Dealing with Motherhood in Other Societies
Karen Sacks, a professor of anthropology and director of women’s studies at the University of California at Los Angeles was one of the women who showed how women would deal differently with motherhood in other societies. The definition of a mother is in these societies quite different. Extended families was a major contributing factors. An extended family is a family that extends beyond the nuclear family, and it thus consists of grandparents, aunts, uncles, or cousins all living nearby or in the same household.
In her book, Sisters and Wives, written in 1982, she writes a lively and beautifully researched analysis of mothers roles in primitive societies (pre-capitalist) in Africa. She showed how they turn out to be quite interesting for women’s issues throughout our modern world. She does not moan about the equality debate between men and women but gives a data driven explanation of women’s relationships and their status across six different African groups of societies.
The Definition of Motherhood
In analyzing the ethnographic data describing the division of labor by sex in 224 societies, Karen Sacks showed in 1979 the enormous range of economic activities that women perform in different societies (Sisters and wives. The past and future of sexual equality. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1979). Women may be primarily responsible, for
“(…)mining and quarrying, stone work, lumbering, herding, clearing the land for agriculture, burden carrying, and grain grinding”(…)”
Furthermore, Sacks found that in all societies women combine these physical activities of producing food and material objects with the physical activities of child rearing and motherhood.
“While carrying, bearing, and nursing babies is certainly productive labor, no human society has denied this as the totality of women’s labor.”
A most significant conclusion of Sacks, and directly contrary to most analyses, is that it has been women’s subsistence or productive activities that have shaped her relationships to reproduction and the conditions of her motherhood rather than the opposite. They did indeed have another definition of a mother, family life and the role of extended families.
Ruth Bleier another scientist, devoted herself to applying gender role analyses and perspectives to the theories and practices of science after seeing how sexist and other cultural biases affected the biological sciences. She did not agree with the many gender differences in the areas of math, verbal skills and creativity supposedly biologically based.
Ruth received her M.D. in 1949 from the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania, then the only remaining women’s medical school in the country. She practiced general medicine in the poor, inner city of Baltimore for nearly ten years. She then took a postdoctoral training position in neuro anatomy at the John Hopkins School of Medicine and joined the Department of Neurophysiology at Wisconsin in 1967. In the early 1970s, her book Science and Gender, A Critique of Biology and Its Theories on Women, and her anthology, Feminist Approaches to Science, are considered classics and are required reading in many women’s studies courses.
Ruth Bleier wrote in 1984 in her book Science and gender. A critique of biology and its theories on women (Pergamon Press. p. 145-146):
‘It is reasonable to assume that !Kung women know that nursing stops menstruation and therefore pregnancy, and they are thus scheduling their childbearing to fit the requirements and capacities of their essential foraging and other productive activities, which provide the majority of the group’s food and water… The difference between women and men is women’s capacity to bear children, and this must, therefore, account for all the other dichotomies and inequalities, whether or not they follow logically… However the ethnographic and ethno historical evidence demonstrates that there has not been a universal basic division of labor into the categories of women’s reproduction and men’s production, and that women have not been universally excluded from any sphere of productive activities by their childbearing capacity or by child care.‘
Women have not been universally excluded from any sphere of productive activities by their childbearing capacity or by child care. It seems to be rather a matter of organization or social institutions so exclusion of young mothers does not take place on a large scale. The notion of extended families is crucial in the analysis.
Here are Margaret Meads views on the nuclear versus the extended families.