Women, Gifts, and Power

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It is not that agents “create” the asymmetry; they enact it. In

summary: being active and passive are relative and momentary

positions; in so far as the relevant categories of actors are “male”

and “female” then either sex may be held to be the cause of

the other’s acts; and the condition is evinced in the perpetual

possibility of the one being vulnerable to the exploits of the

other or able to encompass the other. The conclusion must be

that these constructions do not entail relations of permanent

domination.

(Marilyn Strathern 1988: 333–334)

Since Mauss and Malinowski the concept of “the gift” has been one of

the main issues in anthropological research in non-Western cultures.

An important question is whether gender plays any role in practices

of gift exchange and, if so, what the nature of this role might be. The

older anthropological contributions seem to be based on the assumption

that women do not have any significant role in gift exchange. While

Malinowski recognizes that women take a prominent part in certain

ceremonial actions (1950 [1922]: 37), he does not mention any active

female part in gift exchange; all his examples involve men.Writing some

decades after Malinowski, Lґevi-Strauss (1961 [1949]) draws attention to

the practice occurring in many non-Western societies, that of exchanging

women as the supreme gift. The prohibition of incest functions as a rule

of reciprocity among men offering their sisters as marriage partners to

other men outside their own clan. The exchange of women is described

by Lґevi-Strauss as being at the base of systems of kinship relations.Men,

in his account, primarily see women as objects of gift exchange but not as

subjects. Western anthropologists have usually interpreted the apparent

absence of women as autonomous actors in gift exchange as a sign of the

hierarchical dominance of men over women in Melanesia. As Marilyn

Strathern argues in The Gender of the Gift (1988), however, this interpretation

is biased by Western preconceptions. In Melanesia no permanent

relations of dominance exist between men and women. Rather, women

and men are alternatively subject or object for each other in their efforts

to create and sustain social relations by means of gift exchange.

This raises the question what the role of power is in women’s gift exchange.

We already know from Chapter 2 that gifts are not exclusively

friendly acts, springing fromsympathy or love, but may also be conscious

or unconscious vehicles to exercise power.How power is exactly involved

in acts of gift exchange is not entirely clear, though. Power comes to be

expressed in several facets of the phenomenon of gift exchange. I would

think of the following possibilities (certainly not an exhaustive enumeration).

First, giving extravagantly may be a means to obtain or affirm

power and prestige, as Malinowski’s fieldwork on the Trobriand Islands

has shown. Second, receiving a gift brings about feelings of dependence

and gratitude. Georg Simmel points to the fact that gratitude is not only

morally obliging but also opens up the possibility ofmoral or other dominance

by the giver over the recipient; for example, in gift giving power

may be exercised by keeping the other indebted, or by demanding favors

from the person in debt. Third, in the act of refusing or rejecting a gift,

power is at stake because the refuser’s definition of the situation – no

continuation of the gift relationship – is imposed to the giver; not only

the gift is refused but also the identity of the giver.

These three instances of the exercise of power by means of gift giving are

mainly of a psychological nature, in that individual characteristics, assets,

or feelings are involved. But gift exchange may also include sociological

power characteristics. A fourth example, then, is that of reciprocal gift

exchange functioning as a principle of exclusion by – consciously or

unconsciously – affirming ties between the members of one’s own group,

and excluding others from participation within networks of mutual gift

giving. And, fifth, the structural characteristics of the gift relationship

may be such that reciprocity is not equivalent, for example, when one

party feels obliged to givemuch with low expectations of return, whereas

the other, more powerful party feels entitled to receive much without

having to give much in return. In such cases the resources both parties

dispose of are of unequal material or immaterial value.

From Annette Weiner’s book Women of Value, Men of Renown (1976)

it appears that this applies to women’s and men’s positions in Papua

New Guinea: women and men perform activities in different domains

and dispose of different types of resources from which their respective

power positions emanate.Weiner attempts to redress the picture arising

from Malinowski’s work, of women as playing no role of any importance

in gift exchange. Like Malinowski, Weiner collected her data on

the Trobriand Islands. She shows that women are not exclusively the objects

of gift exchange by men, as Claude Lґevi-Strauss had suggested, but

have an important and autonomous part in it. It appears from her research

that gift giving occurs not only within but also between genders.

Weiner clearly relates women’s role in gift exchange to power and seems

to conceive of power as a means of control over people and resources:

“Wemust push exchange beyond the level of our view of the social world

and seek to understand exchange as the means, however limited, of gaining

power over people and control over resources in the widest sense”

(1976: 220).

More recently, Weiner (1992) points to an important category of

possessions, which may shed a new light on theories of reciprocity,

and the role of power within these theories. She calls these possessions

inalienable because they must not be given or, if they are circulated,

must return finally to the giver (see Chapter 3). According to Weiner,

“keeping-while-giving” is the fundamental drive underlying gift exchange,

reciprocity merely being a superficial aspect of it. Inalienable

possessions invariably share a general symbolism associatedwith the cosmological

domains of human reproduction and cultural reproduction of

the kin group. Cloth is an example of such an inalienable possession.

Women, being the main producers and owners of cloth in most Oceania

societies, play a pivotal part in the process of keeping-while-giving.

Women’s role in this domain is of key political significance, because

power, or the (re)production of rank and hierarchy, is intimately involved

in cultural reproduction. Women’s autonomous share in gift exchange,

their ownership of inalienable possessions, and their attendant strategical

power position have remained unrecognized by most anthropologists.

One notable exception is the Dutch anthropologist van Baal (1975),

who, a s ea rly a s in the 1970s, attempted to redress the view shared by

many anthropologists – and particularly Lґevi-Strauss – of women as the

passive objects of exchange processes between men, denying them any

subjectivity of their own. Van Baal emphasizes the tremendous importance

of women, not only as bearers of children but also as providers of

motherly care and succor. This makes women immensely valuable to society

in general and to men in particular. A woman, then, is not passively

given away but agrees to be given away in marriage to a man of another

group because she, being the “wife to the one and sister to the other,

has manoeuvred herself into an intermediary position allowing her to

manipulate. Two men protect her. The one owes a debt to the other and

the other owes one to her” (van Baal 1975: 76).

Women’s role in gift exchange inWestern society has not been the focus

of much research. The few studies that do exist, however, show unequivocally

that women not only give more gifts than men – material as well as

nonmaterial ones – but are also the greatest recipients. Which meaning

should be attached towomen’s greater gift giving?Howdo these empirical

findings relate to anthropological theories about women’s power position

in the domains of human and cultural reproduction? Can we learn

anything from these theories with regard to women, gifts, and power

in Western society? It is not immediately clear how we should interpret

Western women’s greater gift giving. To say that women are more altruistic

than men is too simple and superficial. Empirical research does

not show any substantial gender differences in altruism (Schwartz 1993).

Gift giving by women is embedded in a network of social expectations,

norms, and rules regarding their societal rights and duties and their position

within the family. On certain domains women’s social position in

Western societies is still subordinate to that of men. The embeddedness

of feminine liberality in persistent patterns of social inequality between

genders suggests that women, gifts, and power are somehow related

to each other. However, women’s gift giving might not be as unequivocally

or unambiguously related to power inequality as we are inclined to

think when we depart from women’s object status and subordinate position

inWestern society. Anthropological theories likeWeiner’s may contribute

to deemphasize this focus onwomen’s social subordination and to

create room for other, less one-dimensional and more sophisticated

interpretations.

In this chapter, the meaning of women’s greater gift giving inWestern

society is explored by connecting it to social power inequality between

genders. First, some of our own empirical results are presented insofar

as they concern gender (Komter and Schuyt 1993a; 1993b). On the basis

of these results, I argue that altruism is not a plausible explanation of

women’smore active role in gift giving. Second, I try toclarify the relationship

between women’s gift giving and power by suggesting four different

models of reciprocity, in which the relative benefits from women’s gift

giving accruing to men and women differ. The outcome of this analysis

proves to be more ambiguous than the power perspective suggests in the

first place.

table 4.1. Gifts Given or Received

according to Gender (%)

Given/Received

Women Men

Presents 90/75 84/55

Money 85/58 84/49

Food 74/62 66/56

Stay 71/42 59/39

Care/help 73/62 58/48

Source: Komter and Schuyt (1993b).