BY EVELYN REED
Many women in the liberation movement, especially those who have studied Engelss Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, have come to understand that the roots of womens degradation and oppression are lodged in class society. Quite correctly they have coined the term sexist to describe the capitalist social system, the final stage of class society, which discriminates against women in every sphere of life.
What women remain unsure about, however, is whether or not their biology has played a part in making and keeping them the second sex. Such uncertainty is quite understandable in a male-dominated society where not only is history written by those who uphold the status quo but all the sciences are likewise in their hands. Two of these sciences, biology and anthropology, are of prime importance in understanding women and their history. Both are so heavily biased in favor of the male sex that they conceal rather than reveal the true facts about women.
Perhaps the most pernicious pseudoscientific propaganda on female inferiority is that offered in the name of biology. According to the mythmakers in this field, females are biologically handicapped by the organs and functions of motherhood. This handicap is said to go all the way back to the animal world and makes females helpless and dependent upon the superior male sex to provide for them and their young. Nature is held responsible for having condemned females to everlasting inferiority.
It is obvious that females are biologically different from males in that only the female sex possesses the organs and functions of maternity. But it is not true that nature is responsible for the oppression of women; such degradation is exclusively the result of man-made institutions and laws in class-divided patriarchal society….
Have women always been oppressed?
Since the rise of the womens liberation movement some women writers and even anthropologists have become so influenced by these unscientific propositions that they have drawn a very pessimistic conclusion. Women, they say, have been the oppressed sex not simply under patriarchal society but throughout all human history. According to this view, if women were not subjugated to their husbands and fathers as they are in patriarchal nations, then they were under the thumb of their brothers or uncles in primitive communities. This can be called the avunculate theory of female oppression. What is the truth of the matter?
There are a number of primitive communities scattered around the world where old matriarchal practices and customs survive to a greater or lesser extent. These are usually called matrilineal communities because the line of kinship and descent is still traced through the mothers alone. But the matter goes deeper than this. In such regions the father-family is still poorly developed. A man may be recognized as the husband of the mother and yet not be recognized as the father of her children, or, if recognized, has only an extremely tenuous connection with them. As this is usually expressed, the children belong to the mother and her kin.
This means that the children belong not only to the mothers but also to the brothers of such a matrilineal community. In other words, the mothers brothers, or maternal uncles, still perform the functions of fatherhood for their clan sisters children that in patriarchal societies have been taken over by the father for his wifes children. For this reason such a community is sometimes called the avunculate. The term avunculate refers to the mothers brother as the term patriarch refers to the father.
These matrilineal communities are survivals from the matriarchal epoch and, however much they have been altered since the patriarchal takeover, testify to the priority of the earlier social system. In fact, by the time anthropology began in the last century, most primitive clans had already become altered in their composition to a certain degree. Pairing couples, or what [Lewis] Morgan called pairing families, had made their appearance in communities that had formerly been composed solely of clan mothers and brothers (or sisters and brothers).
But the pairing family, which was still a part of the collectivist maternal clan system, was a totally different kind of family than the patriarchal family which came in with class society. A new man from outside the clan was added to the maternal groupthe husband of the woman who became his wife. However, while the husbands participated in providing for their wives and children, so long as the clan system prevailed the husbands remained subordinate and even incidental to the mothers brothers….
[Bronislaw] Malinowski writes:
Social position [among Trobriand Islanders] is handed on in the mother-line from a man to his sisters children, and this exclusively matrilineal conception of kinship is of paramount importance… people joined by the tie of maternal kinship form a closely knit group, bound by an identity of feelings, of interests, and of flesh. And from this group, even those united to it by marriage and by the father-to-child relation are sharply excluded….
The position of women in some of these surviving communities-in-transition remained largely unaltered, and they continued to enjoy economic independence and social esteem. In other regions, however, particularly those in which class relations, patriarchalism, and male supremacy have been superimposed upon a rude economy, women became as degraded as their sisters in class society. In such regions women can be as much oppressed by their brothers as by their husbands and fathers.
Australia is often offered as proof of the debased condition of primitive women. But, according to [Walter] Spencer and [Francis] Gillen, the highest authorities on the central tribes, there is a great gap between the old traditional period and the present. They conclude that the women formerly occupied a far different and higher position than in recent times.
Robert Briffault, summing up this and other reports, maintains that patriarchalism, male domination, and the debased condition of women are features of comparatively late origin and have supplanted a former condition of female influence and esteem. The Australian natives are not only a primitive, they are in many respects also a degraded race, he says, and that is why male domination, once instituted, proceeded to its extreme consequences. This should not be surprising in a continent where, through disease and other causes, the aboriginal population of 500,000 was reduced to 50,000 within a century after the coming of the white man.
In sharp contrast, there are many regions in which matriarchal customs have been preserved and there is no such debasement either of the women or of the men. Such examples can be found among the North American Indians, where male supremacy and oppression of women were nonexistent until they were brought over, along with whiskey and guns, by the civilized settlers from Europe. Briffault cites the following from the missionary J.F. Lafitau:
Nothing is more real than this superiority of the women. It is in the women that properly consists the nation, the nobility of blood, the genealogical tree, the order of generations, the preservation of families. It is in them that all real authority resides; the country, the fields, and all the crops belong to them. They are the soul of the councils, the arbiters of war and peace….
One of the most interesting confrontations between the Iroquois men and the white men who looked down upon women as the inferior sex is cited by Briffault. The chosen orator of the Iroquois, Good Peter, addressed Governor Clinton in this manner to explain the high esteem of the Native Americans for women:
Brothers! Our ancestors considered it a great offence to reject the counsels of their women, particularly of the Female Governesses. They were esteemed the mistresses of the soil. Who, said our forefathers, brings us into being? Who cultivates our land, kindles our fires, and boils our pots, but the women? Our women are the life of the nation….