women's business and men's business

Mythosociology is derived from a tradition of secret and non-secret women's and men's business in which women exclude men from some ceremonies as do the men with women. Secrecy preserves the integrity of law and mixed ceremony maintains harmony. Diane Bell (1986:78) indicates that for remote Aboriginal communities of Central Australia:

the usual pattern is that during the day men socialize with men and women with women, each in an area taboo to the other ... Today, as in the past, at evening time when men and women come together in family camps ... [m]atters of common concern are discussed between husband and wife, and the produce of the day is shared. In the ebb and flow of daily life the independence and interdependence of the sexes is clearly illustrated. Wendy Ludwig (1983:79) observes "the traditional way of coming to a consensus within an Aboriginal community is a process of consultation throughout the community ... it can take a long time and should not be rushed".

Admission to women's business and men's business is by initiation, which for men can be rigorous to counter a propensity to aggression. The most rigorous initiation cycles occur in the harshest ecologies where social disruption can devastate a community. Lester Hiatt (1986:10) describes male initiation rituals of the Pintupi, a Central Australian desert community inhabiting one of the most marginal territories for human occupation on Earth.

The disciplines imposed by Pintupi men are sustained and severe. They include tooth evulsion, nose piercing, circumcision, subincision, fire ordeals, and the removal of fingernails. Novices may be beaten for too much talking, inattention, or insolence. They may be awakened at any hour of the night and chased with bullroarers. From time to time they stand in a line with heads bowed, signifying subordination, and during ritual performances senior men shout orders and threaten them with violence.

Totems distribute mythosociological knowledge throughout a community. My own induction into an Aboriginal community was with the custodians of the Eagle totem. Coincidentally, I have many of the character traits a Jungian analyst might attribute to an eagle, as with my vision. After injecting a flouride dye into a vein and examining my pupil, an optometrist once told me my eyes are amongst the steadiest he has seen, in the range of those whose occupations involve intense distance gazing like airline pilots and graziers.

Like many who identify with indigenous communities my family history is uncertain. My grandfather's clan relocated to Victoria from Tasmania after the island's full blood Aborigines had succumbed and remnant communities were being relocated to settlements in Bass Strait. A comprehensive family history undertaken by my uncle reveals no mention of my ancestor, Emma Young, in the Register of Tasmanian Pioneers, as was the protocol with those of indigenous descent. My father, who has passed away, was brought up without being informed of his family's history in Tasmanian, consistent with the concealment of identity to avoid internment.

After spending my formative years with the Victorian Aboriginal community I presented an Honours thesis on Aboriginal Sociology to a faculty at Deakin University. The Dean of the faculty claimed that "to proceed in terms of Aboriginal Sociology ... (is) ... to reject what counts as sociology". (Bryan Turner, personal communication, 3 August, 1994) What counts to whom, I pondered? The faculty failed my thesis in which I argued the validity of a gender-centered approach to the study of social behavior and society.

Women's business and men's business generates gender-specific assemblies of knowledge. Isobel White (1975:125) analyses divisions in the traditions of Central Australian desert-dwellers.

Central Australian myths can be divided into a number of categories, in accordance with their ownership by men or women and the knowledge that each sex is permitted to have of them. The two major categories are myths belonging to men, with male heroes as the central characters, and enacted in ceremonies by men alone, contrasted with myths belonging to women, with emphasis on female characters, and enacted by women alone. In addition there are myths, belonging to men, which are dramatized with women playing minor parts under the authority of men. Women and children can see sections of these ceremonies, but for long periods they must lie face downwards with their eyes hidden (today they also cover themselves with blankets), while men patrol the rows of recumbent bodies to ensure that there is no peeping. Then there are myths, belonging primarily to men, but also shared by women, emphasising both female and male characters, whose enactment is by each sex alone.

Annette Hamilton (1981:82) terms women's business and men's business homosociality, referring "to the situation when people turn to one another for their primary social and political relationships, and personal respect and affection, strictly according to criteria of gender". Traditional human communities around the globe celebrate women's business and men's business. Eaton Boyd, Marjorie Shostak and Melvin Konner (1990:139) examine the status this organisational behavior generates for women.

Perhaps the most intriguing finding true in varying degrees of most hunters and gatherers, is one that defies the common caveman stereotype of our Stone Age past. Instead of being subservient and dependent, women are central to the economy, autonomous in their actions, and in positions of influence quite comparable to those of males. Relations between the sexes, instead of resembling a battle, are usually more like a skirmish; and in at least one group, the Agta of the Philippines, the conflict may be almost non-existent. If human societies were ranked according to the status of women, most foragers would be positioned near the end closest to full equality.

Another striking finding is that little in the structure of the foraging lifestyle requires male privilege. Instead, many features encourage an egalitarian system and a position of overall strength for women, along with men: (1) the importance of gathered food and economic independence of women; (2) comparable mobility for men and women; (3) the absence of social or economic class structure; (4) leadership that is informal, noninheritable, and antiauthoritarian; (5) problem resolution that maximises individuals' participation in group decisions; (6) an emphasis on cooperation, sharing, and generalized reciprocity; (7) minimal property ownership with little value placed on accumulation; (8) fluid band composition; (9) small living groups in which men and women mix freely; (10) low frequency of war and of elaborate preparations for war.

Finally, women's business and men's business is as much a reality in the post-industrial world as in the past. A few years ago I took action against a violent neighbour by way of an application in a Local Court for an order for personal protection. As the magistrate entered the Court on the day set aside for the hearing, the complainants, my wife, of indigenous Fijian descent though a resident of Australia for 20 years and since, sadly passed away, and myself, together with the defence, comprising the male neighbour, his elderly Italian speaking mother, his male lawyer, and a female interpreter, approached a long table before the bench. I took a seat at one end. Several paces away sat the lawyer, the neighbor, his mother and the interpreter, in that order. My wife, sensing the importance of the occasion, moved all the way to the far end of the table to sit with the women. I retrieved her from amidst the defendants, explaining that the Court did not recognise indigenous custom. After several hours of negotiation I withdraw the application, deciding that Common Law was not a sanctuary in which our concerns would be met with justice.

Women's business and men's business influence every aspect of social culture. The next article identifies archetypes generated from social organisation.



Bell, Diane (1986) 'Central Australian Aboriginal Women's Love Rituals'. In, Eleanor Leacock and Helen I. Safa (eds) Women's Work: Development of the Division of Labour by Gender. Massachusetts: Bergin and Garvey Publishers Inc: 75-95.

Hamilton, Annette (1981) 'A complex strategical situation: gender and power in Aboriginal Australia'. In, Norma Grieve and Patricia Grimshaw (eds) Australian Women: Feminist Perspectives. Melbourne: Oxford University Press: 69-85.

Ludwig, Wendy (1983) 'Women and Land Rights: A Review'. In, Fay Gale (ed) We Are Bosses Ourselves. Canberra: Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies: 78-83.

White, Isobel (1975) 'Sexual conquest and submission in the myths of Central Australia'. In, L.R. Hiatt (ed) Australian Aboriginal Mythology. Canberra: Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies: 123-142.


Hiatt, Lester, Richard (1986) Aboriginal Political Life. Canberra: Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies.

Women and Men:

Eaton, Boyd S.; Shostak, Marjorie; and Konner, Melvin (1990) 'Woman the Gatherer'. In, Elvio Angelino (ed) Anthropology 90/91. Connecticut: Dushkin.

last updated 28, March, 2011