Engendering vertigo in time-space travel

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Margaret Jolly. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau6.3.025


Engendering vertigo in time-space travel

Margaret JOLLY, Australian National University

Comment on Strathern, Marilyn. 2016. Before and after gender: Sexual mythologies of everyday life. Edited and with an introduction by Sarah Franklin. Afterword by Judith Butler. Chicago: HAU Books.

Reading this extraordinary book was for me an exhilarating but vertiginous journey through time and space. Written in Port Moresby in 1973–74, Marilyn Strathern’s (2016) manuscript on “men and women” was intended for a series edited by Jean La Fontaine that aimed to bring anthropological insights on “everyday topics” to a general audience through the use of long passages from diverse sources. This was consummately accomplished here through the use of long quotations from ethnographies of Africa and Oceania, ancient English verse, and nineteenth-century English novels, and extensive use of influential texts from the scholarly and popular debates of the 1970s about “women’s liberation,” engaging authors like Simone de Beauvoir, Ann Oakley, Lionel Tiger, Germaine Greer, Kate Millett, Shulamith Firestone, and Mariarosa Dalla Costa. Each of these texts is presented, situated, analyzed, and critiqued with a forensic focus on overt and covert arguments, logical coherence, and contradiction. Strathern orchestrates a scintillating series of juxtapositions and counterpoints between these diverse sources—comparing contemporaneous ethnographies of households in Africa with those in Bethnall Green; depicting diverse configurations of “male-female relations” among several peoples in Africa, Papua New Guinea, and Indigenous Australia; tracing shifts in notions of heterosexual love, marriage, and freedom in nineteenth-century novels by Wilkie Collins, George Gissing, and Olive Schreiner; situating the poetics and practices of medieval courtly love, devoted to the enigmatic, elevated lady in the context of the uncertain allegiances landless vassals owed to their lords. What emerges is a [394]complex and nuanced set of arguments that differ in substance and style from how many anthropologists of the period were using the evidence of other societies to either argue for or refute the universality of “male domination.” Alas, the series for which this book was written was abandoned and, as editor Sarah Franklin graphically evokes it, “the neatly typed manuscript was carefully labeled, wrapped in card, bound with string, tucked into a red box and shelved” (2016: xiv), languishing unpublished until now.

Its belated publication invites the present reader to engage in reflections on the history of feminist scholarship and practice and for some of us, in memory work and even nostalgia. In the 1970s I was simultaneously engaged in the complex, passionate debates swirling through the “women’s liberation” movement in Sydney and in ethnographic research on gender in an Oceanic archipelago, where equally complex and passionate debates raged about liberation from the conjoint colonialism of Britain and France, culminating in the emergence of the independent state of Vanuatu in 1980. I have a sense not so much of déjà vu but of a vertiginous spiral connecting past and present as I am reacquainted with many texts that I devoured voraciously and taught passionately several decades ago. I regret that Strathern’s consummate choreography of the debate between Ann Oakley and Lionel Tiger on the sexual division of labor and the biological basis of male domination was not available when I taught courses in feminist anthropology in Sydney from the early 1970s.

But, beyond nostalgia and regret, let us reflect more deeply on how we situate this book in time and in space. In a fine introduction, editor Sarah Franklin variously describes the book as “missing” and “long waylaid” and celebrates the “several layers of icing hindsight” on top of “a very impressive cake” (Franklin 2016: xiii, xiv). The title Before and after gender summons up the chronology of a line, if not the straight line of progress at least of successive epochs and ruptures. Using this sort of language we might adjudge certain aspects of Strathern’s text as “dated” (e.g., in its use of the language of the period like “sex roles,” “male-female relations,” “women’s liberation”) or as “prescient” (as I would argue for her insights on the binaries of nature/culture, sex/gender, and individual/society). But although Franklin ponders what this text might offer a twenty-first century reader, seeing gender “through the lens of transactivism, queer theory, and cyborg feminism” (2016: xiv), she suggests that Strathern’s “early engagement” with the concept of gender means that “in a sense” it “has not aged at all” (xiv). Rather than a reductive linear chronology we have then a “thick palimpsest”—to use Franklin’s image of erasure and successive layering on a manuscript—or to use my image of travel in time and space, a vertiginous spiral of both continuity and rupture, sameness and difference.

I suggest that this book offers not just an “early engagement” with gender but one that was “prescient” both in terms of broader scholarship and Strathern’s own corpus of work. It prefigures influential arguments developed in Nature, culture and gender (MacCormack and Strathern 1980), The gender of the gift (1988), and in Strathern’s prolific series of publications on transformations in kinship, assisted reproductive technologies, EuroAmerican individualism, notions of authorship, and intellectual and cultural property. Let me focus on just five insights that were innovative at the time in a book that is truly bristling with them.

First, I highlight the insight that arguments both for and against the biological bases of male domination (e.g., Lionel Tiger versus Ann Oakley) can underestimate [395]the strength of cultural constructs that make the cultural appear natural. “To say gender differences between men and women are basically cultural and not biological in origin does not lead to the automatic conclusion that they are therefore malleable and weak. They may be very strong” (Strathern 2016: 276). Many chapters of the book are dedicated to demonstrating both the diversity and the ubiquity of sexual mythologies, deeply embedded in culture. Myths, the author affirms, are not untrue deceptions; they shape the world. And, as a corollary to this first insight, she suggests that the boundary between nature and culture is differentially drawn (e.g., between the Bemba of Africa, the Mae Enga of PNG, and the United States, see Figure 1, p. 24). She argues (before Butler) that the distinction between sex and gender is itself a cultural construct and (after Schneider) that the biological sciences are a cultural system not to be confused with the biological facts themselves (Strathern 2016: 22–25). But what are “natural facts”?

Second, she points to how the stress on the binary difference between male and female obscures not just their shared humanity but also the necessary complementarity between them and the diversity within. The opposition between male and female can be expressed in terms of differential work, differential spaces (e.g., inside/ outside; domestic/public), differential qualities of the person (rational/emotional; controlled/animalistic). But what this stress on difference hides is that they are “alike” and not just “unlike.” Debates about the sexual division of labor—canonically about men as hunters and women as gatherers in ancient and contemporary foraging societies (in Indigenous Australia for instance)—stress this opposition and link it to a cascade of distinctions between proximate and distant work, between reliable everyday vegetable food versus the risky pursuit of meat, between intimate, personal dispositions versus broader collective or “public” orientations (Strathern 2016: 129–44). But such differences could be seen not as conflictual opposition but as necessarily complementary halves of a unity, of orchestrated interdependence. Or such differences could be translated into differential value—men’s work being seen as more valuable than women’s—or even erasing interdependence (by the particular and peculiar ideology that the “housewife” is a dependent of a man working for money, see esp. Chapters 3 and 5). Strathern suggests that societies differ in how far they acknowledge or even celebrate sex differences as oppositional or interdependent. A corollary of this argument is that the differences between men and between women are thus suppressed in this construction of all men versus all women as united interest groups (2016: 33ff, 51, 286–7), an argument that anticipates the crucial importance of race, class, and religious differences between women in later feminist theories of intersectionality.

Third, Strathern discerns how relations between men and women are the “seductive symbol” used to talk about many things beyond gender per se: “using relations between the sexes to make statements about other areas of social life” (2016: 17). This is patent in the way in which the antagonistic relations between men and women among the Mae Enga of Highlands PNG, the notions of intimacy and sex as dangerous and women’s blood as emasculating are used to talk about the political strength of men within patrilineages and between warring clans, about broader relations of amity and enmity. For the Mae Enga, the threat of a wife drawn from another clan is like an enemy within (9–10, 16–17). By contrast Strathern sees the focus on food, fertility, and purification in conjugal relations among the [396]matrilineal Bemba of Africa as linking intimate life to the structures of ritual kinship and centralized government, alike directed to ancestral blessings and curses that bring wellbeing or illness, barrenness or fecundity (8–9, 13–15). But, Strathern goes further to interrogate the character and directionality of symbols (21ff)—of something standing for something else. She concludes that it would be nonsense to think of a ravenous empire symbolizing an eagle (21). She suggests that unlike symbols based on objects in nature (eagles/empires; gold/luxury and wealth) the relationality between men and women is what makes gender relations such a potent symbol. By the end of the book Strathern argues that often “gender constructs have provided a basic model of what relationship is about (2016: 289). She ultimately eschews both feminist and antifeminist versions of the notion that society or culture is solely created by men (291). The potency, the seduction of male/female relations as a symbol, is not because those relations are “natural” but because they are both rigid and fluid, given and subverted. We relish the author’s play with Sepik crossgender parody (34–47), the testimonials of the articulate birds in “Who Killed Cock Robin” (26) and the thirteenth-century English verse “The Thrush and the Nightingale” (48–51), where the “contrary” qualities of woman are interrogated. As the inspiring introduction by Sarah Franklin suggests, it is the ambiguity of such relations that make gender such a riddle—a curly question that “riddles” or saturates social life in general (Franklin 2016: xviii–xix).

Fourth, Strathern perceives the particular and peculiar way in which Eurocentric notions of male-female relations privilege sexuality and indeed “the sex act” itself. Her quotations and exegesis of de Beauvoir are pivotal here. De Beauvoir patently works with a binary of men and women and sees women as trapped by a male mythology that makes of her the Other. The inconstant woman in such myths— the polarities of a chaste Virgin Mary and a lustful Eve for instance—center on women’s sexuality. De Beauvoir posits women as the embodiment of a nature that man seeks to subdue, the incarnation of life and its mysteries and of carnality. Men claim woman as a male possession; make up and jewelry “further this petrification of face and body” (Strathern 2016: 54). Quoting de Beauvoir, “We come then to this strange paradox: man wishing to find nature in woman but nature transfigured, dooms woman to artifice” (de Beauvoir 1972: 192, quoted in Strathern 2016: 55). Strathern points to how in her analysis of “the second sex,” de Beauvoir privileges the sexual relation between woman and man and the individuals in that encounter—focusing on questions of free will and entrapment, of subjects and objects. This she discerns not just in de Beauvoir but more broadly in European society, where male-female relations are often seen through the lens of individual, (hetero) sexual intercourse and where women can thereby be seen as “sex objects.” This focus on sexuality as crucial to women’s liberation she also detects in many of the classic works of 1970s feminism—equality pronounced through the mutuality and equality of eros and of orgasm (2016: 268–73). While not denying the centrality of sexual and conjugal relations between men and women everywhere, Strathern suggests that in other societies, the privileged male-female relation may be rather that of the brother-sister or the mother-son. Moreover, these relations are not everywhere construed as relations between individuals (see especially Figure 2., p. 275).

So, a final crucial insight in this book is Strathern’s deconstruction of the dominant European notion of the person as an individual and, from the late eighteenth [397]century, as an individual endowed with rights. Quoting the words of John Stuart Mill (but strangely not Wollstonecraft), the proclamations by women at Seneca Falls in 1848 and the claims of 1970s feminist writers, Strathern detects a particular EuroAmerican genealogy of the person in relation to the nonperson. English liberal writers like Mill vaunted the novel autonomy of the individual free of the claims of past conventions and tyrannies like feudalism (except for women); the women at Seneca Falls stressed their sacred rights (and duties) as equal citizens of the United States to the vote; second-wave feminists proclaimed their rights to equal pay and sexual and reproductive choices. Strathern highlights the political and legalistic formulation of rights to citizenship and equality grounded in liberal ideals of the “social contract.” She writes “Legislative act after legislative act through the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries had made the formal admission that slaves were people, that Roman Catholics and Jews were people, that the unpropertied poor were people, yet there remained that nub: were women people? I am not being facetious” (Strathern 2016: 193). Wonderful! Her argument is not just that women were long denied their full personhood in European contexts but that this personhood was grounded in a particular philosophy, not just of liberalism, but a deeper ontological propensity to distinguish person and nonperson, as subject and object, as acting versus acted upon, as doing versus being. This notion of personhood can be discerned in de Beauvoir’s existentialism as much as Mill’s liberalism. Strathern suggests that this be distinguished from the models of personhood prevailing elsewhere. Thus, in contrast to those who would see the personhood of prostitutes as diminished by their becoming sex objects, Strathern reveals that Hausa women who live as prostitutes are seen as more fully persons, with mobility and independence, than sequestered wives who are subject to male authority (women are not one or the other but alternate in these states; 2016: 180–86). She queries whether women exchanged in bridewealth in marriages in PNG can be seen as “objects” of exchange or even inarticulate signs. And moving back to the Bemba of Africa she observes how the human person is here distinguished from an animal and how the notion of the person pivots on the idea of bodily and spiritual integrity, so that both mutilation and unconsciousness are thought to diminish personhood (197–202).

For those familiar with Strathern’s subsequent writings, we can witness anticipations of later influential ideas, for example, the extended interrogation of the binary of nature and culture (MacCormack and Strathern 1980) and her heuristic contrast between the Western individual and the Melanesian dividual in The gender of the gift (1988). This book offers what Strathern dubs “retrospective illumination” on those texts. It also offers a perspective not just on the “awkward relationship” between feminism and anthropology (Strathern 1987) but an anthropology of the feminism of the period. But I conclude by suggesting that this book, written several decades ago, still has crucial insights not just for gender scholarship but also for many scholarly and public audiences today. Clearly this was written in an era when the binary of male and female was immensely privileged, before the powerful critiques of the heteronormative character of that binary and much theoretical and political work on homosexuality, queerness, transgender, and intersexuality. Yet the ambiguity and complexity that Strathern finds in that binary help us to move beyond it. As Butler concludes in her fine afterword “When identitarian [398]logics steep themselves in conceptual separatism, as it were, they limit the aspirations of feminism itself ” (2016: 302).

But there is another binary, a ghost haunting this book, a ghost that Strathern herself confronts in her introduction—the “annoyingly unmoored” (2016: 3) binary of us and them, which locates the “we” in the relation of a European anthropologist and her familiar audience and the “them” in other people. This is somewhat redressed by the way she juxtaposes ethnographies of England and elsewhere, points to stunning diversities in Africa and Oceania, and traces the historical shifts in Europe from the thirteenth century to the present. But the language is still “awkward” or “annoying” not just because of the (still incomplete) decolonization of anthropology but also because of the reconfiguration of relationships in our contemporary world. Although I have trouble with the hubris of some theorists of contemporary globalization and the alleged space-time compression that is characteristic of our highly connected and socially mediated world, such global processes need to be taken seriously into account in any contemporary research on gender (see Besnier and Alexeyeff 2014).

Yet this book affords prescient, potential insights and poses important questions, and not just for gender scholars. For instance, given the widespread circulation of Christianity not just as a EuroAmerican but a world religion, has the sclerotic focus on male-female relations as individuated sexual relations been used to frame gender in other places? How far has the dominant European notion of the person as an individual been transported and translated with the movement of global capitalism, neoliberal political values, and the transnational regime of human rights? How far can the Eurocentric distinction of subject and object deal with both ancient and novel ontologies, which do not radically separate humans from other creatures or from things? How might we understand the centrality of gender, that seductive potent symbol, in the legitimation of wars in the Middle East and in the recent election campaigns of Trump and Clinton in the United States? And how does the specter of catastrophic climate change and the proclamation that we are living in the era of the Anthropocene undo that dubious distinction between nature and culture? Such questions are being addressed in exciting, twenty-first-century ways in contemporary anthropology and other disciplines and in the broader dialogues ongoing in our troubled and turbulent world. Let us hope such voices prevail rather than the virulent voices of “backlash” that currently threaten good scholarship, better gender relations, and our shared planetary life.


Besnier, Niko, and Kaliassa Alexeyeff, eds. 2014. Gender on the edge: Transgender, gay and other Pacific Islanders. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

Franklin, Sarah. 2016. “Editor’s introduction: The riddle of gender.” In Before and after gender: Sexual mythologies of everyday life. Edited and with an introduction by Sarah Franklin. Afterword by Judith Butler. Chicago: HAU Books.

MacCormack, Carol P., and Marilyn Strathern, eds. 1980. Nature, culture and gender. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.[399]

Strathern, Marilyn. 1987. “An awkward relationship: The case of feminism and anthropology.” Signs 12 (2): 276–92.

———. 1988. The gender of the gift: Problems with women and problems with society in Melanesia. Berkeley: University of California Press.

———. 2016. Before and after gender: Sexual mythologies of everyday life. Edited and with an introduction by Sarah Franklin. Afterword by Judith Butler. Chicago: HAU Books.


Margaret Jolly
College of Asia and the Pacific
Australian National University
H. C. Coombs Building 9
Fellows Road
Canberra ACT 0200