The first 20,000 years: women’s work & women’s social power
As we work towards shaping social realities, research on women-centered societies which are based upon cooperation and partnership facilitates a more sophisticated discussion of cultural alternatives. This discussion also ensures that the voices of women of color are respectfully heard and recognized as both researchers of integrity applying a wide variety of methodological approaches to their subjects, and as the spiritual and physical creators and leaders of their families and cultures. Such an effort decisively proves anthropology professor Shanshan Du’s assertion that gender-egalitarian societies are not merely wishful Utopian ideals held by Western feminism (Du, “Chopsticks Only Work in Pairs,” 2), but rather existing social realities.
In order to examine the premise that women truly are cultural creators and leaders, it is appropriate to start with a review of our species’ past. I started this subsection with a fascinating book: a deep ethnographic review of matrifocal cultures, examined through the cultural lens of women’s loss of power to male dominance. Feminist anthropologist and professor Peggy Reeves Sanday’s ground-breaking 1981 study titled Female Power and Male Dominance: On the Origins of Sexual Inequality attempts something never previously undertaken: a quantitative, empirically based (re)appraisal of ethnographic studies on known non-patriarchal societies. Via a cross-cultural examination of over 150 tribal societies both extant and extinct, Sanday explores the dictates of social standards such as why women are viewed as irrelevant to religious and eco-political affairs in some societies but not in others, why some cultures choose to spiritually revere only one sex as deific, or the origins of socially approved between-sex interactions.
In her meticulous meta-analysis the author definitively disproves the current androcentric myth of universal female subordination and male dominance. By tracing the complex social linkages between a culture’s origin myths and modes of subsistence, Sanday instead presents an excellent and empirically supported theoretical framework for explicating the various types of gender relations: socially, those who are believed to embody or control the awesome natural creative forces — as is often symbolically conceptualized by a culture’s origin myths — are ensuingly also considered secularly powerful as well. It is within that cultural framework of power that further cultural adaptations are modified — by the natural environment, emotional stress, and/or social conflict.
Sanday’s research empirically demonstrates that the vast majority of cultures with androcentric creation stories will, in times of environmental hardship or social stress, fall easily into an androcentric social system. This is unsurprising considering that men predominantly respond with aggression and competitiveness when suffering social stresses. Similarly, cultures practicing intensive agriculture and/or animal husbandry — as opposed to a more gender egalitarian gatherer/hunter mode of subsistence — will often succumb to a male-dominant social system when placed under cultural duress. Thus while male dominance is prevalent today, it is not so much inherent to inter-gender relationships — as that it has been a solution to various cultural strains experienced by the descendants of the predominantly male monotheistic Judeo-Christians who practiced both animal husbandry and intensive agriculture. This also explains the general ignorance of cultures differing from this standard: they have been either crushed and obliterated through warfare, socially overwhelmed by the more aggressive male-dominant cultures, or deliberately ignored and distorted in records.
This is, in fact, the basis of the problem facing American archaeology and linguistics professor Elizabeth Wayland Barber in her wonderful 1995 work: Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years: Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times. As a textile expert and archaeologist Barber researches what are effectively perishable cultural artifacts which, even when present, are usually ignored and/or cast aside by male archaeologists more interested in men, gold, and weaponry. The author’s ingenuity and rare scientific insight shine forth in her deeply scholarly and extraordinarily accessible writing, as she explains the sophisticated and creative research methodologies that she used for “finding the invisible” (Barber, 286) proofs of women’s work throughout history, ranging from the Paleolithic through Mesopotamia, ancient Egypt, Hellenistic Greece, and the Roman era.
Through these processes Barber not only thoughtfully examines the orientation of, for example, clay spindle whorls or fallen loom weights — long ignored or discarded by confused and indifferent male archaeologists — but also scours account records on cuneiform tablets, the works of Homer, linguistics, and ancient textile remnants for trade routes and migration paths. Through her stringent research parameters and investigative inference — including the careful removal of unwarranted assumptions such as the unimportance of women’s work — she also discovers critical information via the designs on pottery remains, sculptures, and wall paintings of weaving women and, perhaps most amazingly, thereby successfully recreates faithful replicas of ancient textiles.
Though she freely admits there is a paucity of historical data concerning textiles, Barber uses what is there with admirable scientific rigor to brilliantly reconstruct the far-ranging nature of women’s work. She identifies the String Revolution as the “unseen weapon that allowed the human race to conquer the earth, that enabled us to move out into every econiche on the globe during the Upper Paleolithic” (Barber, 45), and documents the enormous economic force that developed from women’s creation, migration, and trade of various (extremely valuable) textile materials and weaving technology and techniques. She shows how these were affected by and used to communicate social class and gender, and demonstrates the paramount importance of textiles within early trade and diplomacy, myth and religion.
As she entertainingly and inspiringly illustrates the immense value of women’s work as a force for the creation of civilization — as well as a task which can be easily and temporarily set aside in order to care for children — Barber simultaneously calls for meticulous research of the data: “Facts about women, their work, and their place in society in early times have survived in considerable quantity, if we know how to look for them. . . . this truth is sometimes . . . stranger than fiction, a fascinating tale in itself” (Barber, 299-300; italics mine). Consequently her study also powerfully illustrates both the egalitarian nature of gatherer-hunter societies, and the immense value of women’s work as a force for the creation of civilization. Due to her beautifully exacting research, women may now take justifiable pride in being the inheritors of unbroken traditions of textile production which date back thousands of years.