Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Eleanor Burke Leacock - Myths of Male Dominance

Eleanor Burke Leacock's collection of essays, Myths of Male Dominance (Collected Articles on Women Cross-Culturally) is one of the most important works for those who argue that the way we live our lives today is not the natural order of things. Leacock's articles are a powerful defence of the Marxist notion of "Primitive Communism" - the idea that in humanity's past, our societies were egalitarian, private property was unknown in a general sense and class differences nonexistent. Most interestingly, this means that there were also differences in the way that men and women related - monogamy has not always been the natural way of doing things, men have not always been dominant in relationships or society, and different attitudes to sexuality have been far more common that most commentators would have us believe.

Leacock's own research was centred on a Canadian tribe called the Montagnais-Naskapi. These were people who, in their hunter-gather past had lived in a "primitive communist" society. What is almost unique about them, is that this lifestyle had been extremely well documented by the Europeans who encountered them. The Montagnais had lived by collected the fruit and berries of their local area, as well as hunting the plentiful game at different times of the year. European traders arrived in the 1600s and began to trade goods, with the Montagnais in exchange for vast quantities of furs - beaver and the like.

This caused a fundamental transformation of Montagnais life. From a society were private property was almost unknown, were decision making was a collective process and status in society was not based on property or any form of economic power, the Montagnais were transformed into a people were private property (in this case the animal traps and the associated areas of rivers / land) formed part of their lives. This introduction of private property changed all the other relationships in their society, as did the cynical and regular interference of Jesuit missionaries. The Jesuits who documented the lives of the indigenous people, also attempted to introduce more European things - like leaders, monogamy, physical beating of children and so on. Prompting one Montagnais to say "You Jesuit's love only your own children, we love all of them".

By the time Leacock was able to live with the Montagnais, a surprising amount of their earlier social relations still existed. She describes how hard she found it to understand the collective decision making process as someone who has only lived in a society with leaders and social hierarchies.

These experiences and the documentary evidence of a people with a completely different set of relations of productions to those we see in the vast majority of the world today shape most essays in this book. Leacock looks at the role of women in Montagnais society - and similar societies around the world, family relations and so on. She also look critically at the ideas of two of the thinkers who have most often dominated this form of discussion for the left - Lewis Morgan and Fredrich Engels.

Collected here is her introduction to Lewis Morgan's classic book of anthropology - Ancient Society. The book itself informed Engels' own work (as well as Marx) in particular, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. Leacock wrote a classic introduction to this as well, of which sadly only part is in here.

Rather impressively, Leacock also includes articles and critical responses from other anthropologists - together with her reactions. This is of great interest, in part because she is a born polemicist, but also because it is fascinating to see her ideas tested, and passing the test.

For anyone with an interest in ancient cultures, this is a fascinating book. However it should also be required reading for everyone who wants to argue, or dares to believe that the "natural" relationships that we experience under capitalism are anything but natural.

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