Woman, Culture, and Society - Michelle Rosaldo (Editor),  Louise Lamphere (Editor)
There was much to fascinate me in this book; I'll have to read it again, though, to let more sink in.

It's hard for me to appreciate how pioneering it was for these writers to address the role of women in social structures. Of course, I haven't read much anthropology, so I wouldn't know how much matters have improved since -- I'm sure the imbalance hasn't been completely corrected. The intent of the editors, discussed in the introduction, was twofold -- one was to discover the ways that women are actors in their own lives and societies, and another was to provide a source of ideas for US and European women attempting to improve their own position -- understanding the causative social and economic factors underlying variation would be very helpful. (In passing, the various authors frequently dispute simplistic biological determinism, as most famously stated at that time by Lionel Tiger.)

Rosaldo starts by documenting universal asymmetry of the sexes: women may have power ("the ability to act effectively on persons or things, to take or secure favourable decisions which are not of right allocated to the individuals or their roles" in M.G. Smith's definition) but they essentially never have authority ("the right to make a particular decision and to command obedience") outside their own domestic family. She indicates that partial exceptions, such as famously the Iroquois, or the Mende discussed by Hoffer in this volume, never give women access to the very highest authority. Collier also gave a general account of various ways women might affect political decisions.

Chodorow and Ortner take a psychoanalytic and symbol-oriented approach to the formation of male and female roles; they don't think that these roles are immutable, however. Certainly symbolism, such as the nature-culture dichotomy, is very resistant to change, but it does vary from society to society and over time. Paul made reference to both these articles in an elucidation of the self-concept (the body in work and sex) of women in a South American village, also making coherent sense of some customs that can only seem very strange to outsiders. And Bamberger analyzes the social significance of myths of original matriarchy, sharply disputing feminists who would like to use them as models for the future.

Sanday tried to take an empirical approach to uncovering the roots of female status, but her results were of dubious value, in my opinion: she started with a highly speculative scenario for how status evolved over time (but arranged factors in "chronological" order that surely must always have been simultaneous) and used a data-set of only 12 societies to come up with weak support for it. One thing that interested me was that she used four factors to rank status in various societies on a scale of 1 (lowest) to 5 (highest); by these factors, 19th century European women were at the lowest end, and still aren't at the highest.

A more fruitful approach to "controlled comparison" was Leis contrasting two Ijaw towns, only one of which had a strong association of women traders; it did, again, suffer by small sample size. Rather speculative, too, though drawing on four societies, was Sacks's revision of Engels's account of women's status in the context of class formation and labor exploitation. All these economic accounts contribute their pieces to a valuable understanding, though.

Denich attempted to ground the social structures of Balkan communities in the ecological-economic conditions that led men to either very highly value ties with male kin (she sees this leading naturally to the necessity of strongly suppressing women) in the case of pastoralists, or less strong, with lesser inequality, in the case of agriculturalists. This is both like and unlike O'Laughlin's analysis; her article, one of the most interesting in the volume, first pointed out that there was not a real differentiation of labor between men and women in Mbum villages, but nonetheless men controlled surplus and reproduction -- her Marxist interpretation of the reasons for certain features of ideology there rested on the need to create social ideas to make sense of this and other contradictions, and was not directly ecological like Denich's but rather rested on the organization of the economy.

Stack and Tanner addressed the issue of "matrifocality", which Tanner redefines from earlier views as an anomaly or even pathology to instead being a cultural role where mothers are highly valued, their authority is regarded as legitimate, and girls are socialized to take an active part in kin decisions. Stack notes that in the poor African-American families she studied, there was relatively little difference in how girls and boys were socialized.

Lamphere discussed the factors that might lead to cooperation or conflict among women in domestic groups, not biological, but rooted in particular circumstances; Wolf showed these factors in play in Chinese families.