How do economic and residence practices impact women’s status and power?

Human beings have learned to adapt to habitats ranging from the lush to the arid, or the polar to the tropical, thus procuring the resources required for survival – food, clothing, and shelter. Part of this adaptation is the adoption of one or more economic modes of production (foraging, horticulture, pastoralism or intensive agriculture) that are best suited to the habitat, as well as the required relations of production. This process of adaptation impacts all aspects of the society, from how resources are allocated and the division of labour, to who people marry and where they live after marriage, as well as women’s status and the balance of power between the sexes (Eller 2016).

Foraging

Foraging is the most basic and oldest mode of production. In hunter-gatherer societies the division of labour is gender specific – men do the hunting, while women and children collect food such as insects, shellfish, fruit and vegetables. Sometimes the women are also involved in hunting or trapping small game. (Bird 1999, as cited in Waguespack 2005).  

These tribes travel long distances, changing base camp frequently and settling in areas that have not yet been foraged, making it possible for the women to balance childrearing with food collection since they find what they need close by (Surovell 2000). The food collected by the women is the most dependable source of food, so women enjoy an equivalent status to men due to their important contribution to the tribe (Eller 2016).

The food collected by the women is the most dependable source of food, so women enjoy an equivalent status to men due to their important contribution to the tribe.

Women’s status in foraging societies

Horticulture

Horticulture is a basic form of farming, where the ground is cleared and crops grown using low tech techniques. Tribes who depend on horticulture travel less frequently, staying in the same place for long enough to make farming viable. The division of labour is gender specific. Men clear the land, removing large rocks and burning vegetation, while the women plant the crops, tend the fields and harvest the produce.

The women’s contribution to the survival of the group is important and highly valued, bringing with it recognised status. Horticultural societies are the most likely to adopt matrilocal residence and matrilineal descent.

In matrilocal societies the woman continues living with her relatives after marriage, with the husband moving in with her. This means that she is not an outsider in a society dominated by men, which is safer for her and gives her more of a voice in the group. She also has increased control over the land (with other women) and its harvest. Of the four main modes of production, horticulture is the one most likely to result in prestige for women (Eller 2016). It is here worth mentioning the Iroquois, a horticultural tribe where women have high status and influence that goes well beyond the purely domestic, including a say in issues such as war (Brown 1974 cited in Eller 2016).

The division of labour is gender specific. Men clear the land, removing large rocks and burning vegetation, while the women plant the crops, tend the fields and harvest the produce.

The women’s contribution to the survival of the group is important and highly valued, bringing with it recognised status.

Women’s status in horticultural societies

Pastoralism

Pastoralism refers to the mode of production used by societies who raise herds of domesticated animals such as cows or camels, using them for products such as milk and killing them for their meat and skins. Men herd and protect the cattle while women and children help tend to the animals.

Pastoralist societies tend to be aggressive, with men fighting for control of pastures and water as well as to protect their herds or steal cattle from other tribes. This division of labour is skewed towards men, with women perceived as negligible contributors to the survival of the group. This leads to societies totally dominated by men, who hold all the decision-making power and own all the resources.

In these societies it becomes possible to accumulate wealth in the form of cattle, and men perceive women to be a way of growing their wealth. They do this by “selling” females (sisters, aunts, daughters), collecting a bride price which usually consists of cattle. Rich men with lots of cattle often acquire multiple wives.

These societies practice patrilocality, where the woman moves into the home or compound where her husband lives. This makes her an outsider, brought into a community dominated by men and far from her own family, who might have offered her some level of protection. Her outsider status is even more pronounced when she has children, given the fact that patrilineal descent means the children are members of the father’s corporate group while she is not. In pastoralist patrilocal societies women’s status is low (Eller 2016).

This division of labour is skewed towards men, with women perceived as negligible contributors to the survival of the group. This leads to societies totally dominated by men, who hold all the decision-making power and own all the resources.

Women’s status in pastoralist societies

Intensive agriculture

The fourth and most advanced mode of production is intensive agriculture, where the land is ploughed and fertilised and technology used to maximize yields from the land. The hard labour and the need to protect the farms and accumulated wealth from attack result in these societies being male-dominated, patrilocal and patrilineal.

Women work in the fields and tend animals, but this work is not highly valued. All the resources, from the land to the harvest, belong to men and women have little to no status or power (Eller 2016).

The hard labour and the need to protect the farms and accumulated wealth from attack result in these societies being male-dominated, patrilocal and patrilineal.

Women work in the fields and tend animals, but this work is not highly valued. All the resources, from the land to the harvest, belong to men and women have little to no status or power.

Women’s status in intensively agricultural societies

An example – Women’s Status in different Bantu tribes

To illustrate the dramatic impact of changes in economic systems and residence practices on women’s power and status, I will refer to the Bantu tribes living in Cameroon and Nigeria.

Prior to migration the tribes were matrilocal and matrilineal, however thousands of years ago different Bantu corporate groups migrated in different directions.

Those who went towards the east found an arid climate that was not conducive to horticulture, so they became pastoralists, raising livestock for a living, while those who migrated south found more temperate climes and focused on horticulture (Scelza, Prall et al. 2019).

The tribes that raised cattle adopted patrilocal residence and patrilineal inheritance, since sons are better placed to protect the herds while being able to provide for multiple wives and children.

On the other hand, the tribes that depended on horticulture retained matrilocal residence and matrilineal inheritance, since gardens were traditionally tended by women, who therefore had an important role in providing for the tribe (Clare, Mace 2003).

The tribes that raised cattle adopted patrilocal residence and patrilineal inheritance, since sons are better placed to protect the herds while being able to provide for multiple wives and children.

The tribes that depended on horticulture retained matrilocal residence and matrilineal inheritance, since gardens were traditionally tended by women.

The impact of different modes of production on women’s status in Bantu tribes

This shows that the migration from the rainforests of equatorial Africa to other locations with different climates required economic adaptation, which then kicked off a domino effect, changing the organisation and values of the tribe and radically altering customs (including residence and inheritance), which impacted the status and power of women (Barry H, Schlegel A. 1986, as cited in Scelza, Prall et al. 2019).

Conclusion – Women’s Status is highly impacted by mode and means of production

It is clear that the mode of production and related residence practices adopted by a society have a direct impact on the status and power of women. If the contribution of women is perceived to be high, they will have more power and status than if the contribution is deemed to be inconsequential.   

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