An Anthropologist and Feminism, 1974

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Janet Siskind

In assessing the influence of feminssm on my research and writing, it seems to divide into several categores which effect my awareness: (1) the personal fact that I am a woman and an anthropologist; (2) a vague something in the air, a‘ cultural influence welcoming to ethnographic data on woman; and (3) conscious scholarly attempts to understand the roles of women and their‘determinants.’ ‘ I

In writing an ethnography based on my fieldwork in the tropical forest of Peru my attempt was to analyze the work-

ings of a small society while communicating the individuality

of the men and women I had studied. The people I worked with‘

.were Indians, members of a tribal society, defining "tribal"

as a social organization based solely on ties of kinship and’ marriage. Women were quite naturally an important part of this ethnography. IThis is due both to the fact that my in- formants and friends in the field were women as well as men and to a shift in anthropological culture that is receptive‘ today to the proposition that women play at least some part in the ongoing activity of any society. Most male anthropo~'

logists are aware now that their paucity of information on

the women in the societies they study is indeed a lack. This

fact seemed quite unimportant several years ago when, after


ten or so chapters on tho society as seen through-the eyes of men, one chapter was thrown in, with or uithout apology.’on‘. "women." There are notable exceptions to this statement, yet they are few.

My research is gradually becoming focused on women.since it is an area in which we need more solid data. Questions that 'I'an others did not ask in the field five years ago are cri- tical for broadening ethnological theory. The growing reali- zation of ouw own unthought cultural acceptance of women's place and role leads us to re-examine our own data and those of others. Current research by male anthropologists as well as female reflects a newer perspective in which the "obvious" restrictions on women's participation in a society are no longer taken for granted. .The evidence that women are often

or usually economically important, emotionally independent

.though often politically subordinate is important to shift

_our’omn cultural notions of what women may or may not be.

It is also of importance in considering the analytic models

with which ethnologists work. The assumed homogeneity of

"simpler societies is no longer a possible view when one ques-

tions the different viewpoints of fifty per cent of the popue lation. Or the reverse question becomes possible-—why do women share the same values as men in some societies when

their rewards and lives are so different. A more dynamic

»analysis of culture is appearing in which conflict and con-

tradictions are as much a part of our expectations as stability.


As our attention shifts to attempts to understand women's roles we see that general descriptive words such as dominance,‘ authority, power, explated, oppressed, must be newly defined and reconsidered in each ethnographic description. Generalizing theories based on previous ethnograpwc data have not led us much beyond Engel's work of the 19th Century. At times the desire-to prove women's equality with men sometime, some place, can lead to hurried and, therefore, unworkable generalizations. Should it prove true, which it has not, that women were never in an equal or superior position to men, this would not dimi- nish the possibilities of the future. One need not seek to build a myth of the past to explain the present and inform the future. Scientific faith lies in a search for truth not comforting myths. A number of anthropologists are in the flield now, collecting data on women in other societies which may lead us to a new attempt at synthesis and a further understand- ing of social processes. While in classes it is often frus- trating to have no answer to students‘ questions, it is also exciting to discover a fresh and open field in which a new perspective may find new data, theories, and answers.‘ Does the oppression of women begin with pastoralism or agriculture-— which pastoralists, what agriculturalists, is it oppression?‘

My current research is focused on the division of labor in tribal societies. This focus reflects both an overall

materialist approach to the understanding of culture and a


concern with what appears to be a critical factor in deter- mining the position of women in society. I have been exploring the hypothesis that in tribal societies an artificial scarcity ‘ provides a goal for male competition that functions to dis- perse populations in accordance with their limiting resources. It is a complex and, at times, convoluted argument that pre-» sents an ecological funtion for the often observed competition and warfare over women in tribal societies. The scarcity of women is seen as artificial in the sense that it is produced

by cultural rules of sexual morality which limit sexual access. women are not mere pawns in marnage exchanges, but actively participate in providing men with an incentive to excell at economic production. Tribal values are culturally structured so that women or their parents are most likely to reward the successful provider with increased sexual access.

This hypothesis was originally directed to tropical

forest societies. I am at present attempting to look at the: cross-cultural possibilities of this thesis. I am broadening it to suggest that one crucial determinant of the division

of labor by sex in tribal societies is that men are made re-

' sponsible for producing the resources that limit a population's

growth. while there is much that I question in the ethnographic literature, the recurring statement that women's work is rou-

tine, dull, drudgery, in contrast to the at times tricky,


unpredictable labors of men seems accurate. women are pro- ducers of important subsistence foods as; but women's production is reliable. Limiting resources by definition may easily become less available and chancier and, I suggest, are the domain of men. I have not focused on the origins for this division being more concerned with how it functions. The question of origins in the sense of the original invention of any social trait is analogous to querying the origin of a par«

tioular mutation. Though interesting, perhaps, neither are

important in considering the behavioral results and function~‘_

ing of the_innovation. However. I suspect that the assign- ment off: steady, dependable food supply relates to women's responsibility for continuous infant care. I agree with the work of several anthropologists who have pointed out that un- til the invention of the baby bottle, women had to be the primary socializers of.a population's children. In any. society that plans to survive this essential responsibility must be considered in any other employment of women's skills.

If I am able to support this hypothesis for the basis of the

division of labor it will not solve all questions regarding

' women's roles. It will. however, add an important dimension

to the discussion of uhy some tribal societies treat women well while others abuse them, and why it is still possible

to view tribal societies as structurally more egalitarian in


terms of women's position as well as men's than are strati- fied societies. _ “I plan to further broaden my study to analyze the basic structures of tribal societies, kinship and marriage exchange. I am involved in the speculation that kinship structures si- multaneously eliminate competition over critical resources while instigating competition over women. Brothers are ex- pected to share food; but they are placed by the kinship_ system in competition for precisely the same women. The incest taboo which establishes the network of kinship roles and the definition of possible mates mould be viewed then

as an adaptive human invention whech structures societies

.so that they may maintain a viable re1ationship—between

population and resources.

If my analysis is successful, and it is too soon to

know, it would elucidate many of the complexities of kinship~»

organized societies-~a pure anthropological aim. Clearly the impetus to this theoretical goal rests not only with the

traditional anthropological conern with kinship systems,

but with the influences that surround me. A couple of critics

have commented that some of my work is a "womenklib" tract. It is not consciously so, nor have I manipulated or ignoredl data. but I am delighted if my increasing awareness of the

contribution of women creates a new insight from a new per-