Re: Patriarchy: Re: What Matriarchy?

Susan (
29 Jul 1996 18:53:49 GMT (Ashley Branchfeather) wrote:
>In article <4t8970$>, Susan <> wrote:
>>As the argument goes (and I'm inclined to agree with it myself), all
>>interpretation of "fact" comes from some sort of political and/or social
>>perspective, or agenda.
>I disagree with this: I admit it's common for people to have agendas in
>their discussions, but many people are largely motivated by the desire to
>find the truth, whatever that may be.

I don't disagree. But the critiques of science which have come out over
the last 20 years or so have pointed out that humans always act in a
social/cultural context. So the desire to find "truth" is always carried
out with a certain perspective and set of assumptions (whether these are
explicitly touted as "agendas" or not). For example, in science, the
scientist decides which questions are appropriate, and then proceeds to
develop ways of of testing those questions. One of the clearest
discussions of this is the classic S.J. Gould book Mismeasure of Man. A
good example he discusses at length is the investigation into differences
in intelligence between men and women. The question was not "is there a
difference", but "what is its magnitude and what is the best way to
measure it." It never even occurred to many people that there wasn't a
difference to begin with. The point is that what now seem to be
perfectly objective questions are almost certainly, 50-100 years from
now, going to appear hopelessly biased and naive. My own position on
this is that, if we do science with as much honesty and lentigrity as we
can, then at least we will have collected as much data as possible, even
if our intrepretation is completely invalid.

>>Those who are explicit about it are, in that
>>sense, just being more honest about it.
>Are you not using this to justify a possible agenda of your own? This
>seems to be another take on 'I'm an asshole, but so is everyone else, I'm
>just more honest about it'.

I certainly didn't mean it this way. My point was that those who claim
objectivity (as per the above paragraph) are also working within a
particular set of assumptions and experiences. It's just harder to see
them, typically because either we share them (so they are not easy to
see), or they are so embedded that they require a great deal of
untangling. The history of archaeological interpretation is fraught with
examples. The most pertinent to the current discussion are the many
studies which purported to be about "human" behavior, when in fact they
were about male behavior. Once this was pointed out, people became more
explicit about whether they were trying to talk about males, females, or
humans in general. For some, this made the conclusions more honest and
easier to interpret; for others, it als made it easier to attack, i.e.
"you're just interested in women because you have a political agenda."
Maybe they do. But at least we know about it and can consider it, rather
than having to spend a lot of effort trying to figure out the context in
which the interpretations are being offered.

>>This means that 1) it is easier
>>to attack the political perspective involved because it is openly
>>displayed, and 2) it is easier to talk about, because it is there to be
>>discussed, not hidden and having to be disentangled, and after making the
>>effort half of the people don't really believe it was there in the first
>It's sad, but true: sometimes people don't have a big egotistical agenda,
>but sometimes those who do pose as those who don't, so there are no easy
>In any case, I always prefer to look at each assertion on its own merits,
>and I shouldn't accuse people of having an 'agenda' until I've first found
>fault in the arguments they made. A statement isn't any more or less true
>just because it was made by someone with an axe to grind, rather than
>someone honest and clear-headed: the only exception is if they are
>claiming authority - 'in my experience, ...' etc.

Perhaps the misunderstanding comes in terms of the word "agenda." I was
using this to refer to the assumptions that underlie all attempts to gain
knowledge. This is perhaps different than the idea you are reacting to ,
in which people are explicit about their political ideology and use
scientific writings as a forum in which to express it. This idea takes
one step further the point I've been trying to make, which acknowledges
the reality that people are cultural by definition. For those who feel
most pointedly the effects of social inequities (and I am not addressing
whether I agree with them or not), there is a sense that it is dishonest
to try and be "objective" when we are surrounded by injustice. I am of
two minds about this issue. As a scientist, I see the value of trying to
address both sides fairly, but as a human, I occasionally feel a
responsibility to express an opinion where I think a wrong has been done.
It is difficult for me to talk "objectively" about gender inequality,
for example, in places where women have literally no rights, and not
express my own opinion about why I think that's wrong. However, I am
always careful to identify where it is my opinion versus what evidence I
have and where it came from.

>>But I also have a great deal of sympathy with those who are
>>constantly being told that their subordination is "universal",
>"constantly being told"? Is this one of those painful truth things? I
>think this is a straw man: I understand it's well accepted that women in
>family-level foraging societies are not generally 'subordinated', so it
>can't be universal.

But if you read introductory cultural anthropology textbooks, the notion
of female subordination being universal is frequently presented. I just
reviewed a textbook which talked about some of the complexities of
assessing the actual power distribution in a number of societies, and
STILL concluded that essentially female subordination was universal. The
problem is, I know students who will skim the discussion, underline the
conclusion, and come out of it with this idea, which they will then go on
to point out as being evidenced by anthropology. The fact is, it is way
too simplistic to say that women are everywhere dominated by men, eevn if
only a little bit.

As for foraging societies, it depends on who you talk to. I have seen
the exact same description of Dobe (the people formerly known as
!Kung) gender roles interpreted by different anthropologists as being
essentially egalitarian or as being close, but still with males more
important. It depends on your point of view, and how you interpret the
data (hence my opening points!).

>The question is, are men systematically subordinated to women in any society?

An interesting question to be sure. So far as I see it, there is not
evidence to suggest that this has ever been so. Which is why I shifted
the focus of the question as I did.

>>which in
>>this particular society has traditionally been used to support a notion
>>of biological origin, and in turn then claimed to be most natural,
>>inevitable, and all those other tiresome biologically deterministic ideas
>>that have been disproven time and again, apparantly to no avail in the
>>popular mind (most recently seen in the appalling depredations on
>>science of Desmond Morris, one of the people I'd cheerfully smack into
>>unconsciousness if I had the chance and it didn't conflict with my
>>basically pacifist ideology).
>The first question should be 'is it true?', not 'does it tend to support
>something I disapprove of?'. Do you see the difference here?

There's no need to be sarcastic. I don't think I was, was I? As
for things being either "true" or not, I find that a difficult concept in
anthropology. I can't quite remember why I was talking about biological
determinism in the context of Desmond Morris, but I have a number of
problems with him. But that's another subject. I suppose my answer is
that when you are talking about human behavior, there are two issues to
consider. The first is that where human behavior is concerned, whether
something is "true." is usually very difficult to determine, precisely
because human behavior is not that simple. Lepowsky's work on Vanatinai
is presented as an example of a "true" egalitarian society. And yet as I
read the book, there seemed a number of examples where men have an edge
over women, which is only slightly perceptible, but seemed to me to be
there. Now, which is "true"-- are women on Vanatinai equal to men or
not? I don't think you can pose the question this way, because there
isn't an easy answer. In most of the ways that matter, the answer would
seem to be yes. But are there areas in society where men have the edge?
Yes, I think there are. I wouldn't feel honest in saying either yes or
no with regard the "truth" of the question, and I think this is true for
the vast majority of societies I've read about.

Second, I have always felt that to ignore the implications of what you
are saying is dishonest. In class, I try to present all sides of an
issue, and let students make up their own minds. I understand the need
to simplify some things, but when you do that, you should be sure that
you are not simplifying the question out of existence just in the name of
expediency. Is there biological evidence for human behavior? Of course
there is. Ultimately, it's all biological to me-- you get a thought,
you're brain processes it, all the necessary chemicals are stimulated,
and the result is behavior. However, I understand what saying "all
behaviors are biologically based" means to most people, who do not
usually bother with the complexities of the issue. For most people,
saying that something is biologically based means it is also natural,
inevitable, and ultimately simple. So I am very cautious about throwing
around simple answers which I know will be misinterpreted, even if at
some level they are in fact "true."

The old chestnut "do you still beat your wife" is a perfect example.
Whether the answer is yes or no, the implications are still there, and to
me it is less than honest to pretend that the implications are not my
problem, as long as the answer is "true."

>>So if occasionally people find empowerment in the notion that there might
>>have been societies in the past where women could give as good as they've
>>been getting in so many parts of the world in so many periods in the
>>past, then the fact that there is no scientific (and I understand and
>>accept all the use of that word implies!) evidence to support such an
>>idea should not get in the way of celebrating the ideology behind the
>'give as good as they've been getting' seems to be a way of confusing
>equality with male subordination to women. I've seen this before, with
>certain feminists claiming that 'matriarchy' implied equality, but with
>women somehow especially 'honoured'. You know, men and women were equal,
>but women were more equal than men...

Again, fuzzy syntax on my part. What I was trying to convey was that it
is possible to be sensitive to the underlying motivation of people who
are looking for evidence of matriarchies without agreeing with their
sometimes faulty science. I suspect that many people are trying to find
evidence of matriarchy because of the motivations I expressed in the
original post, one of which was that they believe that it is necessary
that matriarchies have existed/exist in order for them to claim some
power for themselves, or to fight back when they feel dominated. After
all, the idea that men took power away from women who at one time wielded
it wisely and well is very powerful to those feel powerless in their own
lives. In this case, I have a great deal of sympathy for the underlying
desire, even as I don't believe that there is any good evidence for
matriarchies. It is possible to acknowledge the feelings while gently
correcting the facts. At best, I might convince some people; at worst,
they aren't going to be convinced anyway, so at least I've maintained my
own personal integrity.

>In as much as you mean equality, that actually happened, and archaic
>foraging sexual equality still exists in a few remaining outposts. The
>recreation of such equality seems to me a worthy political goal, as do
>perhaps other aspects of such societies.

Ah, but then you run into that "truth" thing again. From what I have
read (and I've been an anthropologist for some 15 years), I am not
convinced that the kind of society that people looking for "equality" as
it's understood in the modern western world has ever existed. However,
in many societies there is essential equality, and in many others people
have kinds of power which they value, even if a western person wouldn't.
It all depends on how you interpret the ethnographic descriptions, and
the associated meanings given to them by both the culture itself and the
people reading about the culture. I'm certainly in favor of equality as
I currently perceive it; my point is that I don't feel the need to
justify it by reference to whether other societies have it (and I'm not
saying you are, just that it seems many people feel that need).

>In as much as you mean table-turned male subordination to women, without
>evidence it's just an egotistic revenge fantasy. I'm not against people
>having these fantasies, but they should remember that's what they are, and
>not confuse them with what actually happened.

Agreed. My only caveat would be the points I've been trying to make in
several different ways here-- that it;s important to acknowledge the
source of the revenge fantasies, and that the idea of "what really
happened" can be tricky, even with the best of motivations.


>Ashley Branchfeather



"Some mornings, it's just not worth chewing through the leather straps."
-- Emo Phillips