I remember an article I read ages ago (that, alas, I cannot find now,) on the subject of what the Puritans thought of Indian gender relations. In Puritan society, men were expected to work in the fields or at trades/professions in the cities, while women were supposed to work in the home, raising children, cooking meals, and otherwise doing domestic labor.
In the nearby Indian tribes, by contrast, women worked in the fields, either alongside the men or while the men stayed at home, doing whatever needed to be done about the house or just relaxing with their friends. (This is not just something I read once, btw; here’s an article from Indian Country Today on Why do Tribes Have Matrilineal Societies?)
It is common enough today to read descriptions of the Puritan lifestyle which basically amount to denunciations of the Puritans as evil, patriarchal oppressors, and glowing descriptions of the Indians’ lifestyle as female-empowered matriarchies.
The funny thing is that the Puritans saw the Indians as evil, patriarchal oppressors. They viewed the Indian men like communists view evil capitalist oppressors who sit indolently at home while benefiting from the exploitation of their wives’ labor instead of working industriously in the fields so that their wives can enjoy a comfortable lifestyle at home.
These days, of course, one does not encounter denunciations of the Indians as evil, patriarchal oppressors. In fact, it is difficult to find a respectable source making any kind of denunciation of Indian culture at all, unlike the Puritans.
I’m going to quote Howard Zinn at greater length than I usually prefer to quote, just because I’m having trouble picking the best part:
“Societies based on private property and competition, in which monogamous families became practical units for work and socialization, found it especially useful to establish this special status of women, something akin to a house slave in the matter of intimacy and oppression, and yet requiring, because of that intimacy, and long-term connection with children, a special patronization, which on occasion, especially in the face of a show of strength, could slip over into treatment as an equal. An oppression so private would turn out hard to uproot.
Earlier societies-in America and elsewhere-in which property was held in common and families were extensive and complicated, with aunts and uncles and grandmothers and grandfathers all living together, seemed to treat women more as equals than did the white societies that later overran them, bringing “civilization” and private property.
In the Zuni tribes of the Southwest, for instance, extended families- large clans-were based on the woman, whose husband came to live with her family. It was assumed that women owned the houses, and the fields belonged to the clans, and the women had equal rights to what was produced. A woman was more secure, because she was with her own family, and she could divorce the man when she wanted to, keeping their property.
Women in the Plains Indian tribes of the Midwest did not have farming duties but had a very important place in the tribe as healers, herbalists, and sometimes holy people who gave advice. When bands lost their male leaders, women would become chieftains. Women learned to shoot small bows, and they carried knives, because among the Sioux a woman was supposed to be able to defend herself against attack.
The puberty ceremony of the Sioux was such as to give pride to a young Sioux maiden:
“Walk the good road, my daughter, and the buffalo herds wide and dark as cloud shadows moving over the prairie will follow you… . Be dutiful, respectful, gentle and modest, my daughter. And proud walking. If the pride and the virtue of the women are lost, the spring will come but the buffalo trails will turn to grass. Be strong, with the warm, strong heart of the earth. No people goes down until their women are weak and dishonored. . ..”It would be an exaggeration to say that women were treated equally with men; but they were treated with respect, and the communal nature of the society gave them a more important place.
By the way, I didn’t pick Zinn because he’s a famous liberal historian, but because he was the first Google hit when I searched for opinions the Puritans held about the Indians. Zinn strikes me as one of those guys who would insist to my face that I am being oppressed and that my lack of feeling oppressed is just a sign of how oppressed I am, which never fails to infuriate.
Zinn says the women of the Sioux had to learn to kill people and walked around armed because violence against women was so prevalent in their society, and then claims they were treated with respect. A Sioux girl becomes a woman not because she has accomplished some great skill or acquired some learning, but because she becomes fertile and capable of conceiving children, at which point she is lectured on the importance of being dutiful, respectful, and preserving her “virtue,” which sounds a lot like code for virginity to me. If she doesn’t, her tribe will starve, because goodness knows all misfortune comes as a result of women. Eve, Pandora, dishonored Sioux maidens…
Honestly, I have no idea how the Sioux felt (and feel) about women, but this little excerpt is inadequate to support to the idea that women were more respected by the Sioux than by, say, Queen Elizabeth’s England, where women did not even have to walk around armed for fear of constant violence.
A while back, I posted about the similarities between West African Child-Rearing Norms and African-American Norms. The point of this post was not that the two are similar because of genetics–though that would be very interesting if they are–but that the exact same behavior that anthropologists laud as evidence of cultures that respect and empower women, when practiced over in Africa, is derided as the source of all of the black community’s problems over here in the US.
Be careful what you believe. Everybody has an agenda. Anthropologists want to push the narrative that non-whites are morally superior than whites, generally by claiming that they are peaceful paragons of gender equality, which turns out to be factually untrue in a lot of ways, especially homicide rates. Conservative Americans want to push the narrative that loss of traditional values and family structures created the social decay, crime, and low educational achievement now seen in African American communities. This is likely also untrue, but I grant the possibility.
Most Sioux probably liked (and like) their culture and did not feel oppressed by it. Most Nigerians probably liked (and like) their culture. Likewise, most of the English probably liked English culture, and most of the Puritan women probably liked Puritan culture. This is the way of people virtually everywhere.
One thing all of these descriptions of Puritan and Indian life tend to miss (though Zinn comes close to noticing it) is that there is an important reason why women were more active in economic production in Indian life than in European life: the European economy (including the Pilgrims’) was more complicated and closer to achieving full industrialization, and industrialization requires specialization. Anyone can gather yams; most people can fish. Men probably have an advantage drawing a bow or throwing a spear, but women are perfectly good butchers of most game.
But working cattle, building windmills, and driving fence posts are hard, difficult tasks that require a great deal of muscle.
Did you know that the Amish use automatic milking machines? Yes, the Amish use some technology, if they decide it will be a boon to their culture. They use milking machines because Amish women are too weak to easily lift the 70 lb milk jugs, and these are people who were raised on a farm.
Obviously European society in the early 1600s had not yet “Industrialized” as we use the word, but it had reached a high level of technical development, including the use of wind, water, and tidal mills for grinding grain; large guilds for the production of standardized goods and regulation of commerce; orderly societies with falling homicide rates; printing presses and widespread literacy.
The Indians practiced low-scale agriculture/horticulture, hunting, gathering, fishing, and some forms of resource management. They also killed all of the wooly mammoths in North America, because they love and respect nature
so much just as much as virtually everyone else on the entire planet. They did not have cows or horses (or any domestic animals besides dogs;) so they could not plow or pull wagons. Trade had to be carried one one’s back or a sled dragged on the ground, pulled by a dog. They had no need to fence in large herds of enormous bovines. Farming by hand, as was common in much of the world at that time, does not require the same strength as plowing with oxen, and can easily be accomplished by women.
Lack of task specialization and resource exploitation had little to do with the Indians being fabulous people who loved women and nature way more than the Pilgrims. It was just the result of low levels of technological sophistication that did not therefore require intense labor, specialization, or large-scale resource extraction.
Oppression is in the eye of the beholder.