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. Continue reading