Is it that the grass is greener?

Mike Salovesh (t20mxs1@CORN.CSO.NIU.EDU)
Tue, 30 Jan 1996 00:55:41 -0600

The serious part of the thread on Hodenausaunee egalitarianism, it seems
to me, has been looking for the needle in the wrong haystack. I doubt
that any anthropologists today would care to assert that the existence of
matrilineal kinship groups in a society proves anything about matriarchy.

To cite an example from another continent, the matrilineal Ashanti can
hardly be called matriarchal. Parallel to the Iroquois, senior women in
Ashanti "royal" lineages -- particularly one called the "queen-mother" in
British writings -- are charged with certifying the hereditary eligibility
of candidates for leadership positions. Furthermore, well-developed
judicial institutions that were controlled by women provided an
alternative means for men as well as women to seek authoritative
adjudication of disputes. Despite all these signs that women had some
public political roles, the system was male-dominated. The ordinary
judicial structure was controlled by men, for example. During the
200-year independence of the Ashanti Confederacy, the Asantehene ("Supreme
Chief"), the Asantehene's "court" of military leaders, the omanhene
("division chiefs"), the village chiefs, and the heads of localized
lineages were all men.

(BTW, I am aware of the literature that claims the Ashanti had some form
of double descent. I just don't find the evidence convincing.)

Looked at from the outside, particularly in view of the social
organization of neighboring groups, both the Ashanti Confederation and
the Iroquois Confederation allowed considerably more public expressions
of female decision-making power than others. That's sort of like the old
Henny Youngman lines: "How's your wife?" "Compared to what?" Compared
with some of their neighbors, the fact that Ashanti or Iroquois women had
any public political influence at all is certainly remarkable. Compared
with a model of gender egalitarianism, they fell far short.

The Chiapas Indian community where I did longterm fieldwork also has a
reputation, in neighboring communities, as somewhat of a matriarchy. A
primary cause of the unique division of labor in this town is the fact
that the Indian community shares the physical space of the town-center
with a sizable Ladino community. (The town has been bicultural, in these
terms, since the middle 1500's.) Indian men spend much of their time in
distant cornfields; thirty years ago, the pattern was for them to leave
town on Monday and not return until the following Saturday. Women stayed
in town throughout the week.

As a consequence of the divided residence pattern, most Indian women are
considerably more fluent in Spanish than most Indian men; wheat bread is
an important part of the diet; Indian women are more experienced than
their men in day-to-day cash transactions and in handling money in
general; and women have many and varied opportunities to be self-
supporting (as market sellers, in producing handicrafts for sale, or as
servants in Ladino households, e.g.) Women of this community are markedly
different from Indian women of other communities in all of these factors.
That is precisely why Indian men of the community are seen as henpecked
and dominated by their women by Indians from other Chiapas communities.

The reality is far different. Public positions in the political system
are a male monopoly. Men routinely beat their wives, with impunity unless
the physical injuries are severe. Male domination is the rule in most
social situations, even though the distribution of power WITHIN domestic
groups depends more on individual personality than on gender. The kinship
system, formally bilateral, shows strong masculocentric bias. Family
names are transmitted patrilineally; postmarital residence favors
virilocality immediately after first marriage (but neolocality at a later
stage in the development of domestic groups). Furthermore, some political
positions in the recent past were dependent on hereditary eligibility in
the male line. (Both the positions and eligibility to them are matters
that are usually concealed from outsiders. I don't know if there has
been any new recruitment to these offices in the last decade or two, but
men I knew to be incumbents in the 1970's are still referred to by the
titles of their old offices.)

A century ago, it was easy to misread the existence of any female
political power at all in a society as "proof" of egalitarianism, if not
of the matriarchate. After all, there were darned few examples of women
achieving a political voice in societies like that of the U.S. at the
time. I think that those leaders in seeking women's rights back then were
understandably misled by a few features of Hodenausaunee politics into
thinking that Iroquois women lived in equality with their men. I also
think it was a case of the grass looking greener . . .

After suffering through piles of Hillary-bashing everywhere I look at
U.S. politics today, I'm not sure that such "founding mothers" as E.C.
Stanton et al. would think that egalitarianism has completely taken over
the U.S. yet. I would expect them to find contemporary U.S. society
easier to see through, because we're not that far from the society they
knew, than the Hodenausaunee of the last century.

mike salovesh, anthropology department <>
northern illinois university PEACE !