Dialectical Anthropology

, Volume 7, Issue 4, pp 263–284 | Cite as

Interpreting the origins of gender inequality: Conceptual and historical problems

  • Eleanor Leacock


Across the disciplines, research on the economic and social activities of women has been shaking up some established assumptions about society and history. I have argued that only when gender hierarchy is taken as an historical problematic, rather than a psycho-biological given, can the structure of primitive communist relations be properly understood, and the part played by exchange in the transformation of these relations clearly formulated. The need for an effective theory of exchange in pre-capitalist societies is well recognized by Marxist anthropologists 1, but ironicaly it is associated, especially for those working in the structuralist tradition, with the wholly anti-Marxist concept of woman exchange as basic in primitive communist society. Only when such a formulation is stringently challenged can the first phases of the process whereby women actually became exchanged be understood, for these were inseparable from initial steps in the transformation of use to value, work to abstract labor, and cooperative production to exploitation.

An effective theory of exchange is necessary both for analysing pre-capitalist societies and for interpreting the effects on these societies of colonization and imperialism. Only when the genders in primitive communist societies are understood as economically independent exchangers of goods and services, can the full force of capitalist relations in subverting the labor of women, and therefore transforming the entire structure of relationships in such societies, be appreciated. Until such time, the myth of the ethnographic present will continue to support the assumption, so prevalent in popscience and the mass media, that the widespread normative ideal of men as household heads who provision dependent women and children reflects some human need or drive. And until such time, the unique and valued culture history and tradition of each Third World people will continue to be distorted, twisted to fit the interests of capitalist exploitation.

  1. 1.

    George Dupr\'e and Pierre Philippe Rey, \ldReflections on the Relevance of a Theory of the History of Exchange,\rd in Emmanuel Bloch, op. cit., 1975.


Household Head Gender Inequality Effective Theory Entire Structure Culture History 
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© Elsevier Science Publishers B.V. 1983

Authors and Affiliations

  • Eleanor Leacock

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