Across the world, the secondary position of women in society remains a virtual constant. This preferential treatment for men is embedded in social and political structures in various countries and societies.
This paper examines how patriarchal structures remain in three important social structures - marriage, household and family life, and in the economy.
The first part of the paper compares the marriage practices among the Yanomamo Indians in northern Brazil, the Sherpa people of the Himalayas and the!Kung Sen people of the Kalahari desert. These ethnographic examples were selected because of their geographic and racial diversity.
The second part of the paper examines the gender relations and division of labor within the household, and how such traditional gender structures in the home are being affected by the growing number of women who work outside the home, both by choice and by economic need.
The last part of the paper examines women's participation in the economic sphere outside the home. Since traditional economic measures generally ignore women's work in the "informal" economy, this section gives special focus on women whose economic participation is often overlooked, such as the maquiladoras of Mexico and the small vendors and business owners in Jamaica. Precisely because their work is not counted in the formal economy, economic planners rarely take their needs into account when making decisions about policies such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund's structural adjustment programs.
In the conclusion, the paper teases out how -- despite outward changes such as suffrage and growing educational opportunities for women -- patriarchal norms remain deeply embedded in the social and economic structures all over the world.
In the United States, most women are free to pick their choice of mates and to enter into marriage agreements. The prevailing view in many developed and Westernized country is to see marriage as a partnership.
In many societies around the world, however, marriage is more than a union of two people. Most women do not have a choice regarding their mates.
For example, the Yanomamo Indians of northern Brazil use marriage arrangements to forge alliances and to maintain peace within the villages. Most women are expected to marry at a young age, via previous arrangements. Among the Yanomami, only men are allowed to have more than one spouse. A man who successfully obtains several wives ensures that his grandsons will have a wide pool of cross-cousins from which to find a wife (Chagnon, 1997).
Like the Yanomamos, the Sherpas of Nepal have exogamic restrictions governing marriage. Traditional marriages arranged by parents are still the norm. The consent of marriage partners became more important and there are also increasing instances of Sherpas marrying Nepalis from outside the Sherpa community.
Weddings are considered community events, times of elaborate celebration and feasting that last up to three days. Some Sherpa men may have more than one wife, although polygamy is no longer the norm. Like the Yanomamo, Sherpa women in rural villages marry young, often before they turn 18. Upon marriage, a wife becomes a member of her husband's extended family and is expected to care for his elderly parents (Ortner 2001).
The!Kung San are a nomadic tribe which subsist through hunting and gathering in the Kalahari Desert. Like the Yanomamo and the Sherpas, parents often arrange their teenage daughter's marriages, usually to adult men.!Kung men also have the option of a polygamous marriage, particularly if they have proven themselves as good hunters and providers. Shostak also observes that although many polygamous marriages last, these are often plagued by bitter fights (Shostak 2000).
Despite their geographic and cultural differences, the rules governing marriage among the Yanomamo, the Sherpa, and the!Kung San reveal an underlying preferential treatment for men. This is clear in the way the Sherpa and the Yanomamo women do not have any choice in the institution of marriage. Despite the higher position accorded to!Kung women, they are still in a more subservient position compared to the!Kung males.
Gender relations in the household
For the most part, the division of labor in the household has remained constant. Women traditionally worked in the domestic sphere. Married women continue to perform all or most of the household tasks, even when they are working. The reasons for this continued division appear to be cultural. For example, even men who help out in the home may still be reluctant to help in tasks that have been labeled as feminine or non-masculine, such as laundry and cooking.
However, even in countries with strong traditions of female domesticity, more and more women are working outside the home to augment the family income. These jobs usually include trade, vending and day labor in factories or as domestic servants. Because of massive job retrenchments, many of these women are the sole breadwinners of their families.
Researchers find that more women from poorer communities or, in the case of India, lower castes enter the world of temporary wage employment and informal commerce (Narayan et al., 2000). This ties in with the traditional classic view that presents society as a social organism, where the man's role was to labor outside the house and the woman's role was to labor in the domestic sphere. The main driving force behind women seeking employment is thus financial need, not a fundamental shift in the social mores concerning the equality of men and women.
This new role of women as wage earners and breadwinners, however, has also affected the sphere of the family and the household.
In Indonesia, for example, Juliette Koning observes that many women in rural villages leave to work as migrant laborers abroad. If they come back, they usually get married at a later age than tradition requires.
They also often prefer to find their own mates rather than have arranged matches. Despite these significant changes in marriage structures, however, Koning finds that a woman's authority declines once she is married. Many women therefore establish a network of friends for support (Koning 2000).
After this initial autonomy, however, the pattern of subordination reasserts itself.
Ratna Saptari finds that when a woman has to go back to work in a factory, it is this network of female friends who are charged with taking care of the children and other domestic tasks. Based on this, Saptari concludes that the nuclear-based family household remains the dominant domestic unit. Furthermore, because a network of female friends - not the father - is charged with the household tasks, the domestic sphere remains female space (Saptari 2000).
In a study of rural village families in China, Weiguo Zhang observes that a gendered division of labor continues to occur in rural Chinese families. Women are increasingly responsible for agriculture and its sidelines and men mainly engage in non-agricultural activities.
Women's contribution to household economy is increasingly important, partly because of the intensification of labor and diversification of income sources following the institutional reforms. Women's labor has become increasingly indispensable in the household under the new gender division of labor (Zhang 2002).
However, the continuing belief that women naturally belong within or close to the family restricts them from making use of some of the opportunities available to them. The changing economic structure and social division of labor shape family relations, i.e. family structures, at present. In the Hebei household, the relation between husband and wife is supplanting the traditional primary relation between father and son.
These smaller nuclear households, however, have strengthened bonds between families who are members of the same clan. Women continue to have frequent contact with their native kin, and kinship has become more important as an organizing principle in social relations. The changing roles indicate a women's role within the Hebei household is becoming more differentiated and complex (Zhang 2002).
This gendered division of labor is the household is not limited to developing countries. A study of this division of labor among immigrant Chicano families in the United States reveals a continued gendered division of labor.
In her study, Beatriz M. Pesquera concludes that many Chicana women in both professional and clerical positions have made inroads towards moving their marriages towards less gender-segregated divisions of labor within the household. However, most of these marriages were still not egalitarian in terms of their chore allocation (Pesquera).
Women continue to do most of the household work, on top of the work outside the home.
Pesquera thus concludes that in many Chicano households, the traditional division of labor is reinforced and reproduced, albeit with a few concessions to some task allocations.
In summary, feminist studies of the changing gender relations within the households illustrate how an idealized classical viewpoint of the mother in the domestic sphere fails to recognize the economic realities of poverty brought about by programs like structural adjustment. The fact that a gender-based division of labor exists across classes and despite new realities that force women to work outside the home shows the inadequacies of current theories on the complex relationships between gender and labor, both inside and…