Paola Tabet
Translation: Helen Vivienne Wenzel, Betty Brach

Hands, Tools, Weapons (1982)

146 minutes | English

Originally published in French [La main, les tooles, les armes] in L’Homme 19, no. 3-4 (July-December 1979).

Finally revised by the author for the Fall 1982 edition of Feminist Issues. The author thanked Betty Brach for her great help in the revision of the English text, originally translated by Helene Vivienne Wenzel.



A man who dies changes into a jaguar,
a woman who dies goes away with the storm,
disappears with the storm.
 — Nambikwara saying [1]

There is in ethnology an aspect of the sexual division of labor which up to the present time has neither been studied globally nor considered in an appropriate fashion: that of the tools which men and women use. The question is to know if there exists a sexual differentiation in relation to tools; if so, what are its characteristics and what is the relationship between this differentiation, the division of labor itself, and men’s domination of women.

In the recent literature on this subject, the sexual division of labor in hunting and gathering societies is often defined as a relation of complementarity, reciprocity, cooperation. Reference is notably to the general framework of “egalitarian” societies; nevertheless, the questions also and above all concern the origin and the bases of the division of labor, and, often, of inequality between the sexes. I shall cite some statements which can be found repeatedly in almost identical terms in a great deal of anthropological literature. [2] For Godelier, the division of labor “began only with the hunt for big and medium-sized game, introducing in this way the economic complementarity of the sexes, their permanent cooperation. … To cooperate, i.e., to mutually help each other, to share the effort and its results in order to globally reproduce as a society.” [3] Leacock, on the subject of women in hunting and gathering societies (egalitarian societies), writes:

Their status was not as literal “equals” of men (a point that has caused much confusion), but as what they were — female persons, with their own rights, duties, and responsibilities, which were complementary to and in no way secondary to those of men. [4]

She then mentions the “transformation of relationships between the sexes from what had been a reciprocal division of labor to what became a female service role for individual male entrepreneurs,” a transformation associated with colonization and with the fur-trade.

On the other hand, Leroi-Gourhan [5] maintains that “in all known human groups, technical-economic relationships between man and woman are of a strict complementarity: for promitive groups it may even be called strict specialization.” As for the hunting and the gathering which fall respectively to the man and the woman, he goes so far as to maintain that this division has an organic character, “sexual specialization … thus appears to be founded upon physiological characteristics.” Moreover, since “the vital culture totality is included in the conjugal group and distributed between the man and the woman,” the “complementary technical activities of the spouses constitute a fact of symbiosis in the exact meaning of the term, because no form of separation is conceivable, on the technical-economic plane, without dehumanizing the society.” Moreover, we have B. Arcand on the subject of hunter-gatherers:

It must be remembered that equality between the sexes is founded upon a generally rigorous division of labor, and that it results from a reciprocal and harmonious relationship between sectors of different activities. Men most often have control over hunting, women over gathering, and these relative powers reproduce themselves in an egalitarian reciprocity at the levels of political and religious activities. [6]

The idea of complementarity is thus employed in the specific and positive sense of a balanced, nondirected division of equally important tasks. But emphasis, all the same, is on the natural and biological characteristic, therefore on the objective necessity, of this division; and it is taken as given that this division is based on “limits” nature imposes on women.

Thus for Godelier (1977), for whom the idea of complementarity doesn’t exclude that of inequality between the sexes (inequality which perhaps is little stressed in societies predating homo sapiens), the division of labor is due to “objective, material, impersonal conditionings, imposed by nature and by the limitations of productive forces”; the division of labor “destines men to hunting and making war, women to gathering, to transporting goods, to cooking and to the care and education of the young. … Big-game hunting apparently became the prerogative of men less for reasons of greater physical strength than for reasons of greater mobility, individual and collective, in comparison to women” subject to the biological constraints of pregnancy and childcare. According to Godelier, “this distribution of tasks is what renders men, more than women, capable of incarnating and defending the interests of the group … and, therefore, as well, capable of dominating women politically, culturally, and symbolically.” [7]

Presented in these terms, the notion of complementarity and reciprocity exerts an influence which goes beyond hunting and gathering societies, and makes it also a model of the relationship between the sexes in stratified societies. I shall cite, among others, the example of Firth (1959), who gives a description of the male and female activities of the Maori which goes well with the one more recently proposed by Murdock and Provost (1973), and Brown (1970): among the subsistence activities, men are assigned those which require strength, courage, and initiative, and which are also defined as the most “energetic, arduous, and exciting occupations,” with “a spice of excitement and risk”; to women, on the contrary, are assigned all those activities requiring “patient, rather dull labor” and in general “the more sober and somewhat more monotonous tasks.” Firth reassures us: if women “certainly worked hard” and if “such tasks as the carrying of firewood and weeding of crops tended to make them appear bent and aged before their time” [8], men also did their share of difficult work. The division of labor had a “fairly equitable character. And a glance at purely household arrangements tells the same tale. Reciprocity of tasks between husband and wife was the economic motto of the family.” [9]

The reality of this reciprocity appears a bit further on, despite the author, in Firth’s chapter on the division of labor according to social stratification. What remained hidden when describing the relations between man and woman here emerges in all its clarity. The hard labor performed by women — carrying of firewood and water, weeding, cooking — which is considered degrading for men and destructive of the “taboo,” is also performed by slaves:

As might be expected, the most unpleasant and dull work was assigned to the slaves. They drew water, carried firewood, bore loads of food and gear, helped in the cooking, and did much of the paddling of canoes. All this was in conformity with the not incomprehensible principle that no one will perform unpleasant work without special incentive if he can make other people do it for him. Moreover, the provision of a certain class of persons to carry out the disagreeable but necessary tasks of the society affords a greater opportunity to others to develop the finer arts of life. There is much to be said for the point of view that slavery promotes culture. [10]

In their study of the factors of the sexual division of labor — which examines fifty technological activities in a sample of 185 societies — Murdock and Provost (1973), in order to analyze the sexual distribution of all activities, attribute a great importance to two factors defined as “masculine advantage” and “feminine advantage”:

The probability that any activity will be assigned to males is increased to the extent that it has features which give males a definite advantage, and/or females a definite disadvantage, in its performance, regardless of whether the distinction is innate or socio-cultural. Thus males tend in general to be endowed with greater physical strength than females and probably also a superior capacity for mobilizing it in brief bursts of excessive energy, whereas females tend to be more closely attached to the home by the burdens of pregnancy and infant care and to this extent suffer a disadvantage in undertaking tasks which must be performed at a distance from the household. [11]

These factors of the “masculine advantage probably characterize the majority of activities reserved, exclusively or almost exclusively, to men.” [12] The authors admit that the definition of the “feminine advantage” is much more problematic (it would be the same for the correlations between this factor and the distribution of activities) and quote in support of their analvsis a text of J. Brown:

Women are most likely to make a substantial contribution when subsistence activities have the following characteristics: the participant is not obliged to be far from home; the tasks are relatively monotonous and do not require rapt concentration; and the work is not dangerous, can be performed in spite of interruptions, and is easily resumed once interrupted. [13] [14]

Murdock and Provost add that “these activities require practically daily attention and are thus relatively incompatible with such masculine tasks as warfare, hunting, fishing, and herding which commonly require periods of absence from the household.”

It must be emphasized (and we shall return to this point) first that there are no activities exclusively classed as feminine, and then, that women’s activities seem to be defined on the basis of negative characteristics. If, from a descriptive angle, the latter are indisputable, their explanatory value immediately appears uncertain: they are explicitly defined, without any distinction made concerning their cultural or innate character. From this point of view, we can compare the descriptions of this type to those mentioned before. The other factors proposed by Murdock and Provost to explain the sexual distribution of activities present, on the contrary, considerable interest. They concern the correlations which could account for the variations in the sexual allocation of “swing activities,” i.e., activities which, depending upon the society, are sometimes masculine, sometimes feminine. Positive correlations are thus established between technological development, specialization, sedentary residence, the type of agriculture, and the tendency toward a “masculinization” of “swing” activities. [15]

Thus we see a widespread tendency to describe the sexual division of labor using parameters which are quite homogeneous. In particular, there seems to be a certain agreement about the “natural,” [16] almost original and “complementary” character of this division, even for those who recognize the importance that the male monopoly of hunting and war, and therefore of weapons, may have in this inequality. [17]

I would precisely question this natural character, this idea of complementarity and reciprocity in the sexual division of labor. My thesis is that the division of labor is not neutral, but directed and asymmetrical, even in the so-called egalitarian societies, that it is a relation, not of reciprocity or complementarity, but of domination; that this domination manifests itself objectively, and that the distribution of tasks is regulated by general constants which reflect the class relations between the two sexes (without need for recourse to the ideological values attached to the tasks). This domination is inherent in the institution of the sexual division of labor with its prescriptions and prohibitions associated with the relation between the division of labor itself and the enforcement of the family, as well as with the creation of a masculine or feminine sociological identity, of a gender identity, in beings who are biologically men or women. [18] Finally, in this context, the sexual division of labor must be analyzed as a political relation between the sexes.

In order to demonstrate this thesis, my chosen area of analysis will be that of tools. In fact, in spite of the development of technical research in anthropology, the question of tools is often neglected when the study is about general theoretical problems, particularly the relation between men and women and the sexual division of labor. Some small measure of importance is given to tools and productive means (which, one is made to believe, would be available to everyone), [19] but what is mainly stressed is labor power, the direct control of the producer and, even more, of women as reproducers of producers. [20] [21] By contrast my work focuses on recognizing a fundamental importance to the control of tools, and on positing, from the outset, the hypothesis of a qualitative and quantitative difference in the tools made available to each of the sexes; more exactly, the hypothesis of an underequipment of women and of a technological gap between men and women, which appears in hunting and gathering societies, has become progressively deeper with technological evoluton, and still exists in industrialized societies. [22]

Leroi-Gourhan [23] outlines a synthesis of human evolution from the point of view of the technical gesture:

In the course of human evolution, the hand enriched its modes of action in the process of doing. The manipulative action of primates, in which gesture and tool merge, is followed in the first anthropoids by that of the hand in direct movement where the manual tool is separable from the motor gesture.

Among primates’ gestures those which are accomplished with teeth and nails are “externalized” all at once in man in the different types of percussive tools, while those which correspond to acts of manipulation (interdigital or digital-palm) find numerous applications in human techniques like ceramics, basketry, weaving, etc., and are replaced quite late by tools. Therefore we have both the separation between tool and human body, the break between gesture and tool, and the permanence of the bare-hand operations in which “gesture and tool are one.”

Leroi-Gourhan goes on to say that “In the following stage, perhaps reached before the Neolithic Age, manual machines annex the gesture, and the hand in direct movement only gives its motor impulse.” To this stage belong the tools (but we find them already in the Paleolithic Age, for example, the spear-thrower) which transform the movement of the hand with regard to force and direction, and which apply the principles of leverage, of spring, of alternative and continuous circular movement. One thus acquires bows, crossbows, traps, pulleys, rotating mills, transmission belts, etc. [24]

Then, in the historical period, “the motor power itself leaves the human arm, and the hand sets in motion the motor process in animal machines or in self-propelled machines like mills.” With the intervention of the animal, human energy is partly diverted toward the animal motor; with self-propelled machines the hand intervened only to set in motion, feed, and stop the action. The use of wind, water, and steam power permits a more and more complex development.

Leroi-Gourhan says, “Finally in the last stage, the hand sets in motion a programmed process in the automatic machines which not only externalize the tool, the gesture, and the movement, but which encroach on memory and mechanical performance.”

With technological evolution, the human being is no longer defined and limited by possibilities of the body; tools become a prolongation of the body and enlarge its capacity to appropriate nature and to act on it.

While it is clear that the evolution described by Leroi-Gourhan is not valid for all populations — the last stages in fact concern only the larger Eur-Asiatic civilizations — we can ask: has this evolution affected the two sexes to the same extent? And if, as it appears, the response is negative, and the two sexes have neither benefited equally from the results, nor participated equally in their production, we must examine: 1) how and by what steps this differentiation operated, and 2) what are its general implications.

A question of such complexity obviously goes beyond the limitations of an essay, and would, moreover, require research in a number of areas, research which is presently lacking. We can nevertheless pose the problem and advance hypotheses on the effects of the constant underequipment of the female part of humankind, and on its significance in material appropriation [25] [26] and in the domination that men exercise over women. The question is about the significance of the fact that men can extend themselves beyond their physical limits because of tools that enlarge their power over reality and over society, while women are limited to their own body, to operations using the bare hand, or to the most elementary tools in each society. Wouldn’t this be a necessary condition for women themselves to be materially utilized as tools in work, in reproduction, and in sexual exploitation?

When we examine the sexual differentiation of tools, the first problem to consider is that of the relation between the division of labor and the tools which each sex has at its disposal. According to ethnographic literature in general, men and women do have distinct domains of activity, but each possesses tools adapted to their particular activity. So conceived, the relation between division of labor and tools never leads us to reexamine critically the division of labor itself: women, taken up with the care of infants, are supposed to perform only the less complex work, and consequently are supposed to need only simple tools appropriate to their activities.

I would argue that this very way of formulating the relation between tools and the sexual division of labor is in fact a way of liquidating the problem; better yet, it is resolved implicitly without posing it explicitly, and without taking it as a subject of scientific research. As a result in theoretical discussions of the relations between the sexes, the question of the control of the instruments of production is rarely envisaged, and, in any event, never examined thoroughly.

In the text which follows, I maintain:

  1. That it is necessary to invert this relationship between tasks and tools. I will demonstrate that women carry out certain tasks to the exclusion of others, depending upon the tools required for the task.
  2. That it is in the forms of male control of production (control which has as its corollary the underequipment of women) that it is necessary to look for the objective factors, the constants of the sexual division of labor. This control then appears as one of the elements of the class relation between men and women.

My approach will be the following:

  1. Beginning with the classical activities of women in hunting and gathering societies, to make evident the lesser female equipment.
  2. To show that, even in activities requiring tooling of a certain complexity, and even if the contribution of women to these activities is the most important, women must make do with more rudimentary and often less specialized tools than those used by the men who perform the same activities in the same society. And that, moreover, for each activity, women are generally assigned only the most archaic operations in terms of technological evolution, especially operations of manipulation and direct motricity, and, in general, the tools which use only human energy.
  3. To show that the use and control of tools by women are limited in a precise manner, and this will prove that it is the tools which determine the assignment of different activities to women or their exclusion from them. Certain statistical data on the sexual division of labor [27] will thus take on a more clear and more precise meaning: (a) There are no strictly female activities. (b) Female activities, whatever their weight in general technological evolution, are activities which may be defined as “residual”: they are only permitted to women when they are carried out without tools, or with simple tools, as the introduction of complex tools “masculinizes” even the most traditionally feminine tasks.
  4. And lastly, I will try to show how the monopoly of certain key activities is necessary to men to insure the control of the means of production, and ultimately the global utilization of women.


The gathering of wild animal and vegetable foods is divided in Murdock’s and Provost’s (1937) list into several categories, [28] with very different percentages of male and female participation based on the type of gathering: it goes from the predominantly female (80.3 percent) gathering of vegetable products to the predominantly male (91.7 percent) collection of wild honey. The techniques are limited; bare-hand operations predominate (above all for berries, fruits, and grains) as do those operations carried out with very simple tools (digging sticks for tubers and roots, some cutting instruments, containers for transport, etc.).

In the cases that we shall examine, particularly for vegetable products, there doesn’t appear to be a sexual division of tools, nor would it be possible due to their extremely rudimentary character. There exists, however, a differentiation when the principal tool for gathering is the axe with which tree trunks are cut in order to extract larva or honey [29] or sago. In this case, the axe is generally used by men, the women having the job of transporting and/or processing the food collected. In its totality gathering is principally a female activity, with only sporadic and occasional male participation.

Let us stress two points. In the first place, the work of gathering requires important knowledge about the environment. Women moreover furnish the hunters with essential information about the presence and movements of animals. [30] In numerous societies, this work contributes to a very high percentage of the production of subsistence. [31] Secondly, putting the emphasis on the rudimentary level of gathering tools, and on their possible sexual differentiation does not signify any lessening of the import of women’s work. [32] But it does mean to try to specify the actual conditions of power under which this work is carried out; in other words, it demonstrates how the sexual division of labor is a structure of domination. [33]

Descriptions concerning the day’s beginning in a camp and people going to work present a very vivid tableau (even if incomplete) of the differences in men’s and women’s equipment. Here’s what Spencer and Gillen [34] say about the Aranda:

Early in the morning, if it be summer, and not until the sun be well up if it be winter, the occupants of the camp are astir. Time is no object to them, and, if there be no lack of food, the men and women all lounge about while the children laugh and play. If food be required, then the women will go out, accompanied by the children, and armed with digging-sticks and pitchis, and the day will be spent out in the bush in search of small burrowing animals such as lizards and small marsupials. The men will perhaps set off armed with spears, spear-throwers, boomerangs and shields in search of larger game, such as emus and kangaroos.

A first point appears: women go in quest of small animals and roots. [35] They have at their disposal two basic tools used almost everywhere, the container (pitchi) and the digging stick: “It is necessary to have held this pointed stick for several hours in order to know how difficult it is to hold and how scarcely effective it is.” [36] Spencer and Gillen [37] describe women’s tools and gestures during the gathering:

A woman has always a pitchi — that is, a wooden trough varying in length from one to three feet, which has been hollowed out of the soft wood of the bean tree (Erythrina vespertilio), or it may be out of hard wood such as mulga or eucalypt. In this she carries food material, either balancing it on her head or holding it slung on to one hip by means of a strand of human hair or ordinary fur strung across one shoulder. Not infrequently a small baby will be carried about in a pitchi. The only other implement possessed by a woman is what is popularly called a “yam stick”, which is simply a digging-stick or, to speak more correctly, a pick. … When at work, a woman will hold the pick in the right hand close to the lower end, and, alternately digging this into the ground with one hand, while with the other she scoops out the loosened earth, will dig down with surprising speed. In parts of the scrub, where the honey ants live, that form a very favourite food of the natives, acre after acre of hard sandy soil is seen to have been dug out, simply by the picks of the women in search of the insect, until the place has the appearance of a deserted mining field where diggers have for long been at work “prospecting”. Very often a small pitchi will be used as a shovel or scoop, to clear the earth out with, when it gets too deep to be thrown up merely with the hand, as the woman goes on digging deeper and deeper until at last she may reach a depth of some six feet or even more. [38]

Men have at their disposal completely different equipment: stone knives, axes, shields, spears, boomerangs, and spear-throwers.

[Among these tools] the amera or spear-thrower is perhaps the most useful of the implements possessed by the native. It serves not only as a spear-thrower, but also as a receptacle … and, more important still, the flint, which is usually attached to one end, serves as the chief cutting implement of the native, by means of which he fashions wooden weapons and implements of various kinds. [39]

The spear-thrower is also used to make fire and, used with the spear, it greatly augments its effectiveness:

The spear-thrower itself is a plank or stick which extends the thrower’s arm by adding a supplementary leverage and the fist pivot to the arm, forearm, and shoulder and elbow joints: the arc of the throw is lengthened by about thirty centimeters in its radius, considerably improving the force and precision of the throw. [40]

The spear-thrower thus belongs to a qualitatively different level than the digging stick, an almost “ludicrous” tool. [41] The particular design of the Aranda spear-thrower — its multifunctional character — gives it two important characteristics: (1) it improves the precision and force of the throw and is thus effective as a weapon; (2) it constitutes the basic implement for the fabrication of other tools, including women’s tools.

The relation between male and female tools and activities is touched upon by Warner [42] for another Australian population, the Murngin. Among the Murngin, “men make and use the greater number of the more complex tools, weapons, and implements.” A general picture of the Murngin technology can be summarized as follows:

The greater the complexity of the technology, the greater the participation of the men in it, and the simpler the technological processes, the more women participate. … The most elaborate and only complex technique a woman uses is that of making baskets. … The digging of yams, the gathering of shells, of roots, of fruit, are probably the simplest of all the economic processes found in Murngin society. It is with these things she is chiefly engaged. Among men the harpooning of turtles — which includes such elaborate technical background as the making of a canoe, its sailing and proper use, the construction of the harpoon and its use — is probably at the maximum end of Murngin technological complexity. [43]

Among the !Kung of Nyae Nyae, while the women must not under any conditions touch the bows and arrows or participate in the hunt under threat of compromising the hunter’s capacity or success, “no such beliefs and no such social regulations restrict the men from gathering.” Men gather if they wish, but it is the women who assume the daily work and normally the men do not participate.

According to Marshall, “The equipment used in gathering consists merely of a digging stick and containers to carry the food gathered. Men make the digging sticks for themselves and their wives.” [44] The stick is a branch about three or four feet in length, about an inch in diameter, the bark peeled off, polished and tapered at the end “in one slanting plane.” The woman herself makes the point with her husband’s axe or knife. In order to dig, women and men bend or sit with outstretched legs (or one bent to keep balance): “The person begins by loosening the ground with slashing strokes at the spot where the vine or stem emerges, both hands on the digging stick, right hand high if chopping toward the left, left hand high if chopping toward the right. When the top ground is loosened, the person chops at it with one hand on the stick, and scoops out loosened ground with the other hand till the root is revealed.” [45] To unearth the deepest roots, it is necessary to dig for fifteen to twenty minutes, but if the earth is too hard or the root too deep, the woman is forced to abandon the task.

Marshall describes how the gathering habitually takes place during the dry season. Two women, Di!ai and Ungka, leave early in the morning. They cover four miles going and as much to return. First they gather berries, then they look for roots: “That day Di!ai found thirty-four roots; thirty-four times she sat down, dug a root, stood up, picked up her son, walked on to look for another root to dig … .” [46] Certain roots of inferior quality are thrown away, others “were so deep in the ground, Di!ai abandoned them in the holes after struggling with each ten or fifteen minutes.” She still had to carry twenty-three roots and the berries. Ungka carried about as many. Toward two o’clock in the afternoon, the women start back. This is one of the most exhausting aspects of gathering and of women’s work in general: “The loads of roots and berries weighed about twenty pounds. Di!ai had her two-year-old son to carry also. Her heavy kaross, her ostrich eggshell, and the axe she carried to sharpen her digging stick were added weight. We figured that this thin little woman, four feet, ten inches in height, was carrying about fifty pounds on the return trip. In the oppressive heat of the latter half of the afternoon, the women were an hour and a half trudging the four miles back to Gautscha.” [47] [48]

While the !Kung women gather, carry water and firewood, build huts, etc., men hunt and perform almost all the leather work and work in stone, wood, bone, etc. It’s also they who make fire. They possess at the same time more equipment and more technical knowledge to work the raw materials. [49] The fact that subsistence depends in great part on the labor of women does not prevent men from dominating. Women themselves express this when they say that men know more: “Men can do everything, they can shoot and make fire.” [50] [51]

Hunting, the main activity of men, is practiced with bows, arrows, and spears. Making the bow (a hand-machine according to Leroi-Gourhan’s definitions) and calibrating and poisoning the arrows are operations which require much accuracy. [52] There is need to stress further the obvious technical gap between male and female tools. The elementary character of the digging stick stands out in the following observation of Tanaka [53] describing the milieu of the Kada San of central Kalahari where only man can live because the monkeys are not capable of unearthing the plants which give water and nourishment: “The gathering technique of digging with a digging stick is specific to human beings.” Has one ever felt the need to insist on the specifically human characteristic of a tool such as the bow? [54]

Let us now consider the gathering of mussels and small aquatic animals by the Yamana women. [55] Gusinde’s descriptions are numerous, rich, and detailed. This does not prevent him from passing off the old cliches on the sexual division of work, and from insisting on its equitable and complementary character in the Yamana.

In this population, we again find the habitual division of work: men hunt large game (principally sea mammals), women gather mussels, sea urchins, and crabs, and they also fish. For moving about in a group and for going in search of food, the main implement is the bark canoe, made by men but maintained by women. It is the women who row and guide the canoe during hunting or fishing, or changing of camp. [56] Gathering and fishing are daily activities. According to Gusinde: “To the Yamana the mussel is simply indispensable.” [57] These mussels “have the same importance for the diet of our Fuegian as bread, for instance, has for the European.” [58] The shellfish are collected along the shore or at the ford, and, if the sea is calm, from a canoe. Some tools are used: a pointed stick (wasinix), a split spatula (kalana), and a crabfork (sirsa). The first serves for collecting mussels along the shore: “Women and girls step into the water and wade out to the densest accumulations of mussels. They either tear them off with their hands or loosen them with a stick the length of an arm, flattened at one end, which I call the mussel breaker, wasinix.” [59] Gusinde explains how it is made and used: “This is nothing more than a sturdy stem or thick branch of Berberis ilicifolia. The husband makes it for his wife. He removes the twigs smoothly but leaves the bark, since its rough surface always assures the hand a firm grip, no matter how thoroughly the stick is soaked with sea water. … At the bottom the mussel breaker is cut off in the shape of a chisel and with a dull edge.” [60] The stick can be improvised: “If she does not happen to have it, she reaches for a stick the length of an arm which she cuts to a short, dull point.” [61]

The search for mussels is carried out at low tide:

… at almost every tide the women comb the wide surfaces laid bare by the receding sea. … Assuming that low tide sets in during the day, one woman will make a date with another, and immediately others will join them. Each of them brings along her baby clinging to her back, and little girls run ahead, each with her own little basket. … These women are only short … distances apart. Walking slowly, they go from one spot to another, for the entire ocean floor is usually densely strewn with mussels. They seldom exchange a few words, and they keep their bent position unchanged. Sometimes they also squat down, without touching the damp earth, since the mussels can be easily grasped from any position. They stop working only when their little baskets are full. … In winter they take along a glowing stick of wood and a few dry sticks in order to fan up a fire near the place where they are gathering. They return to it for a few minutes to warm their stiff hands and refresh themselves with a few roasted mussels. After they have filled their baskets, if the harvest is ample, they even spread their back-capes on the ground and empty more mussels on them, with which they afterwards return heavily laden to the hut. [62]

When the sea is calm, women go out in the canoe in order to gather not only larger and better mussels than those near the edge of the water, but also urchins, crabs, etc. Then they use the kalana, called by Gusinde the “mussel fork,” “a sort of split spatula, extending by 0.17 meters a wooden handle about three meters long” [63], and the sirsa, “a four-toothed fork … attached to a long handle like the one of the kalana” [64], which is used for the urchins and crabs. These two tools are made by the husbands for their wives: “The Indian woman uses the so-called mussel fork, which she calls kalana. … The husband must make this implement for her, for he alone has the necessary tools.” [65] [66] Gusinde remarks on the patience one must have in order to gather mussels with the kalana:

This long mussel fork is very easy to handle. A gentle push from above loosens the clinging mussel below, and making the fork spring back and forth, always from the same direction, finally releases it. If possible, it is lifted up from the ground by hand. In deep places the woman with her long fork pushes it under water to the open beach. Usually, however, and this is a second reason for the long shaft, she presses the shell between the two distended prongs and carefully draws it up. Often the shell slides out just before she gets it up; then she simply picks it up again. … Patiently she squats in her vessel, bent over the edge, and spears one mussel after another … until after two or three hours she returns to the hut with the yield of her diligence. [67]

The work carried out with the crab fork is not really different:

She squats in her light vessel and bends her head far over the rim. As soon as she discovers a sea urchin, she lets the crab fork … slide down perpendicularly through both her hands and tries to squeeze the calcareous shell bristling with spikes into the prongs. … Carefully she lifts the long pole up again, precisely perpendicular. … If she is lucky, she gathers … a whole dozen within an hour; if not, it takes her three to five hours to collect this amount. … In exceptional cases the Indian woman jumps out of her canoe and dives down to get the sea urchin with her hands. … She does this when she sees several animals next to each other on the sea floor, which she cannot grasp with her crab fork because of the tangle of algae floating on top of it. She is not afraid of the cold water. She is used to it, because at all times of the year she must fasten her canoe a considerable distance from the beach and must swim back and forth. [68]

Fishing also, carried out with very rudimentary means, demands a lot of patience on the part of the women:

Every Indian woman is extraordinarily skillful in fishing. Since she does not use an actual fish hook, she waits until the fish has swallowed the bait and only then very gently pulls up the line. When the fish has been brought near the surface, she reaches down and grasps it with a sure hand. [69]

Not only do female and male tools differ (the tools of the Yamana hunt are very simple, but they cannot be compared to the crude tools used by women to gather shellfish or to catch fish), but to this difference in the activities and techniques there corresponds a difference as to free time and rest. The Yamana woman sees to numerous tasks which leave her “scarcely a moment to rest her hands idly in her lap. She stirs about the livelong day and often at night. The man, on the other hand, is entitled to rest periods of several hours at a stretch whenever he has exhausted himself in extraordinary physical efforts.” [70] The difference is a fundamental one from all points of view, including leisure consecrated to intellectual activity, whether it concerns dances, rituals, or tools. [71] In fact, by imposing and extorting more work from women, men guarantee themselves more free time. As Meillasoux affirms [72], “It is by being dispossessed of this free time that persons are alienated.” And it is for women that this free time — time for rest and for leisure activities, “time indispensable to all development and to all progress” [73] — is the most limited. We must then consider — and I want to stress the point — this expropriation of time which women suffer as a basic aspect of their exploitation.

All kinds of gathering are not as tiring and difficult as those we have just mentioned. But they are all characterized by poor equipment. Without doubt in some populations women’s tools may be a bit more elaborate. An example could be the digging stick with a handle of the Kwakiutl Indians [74] or the Thompson Indians. [75] We could go on describing the types of gathering of the Kwakiutl from the detailed information furnished by Hunt to Boas [76] on the tools and methods of work (a rare case with information about who uses each tool, who makes it, what it is made of, and who procures the different kinds of materials, etc.). But this would hardly modify the overall picture, and would prove once again how much women depend upon men for the fabrication of basic tools.


Hunting is classified in Murdock and Provost’s (1973) list of technical activities as a 100 percent male activity for large aquatic fauna, 99.4 percent male for large land fauna, 98 percent for fowling, 97.5 percent for trapping of small land fauna. The capturing of small land animals is 54.6 percent male and belongs to the group called “swing activities.” As it is in the sphere of hunting (and war) weapons that we generally find a society’s leading technology, it is of considerable interest to see if women participate in this activity, within what limits, and with which tools. Many populations in fact do not completely exclude women from hunting.

1. Though it is not out of the question for women to hunt large and medium game, there seem to be only sporadic and rare cases of women in this activity. 2. Women can also participate in communal hunts as beaters. 3. They hunt small animals alone, bare handed or with the help of elementary tools. In the two latter cases, these are among the activities normally incumbent on women in the sexual division of work within a given population and not sporadic individual instances. Let’s consider the techniques and tools used in each of the occurrences.

A. In the literature we can find a few mentions of women as hunters. This is one of the rare cases where one sees women use real weapons, the same kind as used by men. These weapons are borrowed for the occasion, or they belong to the women. Among the Eskimos, there are some women, generally young women, who hunt caribou and seals. [77] It is an intermittent occupation for them. And in any case it occurs quite infrequently. The sexual division of work and tools usually conforms to the general model. Men make and possess the various highly specialized tools for hunting and fishing: bows, harpoons, diverse types of weapons (including rifles, long available through commerce), and the kayak, a boat “with truly remarkable nautical qualities.” [78] The women have only domestic utensils at their disposal: the knife called an ulu [79], which cannot be classified — with the male knives — among the utensils “for all uses, which serve alternately as weapons and tools” [80], the lantern, the saucepan, needles, etc.

The property necessary for establishing a new family is the hunting gear of the man and the knife, scraper, lamp, and cooking pot of the women. … As a great part of the personal property of a man is destroyed at his death or placed by his grave, the objects which may be acquired by inheritance are few. These are the gun, harpoon, sledge, dogs, kayak, boat, and tent poles of the man and the lamp and pots of the woman. [81]

In other North American groups, women can do individual hunting. This activity may have considerable importance for them. Many Ojibwa women were skilled in the male work “of setting complicated traps and of handling a gun.” [82] I will cite only two cases: that of Sky Woman and that of Gaybay. Sky Woman had learned from her adoptive grandmother to make a living by hunting and fishing and to do “everything that an Indian woman does. … She learned how to trap, to set snares and nets. They were both good hunters. … In the fall they went to Swampy River. They used to hunt and fish there every fall and they stayed until the lakes froze up. They gathered a lot of meat, fish, muskrats and rabbits and they killed a bear and made lots of bear grease.” [83] Sky Woman pursued this activity until her marriage, and then took it up again when she became a widow. Gaybay, during her childhood, lived alone with her mother in isolated sites; she learned to hunt and to tend traps as well as to carry out the tasks belonging to women. In the intervals between her five marriages, she again took up this type of life: “She was like a man. She could kill a deer any time she wanted to.” But during the periods of married life, she had to put up with a “woman-like” subordinate activity, even when she hunted: “After her marriage Gaybay did less trapping since operating an independent trapping line breaks up the domestic household.” [84] We should note that these women, who “hunted and trapped for fur (like a man) and fished and made rice (like a woman)” [85], lived with other women (mothers, daughters, sisters, adoptive parents) where no division of labor or sex roles existed. [86]

It is necessary to emphasize two points. On the one hand, in the Ojibwa cases we have just mentioned, the women have adequate and technologically elaborate tools; and they have these precisely for the hunt, which is one of the activities where the demarcation between male and female tools is the clearest and is often protected and reinforced by religious prohibitions. But on the other hand, this activity is practiced by women only when they live by themselves.

For women, married life and hunting activities with weapons (and, more generally, complex male activities) seem to be mutually exclusive. This is also what the many myths on the theme of the Amazons, the virgin huntresses and warriors, seem to tell. The division of work is an institution strictly coherent with that of the couple and the family. [87]

B. Much information is available on women’s and children’s participation in the collective hunts of different populations, from the Eskimos to the Mbuti Pygmies, from the Plains Indians to the Chuckchee. The principal function of the women is to serve as beaters or to signal the arrival of animals to the men in hiding.

Thus, among the Eskimos of Netsilik, women warn the hidden men of the arrival of the caribous:

Although the hunters lying on the beach could not see the approaching caribou because of the hilly nature of the area, they could be easily seen by the women in the camp on the opposite shore, who would signal to the hunters the movements of the herd. As soon as the herd was driven into the lake by the beaters, the kayakers would go into action, while the women and children, waving pieces of clothing in their hands and shouting, would run around the lake trying to push the caribou back into the water, to be speared by the hunters. [88]

Or, also among the Cooper Eskimos: “The women and children behind the deer howl like wolves hu-u-u-u-u-u-u-u” and push the caribou towards the hunters hidden in the kayaks. The importance of this collective chase is emphasized by Jenness: “As long as the natives used only bows and arrows comparatively few caribou were shot by individuals hunting alone. The majority were obtained in drives.” [89]

In a completely different region, among the Aeta of the Philippines, women play the same role: they participate in the hunt as beaters, especially when there are few dogs. During the hunt, the women run here and there in the brush, barking; they never have weapons, which are reserved for men. [90] It is the same with the Mbuti [91] and with the Blackfoot for buffalo hunting:

After swift-running men located a herd of buffalo, the chief told all the women to get their dog travois. Men and women went out together, approaching the herd from down wind so the animals would not get their scent and run off. The women were told to place their travois upright in the earth, small (front) ends up. The travois were spaced so that they could be tied together, forming a semicircular fence. Women and dogs hid behind them while two fast-running men circled the buffalo herd, approached them from up wind, and drove them toward the travois fence. Other men took their positions along the sides of the route and closed in as the buffalo neared the travois enclosure. Barking dogs and shouting women kept the buffalo back. The men rushed in and killed the buffalo with arrows and lances. [92]

With the introduction of horses, the hunting technique was transformed, and women were eliminated from the hunt.

For seal hunting, Eskimo women and children frighten the animal, and direct it toward the armed hunter:

Still later in the season, when the snow is all gone, a very successful method of hunting is practiced. All of the inhabitants of the settlements set out at once, men, women, and children, and occupy every seal hole over a large area. The men keep their harpoons ready to strike the animal when it comes up to blow, while the women and children are provided with sticks only, with which they frighten away the seals whenever they rise where they are standing. The animals are compelled to rise somewhere, as otherwise they would be drowned, and thus an ample supply is secured in a short time. [93]

Balicki [94] describes in almost identical terms the very productive outcome of May seal hunts among the Netsilik.

Another form of unarmed participation in the hunt: that of the Yamana women, all the more interesting because it is a kind of hunt more strictly reserved for men, that of big marine mammals. Women guide the canoe in pursuit of the animal:

The canoe was paddled by the women, who sat in the stern, while the men crouched in the bow to cast the spears. When paddling, owing to the short handle, one hand was under water. [95]

Not infrequently the success of the hunt depends upon the accurately timed cooperation of both partners in the canoe, for as soon as the man starts pursuing a game animal, he is fully occupied with his weapons and his prey. It is the woman’s responsibility to guide her vessel according to her husband’s directions, to take it on this or that course faster or slower until the animal they have been pursuing is theirs. [96]

This activity, which is evidently not without risks, requires moreover “sudden bursts of energy,” supposedly characteristic of male activities and for which men, according to Gusinde, “deserve” a well earned rest. Obviously in his eyes women do not feel the same need! Women not only row, but, the canoe being fragile and not capable of being lifted onto the shore, they also have to swim in icy waters to moor it:

When it was desired to make a landing the canoe was paddled in to the beach, bow-on, and the man of the family and the children stepped ashore. The wife then paddled the canoe out to a piece of kelp, moored it, and swam ashore. As a result all the women were able to swim, while few of the men could do so. [97]

In all the cases I just mentioned, women’s role is an indispensable and integral part of the hunting operation. But their participation is with bare hands. They serve only as a means of sound to scare the animal; they are a sort of live scarecrow with no offensive power and also without protection or personal defense. They also often transport the meat back to the camp. Their position remains subordinate. They never directly capture the animal.

C. Women, however, can hunt — the seal, for example — without its being the case of a sporadic or individual occupation. But their tools are not always the best adapted for this.

Among the Eskimo, the male hunter has a range of various and specialized tools, while the woman uses rudimentary ones. Boas describes how the hunter, mimicking the seal’s movements, succeeds in approaching it: “As long as the seal is looking around the hunter lies flat and keeps perfectly still, or, if he is somewhat close to the animal, imitates its movements by raising his head and rolling and playing with his hands and feet as a seal does with its flippers.” [98] The deceived seal goes back to sleep and is killed; the expert hunter can kill ten or fifteen a day. In this kind of hunt “the women at Repulse Bay are very skillful, and when they have no harpoon frequently use a small wooden club, with which they strike the seal on the nose, killing it.” [99]

The Tasmanians hunt seals in about the same fashion. [100] Among the Ainu, men possess much more effective equipment than women: it is not by chance that “in hunting, men played the leading part.” [101] Men hunt deer and bear by using bows or spring traps with poisoned arrows. Besides the method mentioned above, the Ainu hunted deer down with dogs, caught them by the horn or neck with ropes and killed them with clubs as they fled struggling in the snow or crossed the rivers. This method was widely practised among the Ainu; however, it seems to have been only supplementary to others. It was also the only method of deer hunting by women and children. [102] In fact, “it was a taboo for Ainu women to use bow and arrow which constituted the major weapon of the people” and “only the males were to handle them.” [103]

Likewise, the Ona women could hunt the guanaco only with the help of dogs, and with neither bow nor arrow, while “as a hunting people the Ona depended for their existence on the bow (ha); and to its manufacture, management, and protection they devoted an extraordinary amount of care.” [104]

As for the Eskimo, there is another implement women can hunt with: a weapon “suitable for them,” i.e., harmless, the bow furnished with arrows with a blunt point to stun birds, reserved typically for women and children. [105]

The hunt for small animals is undertaken by both men and women. For small animals like rabbits, women can use simple traps. The Ojibwa women, for example, make traps of vegetable fiber and use them themselves, particularly near the wigwam.

It is often women’s task to capture small slow animals, or burrowing animals. This is in fact the only form of hunting which can regularly be practiced, even without weapons purposely made for this. Among the Aranda, the Tiwi, and many other Australian populations, women’s foraging activity involves berries, roots, etc., and at the same time small animals like opossums, iguanas, bandicoots, lizards, etc. For Australia in general, R.M. Berndt and C. Berndt state: “The division of labor is not entirely fixed. In the north a woman may get a kangaroo with her dogs if she has the opportunity; and women hunt for such small meats as goannas, snakes, possums, and rabbits.” [106]

Thus, among the Kimberleys, women sometimes catch a kangaroo with the help of dogs; this is not permitted to male adolescents, who must learn to use weapons, the spear and the spear-thrower. [107] The hunt with dogs is thus contrasted, as among the Ona, to the male hunt with weapons.

The typically female hunt is thus accomplished without weapons, or with improvised weapons: pebbles, sticks, etc. [108] It happens that men also hunt in this fashion, but the division of labor is not, for all that, questioned: men may well hunt bare-handed, but women may not hunt with weapons. As Watanabe says:

Among modern hunter-gatherers, exclusion of females from the individualistic hunting of larger mammals seems to be closely related to the making and using of hunting weapons and associated economic and/or religious ideas. Women have no weapons of their own which are specially made to hunt animals. If they want to hunt they must do so without weapons or otherwise with some provisional weapons such as sticks. Rarely do they use specially made hunting weapons such as harpoons or spears, although these might be borrowed temporarily from males. … Ethnographic data suggest that perhaps the development of hunting weapons and ideas associated with them is one of the factors relevant to the tendency towards the exclusion of females from hunting. [109]

The forms of hunting practiced by women are in fact probably closer to the schemas of archaic hunting: because of the rudimentary character of the means used, the captured animals are most often sleeping, slow, sick or small. [110] Thus the constraints linked to child care, lesser mobility, or women’s physical inferiority don’t seem to explain women’s place in the sexual division of work. It is not hunting which is prohibited to women, it is weapons; it is access to weapons, or more precisely, to technological development, as represented by weapons of greater complexity than clubs or sticks, that is denied to them.


Fishing belongs to a series of activities defined by Murdock and Provost (1973) as “quasi-masculine.” The average percentage of male participation is 82.4 percent, although in certain populations fishing is practiced predominantly by women.

If one consults the ethnographic documents, and if one examines the classification proposed by Leroi-Gourhan, which proceeds “solely from the point of view of the technological act” [111], as well as the functional classifications “from the point of view of the fish” [112], the situation for fishing seems more complex than that for hunting. Women, in fact, have a large assortment of tools at their disposal: different types of fishing nets, traps, lines, poisons, etc. Furthermore, the importance of women’s role and the kinds of gear which they can use vary considerably from one population to another. Finally, the implements are often made from materials generally worked by women. In fishing, therefore, the whole technical process, from the fabrication of the tools to their use, could be controlled by women, at least for the techniques they use. This autonomy is, however, limited by the frequent need to use a boat, and boats are most often built by men (96.6 percent). To cite only one example, women may sometimes participate, sewing the bark or leather covering of the canoe, but the wooden framework is almost always the work of men.

Is the sexual allocation of fishing implements less clear-cut and rigid than that of hunting? Might there be less technological disparity in the equipment? Does then the masculinity of this activity reside only in the rate of the participation and not in the internal differentiation of the techniques? In fact, if we ask ourselves which tools women use, which are forbidden, and which are totally male, we discover specific forms of differentiation in the use and possession of fishing gear, forms where we find constants equally present in other domains.

The first large distinction contrasts fishing with weapons and fishing without weapons (that is to say, by hand, with a hunting animal, or diverse tackle such as traps, nets, containers, etc.). More precisely, and using Monod’s classification, the division is between fishing characterized by “ballistic perforation” (and in a lesser measure, by “percussion with a blunt or sharp object”), and fishing characterized by “immobilizing receptacles” (nets and traps) and by nonballistic perforation (various types of hooks). This division right away contrasts male and female fishing, and all the more when it is a question of weapons which can be used in fishing as well as in hunting and war (bows, arrows, spears, etc.). [113] This said, the respective equipment of men and women and their participation in fishing are very variable. Both where the two sexes participate in fishing in a comparable, if not equal, measure, and where male participation dominates, women’s activity is often hindered, not only by the limited productivity of the equipment permitted them, but also by the taboos and prohibitions which regulate places where and periods during which women can use such and such an implement. [114] I would also stress that male tools (such as weapons) generally are productively more effective then women’s tackle.

Where daily fishing is practiced principally by women, male fishing takes on an exceptional character, prestigious, and at the same time sportsman-like; men intervene only in ceremonial forms of fishing and in collective fishing at the approach of shoals of fish. [115] Female fishing is often characterized by a moderate but constant and indispensable productivity, which makes it comparable to gathering.

Another even more important technological opposition — and one which does not immediately stand out from the functional division of fishing tackle — appears when one considers fishing as a technological complex, that is, taking into account not only the tackle directly used for catching fish, but all the means which are necessary for fishing; and first of all is the boat, whose utilization determines the milieu where fishing can be done: open-sea fishing, or in deep waters in general (with appropriate tools and techniques), as opposed to fishing along the bank or in shallow waters, in lagoons or swamps. In reference to this spacial and technical opposition, we can specify the sexual differentiation of methods and tools.

For deep-sea fishing, the most important means of production, the one whose fabrication is most complex and is much emphasized on the ceremonial and ideological level, is the boat. The boat is the basis of the distinction between male and female activities — a distinction stressed by the religious prescriptions regulating the construction and use of boats. Here is also the main obstacle to high productivity in women’s fishing. The prohibition laid upon women against use of this means of production appears all the more marked and rigorous the more complex or perfected the boat, the more advanced the specialization that its construction requires, and the more elaborate the ritualization that accompanies its making. The use of boats becomes progressively more male as we move from the bark canoe and the dugout (which the Yamana Ojibwa or Kapauku women can use) to the outrigger canoes and double canoes and the use of a sail, not to speak of other means of propulsion.

These two fundamental oppositions — the use or nonuse of weapons and the use or nonuse of boats — converge and set the limits for women’s activities in fishing, in such a way that the latter appears as a “quasi-masculine” activity, even if women’s work furnishes a considerable quantity of food.

The distinction between these two types of fishing, according to the presence or absence of boats, characterizes a good part of Oceania, whatever the level of fernale participation. What varies is the nature and quantity of tackle (nets, hand traps, etc.) used by women.

In Truk, while men have recourse to a great number of fishing techniques, “the major contribution comes from women, who fish in teams with hand-nets in the off-shore shallows, and along the reef.” [116] In Samoa:

The sphere of the two sexes in fishing was clearly defined. Women spent quite a lot of time in the lagoon but the methods open to them were restricted. A woman’s ordinary field kit consisted of an ola basket slung over her back or around her waist, a strong mele pointed stick for prising up stones and shellfish and a slender rod (la’au sao) for driving squids out of their holes. With this equipment she searched the shallow parts of the lagoon and the dry reef at low tide. The tu’u’u trap and groping under rocks formed other methods. In company with others, the ola tu plaited basket was used as a manipulated trap around the stone heaps and in connection with battering the branching coral amu. She also assisted on occasion in driving with the long leaf lauloa[117]

By contrast, men used all the other methods and numerous and varied pieces of tackle:

Men and boys are responsible for practically every form of fishing including net and torch-light fishing on the reef at night. The women, however, fish for the small things of the sea and invertebrates (figota), going at low tide to the reef and the lagoon. This involves poking into holes in the rocks and coral with the bare hands or sticks, and some women become remarkably proficient at determining what is in a hole merely by touch[118]

In this way women fish for octopus in shallow water, with the help of a stick, and the men fish from their canoes with a special decoy.

It should be noted particularly as an important distinction that women do not fish from a canoe in deep water: that is reserved for the men, although occasionally women may poke about with sticks from a canoe in shallow water. [119]

It is only in palolo fishing that women can fish from the canoes with the men.

The division of fishing work in Tikopia is another variant of the general scheme:

Men and women have each their own particular economic sphere, the division of labour being along fairly obvious lines. The men, for instance, do all the work with canoes, and so engage in line fishing, set large nets in the lake, and catch flying-fish by torchlight at night — a most spectacular proceeding. The women daily search the reef with hand-nets and scoop up all that comes their way, including small fry and crabs. [120]

In addition, the women fish with a line, at night, with torches. [121] All the tackle used by the women, including the net, is made by the men. Firth emphasizes [122] that the canoe is the essential and most important object of productive equipment in the whole economy of Tikopia and he adds that “the highest level of technical achievement of the Tikopia is reached in their canoes.” [123] [124]

The difference between female and male techniques is particularly important in Buka where the women, even though fishing is a daily activity for them, employ means incomparably poorer than those of the men. [125] Apart from fishing for bonito, a strictly masculine activity [126], the most commonly practiced methods of fishing are the following:

Methods Used by Men Only Methods Used by Women Only
A. OPEN SEA AND LAGOON FISHING  12. Barricade of leaves
 1. Net on frame  13. Women’s hand-net
 2. Troll line  14. Basket
 3. Rod and line  15. Groping with hand under stones
 4. Fishing kite  16. Collecting shell-fish
B. REEF FISHING Methods Used by Both Sexes
 5. Bow and arrow C. FRESHWATER FISHING
 6. Spear  17. Hand-net
 7. Line and hook  18. Dam made of leaves
 8. Hand-plunging trap
 9. Thorn-lined trap
 10. Stunning and poisoning
 11. Drives Source: Blackwood 1935: 341-42.

Female fishing is performed bare-handed, with a basket or a little net, and according to what Blackwood calls a “flipping method,” saying that “it is not as easy as it looks.” The tools are: 1) “little stiff open mesh baskets”; 2) the forefinger and thumb of the right hand. Collective fishing takes place in the following way: they make a long chain of leaves tied together; at low tide women and young girls run into the water, dragging the chain and making a half circle. Some of the women remain on the outside of the chain and try with their little baskets to catch the fish which swim across the barrier.

When they see any fish, they flip the water with the finger and the thumb of the right hand, in order to drive them towards the basket. The right hand is then placed over the mouth of the basket, which is picked up quickly. … Silohon and host of other tiny fish are caught in this way, at which the women and girls are very adept. [127]

So for fishing as well, the underequipment of women is a clear fact: weapons are prohibited; they often fish bare-handed; they may not use the equipment which is most productive and most effective, in particular, boats.


The sexual division of labor in agriculture, and especially the existence of vast zones of female agriculture which contrast with zones and systems of male agriculture has long drawn the attention of researchers. [128] A double relationship has been posited: between female agriculture and the use of the hoe, and between male agriculture and the use of the plow. The capital role of the plow, an instrument generally reserved for men (with a few exceptions [129]), in the process of the “masculinization” of agriculture has been well documented.

The sexual division of labour in farming is bound to be closely linked to the type of agriculture, the relations of production to the means of production. In particular the plough is an instrument employed almost entirely by men; indeed it is the case that all large livestock, whether horses, cattle or camels, are almost exclusively in male hands. Their use in advanced agricultural production means that the male role becomes if not dominant, then at least equal to that of women, who frequently play the major productive roles in hoe farming. [130]

With agriculture, we pass from an organization of work where sexual segregation dominates, to an organization where the principal activities of subsistence are incumbent on both men and women. It is thus necessary to examine the sexual distribution of tasks and different operations for each phase of the agricultural cycle. [131] At the same time, it would be necessary to examine in different societies the role of women in agricultural activity as well as in the context of the mode of production [132], taking into account the technological level attained by the population under consideration. It is only in this context, in fact, that the underequipment of women may be correctly evaluated and that we can elucidate the specific significance of the relationship between an activity of high productivity and specialized technique — like the bovine and camel herding with which men in many pastoral African populations are occupied — and the agriculture carried out with the hoe by the female part of the population. [133] Or also, the significance of the sexual division of work among the Ganda, where women took charge of all agricultural activity, sometimes helped by slaves captured by men, while the latter, free from the difficult work of the fields, could devote themselves to craft activities and especially to politics and war. [134] [135]

The contribution of women to agricultural activities is homologous to their role in hunting-gathering societies where the gathering of wild vegetables is reserved to them.

If at the hunting stage women were the ones who collected vegetable produce, they would tend to be the ones concerned with cultivating the domestic varieties of these plants; just as men, who had formerly been concerned with hunting wild animals, would tend to take over the husbandry of domestic livestock. Thus in simpler systems of agriculturethose cultivating the ground by means of the wooden digging stick, the stone hoe or an iron blade — the fields would tend to be cultivated by women, though the physically stronger male sex is often called upon to perform some of the heavier tasks. [136]

The populations which utilize the hoe and other rudimentary tools, and in general the societies where the plow has not yet been introduced, do not use tools qualitatively different from those which are characteristic of hunting and gathering societies — from the digging stick, “the most rustic of plowing instruments,” [137] whose “difficult and ineffective handling” for the gathering of wild tubers we have mentioned, to the hoe, and different forms of the sickle, and axes.

[The hoe is] the most appropriate tool for working the earth by hand. Its form and its percussive properties are those of the adze; its very variable size is such that one can maneuver it either bent toward the ground (above all in Africa) or in an almost vertical standing position. Its material is that which its users have at their disposal: stone, bone, wood, metal. Without undergoing any transformation, it is employed by groups which are concerned only with the collecting of wild produce, and by farmers of all levels. [138]

The use in agriculture of archaic tools on the one hand, and the presence of techniques and knowledge which have revolutionized the relationship of man to his environment on the other hand, show how evolution, at least up to a certain point, does not necessarily imply complex tools and machines, and that “material culture is not entirely in material acquisitions.” [139] This remark allows us to grasp a possible characteristic of women’s work: in agriculture as in other domains, pottery for example, it can advance both as knowledge and as creation, but only up to the introduction of more complex mechanical means — potter’s wheel, plow — which make both the activities and their control pass into the hands of men. This leads us to question the type of knowledge elaborated by each sex, the nature of the limits which have been imposed upon women’s work and upon the production of knowledge by women. We also have to reflect upon the complex and “interwoven” relationship, varying in time and space, between two different lines or moments of evolution: one passing through the development of mechanical techniques, another which, while not necessarily implying highly developed mechanical instruments, produces a knowledge and a transformation of reality perhaps as determining as the other for human evolution. [140] In short, this makes quite evident the need to analyze more profoundly the connection which exists between these two lines and the elaboration of relationships of power and domination.

I shall first examine the distribution of tools and tasks when agriculture is practiced with simple instruments. The latter may be grouped into two categories: one includes digging sticks and hoes, tools habitually used by women for gathering wild produce; the other includes tools such as axes, machetes, etc., tools generally reserved for men in the hunting-gathering societies. In agricultural work the tools of the first group are used in soil preparation, seeding, weeding, and harvest, either by women or by men if the latter participate in cultivation. [141] By contrast, the tools of the second group, used in the work of clearing, building fences, etc., are almost exclusively used by men. Most of the authors explain this distribution by maintaining that the difficult work which demands a greater physical effort, “sudden spurts of energy,” has been allotted to men. My argument, on the contrary, is that tools employed for the sole operations done almost exclusively by men, present two characteristics: 1) they are “weapons and tools at the same time”; [142] 2) their role is strategic for agricultural production, for they set the conditions for cultivating the soil and permit the fabrication of other tools. [143] [144] This dual character may explain the fact that they constitute a first limit to women’s work, the second limit being posed by the degree of technological advancement. Here we find a situation parallel to that examined in relation to fishing: women’s work is blocked by two prohibitions (more or less stringent depending on the particular case), that of the use of weapons and of weapon-tools, and that of the use of the most complex instruments of production (the boat and the plow). These two prohibitions converge, for a weapon is not only a weapon; it is often a more effective and productive tool, or at least it provides a more prestigious return. The use of these tools gives men control of the entire productive process and confines women to a subordinate role even when they carry out the greatest part of the agricultural operations. [145]

The dual role of male tools also explains their symbolic role, their identification with the male sex, or with virility:

The rationale the Sine men give for the division of agricultural tasks, which has already been indicated in passing, is that men do any tasks requiring the use of an axe, while women do the others. Since the use of axes is considered the basic skill by the Siane, this means that men do the “skilled” work and women the “unskilled” work. Men and boys gladly display their skill in splitting logs … and spend hours polishing their axes to razor sharpness with wet sandstone. Men without axes are said to be “like women,” while youths signify their approaching manhood by carrying an axe at their belts, eagerly seizing any opportunity to use their axes when they are permitted to do so as part of a work party. [146]

It would be easy to multiply citations of this kind or those relating to the custom that men have of walking about with this sort of “total” male ornaments that are here the axes, or elsewhere machetes or knives. [147]

Apart from this symbolic use, let us consider the use of the axe for land clearing. The general data on participation by sex do not easily allow us to appreciate the sexual differentiation of tasks in this activity. Even if cutting down trees itself is reserved for men, participation by women in land clearance is not excluded. In fact, in many societies, women help in clearing: clearing the underbrush and pulling out grasses by hand or with the aid of a digging stick or some other rudimentary tool [148] and more rarely with axes or some kind of machete; transporting and piling up of brush and of branches, cut by men and left on the ground; cleaning up the field after the burning. Sometimes these are the most tiring operations in the agricultural cycle. [149] Among the Bemba, the contrast between the perilous male work (cutting of branches) and that of women, simply but brutally hard and with nothing exciting about it (transporting and piling cut branches), appears very clearly. Male work is spread out over several months. With a very sharp and continually resharpened axe, a man

clears a good-sized tree of branches in ten minutes in this way. … At the top of the tree the work becomes more and more dangerous. A man may be left standing on a fork at the summit with one of the vertical stems as yet uncut. He has to clasp it with one hand to steady himself, while with the other he slashes at the trunk he is clinging to. He swings his axe till he hears the warning crack and feels the branch sway. Then he slides his body quick as a flash down the mutilated stump of the tree, yelling in triumph as he hears the bough fall. [150]

This is not accomplished without danger, and each year there are victims. But the Bemba are proud of their icitemene system, and of their ability to climb like “real monkeys.”

On the chief’s land the work is collective:

The young men seize their axes, and rush whooping up the trees, squabbling as to who should take the highest trunk. They dare each other to incredible feats and fling each other taunts as they climb. Each falling branch is greeted with a special triumph cry. I collected about forty different ukutema cries at the cutting of Citimukulu’s and Mwamba’s gardens in 1933-34. These are formalized boastings like the praisesongs commonly shouted before a Bantu chief. The cutter likens himself to an animal who climbs high, or to a fierce chief who mutilates his subjects, cutting off their limbs like the branches of this tree. A squirrel might be afraid of such a tree, he says, but not he! “The wind failed to bring down this trunk! But look at me!” Each shout is followed by a prolonged whoop of E-e-eh! The noise is deafening for the first half-hour, as the great boughs rain down from above. [151]

The work is thus seen as a “heroic” act, warlike, courageous, like a competition or a game. [152] Each man leaves the branches on the ground in a certain order in order to distinguish them from his neighbors’. Then the women’s work takes place:

Next comes the business of stacking the branches. Here the rationale of the icitemene system becomes evident. The aim of the native is plainly not to clear the bush of obstructions, but to collect the maximum amount of brushwood to burn. It is the ash which he considers valuable, and the burning of the soil. The woman who piles the branches carries them as high as possible from the ground so that the twigs and leaves should not snap off in transit, and thus waste valuable fuel.

Piling the branches is the hardest work a Bemba woman does, and I have heard the wives of urban natives say that they were afraid to go back to the villages “where we have to pile branches.” The women lift boughs, often fifteen or twenty feet long, stagger as they balance the length on their heads, adjust themselves to the weight, and start off with the load. All morning they come and go in this way. There is a good deal of skill required in the stacking of branches. They must be laid with their stems to the centre, so that they radiate in to a roughly circular oval pile. The branches must be piled evenly one on top of the other until they reach a height of about two feet. If any portion of the garden is only lightly covered with boughs, the soil beneath it will be only partly burnt. [153]

The “heroic” aspect is perhaps less exalted in other populations; the contrast between the two types of tasks remains.

The relationship between the plow and the “masculinization” of agriculture has been precisely emphasized by many researchers. It is one of the cases cited by Murdock and Provost to illustrate the correlation between the shift in allocation of tasks and technological development:

When the invention of a new artifact or process supplants an older and simpler one, both the activity of which it is a part and closely related activities tend more strongly to be assigned to males. [154]

With the plow, which allows the cultivation of formerly undreamt-of expanses of land, a qualitative leap in work productivity occurs. [155] The use of the plow, generally reserved for men, changes the type and conditions of agriculture, and at the same time, the sexual division of tasks. [156] It is also the instrument of production which, in relation to the logical model of Leroi-Gourhan, marks the passing of work accomplished by human energy with a manual tool, to “machine” work, where energy is no longer furnished by man.

The introduction of the plow and its monopoly by men mark the limit imposed, in preindustrial societies, on women’s equipment, on the instruments of production which they may use, and consequently on the work they can carry out. They can use their own strength, manual tools, and sometimes simple manual machines, but they may not control other forms or sources of energy or of instruments whose productivity is greater than that of the human arm.

In the present state of research, is it possible to arrive at more precise conclusions? There is in fact a wide latitude of variation in task assignment even within the limits I have shown. Let us note, in any event, that when the two sexes devote themselves to agriculture, it is the longest, most monotonous, and continuous operations (clearing, weeding, rice harvesting, etc.) and, in general, the operations performed with the bare hand which are assigned to women. “It’s through the differentiation of specific tasks that a political discourse of masculine superiority is expressed.” [157]


If I do not linger on the sexual differentiation of tools in other activities, such as the treatment of vegetable products, weaving, pottery-making, etc., principally female activities, [158] I can nevertheless state that the general data concerning these activities confirm my thesis on the underequipment of women, the fact that the majority of their activities are limited to hand operations, that they may not use complex tools, whether they are manual machines or, even more so, tools activated by the power of animals, water, wind, etc. The remark of Murdock and Provost, echoed by Centlivres, according to which a new technique “masculinizes” the activity to which it is introduced has general import. Thus different types of cereals, grains, etc., are ground — an exhausting labor whose rhythm prefigures machine movement — with tools like the mortar, the pestle, the millstone, the windmill, or reduced to pulp with graters; this work — which requires several hours a day — and the tools used are considered typically female in the majority of societies. This is true even when instead of millstones and small handmills a mill maneuvered by several persons is used; it is still the women (and the slaves) who are the beasts of burden! Until the introduction of the waterpowered mill, women in the Greco-Roman world and in Europe, as Bloch (1935) points out, were compelled to do the extremely hard labor of grinding. But the water-powered or wind-powered mill is controlled by men.

Pottery-making without a wheel is, by a crushing majority, a female activity: it would be possible to draw up a map which divides the zones of pottery-making with the bare hand from those of pottery-making with a wheel. Just as with the plow, we can see a very close relationship between handmade pottery and female activities on the one hand, and pottery made with the wheel and male activity on the other; the wheel, which permits a greater, constant, and more uniform output, is not under women’s control. Female handmade pottery and masculine wheel-made pottery coexist in numerous areas. The gap between the two techniques and the two technological worlds is such that H. Balfet (1965: 161) notes that in the Maghreb “at the present time there are to be found side-by-side pottery vessels that differ so much from each other that they could certainly pass for examples from different epochs if we were to study them out of context.” [159]

Similarly, with weaving, we note an opposition between a pedal loom, used by men which “in terms of productivity … comes out well ahead” [160] and the horizontal or vertical loom used by women. Thus, in the greater part of sub-Sahara Africa, pedal looms, which produce narrow bands of material (according to Goody 1971, the only machines these populations had), are strictly reserved for men. In certain regions, besides the traditional male weaving, there is a form of female weaving, but the tool is quite different: instead of the pulley and pedal loom, women have vertical looms. So it is for instance among the Nupe and Yoruba. [161] H. Balfet (1975: 62) indicates that in the Maghreb the different types of loom correspond to different types of producers and products: on the one hand, women who weave objects for family use “during ‘spare time,’ in the time left free from domestic tasks”; on the other, specialized male artisans who produce for sale. [162] But when the more productive men’s looms, hit by the impact of the modern economy, disappear or are replaced by workshops with mechanical looms, women’s “spare-time” work holds out against the industrial competition. Women’s time does not count, has no value, and their work is such that “they wouldn’t even benefit from a more rapid loom” [163]; so they might as well work long hours with poor output!

In Guatemala, a similar process of shift of activities from females to males is at work in the sectors of weaving, pottery, and the treatment of vegetable products. The spindle and the Indian belt loom are used exclusively by women. Europeans introduced sheep raising, the use of wool, and at the same time, the pedal loom and the spinning wheel. [164] And more precisely in that which concerns the division of tasks and the differentiation of tools:

The men and the women both took something that gave them a source of income; the women do the washing and carding and the men the spinning — wheel spinning, learned from Ladino artisans — and the footloom weaving. [165]

The same is true for cotton weaving:

The Indian women use the backstrap loom exclusively with the strange exception of one Indian town in which there are shops of Indian weavers, both men and women, using the footloom. [166]

For pottery-making:

[Traditionally] it is the women, not the men, who make pottery by hand. It is strictly a household art. The woman of the house, and her children, gather the clay and grind and knead and mold it in the kitchen and courtyard between kitchen chores. The men usually help to fire it, and they take it to market. [167]

Then, with the introduction and use of the wheel, pottery-making became male, but far from cities and in communities not influenced by whites.

What should have happened to the Indian women potters in competition with the more efficient professionals with their wheels? One might expect the women to give up their art as a losing battle against superior economic efficiency. … But no. As it happens, the time of the women who make the pots has no economic value. … The competition with wheel-made pottery is under such circumstances only theoretical. So women continue to make pottery, and in the old fashioned way. [168]

This situation, as we see, is parallel to that of the women weavers of the Maghreb.

With coffee, the operations of post-harvest processing fall to women. In particular, they must shell the coffee; “to remove the beans from the pulp, women use the grinding stone.” [169] But a “hand-turned rotary cylinder to remove the pulp from the bean” was introduced; this is the sole complex tool employed in the agricultural cycle and in the treatment of the harvest product, and this machine is used exclusively by men. [170]


No production is possible without an instrument of production, even if this instrument is only the hand.
 — Marx, Grundrisse, Notebook M.7

We have seen that in the hunting-gathering societies the monopoly of weapons has a decisive importance in the relationship between men and women. In fact, it is in the technology which creates weapons and in the weapons themselves that the most important advances take place — those which mark the difference between male and female tools, since weapons are at the same time privileged instruments of production. But the prevailing aspect is the control of power; hence the rigorous prohibition imposed upon women concerning the use of weapons: the game is between one who has the weapons and one who does not. [171] The power of men over women is assured by the monopoly of weapon/tools. What happens in horticultural and agricultural societies? Is there a difference between the monopoly of the bow and that of the plow or potter’s wheel? What are the consequences of the multiplication and development of productive activities?

With the introduction of more and more complex tools there is a more regular and much greater work productivity, and a more extensive appropriation of nature than that obtainable only with simple tools and human energy. While men’s control over manual tools didn’t exclude women from all tools and concerned mainly the conditions of their fabrication, with manual machines and animal traction or automatic machines an appropriation and a direct utilization of these machines by men is imposed. The control of production and of society requires direct control over these more complex instruments: only men will work machines. Must we consider that the separation line here passes between the one who possesses machines and the one who is deprived of them? Between who has the fundamental means of production and who does not? The “masculinization” of activities linked with machines does not mean that women are always excluded. Their energy and their work will be employed in tasks which do not require the basic tool and the machine; their work can be “full time” but strictly subordinate to the work of him who possesses and uses fundamental techniques and instruments. So we have situations where women are not “craft specialists,” but where they are used as motor power or “time and patience”: the blacksmith’s wife can activate the blowers in the place of the apprentice, but she may never become a blacksmith. The potter’s wife may knead and mold the clay or polish the vases made by her husband; the male weaver can have women workers who sort and pull the threads. Women continue to furnish manual labor in craftwork, agriculture, etc. And constantly, without any relief, they also do, with very unproductive means and the maximum of patient and time-consuming labor, the work of production for domestic consumption and the replacement of expended human energy. Likewise, depending upon the rules and conditions imposed, under the ideological and material control of the dominators they carry on the work of reproduction.

Women are thus constantly denied the possibility of extending their body and their arms by complex tools which would augment their power over nature. No doubt they come up against the same limitations in intellectual work. Here is an aspect of sexual discrimination which it is essential to study. Yet to say that women are limited to their own bodies is a very optimistic description of the situation: we are not limited to our bodies; we are used as bodies. The physical appropriation of women by men doesn’t mean only sexual exploitation and reproduction. It can impinge on bodily integrity and expression in many other ways: from constrained movement (through education, clothing, etc.), seclusion or confinement to the almost universal delimitation of space and prohibition of travel, to such irreversible injuries as footbinding, forced fattening, sexual mutilation, etc.

I shall give only one specific case directly connected, by the ethnograher who speaks about it, to the sexual division of labor. During funeral ceremonies, the Dugum Dani (New Guinea) offer gifts: the men give pigs or other presents and “the little girls give their fingers.” [172] With a stone axe they cut off two or three fingers of three- to six-year-old girls who have some kinship link with the dead man (or, for example, little girls whose father has no pig to give [173]). “They only lose one or two fingers at a time,” which means that “nearly every female above the age of about ten has lost four or six fingers.” [174]

So out of about 120 women, only two were not mutilated. Nevertheless, this mutilation is not done just any way: “The thumbs are never removed, nor are at least the two first fingers on at least one hand.” [175] This precaution saves the economic and religious structure of this society and the sexual division of labor from being jeopardized. In fact, continues our respectable ethnographer, the women only rarely complain. And anyway:

The loss of fingers does not drastically limit a woman’s activities. With both thumbs and two fingers on at least one hand, and in most cases usable stumps on the other, the women are able to manipulate the woman’s thin digging sticks in garden work. They also roll string and make nets and do other fine work. Comments on the lack of fingers were rare, but once an older woman remarked, more in joke than complaint, that she could not wield the heavy men’s digging stick.

Activities that require ten fingers, such as shooting with bow and arrow or handling heavy digging sticks or axes, are generally reserved for men, but these are just the activities that are characteristically masculine in most cultures. [176]

Division of raw materials

Dugum Dani women with their light digging sticks cultivate irrigated gardens prepared by men; “apparently because of supernatural restriction,” they may have nothing to do with the ditches [177]; they raise pigs, do the harvesting, prepare meals, and take care of children. They must also participate in the construction of houses by gathering grass to cover the roofs, but “women complain that they cannot pluck grass well because they have so few fingers; and after they have helped the men do the first plucking, they carry the bundles, one or two at a time on their heads, back to the construction site.” [178] Of course the Dani women do not use weapons and do not work with wood. [179] [180]

While the work and lives of these women must be extremely hard, the distribution of tasks among the Dani is not really different from that existing in other populations. Can we say metaphorically that all women have their fingers cut? What do Dani men do that neither their wives nor other women can do? Besides war, clearing the land, and making ditches, the Dani work in hard materials like stone, bone, wood, materials with which they make tools and weapons, from the digging stick to the axe, from the adze to several kinds of spears. That is what the Kapauku, who live not far from the Dani [181] also do, and with a few exceptions, the other populations of the world.

Here we get to a question only lightly touched upon up to this point and whose importance can hardly be overstressed. It concerns the basic technology for the fabrication of tools and the materials used. Between male and female work, there exists a clear dichotomy whose reasons Murdock and Provost [182] consider “obscure” since the possible explanation based on “the masculine advantage in physical strength … seems scarcely an adequate one.” It is the division of the natural world with regard to raw materials into two categories, one of which is forbidden to women, the other permitted. Hard materials, such as metals, stone, bone, wood, shell, horn, etc., are worked exclusively by men (the percentages are: metal 99.8 percent, wood 98.8 percent, stone 96.6 percent, bones, horn and shell 94.6 percent), while “soft or pliable” material (according to the terminology of Murdock and Provost), like earth, clay, skins, vegetable and animal fibers for braiding and weaving, can be worked by both sexes but are mainly worked by women. We can thus see between male and female activities a split as strict as that concerning the use of weapons (big game hunting, war, etc.).

The absolute character of this division allows us to suppose that we are confronted with a basic factor, a hard core in the relation between the sexes. If we examine the characteristics of the raw materials worked by women, and classified according to categories defined by Leroi-Gourhan as plastic solids (earth, clay and kaolin, agglutinants, resins, dyes, etc.) and supple solids (skins, bark, animal and vegetable fibers, etc.), we again find the framework that we are familiar with — poorness of equipment and a prevalence of bare-hand operations:

The equipment does not have the same influence on supple solids as on other solids — by their nature they elude the rigor of percussive tools and all have as primary tools the bare hand. … These are traits which the plastic solids also reveal in a certain measure; clays and agglutinants are worked by the bare hand or with very simple crude tools; any stick, a piece of broken glass, a straw reed. For supple solids, the crude tool of general use is the awl, more particularly the bone awl. [183]

Hard materials (stable solids or fibrous solids, following Leroi-Gourhan’s terminology) require, on the other hand,the use of tools. Is then the exclusion of women from work on these materials related to the fact that they necessitate a more diversified and complex equipment? Though for some activities this may be so — for example, where weapons such as the axe are required or where there are “machine tools” such as the pump and bow drills, which women use very rarely — on the whole and in many populations the basic tools for working these materials (at least bone, wood, and stone) are rather simple. Their characteristics differ very little from those of female tools; they are largely tools used in direct movement. The examination of the tools used thus does not suffice to account for such an absolute dividing line. Let us turn then to examine the products obtained from these two large classes of materials in order to probe more deeply into the reasons for this split.

A Bambara myth recounts the origins of spinning and weaving cotton. In those times, the Bambara lived from gathering. A genie revealed to an old woman the use of cotton, giving her a spindle and teaching her how to spin; in turn, she taught the technique to the other women, who kept it a secret. But after the death of the old woman, the women were forced to reveal the secret of spinning to men; they needed new spindles and could not make any since “except for cooking, a woman never uses a knife, an object reserved to men.” [184] Here is a leitmotif: women cannot make their own tools, they depend upon men even for the equipment which they use in their own work (spindles, looms, hoes, spoons, knives, pestles, mortars, scrapers, etc.). The sexual division of labor concerning raw materials, far from being inexplicable or “obscure,” reveals its rationality in the political relations between the sexes: the issue is the control of the techniques and the raw materials without which one can produce neither weapons nor tools.

So the circle closes around women’s activities, and a tight circle it is. With neither weapons nor complex tools, often even the most simple stick must not be made by them, but for them. Among the Baruya:

The ownership of tools is individual, but it is the men who make them or get them through the trading of salt, which is an activity reserved to them. If it is very difficult and takes a long time to fabricate an adze, the same is not true of the digging stick, a simple stick of hard wood with a point, which women use in agriculture. However, it is first the father, then the husband, who makes this tool which they give to their daughter or their wife. [185]

The same is true among the Yamana, the Kwakiutl, the !Kung, etc. We could multiply the examples indefinitely.

There are, however, exceptions. The percentage of male work on bone, horn, and shell is slightly less (94.6 percent) than on that of other hard materials. In several populations, in fact, women may work shells, but it is generally to make pearls from them and necklaces, that is to say, ornaments or objects of prestige, sometimes money [186], but not — and it is this which is essential — productive tools. [187]

In her paper at the International Conference on Hunting and Gathering Societies (Paris, June 1978), Annette Hamilton described and analyzed sexual divisions in production and technology among people of the Australian desert. As she said:

[It is very important to establish] whether or not one sex possesses skills and techniques necessary to the other’s production; if men, for instance, have the sole monopoly of wood-working skills then the interdependence of the sexes is established irrespective of any other considerations.

Examining then the modes of making tools, Hamilton noted that women themselves make their digging sticks and pitchis. The analysis of the technique employed is quite revealing. Old women explain how the sticks are made:

They implied that the men’s adze-stones were not made or used by women, and that instead they often used grinding stones to finish their digging sticks and wooden bowls. Similar observations have now been reported by Hayden … for Janggundjara people now living in another area of the Western Desert. He suggests that there was actually a prohibition on women using cryptocrystalline rocks (flint, chert, opal, etc.) and that women preferred using choppers, as opposed to adzes. He notes also that the use of grinding techniques for finishing wooden tools was common in Tasmania and in some other parts of Australia; but that in the Western Desert men were never seen to use such techniques for wood-finishing.

From this comes Hamilton’s conclusion, with details of great interest to us [188]:

This suggests that the technological apparatus and skills used by women for the manufacture of their wooden implements is a continuation of the older “core tool and scraper” tradition … which appears archaeologically prior to about 3,000-4,000 B.C. in many parts of Australia. … The spear-thrower, with its associated adze-stone, perhaps represents a more recent innovation, one which was not made available to the women. It seems likely, for a number of reasons which I cannot enumerate here, that technological innovations in lithic industries adhered solely among men. Women continue the older traditions in technology.

The women of whom Hamilton speaks make tools, but the techniques they use remain at the stage of an extremely archaic tradition. Thus we find, in a specific and fundamental sector, the historical gap — a gap with an immense range of hundreds or thousands of years — between male and female techniques and work, which I posed at the beginning of this paper as my hypothesis.


We are faced with very important questions: when and how have women been excluded from the techniques upon which prehistorians have largely based their reconstructions of stages of human evolution? We need new research to explore what have been the effective forms of women’s participation in technological processes, in technical invention, and in the elaboration of knowledge. [189] Recent research points out the possibility of an extremely important part played by women in the elaboration of the first human tools. [190] The question is then: When and where has this process been blocked? When does the technological gap between male and female tools start developing? What are its relations with other factors of technological evolution and of social structure? The newer analysis would seem again to confirm the development of weapons as a factor of enormous importance in establishing a quite rigorous sexual division of labor and tools.

Men’s exclusive right to work hard materials reveals the solid rock upon which male domination is founded: the impossibility for women to make weapons for themselves, their dependence upon men for almost all instruments of production. Men’s control of the production and use of tools and weapons is confirmed as the necessary condition of their power, based upon violence (the male monopoly of weapons) and upon the underequipment of women (the male monopoly of tools). Only by excluding women from the production and use of weapons and tools have men been able to achieve the appropriation of women and such a utilization of them in work, sexuality, and reproduction of the species.


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[1] Claude Lévi-Strauss, “La Vie familiale et sociale des Indiens Nambikwara,” Journal de la Société des Américanistes 37 (1948): 100. 

[2] Cf. Edholm, Harris, and Young (1977) for a first general critique of the concepts which are “part of a whole ideological apparatus which in the past has discouraged us from analyzing women’s work, women’s spheres, as an integrated part of social production”; one among others is the concept of the sexual division of labor “taken as given, requiring no further analysis” and assumed to be naturally linked to reproduction. Cf. also Meillassoux (1975:41): “Nothing in nature explains the sexual distribution of tasks, any more than social structures like conjugality, marriage, or paternal descent. All are inflicted on women by compulsion; all are thus facts of civilization which must be explained and not serve as explanation.” 

[3] Godelier 1977: 371-72. 

[4] Leacock 1978: 252, 278. 

[5] 1964: 214-15, 219-20. 

[6] B. Arcand 1977:8. 

[7] ibid.:372, 377. 

[8] cf. also Best 1924: 401. 

[9] Firth 1959: 206, 210. 

[10] Firth, ibid.:181-82, 208 ff. 

[11] Factors A and B, pp. 210-11. 

[12] cf. ibid: 208-9. 

[13] Cf. also Burton, Bruner, and White 1977. 

[14] 1970: 1074. 

[15] One may refer to the elaboration of the data in the World Ethnographic Atlas done by Centlivres (1977) and his team: the sexual division of labor is examined as it functions in different types of societies, grouped according to fundamental subsistence activities. The shift in sexual allocation of activities from females to males (emphasized by Murdock and Provost), which is produced when major technological complexity and specialization exist, takes place at the time of the transformation of hunting-gathering societies into production (i.e., agricultural, pastoral, etc.) societies. According to Centlivres, the sexual division of tasks would then give way to the social division of labor, which excludes women from social production and confines them to domestic tasks. But the very terms and definitions which have been adopted must be reanalyzed critically (as Centlivres admits), particularly the definitions of domestic tasks and social labor or social production as well as their ideological connotations (Cf. Delphy 1975, 1978, 1980). 

[16] Lévi-Strauss has, on the contrary, emphasized the artificial character of the sexual division of labor, which can also be considered as “a device to institute a reciprocal state of dependency between the sexes” (Lévi-Strauss 1956). In her analysis of androcentrism in anthropology, Maxine Molyneux (1977:63), while pointing out the correlation between the sexual division of labor and the hierarchical male/female (power) relationship, remarks that the very idea according to which the sexual division of labor is natural “conceals the existence of important mechanisms of social determination which articulate with ‘biology’ and thereby prevents crucial questions concerning the subordination of women from being formulated.” The sexual division of labor “is therefore to be conceptualized as a social construct and this is so irrespective of any speculative theorizing as to how it might have originated.” 

[17] Gough 1975, Arcand 1977. 

[18] Mathieu 1978; Rubin 1975. 

[19] According to P. Aaby (1977:47), for example: “Tools probably were relatively simple, so that everybody could make them.” In statements such as these, the importance of cumulative work in the form of the acquisition and transmission of technical knowledge, hand skills, etc., often stressed by the prehistorians (cf. also Marx 1973:35), is plainly underestimated (cf. also Solinas 1979). For the technology/anthropology relationship, cf. Digard 1979. 

[20] Godelier 1976, 1977; Aaby 1977; Meillasoux 1975. 

[21] The ideological function of ethnology in considering the relations between the sexes is plainly evident in these attitudes. As Molyneux (1977:74) points out: “Given the important role of women in production … this emphasis on childbearing conceals the social value of women’s other work.” 

[22] Cf. Sullerot 1968, especially for industrial societies. 

[23] 1965: 41 ff. 

[24] Leroi-Gourhan proposes a technological analysis of the definition of the machine, taking into consideration the commonsense notion, according to which “the distinction between the tool and the machine is established beginning with a certain level of mechanical complexity. It presumes devices of transmission and conversion of power, but not necessarily of amplification of power.” Thus instruments using direct human power and direct linear transmission and amplified linear transmission (for example, the knife, the saw, the harpoon, the pestle), or direct circular transmission (for example, the spindle and hand punch) are not machines. “By constrast, devices of linear transmission converted into circular transmission (cord drills, bow and pump drills … lathes, the rod-driven mill …), devices of circular transmission, geared down and converted into circular or linear transmission (the cylinder grinder …, the screw press) are machines, whether the power applied be direct human power or that of water or air (the hydraulic drill … the water hammer … the windmill, the trip-hammer, etc.). Based on these data, the machine seems to be an apparatus which frequently incorporates not only a tool, but especially one or more movements” (Leroi-Gourhan 1971:112). 

[25] Guillaumin 1981. 

[26] This expression, used by Colette Guillaumin, specifies the social relationship of appropriation of the class of women by the class of men (as well as the private appropriation of each woman in the marriage relationship). It is a relationship which reduces women to the state of a material object, a tool, and which is expressed in specific ways: “(a) The appropriation of time. (b) The appropriation of the products of the body. (c) The sexual obligation. (d) The physical charge of disabled members of the group” (children, the elderly, the sick, etc.), “as well as the healthy members of the group of the male sex” (Guillaumin 1981:8). It is a matter finally of a “relation in which it is the producing material unit of labor power which is appropriated and not just labor power” (ibid.:7), a relation for which Guillaumin proposes the expression sexage. This analysis refers particularly to contemporary Western societies. I think, nevertheless, that the concept of the material appropriation of women can have a more general relevance. The degree of pertinence of this idea, for each society where male domination exists, remains to be verified through specific research and analysis. 

[27] Murdock and Provost 1973. 

[28] Murdock and Provost (1973) and Murdock and Morrow (1970) consider several categories of gathering, among them the search for small animals (lizards, etc.), collecting shellfish, etc. But the differences between these activities (between certain forms of fishing and the collection of shellfish, or between hunting and the search for small animals, for example) have a certain fluidity and even a tendency to vanish, especially when it is a matter of activities carried out by women with the bare hand or with rudimentary tools. Though I have some reservations about them, I shall for cónvenience use Murdock’s and Provost’s classifications and data for gathering as well as for other activities. 

[29] ef. Clastres 1972: 82, 12122. 

[30] Draper 1975; Kaberry 1939; Yengoyan 1968; Spencer and Gillen 1927. 

[31] Hiatt 1974. 

[32] In this regard, from the viewpoint of the knowledge and exploitation of nature and of the processing of vegetable products, cf. the old text of Ida Hahn, presented anew by J. Brown (1975). Washburn and Lancaster (1968:295) also note that the work of gathering evolves in complexity. Moreover, hunting and gathering societies have evolved different techniques in the care of plants that are the object of gathering. The extremely gradual transition from gathering to agriculture is given great prominence in recent archaeological works; cf., among other, MacNeish 1972. 

[33] It is on this fundamental point that I disagree with the analyses of Eleanor Leacock (1975, 1978), on the position of women in “egalitarian” societies. The negative influence of colonization on the relations between men and women, and especially on the status of women, is rightly stressed by Leacock, as well as the character of authority — “the dispersed nature of decision making in pre-class societies” (Leacock 1975; cf. also Leacock 1954, 1955, for the social transformations due to the fur-trade among the Montagnais-Naskapi). But the sexual division of labor in these populations, before the arrival of the whites, is considered by Leacock as a division of tasks of equal importance and — it seems to me almost as a natural and indisputable given. My hypothesis, on the contrary, would be that the negative changes, linked to colonization, found a favorable milieu precisely in the elements of inequality between the sexes already present in the division of labor. 

[34] 1927:15. 

[35] Likewise for the women of several Australian populations: “The stress in the literature on women as gatherers of vegetable food has, I think, been grossly overdone, and the importance of small protein sources as eggs, birds, lizards, burrowing animals and grubs has been greatly under-estimated. … Women in the Eastern Western Desert saw themselves as going out primarily for meat” (Hamilton 1978:8). Cf. the day-by-day descriptions of women’s gathering and searching (McCarthy and McArthur 1960) and the data on the differentiation of tools (and activities) between men and women (McArthur 1960:95-98). 

[36] Leroi-Gourhan 1973: 119-20. 

[37] 1927: 23-24. 

[38] On the subject of pitchis and their fabrication, cf. Davidson 1937:188 ff., and Hamilton 1978:3-5. Women also use knives, but of a much cruder and more archaic type than those that the men make for themselves; cf. Spencer and Gillen 1927:545. 

[39] Ibid.:525. 

[40] Leroi-Gourhan 1973: 60. 

[41] Leroi-Gourhan. 

[42] 1937: 133-134. 

[43] Warner 1937:134. 

[44] Marshall 1976:98. 

[45] ibid.: 100. 

[46] ibid.: 106. 

[47] ibid. 

[48] R. Lee (1972:331 ff.) calculated that a !Kung woman, carrying her child, covers 7,800 kilometers during the first four years of the child’s life; the weight of the child increases on an average from six kilograms the first year to 12.4 kilograms the fourth (cf. the data of Lee on the work load of women, ibid.: table 14.2-14.6). Moreover, according to Lee, the woman, in a day’s gathering (average distance covered: three to twenty kilometers) carries home from seven to fifteen kilograms of vegetable food (ibid.:330). Ethnologists have often remarked on the effort demanded of women, “humanity’s first beasts of burden” as they are often called, forced to carry the goods — and the children — of the group. G. Roheim (1933:235) explains it (!) as follows: “It is true that when on a march the women will be made to carry the scanty equipment they may possess, but there are two good reasons for this. One reason is practical and logical. The man must have his hands free and his spear ever ready for the enemy and for the chase. The other is rooted in the unconscious. Woman bears the child and carries him in her womb, and then on her body. By extension, therefore, there is a natural tendency to make her carry things.” 

[49] Cf. the table of !Kung artifacts in Marshall 1976:413-16, which shows both the material equipment of the population and of each sex and the technological distance between the sexes. 

[50] ibid.: 176. 

[51] It is not only in regard to technical (or religious) knowledge and the difference in equipment that it can be said that the !Kung society is less egalitarian than is often maintained. Marriages imposed on the very young girls are a further proof of it. When they are promised in marriage “the girls are usually too young to protest” (that happens sometimes); “the parents explain that when the girls marry young they ‘get used to’ their husbands” (Marshall 1976:269, 271). The autobiography of a ‘Kung woman, compiled by Shostak (1976: especially 269 ff.), shows how male sexuality is imposed in the conjugal relationship. When one speaks of egalitarian societies, it is essential to take into account these factors and data about sexual violence (on which the ethnologists offer inadequate documentation; cf. Edholm, Harris, and Young 1977 and Begler 1978). E. Begler, in her analysis of the “egalitarian” relationships in hunting and gathering societies (ibid.), also emphasizes the role of armed male violence in the relations between men and women. 

[52] ibid.: 145 ff. 

[53] 1976:101. 

[54] They do tell us that “the bow and arrow is essentially a democratic weapon; every man knows how to construct one; the materials are readily available, the techniques uncomplicated.” So, no centralized control of military power is possible (Goody 1971: 43 ff., emphasis added). Democracy being reserved solely for the male sex, men collectively possess, against women, the control of this power. 

[55] Gusinde 1961; Hyades and Denier 1891; Lothrop 1928. 

[56] From a certain standpoint this is the sea-going homologue of the “beast-of-burden” role that women play on land. Rowing is a task assigned to women in other populations; cf., for example, Boas 1888:50. 

[57] Gusinde 1961: 542. 

[58] ibid. :478. 

[59] ibid. :255. 

[60] ibid.:182. 

[61] ibid.:182, 489. 

[62] ibid. :256-57. 

[63] Hyades and Deniker 1891: 368. 

[64] ibid. :369. 

[65] Gusinde 1961: 181. 

[66] But Gusinde writes elsewhere (1961:252-53): “The woman herself has invented or learned to make the few and simple implements that make gathering easier for her.” 

[67] ibid.:255. 

[68] ibid.: 259-60. 

[69] ibid.: 184-85. 

[70] ibid.: 460. 

[71] Young and Harris (1976:46) consider that generally “their constant repetitive and often monotonous work constitutes in itself a mechanism of control by men.” 

[72] 1975:91. 

[73] ibid. 

[74] Boas 1921. 

[75] Teit 1910. 

[76] Boas 1921. 

[77] Jenness 1922: 81,161; Murdoch 1892:413. 

[78] Leroi-Gourhan 1971:151. 

[79] Mason 1891; Murdoch 1892: 161 ff. 

[80] Leroi-Gourhan, 1973, 146-8. 

[81] Boas 1888: 579-80; cf. also Murdoch 1892: 414; Balikci 1964: 39; Jenness 1922: 88-89. 

[82] Lands 1938: 135-7. 

[83] ibid: 138-140. 

[84] ibid.:137, 169. 

[85] ibid.:159. 

[86] In other cases (for example that of Woman Chief, a Crow huntress and warrior) there is between women a division of labor (Woman Chief marries women who work the buffalo skins for her while she devotes herself to war and hunting) which reintroduces — it seems — traditional male and female hierarchies and roles (cf. Denig 1953:64 ff.). A. Estioko-Griffin and P. Bion Griffin (1981) now write about the Agta (Northeastern Luzon, the Philippines) where women seem to be regular bow and arrow hunters, a situation which hopefully will soon be given a fuller ethnographic description. The Agta women’s hunting doesn’t appear to be linked, as in the cases seen above, to their age or unmarried status but is quite general. 

[87] Levi-Strauss 1956. 

[88] Balikci 1964: 12. 

[89] 1922: 148-149. 

[90] Reed 1904: 47-48. 

[91] Turnbull 1965. 

[92] Ewers 1955: 302. 

[93] Boas 1888: 485. 

[94] 1964: 18. 

[95] Lothrop 1928: 147. 

[96] Gusinde 1961: 459. 

[97] Lothrop 1928: 148. 

[98] Boas 1888: 484. 

[99] ibid.: 485. 

[100] cf. Hiatt 1968: 207-8. 

[101] Watanabe 1964: 44. 

[102] ibid.: 36. 

[103] ibid.: 31, 44. 

[104] Lothrop 1928: 71; Gusinde 1971: 391. 

[105] cf. Stefansson 1919: 96, 427. 

[106] 1964: 104. 

[107] Kaberry, 1939: 12. 

[108] The animal — opossum, iguana, etc. — once it has been dislodged and captured, is killed by knocking it against a tree or with a stick. Cf. the descriptions of hunting among the Tiwi women in Goodale 1971:158 ff. 

[109] 1968: 74-75. 

[110] Laughlin 1968: 313-14. 

[111] Leroi-Gourhan 1973: 69. 

[112] Monod 1973, and von Brandt cited ibid. 

[113] Since this distribution of tools is fairly general, and since it is basically only an aspect of the overall ban on weapons, I will only cite here a few references: Bowdler 1972, with a bibliographic appendix; Pospisil 1963; Blackwood 1935; Thompson 1940; Hocart 1929; Burrows 1936; Gluckmann 1941, tables 6 and 7; Watanabe 1964; Densmore 1929; Landes 1938; Biocca 1966; Siskind 1973; Gusinde 1961. 

[114] Watanabe 1964: 21, 24, 29. 

[115] Here are a few examples: Lau [191], Kapaku, [192], Yamana [193]

[116] Goodenough 1951:24. 

[117] Buck 1930: 517. 

[118] Grattan 1948: 162, emphasis added. 

[119] ibid.: 163, emphasis added. 

[120] Firth 1930:108; cf, also Firth 1963: 123-124. 

[121] Firth 1965: 367-369. 

[122] ibid: 249. 

[123] ibid.: 82. 

[124] For the division between men’s fishing with the small boat and women’s fishing in shallow water, cf. also Buck 1938:302; Laval 1938:258-59; MacGregor 1938:93 ff.; Beaglehole and Beaglehole 1938:52 ff.; Burrows 1936:129, 145 ff. 

[125] Blackwood, 1935: 342. 

[126] ibid: 327 ff. 

[127] Blackwood 1935: 35657, emphasis added. 

[128] Cf. Baumann 1928; Boserup 1970; Goody and Buckley 1973; Goody 1937, 1976; Murdock and Provost 1973; Centlivres 1977. 

[129] Cf. Boserup 1970. 

[130] Goody 1976: 35. 

[131] The male participation in agricultural tasks taken into consideration by Murdock and Provost (1973:207, table 1) is as follows: land clearance: 90.5 percent; soil preparation: 73.1 percent; crop planting: 54.4 percent; harvesting: 45 percent; crop tending: 44.6 percent. (For the regional distribution of these data, cf. tables 3, 4; and Goody 1976: 131, table 21.) Obviously these percentages do not show the possible internal differentiation in the labor process. Thus, to say that men and women participate in the harvest to the same extent can cover rather diverse situations: 1) equality of tasks, tools, and participation; 2) complete differentiation of tasks and tools: the men cut the stalks with scythe or sickle, the women bind the sheaves (the distribution of tasks being linked to the tools employed, and first of all to the presence or absence of tools; cf. also infra, pp. 37, 39, concerning land clearance). Moreover, the breakdown of these data, on an essentially quantitative base, and the terms adopted (whether those of the Atlas or those of Centlivres 1977:17 ff.: i.e., “segregated,” “controlled,” “female or male dominated,” “cooperative” activities, etc.) tend to pose as symmetrical situations which are not: for example, male participation in essentially female labor, and vice versa. As female work and male work normally have quite different characteristics and are generally carried out in an asymmetrical relation of production, to declare them symmetrical has the effect of masking reality. 

[132] Goody and Buckley 1971: 114. 

[133] Bonte, 1974. 

[134] Roscoe 1911; Fallers 1960, etc. 

[135] This raises questions which anthropological research has not yet properly dealt with: the structural articulations between the exploitation of women in production and reproduction and the process of the formation of social and economic stratification, the relationship between exploitation of women and class exploitation. These problems, which would necessitate new research (beyond some of the general models already proposed, cf. Meillassoux 1975), seem to be absent from many of the most recent analyses — are they considered superfluous, already resolved? Cf. the research, otherwise very interesting, on pastoral soci eties (Etudes sur les sociétés de pasteurs nomades, 1973, 1974, 1975, 1977; Equipe Ecologie et Anthropologie des Sociétés Pastorales 1979). These questions have, following the analysis of Engels, been an important part of feminist Marxist thinking; cf. Leacock’s work (particularly her introduction to Engels 1972 and Leacock 1975). They are now dealt with from various points of view in some of the most recent feminist anthropological work, but much research on these basic questions is still needed. For recent analysis, cf. the essays in Etienne and Leacock (1980), particularly the introduction and Gailey’s essay (ibid.: 294-322) on Tonga, and those in Ortner and Whitehead (1981): for example, those of Collier and Ro saldo, or Ortner’s on gender and sexuality in Polynesia (and other hierarchical societies) (ibid: 359-409). Cf. also Rapp’s (1979) review article. 

[136] Goody and Buckley 1973: 108. 

[137] Cf., for example, Malinowski’s observations on the dayma, the digging stick of the Trobrianders: “Day after day, over a couple of years, I have seen people going out into the gardens to plant, and I have often examined the implements they took with them. They always carried a cutting instrument or two, but the dayma was never taken from the village to the garden. Any straight, strong and light stick found on the field would do, and after use it would be left in the garden, because another could easily be made were it lost or stolen. Thus the main agricultural implement of these enthusiastic and very efficient gardeners has not even risen to the rank of a permanent possession. It can be picked up anywhere, and it has not enough value to be kept from one day to another” (Malinowski 1935, vol. 1:133). It’s the same among the Wogeo (Hogbin 1938:149). For the description of working with the dayma, cf. Malinowski 1935, vol. 1:133. 

[138] Leroi-Gourhan 1973: 120. 

[139] Leroi-Gourhan 1971: 229. 

[140] But schemas along the line of “machine evolution = the male line, nonmachine evolution = the female line” would be arbitrary even as hypotheses. It is not “by nature” that women’s work is nonmechanical; nor is it possible to attribute completely to women the development of “nonmachine” techniques. But we need, on the one hand, to study the conditions — different according to the culture — put upon women’s technical and intellectual work; and, on the other hand, to pose the question of the character and eventual forms — also variable — of the techniques that women have been able to develop while enduring a situation of domination, Thus, one could examine the forms of the utilization of the primary means (fire, water, air), which characterize such a large part of the work of women, so poor in mechanical equipment. Would there ultimately be a logic of manipulation (in its technical sense of work with bare hands)? A development of knowledge, beginning with the fundamental experience of women, the relationship to matter (almost) without the intermediary action of mechanical tools? 

[141] There can be a sexual differentiation of tools of this group beyond the differences of detail (weight, size, etc.). H. Raulin ([1963]:43-46) gives an example for a population of Niger in the region of the Dallal Maouri: the introduction, in the work of preparing the soil, of a tool, the iler, generally reserved to men (instead of the hoe, used by men and women), permits men to keep women out of agricultural production and to reaffirm their supremacy (threatened — at least within the household — by the economic importance of the women who market their own produce). The variations in the male and female participation in agriculture with simple instruments, and the conditions in which certain cultures or even all activity are or become male require new investigations (cf. especially the analyses of Goody 1976 and 1973; Goody and Buckley 1973). 

[142] More refined and detailed analyses would permit us to know, for each instrument, according to local usage and sometimes to its morphology, whether it is a weapon or essentially a tool. It is perhaps on account of the weapon/tool ambivalence that the ban on women’s using these tools is often less pronounced than for weapons properly speaking — the bow, for example. 

[143] See the examples cited by Richards 1939: 21. 

[144] Men’s tasks, as technical tasks, are in themselves neither more nor less important than any other work sequence: a cleared field serves no purpose if it is not cultivated; agricultural produce remains “sterile” (Meillassoux 1975:121), not consumable if it is not submitted to transformation by cooking. The male task becomes of strategic importance to the extent that, while men may carry out the female work sequence, the contrary is not true, and women become dependent on men. This notion is then more political than technical or economic, and is linked to the character of the relations between the sexes. It is possible to have, as with the Baule, a situation where — by convention — the sex “that was considered to have initiated the process and taken responsibility for it ‘owned’ the product and controlled its distribution,” and, in fact, “it is initiating production and taking responsibility for it, not the quantity, intensity or duration of labor that are decisive” (Etienne 1977:44, 48, n. 16). This is what, according to Etienne’s analysis of the Baule case, brings about a reciprocity between men and women in agricultural work as well as in craft work (cf. women’s control of the distribution of cloth woven by the men, but with cotton cultivated and spun by the women; ibid:43 ff.). Cf. also the revised version of Etienne’s article in Etienne and Leacock 1980. 

[145] The control exercised over women’s production is related to the interweaving of many factors, and certainly does not rest on the monopoly of a single tool. But these “strategic” elements have considerable weight (cf., for example, the importance among the Ivory Coast Gouro of the exclusive possession of iron tools by the elders as a means of control over the work of women and younger men; Meillassoux 1964:193). Or consider the forms of work organization and social structure, whose importance is often stressed (cf., for example, Meillassoux 1964; Godelier 1976), and among which are the collective work of men vs. the individual, isolated work of women, etc. However, control of the means of production remains fundamental. 

[146] Salisbury 1962: 49. 

[147] Cf. Richards (1939:290): “A man never parts with his axe. He carries it everywhere with him swung over his shoulder as he walks,” or also Condominas 1974:24-25. On the “revolution of the axe” and other iron tools, their importance in the course of colonial (and missionary) penetration of America or in the transformation of social relations and the end of gerontocratic power, as in the well-known case of the Yir-Yiront, cf. Métraux 1959 (and also Yengoyan 1968:187). For a more strictly technological (and economic) analysis, cf. Blackwood 1950; Salisbury 1962; Godelier [and Garanger] 1973. The introduction of iron and steel tools often has different, if not opposite, effects on men and women. Among the Baruya the men gained from it “not only time but especially an easier labor”; the women, who do the weeding, planting, harvesting, and transporting of produce, and tending of the pigs, continued to work with the same tools as before (digging sticks and net bag for carrying their produce). Though the men cleared more land and fenced more gardens, the arrival of steel axes meant for them “less work and less heavy work” (ibid.). For women instead, the expansion of cultivable areas, and with it the increase in the number of pigs to raise, meant that they were burdened with “considerable extra work, and work as hard as before.” So women’s leisure time shrank, and that of men (used for hunting, making visits, and especially for making war) grew (cf. Godelier [and Garanger] 1973:217 ff.; and for the Siane, Salisbury 1962:107 ff.). 

[148] Pospisil 1963: 90-91, 104-5. 

[149] Richard 1939: 293; Malinowski 1935, vol. 1: 120-23; Salisbury 1962: 46; Blackwood 1935: 299; Pospisil 1963: 90-96, 104-5, and timetables of men’s and women’s work, p. 424; Condominas 1974: 203-19. 

[150] Richard 1939: 290. 

[151] ibid.: 291. 

[152] ibid.: 202. 

[153] ibid.: 293. 

[154] Murdock and Provost 1973: 212. 

[155] Goody, 1976: 24, 25, 107-8. 

[156] Differentiation of tasks according to the presence or absence of the plough (data drawn from Murdock and Provost 1973:212, 216 ff., tables 6 and 8).

Distribution by sex Societies with the plough (36) Societies without the plough (105) Total
Soil preparation M or N 31 62 93
E, G, or F 5 36 41
Crop planting M or N 23 39 62
E, G, or F 13 66 79
Harvest M or N 22 25 47
E, G, or F 14 80 94
Key: M: exclusive male participation; F: exclusive female participation; N: predominant male participation; E: equal participation or equivalent participation; G: predominant female participation.
In five societies the preparation of the soil is not done; for two others data is not available. 

[157] Centlivres 1977: 52. 

[158] Female participation in weaving: 67.5 percent; in pottery-making: 78.9 percent; in the preparation of vegetable food: 94.3 percent (cf. Murdock and Provost 1973). 

[159] Cf. also the remarkable technical analysis of these different types of potterymaking done by Balfet (1965:161-71), as well as Balfet 1952 on the social position of the woman potter; and Balfet 1955, 1957. 

[160] Balfet 1975: 62. 

[161] Nadel 1973: 29597; Dodwell 1955: 122,132,136 ff.; Lloyd 1965; 557-58; Lamb 1975: 14 ff.; Roth 1917. 

[162] But see, by contrast, the situation of Tunisian women in textile craft work (Ferchiou 1981). A critical analysis should be done of the descriptive model generally used, which poses the dichotomy as between being “housewife” and “craft specialist.” On the nonvalue of the time and production of women in the domestic group, cf. Delphy 1975, 1978. For a quite different, if not opposite, situation of women’s work in the precolonial period, cf. Etienne 1977: especially 47-51. 

[163] Balfet, op. cit. 

[164] Tax 1953: 22. 

[165] ibid.: 27. 

[166] ibid.: 23. 

[167] ibid.: 24. 

[168] ibid. 25-26. 

[169] Tax, 1953: 56. 

[170] ibid.: 27, 93. 

[171] Cf. also Kirsch (1977), who strongly emphasizes this point. 

[172] Heider 1970: 238. 

[173] Cf. Matthiessen 1967. 

[174] Heider 1970: 237. 

[175] ibid.: 237. 

[176] Heider 1970: 239, emphasis added. 

[177] Heider 1970: 39; cf. also Matthiesen 1967. 

[178] Heider 1970: 262. 

[179] ibid.: 278. 

[180] Here is how Heider describes the situation: “Both adzes and axes are used almost exclusively by men. Although there were no specific restrictions against women using them, I rarely saw it. Dani explained that since women have lost most of their fingers, they were not able to manipulate the tools well” (ibid.: 278, emphasis added). As to the general character of the sexual division of labor among the Dani: “Men’s work tends to be either concentrated spurts of heavy physical labor or else light craft work which can be done casually at the man’s convenience, often at the same time he is visiting and gossiping with his friends. Women’s work is likely to be long, tedious, and lonely” (ibid.: 23). Warfare is continuous, and women during their lonely work in the gardens are continuously exposed to the danger of raids. Their “finely finished” digging sticks (one meter long and two to four centimeters thick) serve them also as a defensive weapon (ibid.: 279)! The common form of retaliation in feuds is to steal a man’s pigs or rape his wives. The Dani culture is described by Matthiessen (1962: xiii-xiv) as a “Stone Age culture” having a “terrible beauty” in its “pure estate.” The beauty of a culture is obviously based solely on the beauty of its warriors, the women having nothing to do with it. Can we situate the works of Matthiessen and Heider at the extreme limits (but are there any limits?) of an androcentric anthropology which regards women as objects to be dissected (cf. also the sophisticated title of one of Heider’s articles: “Dani Sexuality: A Low Energy System”)? 

[181] Pospisil 1963: 297. 

[182] 1973: 211-12. 

[183] Leroi-Gourhan 1973: 234-35. 

[184] Dieterlen 1951: 103-4. 

[185] Godelier 1976: 7. 

[186] Malinowski 1972: 371 ff.; Cooper 1971. 

[187] One could certainly cite other cases: for example, that of the Touareg women who work in wood (Nicolaisen 1963:260, 350 ff.), or the Klamath women, whose woodworking requires the utmost patience; it takes them a week to hollow out, with fire and no other tool, a tree trunk in order to make it into a canoe described as a “clumsy-looking, trough-like affair” (Spier 1930: 144-45, 169 ff.). But it is a question here, as elsewhere, of minor if not ridiculous exceptions which change nothing in the situation I have outlined. 

[188] ibid.: 3-5. 

[189] Cf. Kirsch (1977:32-33) on the necessity of “reintroducing women into human development as human beings, that is, as participants and not solely as spectators”; cf. also Mathieu 1977:47-48. 

[190] Cf. Zihlman 1978 and 1981. Cf. also McGrew 1979, 1981. 

[191] In Lau: “Women catch most of the daily supply of fish in nets. Only when fishing becomes a sport, as in spearing, or when it is connected with a ceremony, as in communal fishing, do men participate” (Thompson 1940:129). The women’s daily tatanga fishing takes place as follows: “The tatanga is a rectangular net not quite one fathom wide and about one fathom long. It is spread out by two sticks, 3 to 4 cm in diameter, one attached to each short side of the net. Three to six women blacken their faces with ashes, especially the region around the eyes, as a protection from sun. Each woman takes a tatanga net, rolls it around two sticks, and carries it on her shoulder or in her hand. On Kambara the women use diving goggles, called suvimarini (submarine), which are said to have been introduced about ten years ago. The nets are unfolded on the beach. Women prefer to use the nets in water which is about neck high. One stick is held in either hand, the net is open, and the woman walks or dog paddles, watching the water. Suddenly she dives and makes a clever twist with the net. The fisherwoman comes to the surface, empties the net, kills the fishing by biting its head, and puts it into the fish basket which is either tied to her waist or is standing on a rock nearby. … The tatanga is difficult work. For hours the women work in the glare of the sun and in the often cold salt water. The women say that when no protecting glasses were known the work was more difficult” (ibid.: 129-30). 

[192] Among the Kapauku, the women — with their children — spend whole days fishing; with nets they catch little fish, larvae, etc. (Pospisil 1963:222 ff.). By contrast, “in their fishing, men specialize on crayfish. They ignore other prey, such as tadpoles, dragonfly larvae, and water bugs, which they regard as a purely feminine concern. There is an important difference between the fishing methods of the two sexes: men never use a net, only bare hands or spears” (ibid.:228). Men’s occasional fishing often has a higher yield than that of women. But, at the same time, “unlike the fishing done by women, the male activity in this field of food production cannot be regarded as a serious endeavor with a primarily economic motivation. It is, rather, a sport practiced at infrequent and irregularly spaced intervals. The men go fishing only when they feel like cooling off on a hot day or when they want some excitement at night.” In fact, the overall economic importance of the male activity “cannot be compared to the yield from the women’s steady and regular fishing” (ibid.). 

[193] Among the Yamana, at the time of the arrival of the schools of herring, the men catch the large fish with harpoons, while the women fish for the little ones with baskets (Gusinde 1961:270 ff.). Women’s daily fishing is done with a line (made of algae or guanaco sinews) without fishhooks (ibid. :183 ff.), that is, with means so simple that Mauss (1967:60) calls it “fishing with the bare hand.” In all these examples, there is an obvious contrast between the regular productivity of the women (often with a low yield compared to the time spent) and the occasional, but prestigious yield of the men’s labor, a contrast which is also found in other activities, especially agriculture.