Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Grace O'Malley

Grace O'Malley is the Irish pirate captain from the 16th century who, in her late teens, inherited a family fishing and trading business and ran it with her husband. She and her husband managed a fleet of ships, conducting trade with Scotland, Spain, and Portugal, at which time she became involved in political maneuverings and tribal intrigue among her Irish countrymen to help her clan gain control of large sections of land on the coast. At that time, ports in the English Channel were owned by the English, so her fleet of ships conducted pirate activity, offering merchant ships safe passage through their section of the Channel for a fee and threatening them with attack if they refused.

When the English took away her husband's political position over the Irish territories, Grace and her husband took revenge by taking over the island castle of Caislean-an-Circa, owned by the Joyce clan. The Joyce clan retaliated, and Grace's husband was killed in the attack. Grace, however, drove the Joyce clan out of the settlement with her band of pirates, and it was at that point she took leadership over the fleet and it's 200 fighting men, still under the age of 20. She always fought with her crew and often led the men in battle.

English forces were sent out to take the castle back from Grace and surrounded the settlement, holding it under siege, at which point Grace ran out of ammunition. However, she noticed the roof of the castle was made out of lead and ordered the roof stripped off and melted for ammunition, which enabled them to pound the English into retreat. Before the English forces could advance again, Grace sent scouts to set flares among the English forces to find them at night, at which point her fleet pursued them and continued to fire upon them until the English gave up.

She established herself on Clare Island in Clew Bay and continued to prosper mightily in business. Grace took another lover, but when he too was killed by another clan, she swiftly took revenge on them by tracking them down and killing clan members, then taking over their castle, moving her own people in to take over. Unless she was provoked to take revenge for a loved ones' murder, most times she was subtle and diplomatic in her business and political dealings. She continued to take over castles to unite large areas of land so that all it's territories were owned by members of her clan.

She often aided Irish rebellions against the English and her fleet continued in their pirating. English authorities were annoyed by this and attacked her occasionally, although she always outsmarted them in battle. The English governor of Connaught, Sir Richard Bingham, tried to wipe Grace out of the area by capturing her, tying her up, confiscating her property and cattle, and trying to steal her ships as well. She escaped and decided to write an appeal to Queen Elizabeth of England, claiming in her letter that her warfare was necessary to protect her people from her neighbors, who "constrained your highness’s fond subject to take arms and by force to maintain herself and her people by sea and land." In addition, she asked the Queen for political pardon for her sons and brother, who had been charged with rebellion activities and imprisoned by Bingham, and requested permission from the Queen to continue to roam the sea freely, offering to attack all the Queen's enemies she encountered there and bring them into submission.

Bingham retaliated by writing to the Queen to accuse Grace of being a political traitor. At this, Grace decided to travel off the see the Queen in person.

Grace was the only Irish rebel to risk such an encounter with the English Queen, and the meeting was a success. The Queen was impressed by Grace and ordered Bingham to release all her relatives from prison and to treat them well, saying "we require you to deal with her sons in our name to yield to her some maintenance for her living the rest of her old years,”. The Queen also allowed her to keep fighting on behalf of English interests at sea. Grace was sixty-three at this point.

Bingham gave in, and Grace fought foreign ships for England while also continuing her piracy activities for income on the side. She continued to fight in battles until her late sixties. She died around 1603.

Barbara Holland, 2001. They Went Whistling: Women Wayfarers, Warriors, Runaways, and Renegades

The Power of Female Autonomy: The !Kung

The !Kung people are a tribal society in the Kalahari Desert in Africa and are another example of a society where women are so self-sufficient in wilderness survival that their decisions carry the same weight as the men in tribal government. They do not rely on the men for assistance in their food production and so there is no hierarchy setting men above women, no need for men’s permission for their use of the land or their activities.

The tribe lives off of vegetation which is gathered from the bush by women and meat from hunting expeditions by men. However, the vegetation provided by women makes up between 60-80% of the tribe’s food and is their staple food since it is the most reliable. It is the nature of the work that gives the women their social prestige, because the women are expert collectors and gatherers of wild edible plants, which is a highly difficult skill requiring years of knowledge, whereas the men do not have this training. Gathering requires knowledge of hundreds of plants at all stages of growth and the ability to discern the difference between poisonous ones that look similar to the edible ones, as well as the knowledge of which parts of the plants are edible in certain seasons and how to prepare and use these plants for medicinal and nutritional purposes. (See Tom Brown’s Field Guide to Wilderness Survival). So the women of the !Kung are self-sufficient in their ability to provide food and medicine for themselves, and they are relied upon by the men and the rest of the tribe for their only regular and reliable food supply.

The !Kung consider meat highly desirable for their diet and a real luxury, but the men cannot provide it regularly, and they can’t provide it without the help of the women. Patricia Draper, a researcher who accompanied the
!Kung men on hunting expeditions, noted in her book the dependence of the men on the women to track the animals while out foraging, because of the women’s expert tracking skills, and to inform the men about how and where to hunt. (Draper 1975:82-83).

In similarity to the Tchambuli, the !Kung have ceremonial positions of symbolic authority that are set aside for men, but these positions function as performance and have no functional role in tribal decisions and governing, which is seemingly democratic.

So economic or survival self-sufficiency of the women in a social group creates a situation in the community where men hold no material threat to women, and the women have leverage over the men to insure they don’t threaten or provoke women physically because the men rely on the women for their own survival. This is a pattern that can be seen in many examples of Matriarchal societies, or societies where women hold the power of the men’s survival in their hands but then disseminate some of that power to the men of the tribe, in the form of ceremonial roles, in order to include them in the group for their own convenience or pleasure.

Peggy Sanday, 1981. Female Power and Male Dominance: on the origins of sexual inequality.
Draper, 1975
Tom Brown, 1986. Field Guide to Wilderness Survival

Monday, June 11, 2007

The Power of Female Solidarity: the Tchambuli

Margaret Mead wrote about her anthropological studies of several tribes in New Guinea in “Sex & Temperament” in 1935. One of these tribes was the Tchambuli, whose gender roles were found to have evolved into something much different than those in western culture.

In Tchambuli culture, the women are the managers of money and business in the home, are emotionally independent from men, and are sexually dominant. Tchambuli men are the ones who are wholly dependant on women and women’s choices, both financially and emotionally.

The dynamics between the genders seem to evolve from a few cultural customs, and some environmental circumstances. Women’s skills create the products that are in demand and that dominate the economy of the tribe. Also, their social life is one of solidarity with each other, because of work relationships and marital arrangements, keeping women who are already lifetime friends together by having them marry into the same family. It is this pair of environmental and cultural circumstances that seem to make female relationships the center of tribal interest, altering every other aspect of their society from male-female relationships to men’s relationships with each other.

The tribe relies on the fishing done by women for its food, rather than agricultural production, and fish are also traded at the market with other tribes for goods that are considered to be currency in the area. In addition, Tchambuli women weave mosquito-bags, which are always in high demand by other tribes because of the environment and bring in a lot of their form of currency. The women, who are the only ones who know how to weave these bags, send their husbands to trade these mosquito-bags and get the best price for them at the market, and the women keep and manage the ‘money’. Husbands rely on the women to receive money to spend for shopping, and spend a day at it, dressing up for the occasion and lingering over purchases.

The women work together in groups of 12 or so all day, cooking together in the same house, weaving together, laughing and socializing, and their infants and small children accompany them. The women have a strong sense of solidarity among each other because of their economic independence and their constant company through work, and as a result they almost never quarrel and are preoccupied with work and with each other, rather than men.

What further bonds the women to each other is that young men are only allowed to marry women related to their mother, usually cousins, which means that as each boy of a household gets married, the women coming into the household to work with the boys' mother are usually from the same family- that of the boys' uncle or aunt – and so are either sisters or cousins to each other. Also, the boys’ mother is an aunt to the new wives. So, the women already know and care for each other and do their work in the same household.

It is the woman who selects the man for marriage, among the men who show interest in her. Even though polygyny is allowed, and some men marry two wives, sometimes three, women who are second wives are sisters, half-sisters, or cousins with the other wife, and so already have a lifetime friendship between them. If a wife is unsatisfied sexually, she has affairs and can leave her original husband to marry someone else who pleases her. The women rush to find a husband for single women past puberty, or widowed women, because they expect her sex drive to compel her to start having affairs and creating havoc among the men. Their saying is ‘Has she not a vulva?’, and ‘Are women passive sexless creatures who can be expected to wait upon the dilly-dallying of formal considerations of bride-price?’.

The women have shaved heads and are unadorned. The men, on the other hand, live to impress the women and win their favor through appearances and entertainment. Tchambuli men adorn themselves with curls in their hair, a highly ornamented fox-skin covering for their pubic area, shell-adorned belts, and/or feather head-dresses. They strive to get attention and affection from women with their looks and their ability to entertain, putting on theatrical performances to charm the women, playing the flute skillfully, and mastering arts like dancing, carving, painting, plaiting, and drumming.

Once they reach puberty, men are expected to spend most of their time at the ‘men’s houses’ where they cook for themselves and socialize with other men. But the men treat each other with competition, jealousy, and constant quarreling and bickering among each other. The men are jealous of each other, afraid that younger or better-looking men will steal the attention or love of their wives from them, and so older and younger men bicker and compete for women’s attention, often trying to sabotage each other to make themselves look more appealing to the women. The environment among the men is without solidarity, lonely, and altogether emotionally insecure. Loyalties between the men are always changing over trumped up offenses, and the men are all critical of each other.

So they sit on the periphery of the women’s houses as often as possible, seeking inclusion from the women who are preoccupied with their work and each other, because the women’s relationships are solid and reliable and they exude emotional confidence. The men get approval and affection only from them, and they strive to charm the women to win their affections.

Even in their theatrical ceremonies, women dominate. The men wear decorated masks. Older men wear large male masks, and younger men wear large female masks, but the masks cover the men so the women don’t know who they are. The women start to dance with each other and mimic sexual activity with each other then they incorporate the men in female masks in their sexual play. They grind up against the female-masked men and each other in different positions, but leave the male-masked men out. They show the male-masked men respect, so as not to hurt their feelings. This festival is meant to be repeated for days, but usually is disrupted by men’s jealousies of the younger men and suspicions of affairs developing between their wives and the younger men.

Ironically, this is a patrilineal society, where names and land are inherited from the men of the family, and technically men own the land. Also, the men are the ‘warriors’ and the ‘hunters’ of the tribe, in theory. However, because the tribe does not live off the produce of the land, but off of the fishing business of the women, it is the women who everyone relies on for food. Because all the products of daily life are purchased from the proceeds of the women’s industry and skill and the currency from it is distributed only by them, men rely on having wives, and the approval of the wives, to keep any property they have and to own anything else they have. And because the men do not seem interested in war, and hunting doesn’t provide food regularly enough for the tribe, the men’s ‘ceremonies’ of leadership in war and hunting are transformed into preoccupation with mastering the visual and performing arts.

The titles of leadership in tribal ceremony is given to the men, and yet the men pine away after the affections of the women who usually kindly tolerate the presence of the men and barely acknowledge them, the women preferring each other’s company and showing interest in men mainly for sex and entertainment.

Among the Tchambuli, the women are the center of female and male attention. Men are emotionally dependant on women because of the women’s emotional independence from them, due to their solidarity with each other. Men are financially dependant on them because of the women’s domination of the marketplace. And men strive to please and charm the women while women feel entitled to be pleased, staying within their own comfort zone and pleasing themselves and each other first.

Mead, 1935. Sex & Temperament