Wild Thoughts: Gender Edition

Welcome to the third installment of Wild Thoughts, your sporadic round-up of whatever I haven’t found time to flesh out into a full post. I haven’t been as active as I’d like the last month or so, not least because I’ve been preparing a new class (at a new school) in Women’s Studies. Entitled “Gender, Race, and Class”, the course meets two separate general ed. requirements, so it is quite popular across the spectrum of students. In preparing for the class, I’ve been collecting quite a few stories that deal with gender (as well as race and class, of course, but those will have to wait — or you can just follow Karen Brodkin’s assertion that race, class, and gender are always imbrecated and consider that these links necessarily deal with race and class because they deal with gender). In the interest of clearing my Firefox tabs, and as a follow-up of sorts to Kerim’s recent post, I present the Gender Edition:

  • The Deputy Prime Minister of the Chechen Republic, Ramzan Kadyrov, has proposed legalizing polygamy (he means polygyny), a suggestion that has been endorsed by the Deputy Speaker of the Russian Duma, who plans to introduce legislation to legalize multiple marriages across Russia. The reasoning behind these suggestions should be familiar to anthropologists: the ongoing conflict in Chechnya has decimated the male population and left millions of women widowed or unmarried, with no available, unmarried men to take on the job of supporting these “surplus” women — a textbook case, really. Left unquestioned, of course, are the various factors that leave unmarried women without adequate resources to survive — for example, the dismantling of the Soviet-era system that, whatever its faults, integrated men and women somewhat equally into the labor force, affording unmarried women some degree of autonomy. At work, too, may be a kind of population panic, as increasing numbers of women flee Russia for work — often sex work — in Western Europe or North America.
  • In related news, a study commissioned by the Canadian justice department recommends lifting the legal ban on polygamy and providing resources for women in polygamous marriages to deal with the problems specific to their situations. Since I know she won’t toot her own horn, let me note that our own Nancy Leclerc advocated the recognition of not just polygamous but polyamourous relationships in her testimony before the Canadian Parliament in April 2003, arguing that:

    …there have been different arrangements in human history, including polygamy. This leads me also to recommend that eventually group marriages in fact should be recognized. As I said before, this has been present in many cultures up until recently. In some places it still exists, although people are trying to change it now because of imperialism. But the way I’m defining group marriages here is group marriage based on polyamory–being the capacity to love more than one person.

    I’d like to point out that the common vision of polygamy is that when people hear this word, they think of, for example, the Mormons, where one man has a bunch of wives and has complete domination over them. We hear stories–I don’t know if they’re true or not–of child abuse. So people panic when they hear this.

    I’d like to point out that polyamory is based on the same values as monogamy: respect, cooperation, sharing, and love, and by no means would children raised in this environment be any worse off than in any other situation.

  • A recent Inside Higher Ed piece argues against such “womanly” greetings as hugs and kisses in favor of the ostensibly neutral handshake. The argument is reasonable enough — if women are to be treated as equals in academia, they should discourage the overly emotional expression of affection that hugging embodies and demand, instead, the formal recognition that is the handshake. Fair enough, although I think the author, Coral Hughes, misses how equally loaded with gender symbolism the handshake is — the hyper-masculine competitiveness and even aggression that inflects the simple act of clasping hands. Handshakes establish hierarchy among men just as surely as hugs betwixt men and women do — and the fact that Hughes, along with most women, hasn’t been on the receiving end of an intimidating handshake is as much a sign of her exclusion from the club she thinks the handshake symbolizes as the patronizing hugs she rejects.
  • Construction workers in Indiana have uncovered a 4,000-year old food preparation site, apparently used to carry out the preservation and stockpiling of foods in anticipation of winter scarcity. Although I don’t know enough about the local paleoindian cultures to say whether such work was performed by women or not, such finds often go unremarked outside of specialists due to our own perceptions of food preparation as “women’s work” and therefore not nearly as exciting as “manly” kill sites and toolmaking sites. The Indiana site is, in fact, a tool-making site, but the tools would have been scrapers, metates, and other “household” tools rather than the more exciting spear points and ax heads that seem to get all the attention.
  • As long as we’re on the topic of food preparation, it seems the Donner family, exemplars of modern cannibalism, weren’t cannibals after all. That “honor” lies with another party some 6 miles ahead of the Donners. Archaeological excavation of the Donner campsite shows a diet of small game maximally exploited to fend of starvation, with no evidence of human butchery in sight.

    What’s interesting to me is how relieved the descendents of the Donners are. Lochie Paige, great-granddaughter of Eliza Donner, told reporters, “We are thrilled and relieved…. Their findings, in my mind, completely exonerate her from having any part in cannibalism.” What makes the thought that an ancestor may have tasted human flesh over 150 years ago so terrifying?

  • The Donners faced starvation because of poor planning and hard luck; an increasing number of women are starving themselves out of poor body image. In her revised Introduction to a new edition of Fat is a Feminist Issue (extracted in the Guardian), Susie Orbach takes on the increasingly negative relationship women, especially young women, have with their bodies:

    From as early as five years old, when little girls copy their favourite pop heroines, preoccupation with how the body appears has became a crucial aspect of female experience. Increasingly, women are not realising how quickly their lives have become dominated by these concerns. But while we are aware of the many efforts we make to look good, exercise and eat well, the underlying questions about why and how we have come to be so concerned about our bodies is taken as a given we all accede to.

    We don’t, however, just become passive victims; we actively make it our own cause. We embrace the challenge and in doing so, we often make decisions that are not only damaging to our wellbeing but inadvertently create and then reinforce an anguished relationship between food and the body.

  • While we export such increasingly troubled and troubling female body images, a parallel effort goes on to protect female bodies in cultures where public virginity examinations, genital cutting, and other ostensible offenses against women’s bodies are common. Despite international pressure and national legal codes, however, these practices continue and even flourish. Sharon LaFraniere, writing in the New York Times, takes on the gap between law and practice in Africa, writing that “In a region where nearly half of women are illiterate and courts and legal aid are often remote, it is often tribal leaders, not members of Parliament, who decide what is law. Almost invariably men, tribal leaders are rural Africa’s cultural arbiters.” The response of Stephen Lewis, UN special envoy to Africa on AIDS, is typical, I think, of Western reaction to women’s issues in Africa and welsewhere: what is needed, he says, is “a powerful women’s international agency that emerges and just takes the world on”. In other words, break the control of local men over local women’s sexualities and turn that control over not to the women themselves but to a powerful international agency — preferably one shaped in and by Western sexual mores. Laura Bush’s recent trip to Africa carried much the same message, embedded in the language of empowerment: “In many countries where girls feel obligated to comply with the wishes of men, girls need to know that abstinence is a choice.” But empowerment to say “no” doesn’t seem to extend to empowerment to say “yes, but use a condom”: “But when girls are not empowered, when girls are vulnerable, their chances of being able to negotiate their sexual life with their partners and to encourage or make their partners use a condom are very low” (from another article). I don’t want to minimize what are often difficult and complex human rights issues; articles like this, however, tell us more about our own notions of what sexuality is and should be than about the real-life problems faced by women around the world.
  • And finally, while the empowerment of African women remains an ongoing issue, American women are clearly gaining power in their own society. A study by the marketing firm JWT Worldwide categorizes male reactions to the changing status of women in America. More interesting than the categories themselves, however, is the now almost standard “marketing as anthropology” schtick:

    “At JWT, we’ve always considered ourselves anthropologists first, marketers second,” explains Bob Jeffrey, Chairman & CEO, JWT Worldwide. “Only by understanding people and what motivates them can we begin to devise ways to communicate with them productively. And productive communication is what every brand relationship is built on.”

That concludes this edition of Wild ThoughtsTM. Be sure to tune in next time for more… whatever it is we do here.

45 thoughts on “Wild Thoughts: Gender Edition

  1. Just a note on my testimony on the redefinition of marriage. The public audiences were held to find out about public opinion on same-sex marriage in Canada. I, of course, testified in favour and had my 7 minute (that’s all we were allowed) presentation all prepared. I was going to counter the common argument that “marriage has *always* been between a man and a woman” and that “it’s been proven that children need a parent of each sex to be psychologically balanced”.

    The gentleman who testified right before me ( pastor from somewhere in Northern Québec) brought up polyamory (he actually spat the word, mentioning polyamorists as a threat to social order that would rise once same-sex marriage was allowed) so, although I had planned to only briefly mention the possibility of multiple marriage, I was so flustered that I completely ignored what I had prepared and winged it. I felt that I had to point out that polyamory is about love, not sex. As a result, the testimony, in case anyone bothers reading it is VERY incoherent (speaking in front of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Social Justice is very intimidating the first time) but it was from the heart. There are probably some factual errors as well . . . I wasn’t prepared for this discourse.

    RE: my Mormon comment. Reading it now, it looks as though I was saying that all Mormons engage in polygamy and that these relationships are all extremely patriarchal. I was merely alluding to the stereotype.

  2. RE: “In other words, break the control of local men over local women’s sexualities and turn that control over not to the women themselves but to a powerful international agency—preferably one shaped in and by Western sexual mores.”

    Interesting. This is almost word-for-word what Prof. Homa Hoodfar from Concordia’s anthro department told us yesterday at a Women’s Studies meeting at Vanier. She was discussing the network for Women living under Muslim Law that she (I believe) helped start amny years ago. The reaction of many of these women to Western feminism was quite similar to the sentiment above: first, our men tell us what to do and now these Western women are trying to tell us what to do.

  3. Coming at this from a different angle: Whatever the prehistory of marriage, the historical record is filled with societies with preindustrial, agricultural economies. In these societies, a central preoccupation is, for both aristocrat and peasant, obtaining and holding on to land and ensuring the continuity of the family or lineage as a corporate group. These are the conditions in which patriarchy has flourished, women have been treated as second class citizens, and gay relationships condemned—because of their threat to corporate group continuity. Taboos on non-heterosexual and non-genital sex are readily explained in this context by Mary Douglas’ grid and group analysis in Natural Symbols. Where obsession with group boundaries is high, expect an equal obsession with bodily boundaries. Accept intrusions that strengthen the group by contributing to its reproduction; damn all others as threats to its integrity.

    What has changed? The industrial revolution and, now, the increasing dominance of consumerist knowledge-workers in postmodern market economies. The industrial revolution detaches the working class from the heritable assets that traditional patriarchal families struggle to increase and preserve. The shift to consumer-demand driven market economies operated by knowledge workers completes this detachment. It isn’t simply that jobs are no longer inheritable assets. Increasingly jobs are only temporary assignments before moving on to something else. There is nothing here to inherit. On the values side of the equation, consumerism promotes the notion that if you aren’t perfectly satisfied move on to the next thing. Applied to relationships this doesn’t leave much room for the traditional “in sickness or in health ’til death do us part” that demands enduring strife, struggle and disappointment to preserve marital bonds. Again Mary Douglas is relevant. In a socially mobile society of increasing flat organizations, both group and grid are weak. Taboos fall by the wayside as live and let live or just walk away become the most common options.

    Terribly old-fashioned, I know, all this economic and social determinism. Anybody out there got a better theory?

  4. I do think that we do have to seperate marriage from sex in this discussion because they completely interwined. I think that it is important to note that even in “Christian” Europe, there have been different forms of sexual practices historically and geographically. For example in Allyson M. Poska’s “Regulating the People: the Catholic Reformation in seventeenth-century Spain”, Poska argues that during the 1500’s and 1600’s, there was a long standing practices that involved premarital sex in some areas of Spain. According to her, many people in the Orense region of Spain (in Galicia)believed that a promise of marriage between two people made it acceptable to enage in premarital sex (and that this promise of marriage did not need witnesses.) She argues that despite the post-Council of Trent Catholic church’s attempt to crack down on this practice, this practice persisted in Orense until at least 1700 (if I remember correctly her analysis spans the late 1500’s to 1700). Of course people did break there promises and there were cases of children born out of wedlock (Poska makes note of some legal claims filed by both men and women against others who were supposed to have broken their marriage promises. Many of these cases were thrown out because there were no witnesses to the promise).
    I think that often times that those on the “conservative” side of marriage debates often assume that in the past, no one had premarital sex (or perhaps a very tiny minority did). Of course, as can be seen from the above example, certain “sexual rules” of marriage were not always followed or people did not believe in these rules. I’m not really sure what this has to do with patriarchy or inheritence, but I think it does illustrate that there were somtimes acceptable outlets for sexual activity before marriage.

  5. Well, leaving aside the cultural and historical variety of sex and marriage which I think we can all agree has been all over the map (e.g. most of John’s conditions are violated in highland PNG), what is interesting to me is why a small subset of that variety is close to holding legislative power in Nth America. The ‘conservative’ ideal of marriage is obviously an invention of tradition in the face of increasing public valorisation of diversity, and is based on a post-WWII archetype, which was itself very historically particular. So why is this subset of loonies so powerful, and why does the period they hark back to (i.e. invent) hold such a grip on Nth America?

    Oh, and Re: the Donner party and Lochie Paige’s relief – I suspect the prospect of ancestral cannibalism is not really as ‘terrifying’ as perhaps growing up in conditions where notoriety is part of one’s identity. In other words all that teasing at school and whispering amongst the soccer moms is revealed as unjust, unfair and … ah, to bask in the glow of martyrdom.

  6. That rules governing sexual behavior are not always followed is hardly a revelation. Most of us, I suspect, knew that by our teens if not earlier. That there are, in fact, a wide range of forms of legitimated sexual license in societies around the world is, I seem to recall, something I was taught in one of my first anthropology classes. But the claim made here that marriage and sex can be treated as independent topics is, on the face of it, not so much absurd as a sign of the weakening relationship between marriage and heritable property mentioned above.

    That people do, in fact, do all sorts of things sexually contrary to the rules that their societies attempt to impose is, after all, the staple of literature throughout the ages. We have known for quite a while now, after all, that Biblical injunctions against fornication indicate the existence of fornicators. And societies that are most uptight about the rules they attempt to impose typically give rise to flourishing pornographic undergrounds. Queen Victoria begets Frank Harris. As Durkheim observed, regulation defines deviance and how deviance is treated becomes a way of dramatizing the values that regulation upholds. All this is, or should be, Anthro 101.

    To this social anthropologist, the most interesting anthropological theories are those which attempt to explain locally specific forms of regulation. Why, for example, is it that in some situations girls sleep close to the veranda across which masked lovers creep in the middle of the night (lots of Japanese examples, all the way back to The Tale of Genji) while in others women are rigidly confined indoors and the slightest hint of illicit relations can lead to literally murderous punishment?

    P.S. Folks in women’s and queer studies are to be commended for bringing new perspectives and pointing to areas left unstudied because of the particular cultural blinders that earlier generations of largely heterosexual male anthropologists took into the field with them. It was, after all, still titllating in the 1960s to hear someone attribute to Margaret Mead the maxim that no anthropologist really knew a people until he or she had slept with members of both sexes. New voices, new perspectives, new problems to solve, that’ the way a field progresses.

  7. Tim writes,

    Well, leaving aside the cultural and historical variety of sex and marriage which I think we can all agree has been all over the map (e.g. most of John’s conditions are violated in highland PNG), what is interesting to me is why a small subset of that variety is close to holding legislative power in Nth America.

    One small but important niggle re cultural and historical variety:Historically anthropologists have gotten a lot of attention by pointing to the fact that people in this or that version of Bongo-Bongo do things in ways that people in different parts of the world will think decidedly peculiar, if not outright damnable. For an Asianist, however, for whom European customs are, after all, only outliers at the other end of the continent, it is blindingly clear that patriarchy enshrined in one or another form of lineage organization is the central tendency in the organization of human societies. The Middle East, South Asia, East and Southeast Asia—we are talking about, what? at least two-thirds of humanity. This does not make the folks in PNG uninteresting; they offer fascinating examples of roads less traveled in other places and asking why they traveled those roads while the bulk of humanity was moving in other directions is a fascinating question.

    They are, however, statistically speaking, extreme outliers, interesting because of their rarity. The theories I mentioned previously attempt to answer the question why has mysoginist patriarchy been the central tendency for so much of humanity for so much of recorded history and why are its institutions now apparently breaking down.

    Seen from this perspective Tim’s question,

    So why is this subset of loonies so powerful, and why does the period they hark back to (i.e. invent) hold such a grip on Nth America?

    requires some refinement. Looking more closely at the finer grain of social distinctions (something we anthropologists are supposed to be good at) reveals that the question, however polemically tempting, is still poorly formulated.

    1. Clearly the grip of the loonies is not distributed uniformly across the continent.
    2. It is probably not accidental that the Bible Belt is concentrated in rural America.
    3. Why do white working class men and the women who marry them find common cause with capitalists, so much so that the former seem oblivious to their own economic interests? (Thomas Frank’s question in Whatever Happened to Kansas?)
    4. Why do members of the black bourgoisie also embrace these values?
    5. Why, in contrast, are movements for women’s and gay and lesbian rights most advanced in urban areas, especially on the coasts?

  8. Hi John,
    I like comment posts to be short and snappy, but anyway, I’ll explicate:
    Patriarchy or male hegemony is pretty much recognised as a human universal. This is not in question (although I am not sure what you mean by “enshrined in lineage organisation” since matrilineal societies are patriarchal too, and patriarchy is usually defined politically). My quip about PNG points to a place of great diversity in terms of social and economic organisation but with notorious male hegemony, and in many groups an obsession with bodily and social boundaries that expresses itself in male homosexuality. The point was to use an example of a region where there are all sorts of routes to patriarchy – and suggest that the same is true to a lesser extent for the rest of the world. In short I doubt the universality and logic of the conditions you outlined in the first part of your original post. Many of the similarities you point to across Europe to Asia probably date back to the Neolithic revolution, but thats another isssue.
    A second point is that the ‘conservative’ family-marriage mongers of today are as much a product of the forces you outline in the second part of your original post as those who challenge so-called traditional forms. This is true in both subtle and obvious ways. Here’s an obvious one: the neo-cons are both traditional moralists and gung-ho market liberationists. Lets rephrase my question – do Nth Americans want the economics and just put up with the moral baggage, or do those morals have some political hold? I know there is lots of diversity across the continent – that is part of my point: why does a tiny ultra conservative version of wider variation hold legislative authority? I am not looking for refinement or precision – its just a blog comment after all!

  9. Why not look for precision? We agree, I’d say, over 90%. Seems like a nice next step.

    In the case at hand, for example, I’d speculate that “traditional family values” appeal in different ways to different constituencies, thus becoming the basis for a political united front. At a meeting of the Western States Caucus of the Democratic National Committee a few years back (I was just a trailing spouse, attending with my wife Ruth, whose was then a DNC member), we were told that in the West, white working class males feel particularly threatened by such things as feminism, multiculturalism, gun control and gay and lesbian rights popular on the coasts. Partly at least this reflects the fact that with their economic conditions deteriorating, “traditional family values=the man of the house in charge” is a last bastion of self-respect. The desire for respect is also, of course, a major driver for the black bourgoisie, who are eager to separate themselves from the ghettoized image of black males as a violent lumpenproletariat and poor black women as welfare queens and victims. (That neither may be an accurate description has nothing to do with the desire to not be one of “them.”) Capitalists large and small are, of course, still doing the traditional thing—accumulating assets that they hope will be an enduring legacy. One group may feel threatened by loss of respect, another seeking respect that has, historically, been denied it, the third determined to achieve something that mere jobholders cannot. But all three find in “traditional values” support for the self-image that they hope to achieve. This is common ground for their shared opposition to the trends I described in an earlier post.

    The methodological lesson is one I learned from Vic Turner: Confronted with a cluster of dominant symbols, investigate the various motives that draw people to them. Don’t assume that because people appear to support the same thing (here “traditional family values”) that their motives must be the same. All that is needed is sufficient sense of common ground to sustain collective action. (Note: A. Irving Hallowell made a similar point when he noted that the mental models of the members of a group need not be–and, indeed, are usually not–identical. All that is required is enough overlap to facilitate cooperation. The framers of the US Constitution started with a similar insight: See Federalist No. 1.)

  10. Tim wrote: “Patriarchy or male hegemony is pretty much recognised as a human universal.”

    To say that something is a human universal implies that it has *always* existed in *all* human societies which not only cannot be proven but there is substantial evidence that patriarchy is more of a human creation, that it seemed advantageous in certain conditions at some point and spread to the point where it took on the appearance of a universal. This an important nuance to make otherwise we are led to believe that patriarchy is somehow embedded in human behaviour.

    I mean, it would be like saying that Christianity and capitalism are human universals based on the observation that these two systems have spread around the globe. It would neglect the fact that they have not always existed and that their spread was facilitated by other processes.

  11. Hmm, I dunno Nancy — I think male hegemony is a pretty good example of a human universal, and poses a real problem. If you read, for example, Sherry Ortner’s address of the issue and then Strathern’s take-down of Ortner’s account, you can’t help but notice that even if the nature/culture divide doesn’t work as a human universal (and thus fails as an explanation), still among the PNG-dwelling Hagen whom Strathern uses to overturn Ortner’s analysis, women end up on the “rubbish” side of things. Read in sequence (Ortner then Strathern), you get a compelling explanation of an impotant problem followed up by a demolition of that explanation…. which pretty much leaves you back at square one. In my view, the apparent universality of male hegemony is one of the most important, and to date wholly unexplained, anthropological puzzles.

  12. Yes. Now. It has not *always* been the case *everywhere*. By framing male hegemony as a universal, we imply that it has and that is a dangerous argument that ignores many historical, political, economic and religious factors that have contributed to its existence in various forms and in various locations and that ignores factors that have led to its spread and maintenance.

    Given the multitude of ways in which peoples intererpret and understand gender, sex, marriage, power and so forth, assuming that male hegemony is a universal is very risky and . . . too easy.

  13. so what are good (historical) examples of societies in which the premier social and cultural roles were not principally occupied by men?

  14. so what are (historical) examples of societies in which the premier social and cultural roles were not principally occupied by men?

  15. Discussions of patriarchy give me the willies — I’m never sure I mean by things what other people mean by things. What is a “premier social and cultural role”? What are the criteria? Who decides what the criteria are, and whether some role or other meets them? At what scale are we talking? The family? The community? The nation-state? One common thing that gets thrown around is that man’s work is always accorded higher status, whatever that work might be. Fair enough, but in whose eyes? To what effect? Can women hold all positions of power and still be a patriarchy? Can they hold some? What is the threshhold?

    I’m not saying “patriarchy” is an empty signifier, but I can’t help but question its utility when we got to the “big picture” level.

  16. Well, okay. My statement was that it is “pretty much recognised as” rather than “is” or “has always been” a human universal. The observation was empirical and about general opinion (albeit ignoring all sorts of debate). Even if we knew that all human societies now and forever had been patriarchies this in itself obviously wouldn’t preclude the possibility of the opposite. For that you would need to add assumptions about the universality of biology or behaviour. If we accept patriarchy is socio-cultural or behavioural then it can be changed, if we assume it is biological then it may not be able to be changed. So you are right to point out the nuances here.

    But your post is a bit equivocal – the point you make about patriarchy being a human creation that was advantageous and so spread is reminiscent of evo-anth arguments that suggest this occurred early in hominid evolution or at least before we became modern. Now I dont necessarily like their socio-biological arguments but they are suggesting it is universal in the sense you mean. In this argument it doesnt really matter if patriarchy is embedded in genes or social behaviour because either way it is determined by what you refer to as “certain conditions” – it will be selected as long as those conditions persist. I think this is stronger than you intend since it suggests universality by proxy.

    Personally I dont have any grand theories about how patriarchy developed and spread, and I am uncomfortable with the biology vs society distinctions I have drawn. A meta-critique could be that the ‘patriarchy’ vs ‘matriarchy’ debate is about European pedilictions and concepts and that reality will always be more variable. But I do think some of these structures were a feature of pre modern-human social life (and this might link back to the recent post about Jack Goody’s review of Godelier) and I do think their continuation is rooted in biological and social factors. Particularly I think the basic ontological and ontogenic structures of growing up in mother-father-child family units are immensely important in shaping and transmitting these dynamics. And at this point I suppose I can relate the argument back to John’s post on the importance of family as a political symbol and ideology that allows men to feel empowered while being simultaneously disenfranchised economically. Family is not just a symbol but a deeply ingrained habitus – and maybe that is why it is a feature of political discourse and so useful as ideology.

  17. I think there is a distinction that should be made, and which anthropologists seem to forget *can* be made, between “has always been universal” and “will always be universal”. I don’t believe there are documented historical examples of female pre-eminence (earth goddess figurines can mean ANYTHING) or even equality. But a universality argument doesn’t necessarily imply a biology argument (though it is usually taken to do) nor an inevitability argument. It’s one thing to say people never did fly previous to the twentieth century, another thing to say that — given the right set-up — they couldn’t have or wouldn’t have or won’t (obviously, now, they have) Anthropologists in general are very wary of “human progress” arguments but — again — this sometimes gets them all in a twist about human plasticity arguments, which I think being able to envision, and create, and live in a gender/sexuality egalitarian society is all about. It still makes the problem of why people have not yet done so an interesting question.

  18. Shouldn’t we be paying more attention to the fact that, while patriarchy may or may not be universal, there is wide variation in what patriarchy actually involves? Roman law, for example, gave the pater life and death authority. So a Roman father involved in what is currently described as an honor killing suffered no sanction whatsoever. His contemporary Jordanian or Pakistani counterpart is at least arrested and hauled off to jail, while the Swedish newspaper reader reading about his case may be horrified at the thought of a spanking in any context but that of wholly consensual S&M play.

  19. No, I guess I am with Ozma on this one. Anthropologists have been very good over the years at pointing out the variety of patriarchies – if you want to be reductionist about it you could say that’s all they have done. But we still dont have very good accounts for why it is so dominant, and that is, as Ozma says, an interesting anthropological puzzle.

  20. Anthropologists have done much more than point out the variety of patriarchies! Please to check out Ortner, Rosaldo, Strathern (and probably many others). But, as an investigative agenda, I think looking for and explaining universals has sort of fallen off the anthropological table, mostly because the notion of universality itself has come under such intense (and deserved) scrutiny. Sadly, this has meant that some very interesting questions have been left to the mercy of meatheads.

  21. … by which I mean, of course, evolutionary psychologists, various stripes of religious fundamentalists, and New Age fabulists.

  22. Yeah, yeah…I was joking. If patriarchy is universal then by describing lots of different societies we are describing varieties of patriarchy by default. Reductio ad absurdum.

  23. Let’s see, if I understand correctly what Ozma and Tim have written, anthropologists are stuck with the choice of trying to explain universals (which may not be universal at all) or what Edmund Leach called butterfly collecting, describing particular cases. Why, pray tell, can’t we follow the lead of other sciences, recognize that our goal is to explain VARIATION, identify key variables and look for factors that affect them?

    So, alright a’ready, doing statistical analysis may, indeed, be beyond us, given that our sampling procedure is individuals wandering around writing notes on whatever seems interesting. But couldn’t we at least make some effort to get our thinking a bit beyond medieval logic-chopping?

    Universals and particulars, piffle. No wonder our theories tend to be crap.

  24. I don’t think theory in anthropology is “crap”. And the identification of variables begs the existence of constants against which to measure their variance, leaving one back at…

  25. I don’t think John was saying “theory in anthropology” is crap, but that the currently-existing state of anthropology theory is crap. But whatever.

    What worries me is the idea that all variation is variation from something. Matrilineality, patrilineality, what’s the constant? Lineality? Except not all societies are lineal. Kinship? That’s, like, three places removed — we could then say incest taboo and matrilinality are variations on the universal, which takes some special pleading. When it comes to patriarchy, it’s even more troublesom: what is it a variation of? Archy? Are there any other kinds of archy? Well, yeah, but they’re generally all patriarchal. There’s matriarchy, of course — nice work if you can find it.

    I’m with John here — I don’t see the utility of an all-purpose template, a Homo standardus, against which all variation must be measured.

  26. John was, I think, contrasting “universals” to “butterfly collecting” (variation for its own sake, as Dustin you seem to describe it) to something he called “finding variables”. I just don’t know what he meant by “finding variables”, unless it is what you seem to mean by it, which is butterfly collecting, which is fine, but doesn’t propose something new.

    The alternative is variables as measured against something, which would be something… constant, universal, a baseline, whatever… also a fine research agenda, but also not new.

    I don’t see where the third way lies.

    Finally, either theory in anthropology is crap in itself, or it is crap “now”, as opposed to some previous epoch in which it was “not crap”. I don’t think theory in anthropology is crap in itself, nor would I trade what we’ve got now for what we had in any previous disciplinary era.

  27. Firstly John’s characterisation is unfair. My point about the validity of inquiring why male hegemony is predominant or universal (take your pick) was in response to John’s restatement in post 18 of my original critique in posts 6 and 9 (i.e: I introduced the existence of variation into the debate to balance what I saw as too sweeping in the model for patriarchy he presented in post 3) Most of John’s post 18 was just bit of butterfly collecting about Romans, Pakistanis and Swedes – and if that is an example of ‘finding key variables’ then I dont know what he is proposing that is new. Confused yet? A short version is this: the choice between answering universal questions or doing paticular descriptions is spurious.

    Secondly re: variability and contants – the problem is not how to invent a Homo standardus against which to measure reality, but why male patriarchy ‘constantly’ arises in so many ‘variable’ ways. My own suggestion was that it has something to do with the way we develop as social beings in family units. It is only recently and in the specific context of Western society and culture that these conditions have been seriously challenged – with new reproductive technologies etc. And no, before anyone jumps the gun, I am not thinking about ‘mate competition’ or ‘demonic males’ or whatever other twaddle.

  28. Once more, in search of clarity

    1. Discussion of theory construction that remains stuck in the classic/medieval binary opposition universal vs. particular is like Balaam’s Ass. It goes nowhere.

    2. Identifying variables is not simply a matter of pointing at particular cases. Nor is it identifying properties, a.k.a., constants, uniformly shared by all of the members of a given set of cases. It is finding some aspect of the cases in question that appears to vary in a systematic and meaningful way. The distribution of the variables then becomes the problem in need of explanation.

    3. In the best of all possible worlds, the variables would be defined with sufficient precision that the cases corresponding to each value could be counted and sampled in a way that permits statistical inference. Given the nature of anthropological fieldwork and the do-my-own-thing ethos characteristic of social and cultural anthropologists, such ideal conditions are rarely met by anthropologists’ theories.

    4. This does not prevent us from conceptualizing our problems in similar terms and doing what we can with qualitative data, a.k.a., fieldnotes and stuff we happen to read, to render our theories more or less plausible. That a lot of what purports to be anthropological theory is crap reflects the fact that too much “anthropological theory” is based on little more than “I believe” (followed by a list of currently popular notions) and cases arbitrarily selected to illustrate the belief in question.

    5. Is there an alternative? In a rough and ready way I have proposed one in the third comment in this thread. The critical variable is the weight of inheritable assets in how people make their livings. The theory is that the weakening of patriarchy reflects the diminished importance of inherited assets, especially among members of the mobile, knowledge-worker middle class.

    Is this the whole story? Certainly not. The question of why the high importance of inherited assets in traditional agricultural economies from the Neolithic to the present day (in many of the “less developed” parts of the world) is peculiarly associated with patriarchy= male dominance remains still needs a more satisfactory answer.

    But to huffing and puffing about what’s fair or not, this curmudgeon replies: IMHO, life isn’t fair. Our job is to understand why and take steps to make it fairer.

  29. P.S. My second to thel last paragraph can do without its “remains.” It should read,

    The question of why the high importance of inherited assets in traditional agricultural economies from the Neolithic to the present day (in many of the “less developed” parts of the world) is peculiarly associated with patriarchy= male dominance still needs a more satisfactory answer.

    P.P.S. Those with an interest in where this kind of thinking comes from might want to Google “Robert Merton mid-range theory” and check out what Merton has to say about theories that are neither universal nor confined to a single case.

  30. John this is all fine and I dont think anyone is going to seriously disagree with you. We have all probably come across middle range theory in our undergrad years. Some of us have taught it many times. A few pedantic points though:

    Re. number 2): Variables don’t have distributions – their ‘character states’ do. i.e: say we have five balls (our cases) and the variable ‘colour’ – we observe that 3 are red, 1 is blue and 1 is black. The problem becomes ‘why are more balls red?’ In more complex instances we are interested in the correlations between the character states of variables. Getting back to the discussion at hand: we have observed in human societies (our ‘cases’) that the character states of the variables ‘gender’ and ‘hegemony/power’ are positively correlated without exception along the hugely simplified lines males:more, females:less. And so our (entirely valid and yikes! universalist) question becomes ‘why is this true without exception?’ This is the mental operation that most of us have gone through before making our comments, and have chosen to simplify with the mutually understood cover term ‘Patriarchy’ throughout the discussion. Clarity is fine but did we really have to be so explicit?? I am beginning to feel like a logician!

    Re number 5: Your step here seems to have been to use ‘patriarchy’ as a variable itself, with two states: more and less. To this you have looked for a correlated variable and have settled on ‘inherited assest importance’ with the states more and less. So more importance = more patriarchy, less importance = less patriarchy. As you go on to note in the second to last paragraph however this leaves the question of why the association exists unanswered, and says nothing about the origins/universality of patriarchy itself. You have made an observation but not provided an explanation.

    Now I recognise that pointing this out is a little unfair as a critique – you might develop an explanation after all, and indeed the conditions for a decline in patriarchy must be part of the answer. So I will just say that I disagree with your conclusions and think inherited assest importance is not the ‘critical variable’ in fostering patriarchies.

  31. are positively correlated without exception along the hugely simplified lines males:more, females:less

    Please mentally delete the ‘positively’. Yikes.

  32. Thanks, Tim. We are, indeed, pretty much on the same page. But you have tickled my curiosity. If inherited assets are not the critical variable in fostering patriarchy, what is your alternative?

    Note, by the way, that I am not saying that inherited assets are the source of patriarchy but, rather, that the weight of inherited assets is closely correlated with the strength of patriarchy (where the severity of legitimate sanctions at the patriarch’s disposal is a measure of that strength).

    As with any correlation whether a causal connection is indicated, intervening variables are also important, or the correlation is spurious are perfectly legitimate questions.

    That said, the combination of weight of inherited assets with Mary Douglas’ grid and group is, to my mind, a very powerful set of explanatory factors. I challenge you or anyone else here to offer a serious alternative. Then we can set about debating which seems more plausible given the data we can bring to the table. We may, then, actually learn something. As long as we both agree, that is, that only saying “I disagree” doesn’t advance the debate.

  33. Well, I have already said that I do not have any grand theories of patriarchy – I have not done any research into the matter. I have noted twice that I think the ontology and ontogeny of mother-father-child relations are very important. The absolutely critical variable is probably that women have babies and men do not. This is an incredibly simple statement, and could imply all sorts of theories, including sociobiological and evolutionary ones. I would avoid these. Personally I think it is important at an ontological level – it is something that humans invariably recognise as a fundamental aspect of Being, and as such it serves as one of the core relational assumptions humans make when organising social life – different social pathways may spring from it, but the core remains. The family is also our first and most important habitus and as such structural assumptions about it are very conservatively reproduced. In building a theory from this point I would look to Tim Ingold’s work and would also draw on Marilyn Strathern amongst others. One would have to be very careful to avoid replicating one’s own assumptions about property, power and gender. One might look to the ways new reproductive technologies have allowed core relational assumptions to be challenged, and the way arguments over rights to their control may either reproduce or change the structures of patriarchy. That is about the limit of what I am willing to theorise without actually doing any research.

    As to why I disagree with your own theory, the reasons are kind of convoluted but I will try to order my thoughts. To begin, as you have noted it is not a theory of patriarchy. Instead it is a theory about the relationship between inherited assets and what you call the ‘strength’ of patriarchy within a particular social and historical context (ie: post Neolithic cultures in Europe and Asia). In some ways it is just an excercise in classification. If you ever developed it to the degree that it could be called explanatory it would simply attempt to explain the conditions of why some of these societies have ‘stronger’ patriarchies than others. Does this relate to the original question? Probably (depending on what ‘strength’ means – see below). Does it answer it? No.

    In developing this theory the problems that you will have are many: the ‘strength’ of patriarchy is measured by the ‘severity’ of ‘legitimate sanctions’ but what is your measure of severity? Judging from your Roman-Pakistani-Swede continuum it is based on your own assumptions and applies cross-culturally. Why do you think sanctions are the best measure of patriarchical strength? Is Sweden somehow less of a patriarchy than ancient Rome simply because people frown at unsanctioned sex instead of kill? If patriarchy’s strength is measured by severity of punishment why isn’t punishment the critical variable? What is your measure of ‘weight’ of inherited assests? What are counted as assets? What if control over the importance of assets is an epiphenomena of a patriarchy whose crucial governants lie elsewhere? Could you tell if it was not? What does your focus on property say about what you think patriarchy actually involves? You seem to suggest patriarchy is to be measured by the control of women’s sexuality and the control of property – I am not sure this is a sufficient definition…

    Putting aside these niggles the larger problem is that your theory attempts to do double service by being a general account of the rise and fall of patriarchy’s ‘strength’ in one context, and a sufficient account of the cross-cultural conditions of patriarchy. In respect to the latter: as I said before many ethnographers have provided very detailed analyses of patriarchical structures in many different social groups, and as such have studied these conditions in a way that undermines the value of general accounts – single society analyses will always be better in the sense that they are more detailed and complete. Thus, in terms of understanding the conditions of patriarchy in all their variety we are already very knowledgeable. But why does patriarchy always arise given that there is variation in its conditions and form? We dont really know, and this, to me, is what is at issue. An answer would need to begin with the fundamentals of social life.

    I will leave it at that because I really don’t feel I have anything else to add. I also suspect I have exceeded my Savage Minds Comment Quota for the year before it has barely begun.

  34. Women have babies, men don’t. Fine. Let’s use that as a starting point. Why should this single, basic fact imply that all societies are equally patriarchal? Conversely, why, in some societies, should patriarchy imply that men qua fathers hold absolute authority over the women in their lives, so that, as a famous neo-Confucian maxim states, for example, a woman should obey her father, her husband and then her son, while in others the authority in question seems diluted to the point of non-existence, with a woman’s rights as an individual making any masculine claim to possess authority over her seem absurd? If masculine authority and the severity of sanctions supporting it are not essential attributes of patriarchy, then, pray tell, what is? In what conceivable sense is Sweden as patriarchal as ancient Rome, traditional China, or much of the rest of the world? Why is Sweden (along with other Scaninavian countries) regarded by feminists as, relatively speaking at least, a highly progressive place, in which the evils of patriarchy are much weaker than they used to be?…..

  35. I’ll say it one more time John: there is a difference between explaining why patriarchy has continuously or invariably developed in human societies, and explaining variations in the strength, consequences or form patriarchy takes in particular societies. To answer your questions I suggest you look to ethnographies of the regions in question. From there you can go ahead and develop whatever objective or moral or other ranking of patriarchies that you wish.

    Re: “essential attributes” – you will note that I said ‘suffcient’ not ‘necessary’.

  36. In other words, you don’t have a clue where to begin constructing a competing theory. You don’t even have an articulate alternative definition of what patriarchy might be—only a belief that something, let’s leave it undefined but call it patriarchy, is universal. And, oh yeah, it’s got something to do with the fact that men are men and women are women and women have babies and men don’t…..As my daughter says, “No duh.” And your final move. Having nothing more worth saying, you insist that the person you are debating go off and do the research you are unwilling to do. Oy, veh.

    By a strange and terrible coincidence I must now turn to writing a eulogy for my father, who died last Friday. There was a patriarch, reactionary, romantic, and rooted in a way that his son will never be. Yet unlike a Roman pater he would never lift a finger to my mother. Through seven years of courtship and sixty years of marriage, he loved her passionately. One of my favorite photographs is the one I caught through the kitchen window on their sixtieth wedding anniversary, both over eighty and locked in an embrace you’d expect from horny teenagers. If my theories are weak, it is not because they fail to grasp what they talk about. It is rather because so much still lies beyond their reach.

  37. It may be that, at least on an initial, preliminary level, as much light can be cast on the core question by developing a better theory of “our” society, as by categorising others: by asking whether we understand the historical emegergence of a form of subjectivity that suggests the possibility to realise greater gender equality? This question is important because it is from the standpoint of this kind of subjectivity that, in spite of all their differences (and these are legion), we can still group a vast array of historical and contemporary human societies as sharing a common “patriarchal” trait – a trait that can be cast in relief when juxtaposed to the (counterfactual, but subjectively/conceptually available) ideal of greater fluidity in gender roles and identities.

    This approach doesn’t, of course, invalidate research that points out that, e.g., you can almost always find an historical exception to any notion that a particular social role is uniquely performed by women, or by men. It also doesn’t invalidate John’s suggested research program of attempting to analyse factors that influence the form in which patriarchal relations are expressed in a given social configuration – although it may be able to historicise the emergence of this kind of research program, and perhaps begin to cast some light on the normative standards being expressed within it…

    Apologies if this post is a bit opaque – like many others in this thread, I don’t have a “theory of patriarchy” and, to be honest, don’t usually find the category of “patriarchy” very useful for answering the sorts of questions I usually ask. I am, however, very interested in the historical emergence of particular ideals of freedom – and the flip side of the emergence of an ideal of freedom is usually the condemnation of a particular kind of unfreedom. So I’m extrapolating, perhaps naively, that this might be a problem that can best be worked “from both ends” – by examining what other societies (in all their diversity) have done, but also by examining why this seems to be a relevant problem “for us”…

  38. John, My condolences to you and your family.

    N. Pepperell makes an important (and not at all opaque) point. Any theory of patriarchy would have to contain a meta-critique of why we are interested in it. Additionally a definition of patriarchy is enabled by the ability to imagine its absence.

    I do have a definition of patriarchy though I am not sure one could ever be fully ‘articulate’: it is simply the state in which men are recognised as wielding power in whatever way or form is judged to be important in a particular society. Crucially, it is when men hold a disproportionate amount of power (i.e. over 50%) in society’s institutions. My definition attempts to avoid defining patriarchy by its particular effects or the form the abstract notion of ‘power’ takes – control over property, form of sanctions/punishment, ability to vote etc. – which obviously vary from society to society, and can of course be subjected to the kind of sub-classification you, John, are attempting. It also attempts to recognise that women hold power in various spheres within most societies, and that men too are ruled. I accept this may be an inadequate definition for some purposes – it might need to be refined or challenged in particular cases.

    John, the reason I suggested you go ahead and do the research is because the questions you ask are yours, not mine – i.e. why is patriarchy expressed differently in China and Sweden or any other society. Surely you recognise that in these posts I have not been interested in constructing arguments about why patriarchy takes the forms it does in different societies? I have said several times that I think that question is appropriate to ethnographies that take into account all of the particularities of a given society – that is, by comparing local case studies rather than making general theories. My main objection to your theory has been that it amounts to a classification of the way power is expressed, rather than an explanation for why it is men in particular who wield power. The latter is what I thought was at issue. I am absolutely not against the notion that we can study the expression of patriarchy in property relations say, or women’s rights, or violence etc. I am just saying that such studies are unlikely to explain why it is always the men.

    Again: I don’t have an answer for why it is always the men. I just have an idea for the point from which I would start looking. Your critique of this point (“No duh”) is valuable and I thank you for it. It suggests we agree.

  39. While I am clarifying can I just add that my critique of John’s examples (Sweden, Rome, China) was not to suggest that the assessment was factually incorrect, but to argue that the project of ranking is problematic. N. Pepperell has added it is also a product of a particular sensibility. We can highlight the problematic aspects if we consider another case – the controversy over laws banning the wearing of Burqa’s in school in France and the Netherlands. On the one hand we might say French society in general is less patriarchical than that of French muslims in particular, and that the burqa ban was one attempt to express this. On the other hand the young women in question felt dominated by their inability to express a fundamental aspect of their identity and more importantly live according to their ideals. Whatever the legitimacy of the ideologies at play we can see that we have a complex problem attempting to judge a patriarchy that dictates to women the ways in which they can be free, against another that states that they are only free under God and in God’s terms. In other words the general problem devolves to an analysis of competing discourses about power and the way it is enacted/resisted. The question of patriarchy as such gradually slides from view.

  40. The question of patriarchy as such gradually slides from view.

    That’s what I’ve been trying to get at.

    While we’re on the subject, I was thinking of something today. As it happens, among cross-dressers in the ostensibly patriarchal American society (and, unless I’m wrong, Western societies in general), there are more men who adopt women’s dress* than vice versa. Aside from the general terror at boundary-crossing, it seems to be fairly well-accepted that a woman in man’s clothing is making a reasonable choice in taking on a more-empowered social presentation, while a man in woman’s clothing brings on herself the righteous wrath of a society that simply cannot comprehend the decision to willingly *choose* to give up the privileges that maleness offers. So here’s the question: is the prevalence of male-to-female cross-dressing (prevalent among cross-dressers, anyway) the product of male privilege, in that men are more empowered to appropriate the symbols of weakness than vice versa, or is it rather a poke in the eye to the notion that the male position is, in fact, the position of privilege? Where does patriarchy dwell in the decision to be female?

    *Let’s just accept that a phrase like “women’s dress” is way overdetermined and move on, shall we?

  41. isn’t it possible that male cross-dressing just *seems* more prevalent because women’s clothing is the “marked” category of clothing? that is, a woman wearing anything other than “women’s clothing” is just wearing …. clothes. Big whoop. but *anyone* wearing “women’s clothing” is wearing *women’s clothing*. I don’t think I’m the only woman on the planet who finds putting on full girl gear to be exciting and like an invitation, in itself, to play-acting. But (like me), *most* women don’t bother most of the time; more generally, the population of BOTH men AND women who want to wear “women’s clothing” MORE often and MORE intensely than they want to wear just “clothing” is — in a society where people have a choice about these things — pretty small.

  42. Two super quick things that I *have* to get in in spite of lack of time and energy:

    Oneman wrote:
    “fairly well-accepted that a woman in man’s clothing is making a reasonable choice in taking on a more-empowered social presentation”

    You *had* to know that I would respond to this. The thing is, women in what is marked men’s clothing (as opposed to unmarked men’s clothing – unisex clothes like jeans and t-shirts) such as plaid shirts, ties, work pants, construction boots are not necessarily in a position of power. Actually, they are often targets of ridicule or disdain by both men and women. It may not be of the same nature as the ridicule and disdain faced by men in “women’s clothing” but it’s often there. If a woman goes into “real” cross-dressing and wears a packer in her shorts, wear’s a “man’s” haircut and facial hair, this is even more the case.

    Of course, there is the issue of “passing” as well. It’s quite possible that female to male cross-dressers have an easier time passing, sometimes as “effeminate” males and therefore become less noticable.

  43. Let me begin by thanking Tim for his civil and thoughtful response to what were, on my part, some pretty harsh words. Let me continue by raising a question that does concern me deeply.

    When Tim writes,

    The question of patriarchy as such gradually slides from view.

    and Dustin endorses this view, a part of me says, “Fair enough. The history of science is full of ideas that once seemed of central importance and then faded away. Could it be that patriarchy is anthropology’s equivalent of phlogiston, vortices in the ether, or Lamarckian evolution, an idea that is destined to fade away, replaced by anthropology’s equivalents of rapid oxidation, gravitation conceived as distorion in space-time, or the theory of natural selection acting on genotypes?”

    Could be. But in all these famous cases, an old idea was replaced by a new and better one. Where is the better idea here?

    I am reminded of Terry Eagleton’s wry remark that it was just at the moment that certain sociologists were announcing the death of ideology that American cowboy Christians were waiting for the rapture to waft themselves and their Cadillacs into Heaven and Muslims seeking martyrdom suddenly seemed to be flourishing. I note, too, the political potence of what social conservatives call traditional family values, which George Lakoff has analyzed in terms of what he calls the patriarchal family (contrasted with the nurturant family model favored on the left).

    On one level, the advice to explore the relevance of these or other ideas in particular ethnographic contexts seems simply sound academic advice. On another, to say that a problem has disappeared because we are no longer interested in it sounds as thoroughly dismissive as the 19th century missionary’s labeling of all of Chinese religion as mere superstition because it didn’t fit his own theology. We take ideas that much of the world takes altogether too seriously (costing literally hundreds of thousands of female babies their lives in India and China) and reduce them to something of merely local significance that, of course, has no bearing on how we, the enlightened ones, choose to live our own lives. Relativizing and contextualizing we neatly separate “them” from “us.” I say, haven’t we been here before?

    I, of course, have my own issues with patriarchy. Here, for your consideration, is an ethnographic document, the eulogy for my father that is printed in the bulletin for his funeral service tomorrow.

    Our father was a rock. My brother Dan says that to Pop everything was black and white— and Pop was always absolutely sure that he knew which was which. My mother just called him hard-headed.

    That didn’t make him the easiest of father’s for a smartass kid eager to move in his own directions. But part of that rock was the rock-solid belief in family. And his sons did a lot of things that he didn’t understand or accept, and we were never able to change his mind, his support was unwavering.

    He was a man quick to anger when he thought that his rights or property were being invaded, but also a man of huge generosity. He taught his sons the pleasure of giving. I can’t begin to count the people who visited the McCreery’s and went away with corn or tomatoes or watermelons or whatever else happened to be in season. And what a grand gift that was to his children.

    Our father was a romantic. Through seven years of engagement and sixty years of marriage, no couple was ever more devoted than he and Mom. On their sixtieth wedding anniversary, I snuck a picture of them, taken through the kitchen window. There they are, both in their eighties, locked in a passionate kiss.

    The romantic in Pop also loved nature. He didn’t just love growing things and sharing their fruits. He loved just sitting quietly, absorbed in observing the world around him and admiring their natural beauty. I remember once, asking him why he liked going fishing so much. He replied, “Well, if I just sat and stared at the water, people would think I was crazy.” Just a few months ago, the last time I saw him, he told me about sitting at the end of his pier one evening, his fishing pole in his hand. A great blue heron flew across the creek and sat beside him, barely an arm’s length away.

    Pop was the most rooted man I’ve ever known. I heard an old friend say just the other day that the thing about Jim McCreery was that he knew every inch of his place, every plant, every animal, phylum, genus, and species. In a world where more and more of us seem to spend most of our time skittering over the surfaces, he had found his niche, his personal bit of paradise and knew it in every detail.

    As I sit looking at old photographs, I see the dashing young man who won my mother’s heart. I know that he fenced as well as playing football and singing in the church choir. I just heard recently that my grandfather once caught him and mom skinny-dipping, so perhaps he wasn’t as strait-laced as I grew up thinking he was.

    I look up from the desk where I’m writing and see a picture of the USS Enterprise and think of the ships he helped build in his forty-one years in the shipyard. (I remember, too, the excitement of being taken to see some of them launched.)

    I sit in the house that he and his father’s and brothers built when the house that was on the place when he bought it burned to the ground just a few months later. I sit in a room that he added to that house when my maternal grandfather, who had loaned him the money to buy his place, was diagnosed with cancer and came to live with us. I remember Mom telling me how he had put aside his own dream of going back to college and becoming an engineer when that happened.

    I think of the churches he helped to found and grow, the trees and the bamboo he planted, the grandchildren and the great grandchildren he adored. His was a life well lived, an example to us all.

    That’s where I’m coming from.

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