oppression is in the eye of the beholder (Part 1/3 ruminations on Puritans and Indians)

Part 2: Pilgrims, Memes, and Genes, and Part 3: The Attempt to Convert the Indians to Memetic Puritanism

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.

Part 2: Pilgrims, Memes, and Genes, and Part 3: The Attempt to Convert the Indians to Memetic Puritanism



12 thoughts on “oppression is in the eye of the beholder (Part 1/3 ruminations on Puritans and Indians)

  1. Certainly this perception that women were oppressed must come from the availability of contraceptives. Now that I’ve done the pregnancy, nursing, and toddler thing I see how very benevolent of European men it has been to restrict us from the hardest physical labor, military service, etc. Certainly I’m with the Puritans here!

    And since reading the accounts of herds of mammoths being driven off cliffs to butcher but 1, I become increasingly annoyed with the “cares more about nature” narrative. Certainly these folks were more in tune with nature because they lived in it, but sustainability not so much!


  2. I have also thought exactly the same. We modern westerners love to affirm our superiority on other cultures and past historical periods by mentioning our achievement to grant equality to women and not oppressing them, but how sure are we that these women back then perceived their status as oppression? Most probably they felt safe and secure within their soft homes with their kids, and under no circumstances they wanted to work. Of course poorer farmers or businessmen would put women to work, but wealthier families never did that. And even today in places were women are ‘oppressed’ and are quite cut off from western influence they don’t seem to complain. In fact a study done in Sudan about the experiences of clitoridectomized women has shockingly found that most women consider it normal, and even believe that a real man must give them pain! Only some women from the upper levels of society felt injustice about what was done to them, only after learning that in other places of the world that thing is not done. I can find and give you the relevant link. Neither puritan/protestant/victorian women conplained, even if thought mentally inferior and unable to achieve what men achieved. They just complied and liked that. They never complained, let alone rebel for the unjustices bestowed upon them. Slaves have rebelled. War captives have rebelled. The poor and oppressed have rebelled. All human groups under unnatural domination have in one or another time rebelled. Only women never rebelled, Scandinavia might be an oddball case, where still they didn’t rebel, but they have more freedoms compared with the rest of Europe of the time. What does that mean about their biology? They always call me a nasty sexist if I tell such thinks to most people, so I feel free to post my question hear. I hope you won’t delete my comment.
    Perhapse the corporation would make money from the fines required to pay by the Indians. Yet could they cover the initial cost?
    The situation though may be different when a dominant group starts to enforce its strict ideals on a losing group. Wouldn’t the Indians feel oppressed by the new laws? Does any written voice of the minority survive from that time?
    ps. I feel confused by the rapid change of Anglo-Saxon women from the week, homely and prudish type to the modern aggressive, demanding type, which many times seems to try to assert female supremacy rather than gender equality. They are universally regarded as masculine and aggressive, by both Anglo-Saxon and other males. The change was complete in less than 100 years, so natural selection is not the answer.


  3. I forgot also to mention that putting the women to work, while the men generally relaxed or passed time associating was commonplace in Pontic Greece as well. I am Greek, and my father is a descendant from the refugees from the pontic region. Still in many villages where pontic Greeks have settled, in the oldest living generations women go out to the fields or to the animals to work, while men either stay at home or get together to eat, party, play cards etc. Not that men never worked, but a lot of work was made by women. Even a year ago, when my grandparents from my father’s side wanted to sell one piece of a real estate and buy an appartment, my grandmother was running from one office to the next arranging for the paperwork, while my grandfather stayed in the city they live. When I asked my father about the reason he was not hear, he told me straightly: In Pontos, women do all the jobs. Also not long ago, perhapse five years ago, my father travelled to Kappadocia, where he witnessed this unbelieveable spectacle: a man was riding on a donkey, while the woman was following him, carrying heavy bundles of firewood on their sholders. My father explained that that was normal in the older times.
    Now of course people here denounce these acts as exploitation of women from a western point of view, while in the same time believe that women that stayed at home and just cared for the kids were equally oppressed. Contradictions upon contradictions. Go figure.


    • The feminist narrative is that until approximately yesterday, all women were forced by their husbands to stay home and raise two dozen children because they believed that women were mental imbeciles whose wombs would fall out if they did any work. Of course, this is not even remotely true; I’ve yet to find any culture where women did not work and were not respected for the things they did well. Peasant women have never been delicate, wilting flowers who sit at home and do nothing but needlepoint all day. Only rich women have ever had that luxury.


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