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Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Volume 36, Number 10. 23rd May 1973

Evelyn Reed — Preaching Myths to the Converted

Evelyn Reed

Preaching Myths to the Converted

Evelyn Reed, self-styled 'independent Marxist anthropologist' and feminist author, was imported to preach to the converted and those who felt they should be at the Young Socialist's conference earlier this month. Her major speech, 'Is Biology Women's Destiny' attempted both to uproot the old myth of women's frailty and thus 'natural' subordination to men, and to replace it with the real 'history' of women, in much the same way as the negroes in the U.S. in the '60's. Unfortunately, myth masquerades as an academic investigation which no well-wisher would foist on feminists, so fragile is her construction and so threadbare her evidence.

She attempted to prove that women's role, which includes physical strength, is socially determined. The present oppression of women, she maintains, finds its origin in the structure of capitalist Society, in the need for the business 'monopolists' to enhance the masculinity (or self-respect) of the workers they 'must' use as cannon-fodder to maintain power: "Women are thrown to the dogs of men who are thrown to the dogs of war". According to what she labels as "the military thesis" male + arms = power, which is then glorified as 'biological superiority'! At any level, this is an extremely simplistic approach to the complex social structure of 'western society' — and, of course, this is part of its attraction. However, Ms Reed must then explain away male domination in 'primitive' societies. This male domination might indicate to a commentator less biased than Ms Reed that a social system based only on kinship can also cause 'oppression'.

Her explanation is a materialist, evolutionary hypothesis, which owes as much to 19th century 'armchair' anthropologists working with doubtful evidence as it does to a literal translation of Marx. Just as Morgan, Tylor and the Greeks had their Golden Age of liberty, equality and fraternity, so does Ms Reed: they differ only in one essential detail. Ms Reed's ideal society is matriarchal, i.e. women rule, compared with the patriarchal or lack of domination by either sex envisaged by other myth-makers. There is no private property, no nuclear families the women's decisions are respected by the men as rational and "In the best interest of all". The men fight solely to protect the community; and hold the women in high regard as procreators, economic producers, "centres of comfort", and rational decisionmakers.

She cites the Iroquois tribe as an example and then blandly argues from this one (very doubtful) case to all primitive societies, hardly a scientific procedure. Just as there is no evidence to support the social evolutionists' 'primitive promiscuity' (a misunderstanding of kinship classification) and their 'Golden Age', so Ms Reed's thesis must fall by the scientific wayside. The acceptance of this myth by feminists is dangerous, since it rests on leaps of faith and indicates a basic lack of confidence; it is easily destroyed by evidence and logic.

Futhermore Ms Reed contradicts herself by postulating that the definition of women — and thus 'basic characteristics' varies according to social structure, yet also citing qualities such as rationality, desire for peace and order as feminine universals, as displayed in the 'Golden Age'! While pointing out how physical capabilities of women (and men, I might add) vary from culture to culture, she never demolishes the central problem for certain feminists of coming to grips with their biological capacity to bear children. As it's easy to find other cultures and even sub-cultures of the Western world where the rearing of the child is shared, or not determined by biological motherhood, I am surprised that she did not tackle and demolish the 'problem' (see e.g. Margaret Mead's 'Male and Female' and Bruno Bettelheim's 'Children of the Dream').

Her definition of 'productivity', related as it is to 'meaning fulness' gives her trouble, because she seems to fit only work outside the home with definite, concrete results in this category. Indeed, her materialist model serves only to make bad myths, not to elucidate. She fails to understand that the material and political spheres comprise only one dimension of superficial social reality.. Her difficulties are thus self-imposed and ethnocentric: she seeks to make universal statements and observations which ignore other spheres such as religion, cosmology, values, personality and cognition. While the major principle in Western society (itself having little cultural uniformity) may be materialism, at least superficially, this is rarely the case with other primitive and peasant societies.

It makes far more sense, both factually and logically, not to isolate women from men, and vice versa, but to see as universal two complementary categories, 'male'/'female' whose content is culturally determined. The content of both categories and hence the relationship between men and women are confused and thus unsatisfactory. 'Liberation of both women and men goes far beyond material or individualistic (e.g. abortion) aspects which ate easily satisfied by 'capitalist' governments, thus perpetuating 'the system'. Feminists whose horizon is limited to this sphere treat only the symptoms, and not the cause of unrest.