During a discussion today about women’s issues, I came across a question regarding the equality of men and women in our hunter/gatherer history.  Is the predominant story of pervasive patriarchy an accurate description of our anthropological history?  Were women always frail and submissive to their stronger, hunting counterparts?  This time period seems ideal to investigate the “real” issue of male/female equality as it would be relatively free of societal construct and influence.  By investigating this issue, we can truly get to the basis of what “human nature” and gender equality is really like.  Thankfully, I stumbled upon this great review written by Dr. Ernestine Friedl who uses her anthropological expertise to explore this issue.  According to her research, male dominance is directly related to gender control over food distribution, a relationship subject to tribal structure and the physical environment.  Thus, a variety of patriarchal and egalitarian structures existed (and still exist) and this relationship is still applicable to gender equality in modern society.

To begin, I would like to define three main terms that will be useful for understanding her discussion.  First, a patriarchy is defined as a system of society in which men hold the power and women are largely excluded from it.  Conversely, a matriarchy is a system of society ruled by women.  Finally and intermediately, an egalitarian society is one characterized by belief in the equality of all people, especially in political, economic, or social life.  Using these definitions, Dr. Friedl’s investigation points to a range of patriarchal and egalitarian societies present in our history, but truly matriarchal structures were absent from her findings.  The incidence of patriarchy was found to be in relation to the amount of dominion men had over the distribution of food.  Groups heavily dependent on meat and the hunt (example: Eskimos) are presented as strictly patriarchal.  Women in these groups are “treated almost exclusively as objects to be used, abused, and traded by men.”  On the opposite end, Washo Indians of southern California relied much less frequently on long hunts and more on communal hunting and gathering.  Women had the opportunity to lead and otherwise there was “relatively little difference in male and female rights.”  Dr. Friedl provides other examples of less egalitarian structures where men have dominion, but women do have the ability to exert influence.  Ultimately, dominion and status is awarded to the group who controls the distribution of resources, a process dictated by physical environment and biological constraints and usually, but not always, associated with the male gender.

Dr. Friedl does address the division of hunters vs. gatherers into the respective male vs. female groups and attributes the division to the specialization required for these actions and the reproductive capacity of women.  As in economics, it is more effective for two individuals to separately specialize in tasks rather than for the individuals to perform averagely in both tasks.  Conceptually, men could specialize in gathering and women could specialize in hunting.  However, hunting would be made inefficient with the presence of a small child on your back.  The possibility of carrying and gathering is really what has solidified the “woman as gatherer” idea beyond the temporary constraints of pregnancy.  Interestingly, this perspective provides no comparison of male vs. female intelligence, superiority or submission.  It is simply most cost effective to design a method of food production where the males specialize in the more taxing, randomized pattern of hunting while women gather resources, bear, and raise children.

The power of this article lies in its ability to contradict the patriarchy-as-inherent/historical-truth story.  We are certainly familiar with the story of the powerful hunter returning to dominion over his wife and family.  Although this was certainly the case in some instances, it is not the case for all.  Tribes existed with the promotion of egalitarian values and power relative to the distribution of labor.  There is no reason to accept patriarchy as the default human pathway as it simply is not true.  

While reviewing the points of her article, Dr. Friedl relates this relationship of resources/status to contemporary society.  Modern day Eskimo women might be relatable to the middle class housewife, devoid of contribution to the family resources and subject to her husband’s dominion.  Dr. Friedl states “only as controllers of valued resources can women achieve prestige, power, and equality” (Handmaid’s Tale anyone?).  Currently, women are reducing the number of/closeness in age of their children and gaining more influence and power in the workforce.  She concludes with a powerful statement: 

In many countries where women no longer devote most of their productive years to childbearing, they are beginning to demand a change in the societal relationship of the sexes.  As women gain access to positions that control the exchange of resources, male dominance may become archaic, and industrial societies may one day become as egalitarian as the Washo.

Feminism, after all, is about equality.