Between Sex and Power

Tak brings our attention to a Perry Anderson review of a new book on the history of the family: Between Sex and Power: Family in the World 1900-2000. Here is how Anderson characterizes the central focus of the book:

All traditional family systems, Therborn argues, have comprised three regimes: of patriarchy, marriage and fertility (crudely summarized–who calls the shots in the family, how people hitch up, how many kids result). Between Sex and Power sets out to trace the modern history of each.

Patriarchy is defined as male power within the family, not necessarily broader discrimination against women – although that might be part of it.

What particularly caught my eye (perhaps because of the discussion over my use of life expectancy statistics to discuss inequality) was this line:

Harshest of all was the Hindu system of North India, in a league of its own for repression. As Therborn notes, this is one of the very few parts of the world where men live longer than women, even today.

It is interesting to note that Sen makes much of the high life expectancy (and literacy) of women in Kerala, in southern India. Last winter break I was traveling in India and was struck by the tremendous regional variation in the degree to which women were free to walk the streets. Taking a trip from Delhi to Gujarat we drove through Rajasthan. When we were in Jaipur I was surprised at how few women were out on the street, or driving scooters. (I wrote about the trip here.) It was like taking a trip from New York to Washington DC and suddenly realizing that there are no women walking the streets in Philadelphia.

Calling the Hindu system in North India one of the harshest against women ignores the complexity of regional variation. And yet, the same data – life expectancy – can give us a rough account of some of that regional variation. It isn’t a substitute for detailed local analysis, but it can point the way, telling us where to look. If women generally outlive men, then it is something to notice if women in a particular region have unusually high, or unusually low life expectancies.

Finally, one last thing struck me about the review. From Anderson’s account (glowing as it is) it sounds as if it reproduces many of the myths about the liberated Western woman vs. the oppressed women of the East. It is one thing to talk about women getting more sexual pleasure in Norther Europe in the 1960s, but one should remember that much of the Kama Sutra is about a woman’s pleasure:

It may be said that, if the ways of working in men and women are different, why should not there be a difference, even in the pleasure they feel, and which is the result of those ways.

But this objection is groundless, for, the person acting and the person acted upon being of different kinds, there is a reason for the difference in their ways of working; but there is no reason for any difference in the pleasure they feel, because they both naturally derive pleasure from the act they perform.

One thing that struck me about being in India was how many women hold positions of real power. I’m not just talking about political dynasties, but at all levels of society.

There is also tremendous variation by class, and it isn’t necessarily the poor women who are the most powerless. Far from it. As I wrote elsewhere:

it is arguable that much of the most visible violence against women in India (such as “kitchen fires”) occurs in lower-middle-class homes, in families struggling to live a lifestyle beyond that which their limited means can afford them.

It seems like this is a book that is worth reading, but I am always worried when such far reaching studies adopt a teleological narrative in which the whole world is seen as moving inextricably towards a society that looks very much like that of Sweden. In his classic study of the family Engels drew on the work of anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan who proposed exactly such a teleological schema of the family. From the review, it isn’t clear to me that this book is much different.

NOTE: Since I mentioned sexual pleasure, I should also link to this recent article in the New York Times, which says:

that female orgasms are simply artifacts – a byproduct of the parallel development of male and female embryos in the first eight or nine weeks of life.

2 thoughts on “Between Sex and Power

  1. I also find “Hindu system” a terrifyingly sweeping generalization. But here’s a question. Synthetic studies are useful, and one is willing to forgive a certain amount of generalizing if larger patterns emerge. In particular it’s useful to be able to think of patriarchy as a large-scale, even global-scale, system. (And incidentally patriarchy is not incompatible with individual women holding power.)

    But how does one do that without undoing decades of critical work, from Schneider onward, into the whole idea of “*the* family,” or of the notion that marriage or kinship are human universals? There’s something about Anderson’s deployment of the term “traditional family systems” that makes me nervous. Has anyone actually looked at Therborn? Does he take account of the critical lit (Yanagisako, Borneman, Errington etc.)?

Comments are closed.