Anthro Mini-Lecture: The Universal Subordination of Women

Within academic Feminist theory there lies a deeply troubling question: Why are women universally subordinated? Of course, the nature of this question in many ways presupposes the kinds of answers we should expect. However, while this does not completely devalue either the question or the analysis, we should evaluate the principal premise because it is this premise that unconsciously assumes patriarchy to be a total cultural fact and advances it as the prime political and economic obstacle to modern women’s advancement. Put in another way, the question itself takes for granted the notion that patriarchy is the one overarching, inescapable, fact of all female existence.

What I find most intriguing in subordination theory is that if, in fact, women actually are universally subordinated to men, regardless of the mechanisms by which this comes about, it seems that the real question should either be “why women, specifically?” or most importantly, “why is power linked so pervasively to gender?” For the most part, each of the more well-known subordination theorists have put forth their explanations for possible causes; which they principally locate within the relationships between female bodies and material advancement. To Eleanor Leacock, it’s economic shifts in labor and production value associated with household units (pg. 248), to Gayle Rubin, it’s the exchange of women within sex/gender systems of kinship and the effects of psychological reinforcement of those system on children (pg. 159), to Michelle Rosaldo, it lies in the devaluation of women’s labor and experiences within the domestic sphere versus the public sphere of men (pg. 23), and to Sherry Ortner, it’s the universal association of women with an ideal of “Nature” (and thus disorder and danger) versus the association of men with “Culture” (and thus “fully human pursuits”) (pg. 72-73). It is Leacock’s analysis, however, that takes the initial turn into challenging the analytical stand of universal female subordination. By specifically arguing that “egalitarian” societies did not maintain real gender inequality and that both men and women had “autonomy” in these cases, she hypothesizes that is it the position of the anthropologist (and the effects of colonialism, Westernization, ethnocentrism, and capitalist critique) that has ultimately created the question and thus shaped the answer.

While I do not side fully with Leacock’s claims regarding any kind of historical, pan-global, ‘egalitarian’ society I appreciate her critique of viewing women’s cultural statuses through superficial readings of cooking, cleaning, and child care, mainly because “a once-over-lightly of cross-cultural data can readily affirm the virtual universality of the Western ideal for women’s status” (pg. 247). In other words, it depends on what the women in question actually do and actually value. Overall, the theory of universal women’s subordination is heavily criticized because of its problematic reliance on binaries (male/female, nature/culture, domestic/public, production/reproduction, and so on). I tend to agree that this dualistic framework fails to adequately evaluate the position of women when translated into other cultural contexts mainly because it obscures other equally important intersections of class, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and religion which all function just as well as mediators of gender or that modify the category of “woman” and complicate the assumption that woman and man are such clear-cut distinctions. Either through Marxism, Lévi-Straussian Structuralism, or Freudian Psychoanalysis; Leacock, Rubin, Rosaldo, and Ortner all seem to assume a Durkheimian collective — a notion of culture in the form of an all-encompassing, all-pervading, set of beliefs and attitudes unifying society together beyond the capacity of the individual — that imposes gender and sexuality norms to universal detriment of women.

In this way, I think that universal subordination theory must be understood within the context of the social climate (both historical and theoretical) in which it arose during the 1970s and 1980s. Many subordination theorists uphold pervasive universalist assumptions that women are universally devalued but the question of universal female subordination must be understood as primarily obtained through the lens of Western feminism which only understands the relationships of gender and power in specific ways. For example, it continues to support the idea that women’s body parts exist for the purpose of having children, that a woman’s familial position normatively renders her more emotional than men, that women automatically crave concrete social connections, and that the Lévi-Straussian ahistorical structural binary of nature/culture (or also of domestic/public) is always the same cross-culturally. In short, I’m going to write further in this forum about critiquing the notion of universality itself.

I am not here saying that there are not global issues of gender inequality that cause great harm or that oppression and violence against women is not a serious and ongoing issue everywhere. Rather, what I am getting at is that “power,” ”status,” “authority,” “value,” and “gender” do not always map neatly onto each other in every society, or even within the same society in the same ways. As Leacock elaborates, “it is difficult to apply the principle that all reality involves interacting processes, and not interacting “essences” or things” (pg. 247). In the end, what we need is better understanding of the difficult nature of our own analytic categories and to come to terms with the complex nature of social power relations cross-culturally, of which the category of gender is only one part among many others.