Summary | Social aspects | Gender | Children | Ownership of objects

5.2 Gender

The study of gender in archaeology is sometimes based around the identification of women in the archaeological record. However, Gosden (1999) notes that gender is a relational concept that derives from the creation and maintenance of difference; one gender can only exist in relation to the other. He refers to MacKenzie's (1991) study of bags and highlights the way in which her study of the interaction between the genders, rather than looking at one gender in isolation, provides a clearer picture of gender relations. Equally, the western concept of gender and gender-based exploitation is not necessarily appropriate to the study of non-western societies. Brody (2000) provides the example of the Inuit among whom there is wide room for manoeuvre of the gender roles. If a man wants to stay at home caring for children he can, while a woman may prefer to go hunting.

Among the Wola and across the highlands, there is relatively little gender overlap and there is considerable pressure to act 'normally'. For a man to act in an effeminate way or a woman in a masculine way would be considered embarrassing and shameful. People make the effort to integrate with the community (indeed not to do so, and to lose the support of your kin network, could prove literally fatal in the event of a dispute with someone). When men were questioned about homosexuality for example, they did not understand the concept, though there are other areas of the highlands where institutionalised homosexuality is reported to occur as part of certain initiation rites (Herdt 1981; Lidz and Lidz 1989).

There are several aspects of life that are more or less universal across highland New Guinea. These are :

Within each category it is possible to illustrate how, from a western perspective, gender differences may be viewed as favouring men; they do less subsistence-related work, they are less tied to daily chores, they spend more time on non-subsistence activities such as making wigs, they dress up flamboyantly, they dance and engage in ceremonial activities (though unmarried women do so too), and they have their own houses, away from young children, to which women often bring them their food each day.

But this is not the whole story. Gifts and gift giving are a central part of life in the New Guinea Highlands and across Melanesia (e.g. Gosden 1999; Malinowski 1922; Sillitoe 1979a). Success in life is measured by participation in exchange and mistakes or failure to participate can have negative effects which can result, in serious cases, in fighting and even death (Sillitoe 1979a). While women are more tied to daily subsistence-related chores, participation in these socio-political activities takes up a large amount of men's time. Women are involved in preparation of the wealth, through their care of pigs which are often exchanged and are highly valued by the Wola. Additionally, like other Melanesians, women's production of string and its use in the manufacture of many wealth items is another way in which women participate in gift preparation; their role in the production of gifts is always acknowledged by men. For the Wola, exploitation 'is antithetical to how they perceive and conduct their lives as members of a fiercely egalitarian society' (Sillitoe 1988, 559) though Strathern makes the point that 'the demands put on women are a consequence of men's operations' (1988, 156). While the reality of the relationship between the genders in the highlands is very complex, both gender groups have their roles to play in everyday life, and at a socio-economic level collaboration is common.

Men also contribute directly to women's work most notably by providing them with most of their essential tools. It is true that women are more tied to everyday chores than are men, but it could be said that this is universal and is inexorably linked to looking after and providing food and shelter for children. This does not prevent women from complaining that they too 'would like to be able to travel around all day visiting others' (Strathern 1988, 156). Just as men wield some control over women (e.g. based on their exclusive use of the stone axe), women, as the mainstays of production, wield influence over men, even if they do not do so overtly. In highland New Guinea, socio-political exchange can be viewed as essential a part of life as subsistence in that it maintains the status quo. In this sense men and women, each largely responsible for one of these two domains of life, complement one another, though this is an oversimplification of the very complicated and intricate nature of male-female relations in the highlands (Strathern 1988).

With regard to material culture, makers and users of items are clearly delimited among the Wola though multiple authorship occurs widely. MacKenzie (1991) provides a wonderful insight into the complicated and intricate multiple authorship and social meaning of the Papuan bilum, or string bag.

Within the material culture of the Wola, some objects were made and used exclusively by one sex, some made by one sex and used by the other, while others were made and/or used by both sexes though multiple authorship is common, particularly in the preparation and collection of raw materials needed for making an object. Although the Wola themselves did not remark on it, the manufacture of objects can be divided into five categories with lithics falling into the 'men mainly make' category (Fig. 4).

Query database
Items that men make Items that women make
Items that men use Items that women use

Women only rarely made and used tools of chert, one of the few instances being in order to resharpen the ends of digging sticks. On occasion women would make chert knives, though an examination of female tasks suggests that they had little need for sharp-edged tools.

No women's tools were examined or collected in the course of this study though men maintained the tools they produced were decidedly inferior to their own. When a woman needed a stone flake, she either obtained it from a male relative, or knapped it herself using the bipolar method. Hayden (1980) identified the use of the bipolar technique by women in other geographical areas, particularly in certain parts of North America and correlates this with expediency and 'low prestige'. Though among the Wola bipolar knapping was considered inferior, among the Dani of Irian Jaya it was used by everyone as the standard reduction technique (Hampton 1999). However, it may be possible in certain instances to use the presence of bipolar working as an indicator of women in the lithic record.

In archaeological contexts flint knapping is sometimes considered exclusively male (e.g. Flannery 1986; Thomas 1983) though this has been questioned (Gero 1991; Owen 2000) and, as has been shown, was clearly not the case here. Attempts to prove that women could use stone tools, or other 'strong' raw materials that are more likely to survive in archaeological contexts, are unnecessary as there is no physical reason why they should not. Unless prevented by social constraints, such as the Wola taboo on women using the stone axe (see below Division of labour), women undoubtedly made and used stone tools if and when they needed them. Among the Wola, both men and women employed a wide range of soft, organic materials of the type that often do not survive in the archaeological record. A wider approach to lithic analysis, a more detailed understanding of the range of other raw materials available and a wider use of techniques such as experimental reproduction, use-wear and residue analysis to detect 'soft' raw material (e.g. Hardy in press; forthcoming a; forthcoming b; Hurcombe 2000; Owen 2000; Juel Jensen 1994; van Gijn 1998) could provide a more realistic interpretation of the relative place of stone tools within a material culture context.

The Wola explained their sexual division of labour by referring to 'strong' and 'soft' tasks with men generally responsible for the 'strong' tasks. 'Strong' tasks included making and using stone axes, bows and arrows, all musical instruments, shields and finery.

Only men could use the stone axe. This exclusivity was consolidated by a taboo on women even touching axes (Sillitoe 1988). Men believed that if a woman touched an axe, it would become blunt and would be weakened. This was related to taboos regarding menstruation, which men believe is polluting to them. Men did all axe work and this included all the most physically demanding work such as primary garden clearing, building houses and making fences.

The use of 'strong' and 'soft' to describe people's work had various meanings and was not necessarily restricted to physical attributes. When asked about why men and women make different things, people referred initially to physical strength.

'Women don't have strong bodies. A woman is entirely soft. Except her head, from which she carries children, firewood and sweet potato, she only has a strong head. She is strongish in the head alone. Men have strong shoulders: huge logs, anything large and heavy, they can invariably carry. They are strong, their hands can manage anything. If a man hits a woman, really strongly, she hasn't a chance. So men are exceedingly strong. A man's mind is strong too.'
(Wenja Neleb [a man] speaking, taken from Sillitoe 1988).
'Women's bodies aren't strong. Women don't have any strong work. In gardens we heap mounds, and secondly we care for pigs, that's all. We do no strong work. Men do it: clear gardens, fell enormous trees, collect screw-pine nuts. We do no strong work. Women's work is strongish (i.e. we can work hard), its only our skins (i.e. our bodies) that are very soft.'
(Haenda Wen [a woman] speaking, taken from Sillitoe 1988).

When the questioning continued, and they were asked why men therefore did some tasks that did not require physical strength, people answered in the following way:

'Women don't have strong thoughts. Only men think strongly. Women don't have the slightest strength in thought. When we decorate ourselves, women simply do nothing. Women cavort pointlessly, don't they, wandering round and round? Only men make wigs and arrange feather headdresses. Things here (pointing to his face), face painting, women only help with face painting, which is just slow and easy. If women worked here (indicating his head), they would not make wigs well, nor prepare feathers and position headdresses properly. When arranging feather headdresses they wouldn't do it well, always wrong. Women would always do it incorrectly, not sighting straight. Wrong, that's all...It's strongish work, seeing all is straight, arranging full-dress decoration. Hoi, go around other regions (where they may allow women to meddle in these affairs), what women will do will be awful. Who's going to see all is straight? When men do it, if they arrange things, it's excellent, truly excellent, all men look the same...Yes it's strong thinking. Strong, very strong thoughts are men's thoughts. I've told you, women have no thoughts. Women don't have strong thoughts, that's all. Men's minds are exceptionally strong. They make good wigs, all things they make true and well. Men's minds, their thoughts, are very strong. Men's thoughts are enormously strong. Women's thoughts are soft, eh?'
(Wenja Neleb speaking, taken from Sillitoe 1988).

Women, unsurprisingly did not wholly agree with this statement though they accepted that men were capable of 'split thoughts', that is that men could think of many things, whereas they did not consider themselves capable of coping with many tasks.

'Thoughts, our minds aren't soft, nor strong. Thoughts are soft and strong. It's not in our thoughts. We all work hard the same. Hoi, men's and women's thinking abilities are the same. Men don't do all the garden work alone, we help. They have split thinking and can do everything. They knit pearl shell fillets, produce arrows, wooden shoulder shields and such like, they make everything, bind up ornamental stone axes – there, a man's thoughts have very many splits.
'Men make wooden shoulder shields, broad-blade arrows and stone axes. Men carry many things. Women's things, only digging sticks. We don't make many things. Men always, always. Women this (indicating pig tether), women don't make pig tethers. Women make one, one, that's all...bags and aprons...gardens, pigs...children we carry...We women don't have many splits to our thoughts. Only men. Men's thoughts are split. Men are very strong in the mind.'
(Haenda Wen speaking, taken from Sillitoe 1988).

This perception that women could not split and men could is interesting though Haenda Wen is referring not to multitasking, rather to the fact that men undertake a wide range of different tasks in their lives. Among the Wola, women focused on a smaller number of things but an account of the daily life of both men and women of the Siane, a group living to the east of the Wola, suggests that while men did a wider range of different things, it was women who were the splitters, spending their day multitasking, while men undertook their work in a consecutive way, doing one job at a time and not combining them. It is perhaps the case that men and women underestimated women's work, as it was repetitive. Siane people live in a similar environment to the Wola, practise a similar mode of subsistence and have the same taboos on stone axe using by women (Salisbury 1962).

'Women do the routine tasks of planting, weeding, and harvesting, and no man will do these, except under extreme pressure of hunger. The allocation of jobs to women is explained by the way in which women are regarded by men in Siane. They are felt to be rather stupid, unable to learn the complex skills needed for axe-work, politics, making exchanges, or for fine craft-work. They are also felt to be irresponsible, fitted only for carrying out a routine under male supervision. ... All promiscuity is phrased as the fault of irresponsible women.

'This keynote of routine and repetition in female tasks extends to all spheres. Women must cook food daily, must be constantly ready to suckle infants and feed older children, must call home the pigs every evening, and spend hours patiently knitting net bags...'

'The woman's main duty is to provide cooked food for her husband and children. Since sweet potatoes are not storable, she must repair to the gardens every day to bring home supplies. Typically, women wake early, feed their children with sweet potatoes baked on the fire in their houses, and leave for the gardens at about 8am. After an hour's walk to the gardens they work steadily, if unhurriedly and with frequent pauses, until about 2pm, when they must return home to prepare the evening meal. ... Between 2 and 3pm women converge on the village, each carrying a bag of vegetables and a bundle of sticks – a load of some sixty pounds. They pause at the village spring to wash the vegetables and talk. Outside their houses in the village the individual women build large fires to heat stones which are piled on the fire. Using split sticks as tongs, the women lay these hot stones in the bottom of their ovens – hollowed tree stumps – cover them with leaves and with the vegetables to be cooked, pour in quantities of water, and seal the oven with a thick cover of grass and leaves. As the water percolates through to the hot stone, steam is formed and the foods cook slowly.'

'During the hour and a half when the food is cooking, babies are nursed, young children are fed with titbits like corn-on-the-cob baked on the fire, and the women sit in groups and talk, while doing craft activities. These include teasing apart fig bark for its fibres, spinning the fibres by rolling them on the thigh with the flat of the hand, knitting the fibre into net bags for carrying purposes or for men's front coverings, tying it to make sporran-like women's front coverings, or sewing together pandanus leaves to make mats. Net bags are the commonest article made, but though the tasks of passing the thread round the pandanus-leaf spacers and through the previous loops, knotting it, and rewinding the thread while holding the curved bone needle all require dexterity, women do the work with a steady rhythm, scarcely looking at their work, so that a skilful task appears a routine.'

'After the meal is cooked, children nibble at tasty leaves and sweet potatoes while women carry the food to their husbands in the men's house, using wooden dishes or large leaves. ...Later the wife returns to collect any surplus food and the container. After she has eaten her own meal she often has to walk for an hour to her pig house in the bush. Wherever she spends the night, she must call the pigs home to sleep. The "br-r-r-r" noise, used to call pigs, and produced by flapping the lips, is the familiar sound of the end of the working day in Siane...'

'By contrast, the men's work varies from day to day. On days when they are working on a new garden or building houses, they work strenuously and for long hours. At other times they are more leisurely. When they work hard they wake with the dawn and sit huddled round the fires in the men's house on which they warm their breakfasts of sweet potatoes. They leave for the gardens about half an hour after the women, and the delays for sharpening axes and discussing the day's work mean they are not at work till about 10am. Half of the men work at any one time, relieving each other at intervals. At about 2 o'clock a short rest is often taken, with a "drink" of sugar cane or cucumber, but otherwise work continues until 5pm, when the long trek home begins. By six o'clock the men are sitting in the men's house clearing, eating their evening meal...'

'When men are building houses they have a similar daily timetable, some departing early to collect materials, others working at clearing and levelling the site...'

'Mere maintenance work – fence repairing, for example – is done at a more leisurely pace, and men return home by 4pm, carrying the logs they have cut for firewood...The leisure hours are used for chopping firewood for the men's house, for sharpening axes, for craft activities, and for the playing of football by the younger men...'

'The men may vary their activities even more. Not merely may they remain home sick, but sometimes they may spend a day leisurely at home, beating out bark-cloth or stencilling coloured designs in ochre, soot or dye on it. Men also visit, occasionally hunt, and frequently spend the entire day in ceremonials or in discussing political or legal questions.'
(Salisbury 1962, 49–52).

As mentioned above, women do different things at the same time, and have a certain number of tasks that they have to do each day; harvest sweet potato, collect firewood, cook meals, weed gardens, look after pigs (though men kill and butcher them), keep up with the demand for string and nets, and care for the children for which they are responsible all day. Their lives remain tightly structured around and restricted by their responsibilities. Men have a less structured routine; while doing a considerable amount of work that ensures daily life can proceed (building houses, making fences etc.), they do not have the same immediate daily task requirements and can choose what they will do on a day-to-day basis.

The heavy and constant demands on women suggest that they do not have much space in their lives to expend time on non-domestic activities such as making decorative finery, painting themselves, dressing up for dances etc. Additionally, the use of finery is strongly associated with impressing the opposite sex, something that is not acceptable for married women. The only women who decorate and take part in festivities are adolescent, unmarried girls (Sillitoe 1988). Examination of the gender-based material culture divisions of manufacturing tasks showed that men undertook many more tasks than women (Fig. 4). Specifically 'male' tasks included most tool manufacture, work on weapons, musical instruments, most consumption utensils and most finery and self-decoration items. Women made most items of clothing and nets. While men made many more items than women, many of their tasks required string as a basic raw material and this was manufactured almost exclusively by women, a task that took up nearly 50% of women's manufacturing time. Of the 105 items made exclusively by men, around 75 (71.5%) required string for their manufacture (Table 2). In addition, although the women's list of objects is shorter, the amount of time they spent on manufacture was 75% greater than men (Fig. 5).

Wola culture casts women as producers and men as transactors. Men manage the political exchange activity that is so prominent in highland social life (and may feature tasks such as making items of finery, e.g. wigs) while women carry out many vital subsistence-related tasks, such as harvesting food, and raising children.

While the reasons behind the sexual divisions of labour are very complex (e.g. Sillitoe 1988; Strathern 1988), there are certain tasks that appear almost universally to be ascribed on the basis of gender and evidence from the Wola accords with this. Women hunt less, look after children, and are more consistent in food provision. Objects made by men are more likely to survive archaeologically, being of 'strong' materials, particularly stone and bone. It is not only among the Wola that this occurs. For example, among the !Kung San, women's daily equipment included ostrich eggs, antelope stomach sacs, wooden digging sticks, carrying bags, nets, cracking stones and grinding tools (Lee 1979). Of these, only the stone items would be sure to survive on a prehistoric site. More widely, and within a hunting and gathering context, women spent more time collecting and preparing food and, until recently, manufacturing string and clothing (Blaffer Hrdy 2000; Owen 2000; Wayland Barber 1994). Wola women used mainly wooden tools for agriculture and their traditional clothes were all made of organic materials. The string they spent so much time making was used by both men and women to make a wide range of objects, none of which would be likely to survive archaeologically.

The problem of visibility of women in the archaeological record has been noted many times before (e.g. Dobres 2000; Dahlberg 1981; Gero and Conkey 1991; Owen 2000). Traditional methods of detection of women include examination of skeletal remains, grave goods, evidence for craft activities and art (Ehrenberg 1989). This does not always help when studying early prehistoric periods as frequently no direct evidence survives; additionally as Conkey and Spector (1998) suggest, there is no theoretical and methodological framework in place for archaeological gender interpretation.

Repeated patterns of activities that may be ascribed to gender and age-related groupings, such as those described by Ehrenberg (1989) and Petrequin and Petrequin (1988) and observed repeatedly in an ethnographic context, could perhaps be used to ascribe certain tasks to a specific gender, while not forgetting that activities may vary as people get older. However, multitasking (Strathern 1988; MacKenzie 1991; Finlay 2003) adds further complexities and suggests that there are many levels at which different people may be involved both in the manufacture and ownership of an object, making these processes more complicated than our Western perceptions allow.

This discussion of certain aspects of gender in Wola life serves to illustrate the dangers of oversimplification of gender interpretation in archaeology, in particular the 'knee jerk' reaction in which all too often men are cast as exploiters and women as exploited. If Wola skeletons were examined, although to our knowledge this has never happened, the female ones might be found to have evidence of heavy load carrying etc., while male ones do not. With no surviving evidence for the male socio-political exchange activity, this could lead to the suggestion that women were exploited with little evidence for male participation in subsistence. This would be a partial view of Wola gender relations.


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Last updated: Wed Oct 8 2003