Deceptions of a 'Gender Equal Society':

Eleanor Leacock's Depiction of the 17th-Century Montagnais-Naskapi

by Robert Sheaffer, June, 1993

The late Eleanor Leacock was an anthropologist and feminist who published claims of societies that were supposedly "Egalitarian," in regard both to wealth, and to sex. Her writings display a strong Marxist bent. She wrote a long and admiring introduction for her new edition of Engels' The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, which was published by International House Publishers (New York, 1972), the publishing arm of the Communist Party of the USA.

Leacock's essay "Women In Egalitarian Societies" was published as chapter one of Becoming Visible, a textbook used in Womens History classes (Bridenthal and Koonz, eds). One of her principal examples of a supposedly nonpatriarchal society (i.e., one where leadership does not rest primarily with the male) was the Montagnais-Naskapi Native Americans of the Labrador peninsula of Canada. Now, the Montagnais-Naskapi of today (on whom she had done field work) are clearly patriarchal, so she cites the 17th century accounts of Jesuit missionaries to make a claim that this society was once gender-equal, but was subsequently "completely transformed" by their contact with Western colonial powers. Leacock also cites the supposedly nonpatriarchal 17th century Montagnais-Naskapi as one of the principal proofs in her book, Myths of Male Dominance.

Leacock gives the following quotes from Father Paul Le Jeune, one of the first Jesuit missionaries to enter that region, without providing any context for it:

Some observers said of Montagnais-Naskapi women, as they said of other Native American women, that they were virtual slaves. Their hard work and lack of ritualized formalities surrounding them contrasted sharply with the ideals of courtesy for women in the French and British bourgeois family and were taken as evidence of low social status. Those who knew the Indians well reported otherwise. "The women have great power here," Le Jeune wrote, and exhorted the men to assert themselves. "I told him then that he was the master, and that in France women do not rule their husbands." (Becoming Visible, page 22).

However, an examination of the reference Leacock cites shows that the meaning of this incident is entirely different from what she suggests. Le Jeune had asked an Indian man whether he has a son, and whether he would give him that son to take away to be educated as a Christian.

He replied that he would be very glad to give us his son, but that his wife did not wish to do so. The women have great power here. A man may promise you something, and, if he does not keep his promise, he thinks he is sufficiently excused when he tells you that his wife did not wish to do it. I told him then that he was the master, and that in France women do not rule their husbands. (Jesuit Relations, Vol. 5 p. 181).

Note that the incident, when read in its context, does not in any way support what Leacock would have us believe. The Jesuit is asking this Indian to allow him to take his son away for an extended period of time, to which the father quite understandably objects. Seeking an excuse, the man replies that his wife will not permit it. Le Jeune's remark that "the women have great power here" is seen to be wry irony, not actual description. When an Indian man needed an excuse for breaking a promise, the favorite excuse was that his wife would disapprove. Thus the "power" of women to which Le Jeune refers was not actual authority in the family, but rather the "power" to excuse a man from previous commitments. Note also that Le Jeune did *not* "exhort the men to assert themselves," as Leacock claims; rather, he urged this one man to be assertive, by way of countering his proffered excuse.

This incident aside, does the account of Le Jeune support the claim of a gender-equal society that Leacock makes? Here are some other statements by Le Jeune from the same work. They are such blatant counter examples to Leacock's claim of 'gender-equality' that she obviously needed to pretend that they do not exist:

Le Jeune, 1634 (Jesuit Relations, Vol. 7, p. 89):

I observed in this place that the young women did not eat from the same dish as their husbands. I asked the reason, and the Renegade told me that the young unmarried women, and the women who had no children, took no part in the management of affairs, and were treated like children. Thence it came that his own wife said to me one day, "Tell my husband to give me plenty to eat, but do not tell him that I asked you to do so."

Le Jeune, 1634 (Jesuit Relations, Vol. 6, p. 217-219):

the Savages prefer the meat of the Bear to all other kinds of food; it seems to me that the young Beaver is in no way inferior to it, but the Bear has more fat, and therefore the Savages like it better. Second, the Bear being brought, all the marriageable girls and young married women who have not had children, as well as those of the Cabin where the Bear is to be eaten, and of the neighboring cabins, go outside, and do not return as long as there remains a piece of this animal, which they do not taste. It snowed, and the weather was very severe. It was almost night when this Bear was brought to our Cabin; immediately the women and girls went out and sought shelter elsewhere, the best they could find. They do this not without much suffering; for they do not always have bark at hand with which to make their house, which in such cases they cover with branches of the Fir tree.

In the third place, the dogs must be sent away, lest they lick the blood, or eat the bones, or even the offal of this beast, so greatly is it prized. The latter are buried under the fireplace, and the former are thrown into the fire. The preceding are observations which I made during the performance of this superstition. Two banquets are made of this Bear, as it is cooked in two kettles, although all at the same time. The men and older women are invited to the first feast, and, when it is finished, the women go out; then the other kettle is taken down, and of this an eat-all feast is made for the men only. This is done on the evening of the capture; the next day toward nightfall, or the second day, I do not exactly remember, the Bear having been all eaten, the young women and girls return.

Thus, Father Le Jeune reports that these Indians prized bear meat so greatly that when a bear was killed, the women and the dogs were sent outside to stand in the snow while the men held an all- night feast. Does this sound like a "gender-equal society"? Professor Leacock somehow failed to mention this counter-evidence as she wrote of her vanished feminist Utopia.

Le Jeune, 1637 (Jesuit Relations, Vol. 11, p. 215)

Some Savages had arrived from Tadoussac on their way to war; Father de Quen and I visited them in their cabin, and, after some conversation, they told us that we should go to see the preparations for a great feast which were being made in a place that they named to us. But they advised us not to remain there long, "Because," said they, "as it is a war feast, the women will serve there entirely naked."

Attempting to demonstrate the supposed lack of feminine delicacy of the Montagnais-Naskapi women before they developed a "feeling of constraint when whites were around," Leacock quotes the following description of them from Father Le Jeune:

"They have neither gentleness nor courtesy in their utterance," he wrote, "and a Frenchman could not assume the accent, the tone, and the sharpness of their voices without becoming angry, which they do not." (Becoming Visible, p. 21-22).

It is *extremely* revealing to see the two sentences that immediately precede this quote, sentences that Leacock obviously needed to conceal from her feminist readers:

I have never heard the women complain because they were not invited to the feasts, because the men ate the good pieces, or because they had to work continually - going in search of wood for the fire, making the Houses, dressing the skins, and busying themselves in other very laborious work. Each one does her own little tasks, gently and peacefully, without any disputes. It is true, however, that they have neither gentleness nor courtesy in their utterance, and a Frenchman could not assume the accent, the tone, and the sharpness of their voices without becoming angry, which they do not (Le Jeune, Jesuit Relations, Vol. 6 p. 235).

When Leacock, in claiming this society to be nonpatriarchal, omits the sentences she does while quoting those immediately following, I cannot imagine that this deception was unintentional.

It is now clear beyond any possibility of doubt that the supposed 'gender-equal society of the Montagnais-Naskapi', which is cited in feminist circles as one of the best evidences of a supposed "nonpatriarchal society", has absolutely no basis in fact. It was the deliberate deception of a Marxist feminist, created out of selective quotation and misrepresentation, yet uncritically accepted by her feminist readers. The fact remains that all present and past human societies are patriarchal, in spite of the many feminist lies and half-truths invented to obscure this. Indeed, the ease with which academic feminists will resort to deception to bolster claims such as this one about vanished "nonpatriarchal societies" is perhaps the best reason to doubt their claim that future societies will be nonpatriarchal.

Camille Paglia wrote that "Our best women students are being force-fed an appalling diet of cant, drivel, and malarkey" (Sex, Art, and American Culture, p. 243). We can thank Eleanor Leacock for nicely illustrating Paglia's point.


Bridenthal, Renate and Koonz, Claudia: Becoming Visible (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1977)

Paglia, Camille: Sex, Art, and American Culture (New York: Vintage Books, 1992).

Thwaites, Reuben Gold (editor): The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents (New York: Pageant Book Co., 1959).

Related Sources:

Goldberg, Steven: The Inevitability of Patriarchy (New York: William Morrow & Co., 1973).

Goldberg, Steven: Why Men Rule (Chicago: Open Court Publishers, 1993).

Goldberg, Steven: "Response to Leacock and Livingstone": The American Anthropologist, Volume 77, Number 1 (March, 1975).

Leacock, Eleanor (ed.): The Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State by Friedrich Engels (New York: International House Publishers, 1972).

Leacock, Eleanor: Myths of Male Dominance (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1981).

"If I became a philosopher, if I have so keenly sought this fame for which I'm still waiting, it's all been to seduce women basically."
- Jean Paul Sartre (quoted in Harpers, Jan. 1995 p. 25)