Members of an egalitarian society are, by definition, considered to be equals, i.e. they have the same status despite their diversity in terms of race, social class, income, or in this case, gender. Therefore, in principle, women in egalitarian societies have an equally important social role and responsibility as men do, or there is a general semblance of equality. In an egalitarian society, both men and women have equal influence and thus have equal opportunity to assume positions of authority. Nevertheless, although hunter-gatherer societies were more egalitarian than today’s segregated socioeconomic cultures, one may still observe differences between men and women’s roles, and even some degree of inequity.
The experiences of women in egalitarian foraging societies as described by Marjorie Shostak in her book, “Nisa, the life and words of a !Kung woman”, testify to a higher degree of gender equality in bushman societies than in non-egalitarian modern ones. However, they also shed some light into why men still managed to assume greater authority in some instances and why their contribution was often valued more than women’s. In spite of these slight gender differences, the author argues that foraging societies were a lot less stratified than today’s market-based societies, where gender hierarchies are prevalent. In other words, she suggests that:
“Perhaps the extremes of subordination of women by men found in many of today’s more socioeconomically ‘advanced’ cultures are only a relatively recent aberration in our long, human calendar.” (Shostak 2000, 214)
In my view, the emergence of gender hierarchies is directly related to the shift from hunting and gathering towards a settler’s life and the development of market economies.
First, let us begin by taking a closer look into the mechanisms and organization of egalitarian foraging societies. Notably, gender roles in these societies frequently overlapped. In short, men were not exclusively responsible for hunting, neither were women for raising families. Both women and men played a part in the activities that were essential to the society’s survival. But, whether that part was completely equal is a different story.
As pointed out in the book, despite the relative equality and sometimes overlapping roles, women and men actually had distinct experiences and daily routines. This is probably due to the understanding that labor could be sensibly divided based on men’s and women’s respective physical limitations and qualities. Interestingly, gender roles differed mostly because of efficiency, not sexism or a wish to exclude women.
“Thus the few taboos that do exist in !Kung life do not exclude women from the highly valued social, political, or economic life of the community. Women are not considered a threat to the ability of !Kung men to maintain their male identities and functions.” (Shostak 2000, 215)
In foraging societies, men were primarily responsible for hunting and defending territory while women tended to spend their time gathering food and raising the children. However, overlap exists for men would also take care of the children while women would contribute to hunting by providing information on the location of the prey. These overlaps suggest relative gender equality, but in fact when one looks more closely they also imply inequity. For example, although 60-75% of food was provided and distributed by women, this contribution was underappreciated in contrast to the celebrations that would ensue the return from a hunt. Moreover, due to hunting, men tended to leave the society more often and had more freedom to socialize amongst themselves.
On the other hand, there is plenty of evidence that despite the gender differences discussed above, women were not oppressed in bushman societies. As a matter of fact, women were autonomous and outspoken in these societies; they were entitled to their own opinions and contributed abundantly to production. Furthermore, “the !Kung express no preference for either sex before the child’s birth.” (Shostak 2000, 214)
Equally interesting is the fact that “children seem to be comfortable with either parent… The father is not set up as an authority, whose wrath must be feared; both parents guide their children, and a father’s word seems to carry about the same weight as the mother’s.” (Shostak 2000, 214) Finally, thanks to the absence of a closed off domestic sphere and lack of privacy, women were protected from men’s potential abuse; hence, promoting gender equality.
To sum up, egalitarian foraging societies exhibit a high degree of gender equality because a) division of labor was not yet defined rigidly by sex, b) sharing and cooperating was valued more than competing for resources, and c) there was no distinction between public and private life. The !Kung may have not been the perfectly egalitarian society, but the main point made by the author is that they were without a doubt less unfair and oppressive towards women than most communities in the world today.
What happened to these egalitarian gender roles when the Bushmen settled down in reservations? Under settled life all the aforementioned preconditions that promoted and safeguarded egalitarianism completely changed. Primarily, this shift was accompanied by the emergence of a domestic, private sphere in society, in which women began to assume a more subservient role to men. Gathering practices faded away and men were considered to be the ones responsible for the family’s survival. Additionally, as people gave value to money and as a consequence of hoarding, resources were restricted. In general, the transition of society into settled life gave rise to great gender, economic and political inequality.
As described by Marjorie Shostak, this affected the !Kung people on many levels. One example is that forced living in reservations produces huge tensions, especially sexual ones, which often resulted in the physical abuse of women by men. For instance, Nisa recounts how her daughter, Nai, married a villager.
“After that, Nai’s husband started to bother her for sex… One night he became so angry he grabbed her, and tried to take her by force.” (Shostak 2000, 279)
Nai died soon after that.
The increased violence in this newly formed private sphere is particularly significant, especially when one considers that while the !Kung still lived in foraging societies, women would not tend to fall victims of physical abuse.
“The lack of privacy in !Kung life also protects women from being battered by their husbands, and children from being abused by either parent. Arguments between husbands and wives occur within sight of their neighbors. If a fight becomes physical, other people are always there and ready to intervene.” (Shostak 2000, 214)
In conclusion, living in settled societies definitely benefited men more than women; in fact, it made women’s lives increasingly more difficult and unsafe.
Nisa. The Life and Words of a !Kung Woman. Marjorie Shostak. Harvard University Press, 2000