Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 23.1 (2002) 1-22
[Access article in PDF]
A Structural Model for Examining Case Examples of Women in Less-Developed Countries
Laurie Wermuth and Miriam Ma'at-Ka-Re Monges
Feminist social history and theory have produced an array of approaches for the purpose of deconstructing historical records and theoretical frameworks that previously took for granted the second-class status and cultural insignificance of women. However, tools for systematic comparative analysis have not been fully integrated into the study of women's place across societies and social classes. A structural theory of gender stratification based on the work of Rae Lesser Blumberg and Randall Collins offers tools for the systematic and comparative study of women across societies and periods of history.
By "structural" model we mean one that examines the institutional relationships of women and men in the economy, politics, and the family. This structural/materialist approach has remained in the domain of a relatively small group of sociologists and anthropologists for reasons that are not entirely clear. Blumberg, Collins, and others have developed theoretical models for the comparative study of gender equality. 1 Relatively greater female control over sexuality and fertility, the timing of marriage, and partner choice reflect more equality. Increasing gender equality is also indicated by women's ability to divorce abusive husbands, share household authority, and exert local political influence. As a complement to detailed ethnographic and historical studies, a structural model offers promising tools for examining the forces that affect women's social and economic positions in less-developed countries. Such analyses can also fortify social and economic policy recommendations. The first section of this paper explains the gender stratification model, and the second discusses case examples from Kerala (India), southern Africa, and Cambodia. In the conclusion we list several policy implications. [End Page 1]
The basic principles of a theory of gender stratification are as follows:
The amount of surplus in a society determines how much power there is for some individuals to hold over others; 2
The system of gender inequality therefore corresponds to the type of society it belongs to and its stratification system;
Women's economic power is shaped by women's level of control over surplus and the relative importance of what they produce;
Women's economic control is influenced by the relative indispensability of women's labor, how work is organized, and sex ratios in the population; 3
Women's economic power will determine their access to other kinds of power, for example, control over their sexuality and reproduction; 4
Women's influence and power are usually lessened in highly militarized societies because men generally control weaponry and violence is easily turned against the less powerful in households and communities; 5 and
Culture plays a mediating role in shaping the status of women and ideologies about how much and what kinds of influence and power women can wield.
Types of Society and Types of Gender Stratification
The technological base of a society sets parameters for what type of family structure can exist and the degree of gender inequality generated. 6 Gerhard Lenski identifies five ideal types in a materially based model of social stratification. 7 Ideal types identify kinds of social organization in "pure" form with progressively weaker examples lying closer to the next type on a continuum. 8 Ideal types are useful for descriptive as well as comparative and explanatory purposes. In the real world, societies often combine elements of more than one ideal type.
Hunting and gathering societies have small bands of loosely associated families with low surplus and low inequality. Men have little power over women in these societies. Mutual cooperation is necessary for survival, and the division of labor between men and women is functionally and materially based. Despite their hunting role, men often interact closely with women and even with small children. [End Page 2]
Horticultural (non-plow) societies have complex marriage exchanges connecting lineages and tribes. Social and...