The Paradox of Female Gift Giving

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In contrast to our usual thinking, giving is inherently asymmetrical.

Power may be involved in gift giving in several ways. Gifts may enhance

personal status or power. They create a relationship of debt and dependency

between giver and recipient in which the possibility of power abuse

is always present. Gifts, and with them the identity of the giver, may be

refused. Gift giving to some people excludes others from the material and

immaterial benefits implied in this practice. In gift exchange structural

inequality of resources may be involved; on the basis of power inequality

some people feel obliged to give much while receiving little, whereas

others, though poor givers themselves, are endowed with abundant gifts.

How do women, as the greatest givers and recipients, come into this

picture? In the light of the many possibilities to exercise power by means

of gift giving, it is too easy and even misleading to consider women’s

greater liberality as the mere expression of noble feeling. In addition to

affection, respect, or gratitude, also manipulation, flattering, or being

in need of personal attention are common motives to give (of course,

this applies to both genders). Women seem to be no exception when

painful, hurting, or offending gifts are given and, after all, are not the

most notorious poisoners in history of the female sex?

Another explanation draws upon structural power asymmetries between

women and men and upon the difference in resources fromwhich

power may be derived. It is not clear which gender benefits most from

women’s liberality. On the one hand, women’s gift giving may be considered

as a manifestation of gendered power inequality, because this is what

they are expected to do as housewives. Their liberality may turn against

them, for example, when they sacrifice their own autonomy for the sake

of others. On the other hand, giving by women entails many attractive

benefits to themselves as well: closer relationships and more extended social

networks, and, therefore, a greater chance to receive attention, care,

or help from others when necessary.Moreover, women receive relatively

many material gifts themselves, which is also a pleasant aspect. How the

balance of benefits or disadvantages for women as greatest givers will

exactly weigh out depends on their personal power resources and social


Women’s gift giving is caught in a fundamental paradox. On the one

hand, their gift exchange may be considered a powerful means of affirming

social identities and of creating and maintaining social relationships.

Women’s activity in this domain might be interpreted as an effort “to

secure permanence in a serial world that is always subject to loss and

decay” (Weiner 1992: 7). On the other hand, given their unequal societal

and economic power compared with that of men, women incur the

risk of losing their own identity by giving much to others. In the act

of giving, women are simultaneously creating the opportunity to keep

or gain power, and making themselves vulnerable to the loss of power

and autonomy.Weiner’s idea about “keeping-while-giving” – exchanging

things in order to keep them – is a perfect illustration of this paradoxical

tension in women’s gift giving: to overcome the threats of loss – of their

own selves, of their power vis-`a-vis men, and of important social bonds –

they give away abundantly. And, as a consequence of giving abundantly,

they are facing the threat of losing their autonomy. It is as though men’s

greater societal and economic power not only renders it less urgent for

them to engage in substantial gift giving but also protects them from loss

of autonomy through giving to other people.

The gender difference in gift giving illustrates the substantial role of

women in creating the social cement of society. Although many forms of

solidarity are not gendered at all, this applies neither to gift giving nor to

informal care, a type of solidarity that is discussed in Chapters 6 and 7.

Despite their increased emancipation, women still have the largest share

in informal care. In these cases solidarity is clearly related to gender.