How women became less than equal

Eleanor Leacock was a unique individual whose political life spanned both academics and the world of struggle. She was an anthropologist who was also a Communist Party sympathizer, blacklisted from tenured faculty positions for a number of years until she was finally hired full-time in the City University of New York system in 1972. Leacock always saw her extensive theoretical writing as work in the service of social justice.

As a Marxist, her vision of social change rested on the centrality of working-class unity and the theoretical tools to understand the basis of that unity, namely, a dialectical and materialist understanding of history. Building on the work of Friedrich Engels’ Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, she argued strenuously that understanding the rise of the nuclear family and women’s oppression historically was central to understanding the rise of all class society, including capitalism.

For her, it is not possible to understand how class society came into being without appreciating the nature of the egalitarian societies that preceded it and how they were transformed. This is where the immense contribution to Marxist theory of the newly-reissued Myths of Male Dominance lies: Leacock’s vast research to extend Engels’ theory shows how women’s oppression is rooted in the rise of class society and can only be ended with its overthrow.

In fact, for Leacock, overlooking the significance of the changing role of the family historically, or by relegating it to secondary status as a “women’s issue,” undermined the theoretical understanding of the role that all men and women played in the dialectical process of social change.  As Leacock puts it, “Marx indicated that the oppression of women in a society was the measure of its general oppression. One can add, the strength of women’s involvement in a movement dedicated to opposing a social order is a measure of the movement’s strength—or weakness.”

Throughout a work life that ran from the 1950s into the 1980s, Leacock saw her main project as arguing for a materialist framework for history in opposition to feminists and scholars who insisted that women’s oppression is an eternal feature of all societies, rooted in biology, culture, or psychology. She wrote many of the essays in Myths at the height of the women’s movement, when feminists were grappling with explanations for inequality and oppression, from discrimination on the job to domestic violence and rape. Many argued that male violence and aggression were biological, and that conversely, women’s innate maternal instincts led historically to matriarchal, female-dominated societies.

Leacock rejected those kinds of approaches and argued instead that women’s oppression has its origins in economic developments and social relations, and that for the vast bulk of human history, societies lived free of inequality. Class inequality arose under particular conditions—and, just as importantly, the possibility of its overthrow can only be understood in material terms.

Her historical and anthropological evidence for egalitarian societies is invaluable, based on her fieldwork among the Native American Montsagnais-Naskapi, and also the diaries of Jesuit missionaries who provided first-hand documentation these “collective societies.” The Naskapi were migrating hunter-gatherers in Canada who lived in multiple-family bands. Whether it was hunting or tent-making, men and women shared a range of tasks, and although there was some gender division of labor, the different areas were equal to each other in status. In fact, men had no authority over women, sexual or otherwise. Fundamentally, decision-making rested equally in the hands of both men and women:

The authority structure of egalitarian societies where all individuals were equally dependent on a collective larger than the nuclear family, was one of wide dispersal of decision-making among mature and elder women and men, who essentially made decisions—either singly, in small groups, or collectively—about those activities which it was their socially-defined responsibility to carry out.

Accounts of pre-class societies (which were often written by men) have been biased by the fact that researchers or colonial authorities assumed male dominance. Many of these accounts missed the critical fact that women and men had sexual independence and labored cooperatively:

Women retained control over the products of their labor. These were not alienated, and women’s production of clothing, shelter, and canoe covering gave them concomitant practical power and influence, despite formal statements of male dominance that might be elicited by outsiders.

Jesuit missionaries imposed the concept of male authority on Naskapi egalitarian society. But more generally, as Myths demonstrates, egalitarian social customs were undermined over the course of the century following colonialism’s arrival and the introduction of the fur trade. Fur-trapping and European trade in North America forced a fundamental reorganization of society, including the move towards smaller, more “nuclear” family units, a sharper sexual division of labor and heightened male authority overall.

As an anthropologist, Leacock was always very aware that widespread variation existed in pre-colonial societies, from collective societies to class-based stratification. She rejected the racist implication that somehow societies “untouched” by Europe and the West were frozen in time and lacked any dynamism or change on their own terms. Yet, as she describes in Myths, the development of male authority and class stratification was universal.

Reconstructed bits and pieces from the last 500 years of North American history suggest that parallel develop­ment took place quite widely among previously egalitarian peoples. As trade, and in some cases wage labor, undercut the collective economy, chiefs and other men of influence began to play roles…as entrepreneurial go-betweens in commercial matters…and the “public” sphere became invested with a semblance of the male power it represents in state-organized society.

The rise of commodity production and a merchant class “were interrelated with the breakdown of the tribal collective into individual units economically responsible, privately, for rearing a new generation.”

Leacock also insists on the importance of overarching historical laws and dynamics that shaped the development of all human society. She reintroduced the American Left to the ideas of Engels’ Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, in which he famously described the rise of class society as “the historic defeat of the female sex.” Her introduction to historian Lewis Henry Morgan’s Ancient Society, the text that formed the basis of Engels’s, is reprinted in Myths. Morgan has been criticized for supposedly reducing history to broad sweeping generalizations. In reality, says Leacock, it is the dynamics of change that Morgan describes that are so critical—how monogamy, the nuclear family, and women’s oppression, as well as urbanization, private property, and the domestication of animals, generally tended to accompany the rise of class society.

With devastating skill, she takes on leading sociobiologists who reduced human historical development to mere biological adaptation. Challenging ideas that condemn us as prisoners of our genes, Leacock saw the urgency of extending Marxist theory for the struggles of the day. As Leacock puts it,

to consign the grim brutalities of abused power we see everywhere about us to what amounts to masculine “original sin” not only denies the historical and ethnographic record (plus what we may know personally of individual men) but seriously disarms all of us, as humanity, in the urgency of our need to understand and redirect our social life if we would ensure ourselves a future.

These are no timeworn, old ideas. Leacock argues:

It might seem that Engels’ discussion of family arrangements that have long ceased to exist in their pristine forms is somewhat esoteric and of little relevance today. However, it is crucial to the organizations of women for their liberation to understand that it is the monogamous family as an economic unit, at the heart of class society that is basic to their subjugation.

Without understanding that the myths of male dominance are indeed myths, we disarm our movement of the tools with which a democratic, classless society can be built—the insight that sexism is far from eternal and that our egalitarian past gives us hope for the future.

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
Issue contents

Top story