The Iroquois - an Exception to Universal Patriarchy?

The following was written by Prof. Steven Goldberg (Dept of Sociology, CCNY/CUNY) in response to claims that the Iroquois federation represented a "nonpatriarchal" society, thereby refuting his thesis about "the inevitability of patriarchy."
- Robert Sheaffer

Steven Goldberg (Dept. of Sociology, CUNY) writes:

As Margaret Mead has written (in Male and Female) a nice description of the universality of male attainment:

Men may cook, or weave or dress dolls or hunt hummingbirds, but if such activities are appropriate behavior for men, then the whole society, men and women alike, votes them as important. When the same occupations are performed by women, they are regarded as less important.

Mead has also written, in a review of my work, a nice description of the universality of patriarchy (i.e., hierarchies) and male dominance (i.e. male-female encounters and relationships):

It is true that, as Professor Goldberg points out,... Men have always been the leaders in public affairs and the final authorities at home.

No amount of "redefiniton" can avoid this fact, the fact that we wish to understand.

For twenty years I have been making a point that would seem too obvious to require making even once, but many people get overwhelmed by their desire to ignore it. But I'm an optimist, so I'll give it another shot.

Of course nothing is inevitable in the future because it has happened in the past. The sun may not rise tomorrow. Does anyone seriously think I am arguing otherwise.?

What past universality indicates is that there is a deep reason why no society has failed to associate dominance with males and that an assessment of the likelihood that this will or will not be the case in the future must be based on an explanation of the universality. If the causation is merely technological, then as in [XX]' examples, the future may be very different. It is significant that [XX] ---and all the others who make his argument--must invoke mere technological examples because even examples like the incest taboo (where the causation is far more removed from physiology) do not present late-blooming exceptions.

Thus: my central point is that the universality is owing to neuroendocrinological differences between males and females and the behavioral differences of threshhold and tendency that these generate. In theory, of course, this could be eliminated by social manipulation--just as we could make females as strong as males by having the latter stay in bed while the former lift weights. But societies are not theoretical in this sense; the social is the primarily dependent variable and the neuroendocrinological is the primarily independent variable. Social possibility is limited--and its general direction given--by our (specifiable and describable) neurophysiological make-up. In other words, all populations associate hierarchical and dyadic dominance with the male because they observe that the male more readily exhibits dominance behavior. Primitive societies may not be able to specify the neuroendocrinological reasons for the male readiness to exhibit dominance behavior, but they see it and incorporate it in their expectations and their cultures just as we do.


Let me make it clear beyond the possibility of misunderstanding that-- if it were the case that the Iroquois women could seriously be argued to have superfamilial power equal to, though taking a different form from-- that of men, I too would consider the Iroquois an exception to the universality of patriarchy (and would extend the definition of "patriarchy" to reflect this non-universality). But, because, as we shall see, this is not true of the Iroquois or any other group, we can define and identify "patriarchy" in terms of those who fill the hierarchical positions of power.

It is true that the Iroquois women served the roles of nominators of the males (that is why I'd choose the Iroquois if I had to argue for an exception, feeble as would be the argument). But it is also clear that women's power was less than meets the eye: the "nominee" could be rejected by the (male) chiefs of the relevant phratries and by the (male) council [Goldenweiser, 1914]. In practice, there was rarely a great difference between the men and women as to which man should lead--just as, in the United States, there is rarely a great difference between the political choices of men and women. And, in any case, a system prohibiting women from filling hierarchical positions is not precisely what those who call for "sexual equality" have in mind.

Henry Schoolcraft [1847] nicely summerizes the political position of Iroquois women:

(The Iroquois) gave to women a conservative power in their political deliberations. The Iroquois matrons had their representatives in public councils; and they exercised a negative, or what we would call a veto power, in the important question of the declaration of war. They have the right also to impose in bringing about peace.

Women in the United States make up over half of the voters (and have far more than just a "veto power), can be (and occasionally are) Senators, and have all the formal legal rights possessed by men, but no one could reasonaby deny that the U.S is patriarchal and male-dominated. (Feminists don't deny this, but give us endless examples of its being true and then incorrectly deny or ignore the role of sexual psychophysiological differentiation.) Women in many primitive societies "owned" the land and many primitive societies were matrilocal and matrilineal. None of this began to render these societies an exception to the universals we discuss. The Iroquois are, as I have written, probably the best example of a society in which come together all of the various political powers given to women in the various non-democratic societies societies in which women are not permitted the hierarchical positions.

But, with all of this, it is more than a stretch to present the Iroquois as even beginning to give women anything approaching an equal share of the power. A rarely-used veto power and a nominating power that follows male instructions is hardly a counterpoise to leadership that is solely male; it certainly does not justify a claim of "sexual egalitarianism".

That the political powers given Iroquois women do not justify a claim of "sexual egalitarianism" is clear from the description by Morgan [All serious analyses of the Iroquois are based on Morgan's League of The Ho-De-No-Sau-Nee or Iroquois (Dodd, Mead, 1901)]. On page 315, Morgan writes:

The Indian regarded women as the inferior, the dependent, and the servant of man, and from nurturance and habit, she actually considered herself to be so.

The crucial point is that it is ludicrous to argue that a society in which women were regarded (by both sexes) as the inferior, the dependent, and the servant of man conforms to anyone's idea of a sexually egalitarian society. [See FOOTNOTE 3]

[XX] attempts to deal with this devestating blow to any claim of Iroquois "sexual egalitarianism" by simply rejecting Morgan in favor of other evidence that also argues against any claim of "sexual egalitarianism". His criticism is pretty much limited to the claim that Morgan misunderstood Iroquois treatment of captives (hardly a reason to dismiss a monumental work) and the entirely unsubstantiated charge that Morgan interviewed only men on the subject of sex differences.

Let us agree, for argument's sake, that Morgan was incorrect in his description of captive treatment. Does a misunderstanding of a relatively rare event that the Iroquois wished to hide from Morgan imply that Morgan would misunderstand the male-female interactions he saw from moment-to-moment?

Cara Richards, [XX] own primary source for his claims of early Iroquois sexual equality finds that, had Morgan been more accurate in his description of Iroquois treatment of captives he would have found additional evidence refuting any [XX]ian claim of informal female power:

Richards writes: (Matriarchy or Mistake, p. 38):

The forgoing examination of the documents indicates that far from being able to make key decisions concerning the fate of captives, women in the early period had little if any decision making power. Later they shared power with men in the family but could only exercise this power after the captors and the council (both male) had waived their claim. Still later the position of women appeared somewhat stronger since they were able to intervene and even actually investigate the capture of an individual although it was still necessary to complete the formality of obtaining council approval.

Richards even more directly contradicts [XX]' claim of an equal, if informal, female decision-making power. She writes (footnote 1):

One such statement [which, I, sg, assume Richards takes as accurate] was that the head chief of the Six Nations had no clan mother, and was not expected to have one. He was chosen for the post by the rest of the chiefs....Thus, the most important post in the federal council was filled by the men without any need for the clan mother's nomination.

[XX] writes that Richards' "first reaction to my news that Goldberg considered all cultures 'patriarchal' was a hearty belly laugh". Richards is a good anthropologist, so the best guess is that the representation of my work [XX] made to Richards had as much to do with what my work really says as his representation of the evidence on the Iroquois has to what that evidence really says. Anyone can elicit a "belly laugh" by sufficiently misrepresenting someone else's work. What no one can do is do this and then expect to be taken seriously once he is exposed. (I'd be very interested in Richards' comments on all this.)

But, let us grant, for argument's sake, that [XX] is correct to reject Morgan in toto and let us ignore Morgan altogether. Furthermore, let us ignore the fact that Richards, [XX]'star witness, ends up testifying against him. (I realize that this is doing an awful lot of granting, but the extreme weakness of [XX]' claim permits us to do it. SEE FOOTNOTE 4)

What about the other scholars?

Beauchamp ( Journal of Folklore; VXII,No.XLIX, April-June,1900) tells us:

...women's work was often assigned to men who had become slaves of the Iroquois. They had lost their rank as warriors... (p81)

Charlevoix, quoted by Beauchamp, describes the reality of Iroquois life (as opposed to the structure as it looks "on paper"):

In fact, the men never tell the women anything (that) would have to be kept secret; and rarely any affair of consequence is communicated to them, though all is done in their name. ...the real authority of the women is very small. (p86)

To the extent that the Iroquois represent a society in which there is sexual equality (but not the sort [XX] has in mind), the sexual equality is owing not primarily to the influence of women in super- familial political life, but to their satisfaction with their female roles.

As Martha Randle writes (speaking of the modern Iroquois in the Bureau of American Ethology, Bulletin 149, p. 170):

My observations at Six Nations bulwark the thesis that Iroquois women today identify completely with their feminine role and do not seek "equality" with men...

Randle's summing up of "times past" (p. 180):

To sum up, The family-centered life of the Iroquois woman in the old days made for a secure woman who entered into masculine activities in a subsidiary but important fashion.

*In this sense, the Iroquois, and many other societies, have been sexually egalitarian. But this has nothing to do with "sexual equality" as [XX] uses the term (a "sexual equality that requires an at-least-informal equality of political power).

9. Let us pretend, in order to make a more general point, that the evidence on the Iroquois is truly ambiguous and leaves unanswered the question the Iroquois woman's position.

A bit of scientific common sense would be in order. When no one denies that 99.9% of societies exhibit the universals I discuss and when not even the committed environmentalist questions that dominance in male-female relationships is associated by both men and women with the male in every one of these societies, when it is easy to imagine an analogue of the contemporary environmentalist in the distant future arguing that the contemporary U.S. is "sexually egalitarian" (since the U.S. has full formal equality for women, women have over half the votes, and there is even a holiday for celebrating mothers), common sense argues that any claim of exceptionality be stronger than invocation of a society in which women were not permitted in leadership roles and which the ethnographers summarize male-female relations in the way we have just seen. One would like- wise not take seriously a claim that there was a society in which it was the men who gave birth unless that claim was supported by very powerful to say nothing of unambiguous--evidence.

And if one dismissed (even correctly on methodological grounds) an ethnographer's claim that it was the women who gave birth in the society in question, one would hardly conclude that--because the methodology reporting that the females gave birth was faulty---it is likely that it was the males who gave birth.

Put this another way: if a Martian knew nothing about human society other than that which has been written about the Iroquois, he might conceivably take seriously the arguments, made by [XX], attempting to demonstrate Iroquois "sexual equality". (Though, given the evidence cited above, the Martian would, it seems to me, have a tough time buying the arguments even if he knew nothing about the thousands of other societies. But let us grant that the Martian, knowing nothing about any other societies, sees the ambiguities and contradictions of the evidence on the Iroquois as leaving the question of Iroquois "sexual equality" open.)

Now let us inform the Martian that there are thousands of other societies and every one of them lacks "sexual egalitarianism". Scientific common sense will tell the Martian to suspect that if the smoke of ambiguity were to clear, the Iroquois could be seen as "sexually non-egalitarian", just like all the other societies. The Martian would find it extremely unlikely--though not logically false or empirically impossible that the Iroquois would turn out to be "sexually-egalitarian".

Likewise: the Martian would not, as [XX] does, claim as an example of exceptionality a society (the Mbuti) about which the author (of the ethnographic work on which [XX] undoubtedly bases his claim) writes:

Emma (mother) is associated with love; eba (father) is associated with authority (mota). (Turnbull; The Wayward Servants)

This description of [XX]' "exception" could serve as a definition of "male dominance" and "female nurturance".

[I consider [XX]' Agta at great length in Why Men Rule and can not do so here. I mean, I do have some other stuff to do. However, I might mention here that [XX]--and the source he quotes--say only that some Agta women hunt. So what? Some American women are Senators and some Jordanian women are professors. (The case of the Agta demonstrates clearly how very risky it is to invoke evidence from popular publications and college readers; recourse to scholarly works often the same authors always presents a picture diametrically different from the popular presentation. Academics are very good at seeing which way the wind is blowing and not very good at resisting it.)]

[XX] writes:

...I've verified the existence of the primary source, and that it says what I was told it did...

No he didn't and no it doesn't. Neither the second-hand misrepresentations provided by Sanday, nor the watered-down popularizations of ethnographic works are "primary" sources. In WMR I address, as I have addressed [XX]' Iroquois here, Sanday's "exceptions" and every other claim of exceptionality of which I am aware. If [XX] wishes to claim exceptionality for a society I have not addressed (after he consults the primary ethnographic work on which his claim is based), I'll be happy to respond. (Well, to be truthful, not actually happy checking out this stuff gives new meaning to the word, "boring", but I will check it out none the same.)

I'll end this discussion by making clear beyond the possibility of misunderstanding: nothing I say here denies the refutory power of a single exception. Here I argue only that common sense demands that the claimed exception have a lot more arguing for its exceptionality than does the Iroquois case.


1: I put "sexual egalitarianism" and "sexual equality" in quotation marks as a reminder that I use here the definitions [XX] uses. One would be hardput to find any serious who did not favor sexual egalitarianism and sexual equality as the individual defines the terms. Clearly, [XX] does not define "sexual equality" as mere equality of rights, women's maternal roles being given high status, etc. He, and many others, see these terms as requiring an absence of the universals we discuss and it is only these definitions that are relevant here.

2: Incidentally, I argue that the high-status roles are not given high status primarily because they are male. Males fill many low-status roles. The high status role--for whatever cultural reason it is given high status in a given society--exerts a stronger pull on males. That is a primary reason why doctors tend to be male in the U.S. and female in Russia. As status falls, the "status pull"--and therefore the competition--lessens, less dominance behavior is required, and more women can enter the field.]

3: I hasten to add that "superiority" and "inferiority" are scientific concepts only to the extent that they refer to social standing. As general concepts they are scientifically meaningless. I would also point out that even if one assumes that Morgan meant (by saying "from nurturance and habit, she actually considered herself to be so") to say that that which he observed has only a social causation, this would simply be an attempted explanation of the empirical fact that "the Indian regarded women as the inferior" (an explanation that, obviously, I believe all evidence argues against).]

4: A point that is, while not relevant to the forgoing discussion, worth keeping in mind whenever reading the reports of travelers, missionaries, and others with no anthropological training: From Herodatus until the maturation of modern anthropology, writers have often, when observing a society that gave women rights, powers, etc. different from those given women in their own societies, responded by exaggerating the importance and prevalence of these rights, powers, etc. (A modern equivalent is the Latino who sees the United States as a land in which the women rule the men.) There is always some truth to the observation (i.e., it is always the case that that which is observed is in some way different from that of the society of the observer). But the observed society no more lacks patriarchy or male dominance than does the United States. (And, to repeat, the writings of even these observers, when taken in full, never describe a society even vaguely lacking patriarchy or male dominance. They describe societies that see themselves as delegating to women authority in specific--usually "household-related"--areas, an authority granted women in a host of societies.

Re: The reason for the universality of the incest taboo. This is a fascinating question that will probably never be answered.

Among the explanations:

Biological #1: The deleterious effects of inbreeding. This has often been challenged on the grounds that primitive peoples don't know genetics. This criticism is not very powerful. Primitive peoples didn't have to know genetics; all it takes is a few two-headed (I exaggerate) offspring of brother-sister couplings to persuade primitive peoples that their gods don't like incest. It would certainly persuade me.

Biological #2: We have neuroendocrinologically built-in abhorance of incest (or perhaps a built-in tendency to feel that "familiarity breeds contempt") and the incest taboo is the social manifestation of this. Possibly, but one does wonder why there is such a need for the taboo's constant ratification if we don't want to do it anyway. We need no taboo against running head first into concrete walls.

Freudian: All societies are based on the family. If fathers and sons come nearly to blows over who gets the family car tonight, what would happen if the argument were over who gets mom tonight. Social stability requires the incest taboo.

Sociological: Societies are ordered by blood connections. If you and your grandmother were permitted to have offspring, you'd be your own grandpa (or something). I believe that there is a folk song to this effect.

It may be that the Freudian, the sociological, and one or the other of the biological hypotheses are each sufficient to necessitate the incest taboo.

For demonstration of the non-exceptionality of the Navaho and other claimed exceptions to universality, please see the Addendum to Why Men Rule

A number of contributors argued that, since the degree of patriarchy and male dominance vary so much, we can expect further (heretofore unknown) reductions:

The impressiveness of what variation there is--and one's assessment of the likelihood of a future variant further removed from the average than has been any society that has heretofore existed--is to a great extent a function of the "height" from which one is viewing the variation. Certainly there is a great difference between the Saudi Arabian treatment of women and the American treatment of women.

However: select whichever society you wish to see as the society that comes closest (or once came closest) to "sexual egalitarianism". (I refer here to the society as it really is presented in the ethnographic works, not a vague memory of "some African group").

You will find that the society you chose does not begin to approach anything that the feminist-environmentalist would consider all that big a step forward. Even in Scandanavian societies with relatively high numbers of women in their political hierarchies, women are practically shut out in the corporate, legal, etc. worlds. Indeed, I would think that nearly any contemporary women would prefer the U.S to any other society and the U.S does not seem to represent anything approaching an egalitarian society in feminist terms.

Not that there's any reason anyone should care, but my preference has always been to play from strength. If I were a woman I'd prefer to live in a society giving very high status to the maternal roles a man can not play. (Such a society is increasingly unlikely in a modern society, particularly one in lousy economic shape, but I'm speaking in terms of all cross-cultural variation, not contemporary practical possibility.) here.)

[XX] takes "redefinition" tack:

...we can identify "patriarchy" by a simple _attitude_, without regard to how the lines of power and authority are actually drawn, then the vast majority of societies are both patriarchal _and_ matriarchal; where there is a significant division of roles between men and women, there is a strong tendency for each sex to regard what _they_ do as the real, important business of living, while the others are wasting time on frivolities. I doubt that Goldberg or Sheaffer are willing to admit a definition of "patriarchy" so weak that it is compatible with symmetrically defined "matriarchy" in the same society.

And if you define "patriarchy" and "matriarchy" in terms of wearing clothes, then all societies are "patriarchal" and "matriarchal". Again: you can't avoid an empirical reality you dislike by playing word games. The empirical reality remains.

It is true that, as [XX] writes,:

...there is a strong tendency for each sex to regard what _they_ do as the real, important business of living, while the others are wasting time on frivolities...

but this is because most women in most--probably all--societies value above all the maternal roles men cannot play.

[It might have been better had Robert said that my interest was in formal and real leadership, rather than in "formal" leadership. Males everywhere have the overwhelming possession of both. (Here I speak of the superfamilial level. They also everywhere have the authority in the family to the extent that they are present in the family but I don't want to get into that now.) ]

A biological basis that differentiates behavior in a way that is observed by a population, a population that then bases its expectations and institutions on the reality of the behavior (i.e., the social is the independent variable) renders it unlikely that this will ever be reversed. I use the word "inevitable" to make patently clear the falsifiability of the claim. If a non-patriarchal society develops, then I am incorrect. But there is no reason to think--given the explanation of the universality--that this will ever happen and there is every reason to think that it will not.

I do not attempt to justify patriarchy (any more than I attempt to justify it's being men who have the height to be professional basketball players.) Justification is a meaningless concept if that which is claimed to need justification is inevitable.

A contributor wrote:

...your argument precisely parallels the 18 century argument that democracy was not a viable political system. Why not viable? Because it's against human nature? Why is it against human nature? Because prior to 18 century, the absolute majority of societies were ruled by kings, and the short democratic experiments in Greece and Rome failed spectacularly.

1. There were many primitive societies that could be reasonably called "democracies". Therefore, any argument based on the universality of non-democracy is immediately refutable. The problem with the oft- encountered "X was universal, but isn't now" argument is that--excepting the "technological argument" discussed above--X wasn't universal.

2. It is always simple to make people living in past centuries look like fools. However, in the absence of modern neurophysiological evidence, it was perfectly sensible--though not necessarily correct--for people to use the term "human nature" to "explain" behavior they saw to be universal. The term was a sort of promissory note, promising that the specific physiological mechanism would be provided down the road apiece.

With reference to the issues we discuss, this is no longer necessary; the neuroendocrinological evidence is known. Therefore, I never use the term "human nature".

I agree with Mr. Crews' points about the tendency to use terms like "biologically-based", etc. without rigorous definition. It is crucial to specify (in terms of "thresholds for the elicitation of a specified behavior" and the like) what one is claiming. It is certainly desirable to specify the physiological mechanism as well as the mechanism describing how the physiological is mediated through behavior, etc.

I think I do this in Why Men Rule and I hope he'll take a look at the book (out any day now). I do not think that any evolutionary analysis is required (though it is, of course, welcome); I take human males and females as physiological givens and do not attempt to explain how or why they got that way.


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