operationalizes this theory by proposing four indicators to measure women's status:

1. Material control. Do women distribute food and wealth outside the family?

2. Demand for female produce. Is women's work valued outside the family?

3. Political participation. Do women express opinions or influence policy in official ways?

4. Group strength. Do women form solidarity groups devoted to their own political and economic interests?

Sanday assumes that if, in a given society, the answer to all these factors is affirmative, women's status will be high, whereas if all four are negative, it will be low. This is tentatively supported by the small sample of societies she uses to test her hypothesis; it needs to be replicated on a larger sample. Iroquois women of New York State—well known ethnographically for their economic, social, and political power—receive positive scores on all four indicators. In contrast, in Somalia where female genital muti-lation—a definitive sign of low female status—is widely practiced, all of the indicators are negative (Brown, 1975).

The apparent link between market trade and women's status also supports Sanday's theory. When women are involved in trade, they tend to have a significant degree of economic autonomy. While women's trading activities do not always result in the formation of female trade associations or in women's participation in politics, trade does give women their own capital as well as control over what they produce—conditions often associated with female equality (Friedl, 1975; Ottenberg, 1959; Quinn, 1977).

Control over the distribution of critical resources is central to another theory of status differences between men and women: "Regardless of who produces food, the person who gives it to others creates the obligations and alliances that are at the center of all political relations" (Friedl, 1978, p. 222). Friedl suggests that men's near monopoly over hunting and, with it, the distribution of meat united males in a society-wide system of exchange that may have been the first instance of the enhanced power of males over females. Women's gathered products which were consumed by their families—rather than traded—afforded them no such power base. Thus, among hunters and gatherers, if male dominance rests on controlling the distribution of meat, the degree of male authority should vary with the importance of this key dietary resource. This is why, Friedl (1975) argues, male dominance is much more pronounced among the Inuit (Eskimo), where men provide nearly all the food in the form of large game, than among the Washo Indians of Nevada, where men and women work together in gathering activities and communal hunts.

This line of reasoning implies that a culture's mode of subsistence is related to female status. And, in fact, anthropologists have long recognized that most hunting and gathering societies have relatively egalitarian gender roles compared with more complex societies. Aside from women's contribution to subsistence, foragers do not distinguish between public and private domains, another variable that appears to influence female status. Life is lived in the open among the nomadic !Kung Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert in southern Africa. People eat and sleep outside, conversations are public, and almost all activities are visible to the band as a whole. As such, the notion of a private or domestic sphere is absent (Draper, 1975). The same is true in most horticultural societies. Women generally have important roles in planting and harvesting staple crops and the division between "public" and "private" is vague and indistinct (Boserup, 1970; Martin & Voorhies, 1975).

Contrast this with agricultural societies in which women's contribution to subsistence is generally low and the domestic and extradomestic realms are set apart. With the appearance of intensive cultivation, women "not only dropped out of the mainstream of production for the first time in the history of cultural evolution," but they were cut off from the larger society as they became ever more ensconced in the domestic sphere (Martin & Voorhies, 1975, p. 290). This meshes with the suggestion that women's work must be public and social for it to enhance female status (Sacks, 1974).

Wherever women are isolated or segregated and expected to devote their lives exclusively to domestic tasks, they necessarily rely on men to mediate their dealings with the larger society. Having no direct access to the public sphere, women's personal autonomy, sexual freedom, and legal rights are also limited. Hence, wherever the "inside-outside dichotomy" is well developed, women's status is likely to be low (Martin & Voorhies, 1975, p. 48).

A correlate of agricultural production is an increased work load in the domestic realm. With the intensification of production, larger and more permanent dwellings are filled with more possessions that require care, the time devoted to food preparation increases, and the rising fertility rate associated with agriculture means that women have more children to look after (C. R. Ember, 1983). As such, women's relative contribution to production not only declined in most agricultural societies, but they were also drawn into the domestic sphere because of the greater time and effort required to maintain it.

The segregating and isolating effects of women's confinement to the domestic sphere were intensified in early industrial societies with their sharp distinction between the home and the workplace. The home was seen as a place of refuge from the rough-and-tumble workaday world and the ideology that women's "place" was in the home, and their true calling was motherhood, flourished (Margolis, 2000).

Colonialism accompanied by Western ideologies concerning women's "natural" domesticity also had an adverse impact on women's status and role in many prestate societies. Colonial contact often dramatically altered traditional gender relations, undermining women's productive roles and, with them, their status (Leacock, 1975).

These interrelated factors affecting women's status can be summarized as follows: as societal modes of production become more complex, sexual inequality grows and women's power and prestige declines (Sacks, 1979). Such a decline is not only associated with general cultural complexity and the emergence of separate public and private realms but with their correlates: intensive plow agriculture, complex political hierarchies, the appearance of private property, and social stratification. Conversely, female power and relatively high status occur in societies with a number of other cultural traits—female contribution to subsistence, male contribution to child care, lack of a distinct domestic realm and absence of societal complexity (Whyte, 1978; Zelman, 1977). Nevertheless, as two researchers note, "while the relationship with cultural complexity appears to be important, we are still a long way from understanding just what it is about cultural complexity that may produce generally lower status for women" (C. R. Ember & Levinson, 1991, p. 91).

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