A Gender-Equal Paradise in the South Pacific?

Feminist Anthropologist Claims an Existing "Non-Patriarchal Society" in New Guinea

Excerpted from Columbia University Press: New and Recent Books in Anthropology


Fruit of the Motherland: Gender in an Egalitarian Society

Maria Lepowsky, University of Wisconsin, Madison

1994 / 344 pages / 20 photos / ISBN 0-231-08121-9 / $17.50, paper

ISBN 0-231-08120-0 / $49.00, cloth

Contradicting scholars who consider sexual inequality a universal condition, Lepowsky presents an ethnography of Vanatinai, a matrilineal, decentralized society in New Guinea where there is no ideology of male dominance. Fruit of the Motherland explores the role of gender in social life and history; religion; and ritual performance, and includes a thoughtful cross-cultural analysis of gender roles, ideology, and power.

The New York Times' Science Editor Promotes Lepowsky's Claim

AUTHOR: Wilford, John Noble
TITLE: Sexes equal on South Sea isle
SOURCE: New York Times
SEC,PG:COL: C, 1:1
DATE: Mar 29, 1994
ABSTRACT: The research that anthropologist Maria Lepowsky has conducted by living with the people of Sudest Island in the South Pacific is discussed. She says that on Sudest, or Vanatinai as it is called by its inhabitants, men and women live and work as virtual equals.
ARTICLE LENG: Long (18+ col inches)
SPECIAL FEAT: Photograph, Map
DESCRIPTORS: Sexes; Anthropology
NAMED PEOPLE: Lepowsky, Maria
GEOG NAMES: Sud-Est Island
JOURNAL ISSN: 0362-4331

Quoting from Loren Petrich's posting to sci.skeptic on the story:

In the New York Times (Tuesday, Mar. 29, page B5 [the Science section]), there is a report on some anthropological work on the people of a Southern Pacific island called Sudest Island (native name: Vanatinai) 200 miles southeast of Papua New Guinea.

This was a relatively ideal spot because it has had only minimal contact with Western colonialism and missionaries, though the illustrations suggest that they have a lot of 20th-century versions of clothing and boats.

The anthropologist Maria Lepkowsky lived with them for two years, and learned that they were different from most other societies that the two sexes were rather close to social equality, and that this was significant enough to pose a challenge to the hypothesis that male dominance in human society is essentially universal. However, her colleagues seem to think highly of her work. At least, nobody was quoted as pooh-poohing it.

Why would that be? For one thing, the island is small (2300 people) and isolated, and people make important decisions by everybody getting together rather than delegating the job to a few leaders. The island has no chief. Also, clan membership and inheritance is matrilineal, though other matrilineal societies may not approach equality of sexes. However, this is described there as an ancient and hallowed custom.

There are no special men's houses or cults, boys as well as girls care for younger siblings and men participate in child care. In other New Guinea societies, menstruation is thought to be a form of pollution (look in the Bible for an example closer to home) and a menstruating woman must be secluded. But not on this island. Also, women have as much sexual freedom as men.

Young people are considered adults when they settle down into a stable marriage, though they may have several marriages before that (seems a bit like "living together"). When they get married, they live with the bride's family, where the husband does "bride service" for a number of months. After that, they alternate residences.

Although their creator god is a male named Rodyo, there are several important female spirits and the theme of the "wise woman". Both sexes can commune with the ghosts of ancestors and perform various rituals and magical acts.

In earlier time, warfare was an activity reserved for men, with men going out in boats to raid neighboring islands. But even then, women were involved in the decision-making.

Also, women are prominently involved in the acquisition of ceremonial valuables like shell necklaces and greenstone ax blades; they may even go to trade for such goods in other islands.

However, it is not perfectly egalitarian. Young women are usually more involved with caring for children and gardening than in acquiring a reputation as a giver. Also, women spend more time sweeping up pig excrement while men spend more time hunting wild boar; the latter is regarded as a higher-status activity by both sexes. I'm sure that some net.male-chauvinist-pig would oink in triumph at this, however :-) -- "Anyone can tell that hunting wild pigs is a more glamorous occupation than sweeping up pigshit".

But Lepkowsky nevertheless argues that this island's society is still pretty close to gender-egalitarianism to be significant. And once this example is accepted, I wonder what other re-evalulations will come out.

And I do hope that this posting gets some civilized responses. And I mean by that responses other than content-free sarcasm.

I had no additional information on the subject at that time, but replied pointing out that John Noble Wilford also had promoted the Loch Ness Monster, suggesting that he seems to have problems judging remarkable claims!

My guess is that Prof. Lepowsky, like anthropologists Margaret Mead and Eleanor Leacock before her, may be "coloring" a society to make it conform to a political ideology, rather than representing it as it really is. It is much easier to get away with this in non-scholarly settings, which appears to be the game she is playing here.

The author of the New York Times piece on the Vanatinai, John Noble Wilford, has fallen for balderdash before, and in a big way. Back in the 1970s, he went ga-ga over the Loch Ness monster, trying to give it scientific respectability. Following the trail of a "repressed memory", I found the following item in my files:

MORE (a now-defunct magazine of media criticism), July/Aug., 1976, p .37:


John Noble Wilford's Daring High-Wire Act At Loch Ness

by Richard Pollack

Never mind the Loch Ness monster. What's happened to John Noble Wilford? As I write, a week has passed without a word from the Time's intrepid director of science news. Wilford, as even the most casual Timeswatcher must know by now, is the chief chronicler and cheerleader of the Academy of Applied Science/New York Times Loch Ness expedition. He launched the adventure splendidly on page one, May 28 ("Scientists Plan All-Out Loch Ness Search") and followed up tenaciously in the days immediately thereafter. On June 6, you could hardly turn a page of the Sunday paper without finding monster stories. "The Search Begins at Loch Ness," advised the page-one headline over Wilford's dispatch from Drumnadrochit, Scotland. "Loch Ness: The Logic Is There," reassured the headline over yet another Wilford piece in The News of the Week in Review......

... having established such a high standard of non-news reporting in his opening story, could Wilford possibly keep up the pace? Absolutely .... [goes on to question Wilford's judgement, points out the dubious credentials of "Dr. Rines" who headed up the expedition, etc.]

So it would seem that once again, when faced with an extraordinary claim, Mr. Wilford has failed to employ even an ordinary amount of critical thinking to determine whether or not it is correct. In fact, as near as I am able to tell, no critical thought concerning this claim seems to have crossed his mind. So, it would seem that the "gender-equal Vanatinai" and the "Loch Ness Monster" have an approximately equal foundation, i.e. "good enough to fool John Noble Wilford," which doesn't seem terribly difficult to do.

Prof. Steven Goldberg Replies to Prof. Lepowsky's Claims

Quoting from Goldberg's Why Men Rule, p. 246-7:

Maria Leopwsky, Fruit of the Motherland: Gender and Exchange on Vanatina, Papua New Guinea unpublished PhD dissertation, University of California, Berkeley, 1981:
Almost all sorcerers on Vanatinai, who often exercise political and economic control over their neighbors, are male... No Vanatinai women have ever been elected as a Local Government Councillor. (469-470)

(The following letter was sent by Steven Goldberg to the New York Times critiicizing their March 29 article by John Noble Wilford claiming that an "approximately gender-equal" society has been found. It would seem that they found his letter "unfit to print.")

Letters to The Editor
The New York Times
229 West 43rd Street
New York, New York 10036
March 29, 1994

To the Editor:

Over twenty years ago I wrote a book, recently republished by Open Court as Why Men Rule, on the social implications of the psychophysiological differences between males and females. In it I argued that every one of the thousands of societies on which we have any evidence exhibited three institutions:

Patriarchy: Leadership and hierarchies are associated primarily with males; a society may have a queen when no royal male is available or an elected female leader, but the expectation is always of a male leader and the exceptional female is always surrounded by a hierarchy filled by males.

Male Attainment: Whatever non-maternal roles are given high status are associated with males; I have suggested that it is not primarily that the roles are given high status because they are male--ditchdigging is a male role. The high status roles are male primarily because--statistically-speaking, as always--high status elicits from males a greater "need" of the status, a greater willingness to sacrifice life's other obligations and rewards (family, relaxation, care of infant, etc,), and a greater willingness to learn and to do that which is necessary for attainment of status (whatever this be in any given society).

Male Dominance: The emotions of both males and females associate dominance in male-female encounters and relationships with males. Attitudes about this reality vary from time to time and society to society, but the reality is always present and is attested to as much by the feminist's abhorrence of it as by its acceptance by women of other societies.

Given the contemporary allegiance to explanations of human behavior that invoke social causal factors, it is clear why many would like to find a society that is an exception: a society that lacked these institutions would cast serious doubt on my explanation, which sees the universals as the inevitable manifestation of male-female neuroendocrinological differences, the sexually differentiated behaviors that flow from these, and limits these set on social possibility.

Thus, every so often the Times will report an anthropological "finding" that a society lacks the universal institutions. Under the headline," Sexes Equal on South Sea Island" the paper concludes that anthropologist Maria Lepowsky's work on the Vanatinai challenges "the position...that male dominance is universal or somehow inherent in human cultures and that only its forms and intensity vary."

The Times does not quote the same Professor Lepowsky's unpublished 1981 Ph.D.dissertation:

Almost all sorcerers on Vanatinai, who often exercise political and economic control over their neighbors, are male... No Vanatinai women have ever been elected as a Local Government Councillor (pp.469-70)
Not long before, the Times had a similar piece on the Khasi, a group about whom the two leading experts (who are not quoted) write: "...though the mothers were recognized as the founders of the clans, their heads were always male members, the seniormost maternal uncles." and "Authority within the family group belongs to some male representative of the wife's kin..."

As the Times reports, anthropologists who favor social explanations often invoke "problems of definition" in an attempt to cast doubt on the universalities I mention. But this is double-talk. You can't get rid of an empirical reality by definitional fancy footwork; call the universals anything you like, but they still remain to be explained.

To be sure, there are many individual exceptions; there are, for example, women who exhibit greater dominance behavior than most men, just as there are women who are taller than most men. But we are speaking of the societal level on which "the law of large numbers" comes into play. To be sure, there are many institutions that do vary; cooking is associated with males in some societies and females in others. But the institutions mentioned, and the basic conceptions of males as "more aggressive" (in the broadest sense of the term) and more drawn to the impersonal, and females as more nurturant and more drawn to the personal--the core of the conceptions of masculinity and femininity--are found in every society.

And, to be sure, neuroendocrinological differences between the sexes has nothing to do with differences between, say, Saudi patriarchy and American patriarchy. But, for a sufficient answer to the question I addressed, "Why do all societies have the institutions I mention"?, the "social complexity" invariably invoked to muddy the waters is irrelevant. The social factors are primarily dependent variables that conform to limits imposed by the primarily independent variable of psychophysiological differences between the sexes.

Any explanation of universality must be parsimonious; it makes no sense to explain patriarchy in socialist countries in terms of socialism, capitalist countries in terms of capitalism, and feudal countries in terms of feudalism. Any parsimonious explanation--especially the parsimonious explanation that sees psychophysiological factors as determinative--invariably elicits the wrong-headed criticism that it is "simplistic" because it represents "reductionism" and "determinism". These criticisms are mere name-calling unless they can show that the explanation they criticize is unwarrantedly reductionist or deterministic in that it claims to explain that which it is incapable of explaining. A scientific explanation is supposed to be "reductionist" and "determinist" if, by that, we mean that it is a sufficient explanation of that which it wishes to explain and that it explains it in as parsimonious a manner as is possible.

As long as men and women are neuroendocrinologically-constructed as they are now, all societies will have the universal institutions. This is particularly obvious in a modernized world that does not have at its call the possibility of the limited hierarchy possible in some primitive societies. The primitive societies, because they have little hierarchy, offer fewer of the cues that elicit male dominance tendencies and a smaller arena in which these can be played out. Even these primitive societies always have both some hierarchy and a clear male dominance, but they do have less hierarchy and this is why it is always such societies that are claimed (incorrectly) to be "exceptions". However, even if they did lack the hierarchy they would not demonstrate the possibility of a society that does have hierarchy, but in which the hierarchy is not dominated by males.

Steven Goldberg
Department of Sociology
City College
City University of New York

Maria Lepowsky, Fruit of The Motherland: Gender and Exchange on Vanatina, Papua, New Guinea (Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, University of California, Berkeley, 1981)

P.M.Dutta, Impact on The West of The Khasis and Jaintais (New Delhi: Cosmo, 1982)

...though the mothers were recognized as the founders of the clans, their heads were always male members, the seniormost maternal uncles. (pg. 7)

S. Sen, Social and State Formation in The Khasi-Jaintia Hills (Delhi: B.R.Publishing, 1985)

Authority within the family group belongs to some male representative of the wife s kin...

The following letter was just received from Prof. Steven Goldberg (Dept. of Sociology, CUNY) concerning the claim in the New York Times that a "gender-equal" society has at last been found:

Date: Wed, 20 Apr 1994


As you guessed, the New York Times article on the Vanatinai has resulted in my receiving numerous "what about the Vanatinai" letters.

In many cases, this is understandable. People who have not been following the debate are unaware that there have been a great many claimed (bogus) exceptions to the universalities I describe and take the Times report at face value. (I suspect that the Times reporter did the same. The anthropologist spoke to him only of the woman's right to attain positions of leadership and high status--a right women have in the U.S. and a great many primitive and modern societies--and did not mention the reality of who actually holds such positions.)

What astonishes me is that some contributors to the net--who have invoked "exceptions" before--blithely invoke the Vanatinai without checking the original source. They never seem to learn; no matter how many second-hand reports of "exceptions" they see shot down, they continue to assume they have found a true exception with each second-hand report. [It is true that, in this case, the second-hand report is an interview with the ethnographer (Maria Lipowsky), while in all other cases the ethnographer had nothing to do with the misrepresentation. But the lesson is the same: check the original ethnographic source or you'll end up looking very silly.]

I've already posted quotations from the ethnographer's unpublished Ph.D. dissertation. I've now seen the recently- published (Columbia University Press) edition. The following quotations come from the published version. I'll leave it to others to assess whether the Vanatinai represent an exception to the universals I discuss.

Page 205: ...knowledge of sorcery is one of the primary means by which certain men gain political ascendancy over other men and women...

Page 176: ...sorcerers are often, but not always, big men and/or ritual experts, protectors, and healers of their own kin and neighbors. Although there are big women, female witches and sorcerers, and female ritual experts and healers, men who are widely known as sorcerers often have more influence than anyone else...

Page 203: Sorcery on Vanatinai is almost entirely the province of males, but even so they do not have a monopoly on sorcery...for a few women have been adepts.

Page 172: Sorcerers on both Vanatinai and neighboring Rossel Island are almost always male.

Page 175: The Vanatinai men who are known as sorcerers are often the most influential members of their hamlet.

Page 123-4: The activities that are exclusively male...are high in prestige, while one that is exclusively female is very low in prestige.

Hope all is well,


(end of Goldberg's letter)

So, Prof. Lipowsky herself writes that among the Vanatinai, male activities have high prestige, and female activities have low prestige - making it exactly the same as all other human societies. Yet for some reason many people are willing to blindly ignore these inconvenient realities, and call the society "gender equal".

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. And the "nonpatriarchal" status of the Vanatinai is not even based on weak proof, but rather on mere assertion, backed up by no proof at all. Because even the writings of the one making the claim of nonpatriarchality (Maria Lipowsky) refute the claim itself. Perhaps she wrote the dissertation with her eyes closed, and hence doesn't know what it says?

The Earliest 19th-Century Encounters with the Sudest Islanders (Vanatinai)

The books below are among the sources cited by Prof. Lipowsky in her Fruits of the Motherland. The famous evolutionist Thomas H. Huxley was a member of a British expedition to explore this region. At this time, the peoples of Vanatina and the neighboring islands had had virtually no direct contact with Westerners, so these 19th-Century observers saw that culture in its native state. There is absolutely nothing in these accounts to suggest the existence of non-traditional sex roles, i.e. we find, as expected, men as adventurers and warriors, and women in domestic life. Had these European explorers encountered female warriors, or any other feature of a supposed "gender-equal society," they would surely have remarked on such a surprising finding.

Title: T. H. Huxley's Diary of the Voyage of H.M.S. Rattlesnake
Editor: Julian Huxley
Publisher: Doubleday, Doran & Company, Inc.
Place: Garden City, New York
Date: 1935

June 15th. Boats out sounding to find us a new anchorage nearer the land. We saw seven or eight canoes with 8-10 men in each, but none of them would come near us. Several however went to the Bramble. I suppose they thought she was smaller and less able to do them harm....

July 1st. I see I am getting out of my good habits but there has been nothing to write for the last few days. Various canoes have been to us every day, and the best understanding has been maintained. In some of the canoes they brought off some specimens of their ladies; they were ugly enough but not quite so bad as the Australians. They wear a girdle from which long grassy fibres depend as far as the knees so as to form a kind of petticoat. In this respect they exactly resemble the Darnley Islanders. They never stood up in the canoes as the men do but always kept sitting and sometimes shading them selves with a piece of matting.

One today had a child of which she took great care, shield ing it from the sun with a light mat so that we could hardly get a sight of it.

Title: Narrative of the Voyage of H.M.S. Rattlesnake, Commanded by the Late Captain Owen Stanley, R.N., F.R.S. &c., During the years 1846-1850, Including Discoveries and Surveys in New Guinea, the Louisade Archipelago, etc. To Which is Added the Account of Mr. E.B. Kennedy's Expedition for the Exploration of the Cape York Peninsula, [by William Carron.]

Author: John MacGillivray
Publisher 1: T. & W. Boone
Place: London
Date: 1852
Publisher 2: Australiana Facsimile Editions No. 118
Place: Adelaide
Date: 1967


...On June 10th (our noon position of that day being lat. 11 38' S. and long. 154 17' E.), at daylight, high land was seen extending from N. to N .W., distant about twenty-five miles. It proved to be the largest Ile du Sud Est of D'Urville's chart, and Rossel Island, the latter forming the eastern termination of the Louisiade Archipelago.......

During our stay here the ship was daily visited by canoes from Pig Island and its vicinity, also from a village or two on South-east Island, a few miles to the eastward of our anchorage. They usually made their appearance in the morning and remained for an hour or so, bartering cocoa-nuts, yams, ornaments and weapons for iron hoop, knives, and axes...

afterwards two or three men with spears were seen by passing boats skulking along the banks of the river on their way to the rapid, where they again set fire to the grass as if to smoke us out or prevent our return. But the grassy tracts along the tops of the low hills in the vicinity being intersected by lines and patches of brush the fire did not extend far, as had also been the case lower down, so caused us no inconvenience.

Among our numerous visitors we occasionally saw a woman or two, but none were favourable specimens of their kind. Unlike the men, whose only covering was the breech-cloth formerly described, the women wore a short petticoat of grass-like stuff, probably the pandanus leaf divided into fine shreds, --worked into a narrow band which ties round the waist. They usually, when alongside the ship, held a small piece of matting over the head with one hand, either to protect them from the sun or par tially to secure themselves from observation, as in their manners they were much more reserved than the men.....

While passing a small island--afterwards named in honour of Mr. Brierly--distant from our an chorage about two miles N.W. by W., several women and dogs were seen on shore and soon afterwards two canoes, which had followed us from the anchorage, were seen to put in there. In the afternoon two boats were sent to this Island, to communicate with the natives, and search for an anchorage near it. We landed upon a sandy beach, after wading over the fringing reef; and were met by some natives who had come round a neighbouring point from the windward or inhabited side. Although at first cautious of approach, yet in the course of a few minutes they came freely about us to the number of twenty, each carrying two or three spears --not the beautiful, polished and well- balanced ones we had seen elsewhere, but merely slender, rudely-fashioned sticks sharpened at each end. About twelve women, dressed in the usual petticoat of grass-like stuff, followed at a distance, and kept close to the point for some time; but at length the natural curiosity of the sex (I suppose) overcame their fear, and although repeatedly ordered back by the men, they drew up closer and closer to have a peek at the strangers. Two of the youngest and most attractive of these ladies advanced to within twenty yards, and received with much apparent delight, and a great deal of capering and dancing about on the sand, some strips of a gaudy handkerchief conveyed to them by a lad decorated with streamers of pandanus leaf at the elbows and wrists--evidently the Adonis of the party.

Prof. Lepowsky claims to find in these pages Macgillivray recording "the womens' refusal to hide themselves and eagerness to trade in their own right" (p.57), but an examination of her source fails to find any such statement.

Conclusion: The supposed "gender-equal" status of the Vanatinai society consists entirely of smoke and mirrors, like all other such claims.

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