You Don’t Need To Be a Colonist to Find Gold
Whether they’re backpacking through another continent, making friendship bracelets at camp, or staying home to catch up on all the Netflix he or she missed out on during the school year, every student dreads the exact same experience each summer: summer homework. As a rising junior, my break is no exception. I have what seems like an infinite number of pages of math, a list of books to read so long that if I stacked all of them and then accidentally tipped them over, I would die crushed, and not one, not two, but three sources to examine for history! Not wanting to have a mountain of work and papers to climb over on the eve of September 4th, I set to work a few weeks ago. I dutifully opened up my history sources, and sorted the interactions between Native Americans and Europeans into how political, economic, or religious they were. In the midst of all this reading, I would usually have scanned the texts purely for the information that I needed. I would have read about how Columbus went to the New World in search for gold for the one hundred and first time, and then I would have been done. Instead, among the rivers of words and cavernous passages, I found some gold of my own. It was not yellow or shiny, and it was less than two inches long, but to me, it was as good as anything Columbus enslaved natives to dig for.
My newfound treasure was a passage describing matrilineal societies in Africa. It said that in these communities, when a couple got married, the husband would leave his family and move in with his wife’s and that instead of tracing their heredity through and inheriting money from their fathers, they did so through their mothers! This passage was a fraction of a fraction of my summer reading, but it stood out to me like a shiny piece of jewellery. It went on to describe that while these communities did divide work by gender, women often played an important role in trade, and in many areas, they were the main farmers. Women were also in charge of taking care of children and preparing food. This fazed me because although people in these African communities acknowledged that men and women were different, they played equally important roles both inside the home and out. This was embellished further when the passage mentioned that there were male leaders for “male affairs” and female leaders for “female affairs”. Finally, it explained that despite most tribal leaders being men, the position was customarily passed down to the chief’s sister’s son instead of the chief’s son.
I, for one, don’t care whose lineage we trace or what parent we inherit money from as long as it is not hurting anyone, but reading this passage’s description of gender roles in the African matrilineal societies astounded me. This passage was as valuable to me as a gold coin would have been to the early colonists because it opened my eyes about gender roles in history. It showed me that we are not naturally patriarchal and that while men and women are different, our roles have been equally celebrated and respected. Anyone can have an opinion on how truly equal men and women were in the societies I read about and whether there was ever true “gender equality”, but I found it striking that communities such a long time ago were even trying! In most history classes, we only ever hear about patrilineal societies and how since the beginning of time, men have been the natural leaders which is why patriarchies are the modes of the globe’s social structures, but here, we saw an exception!
We saw the trends of our history broken, but most students reading the same textbook as me will probably skip over this passage. Who can blame them? It’ summer, homework is boring, and no one cares enough to start a conversation about the few lines of the book dedicated to African gender roles! At least that was the case until now. Until I wrote this blog post and invited all of you not only to read, comment on and debate about gender in different societies through history, but to share ANYTHING about feminism that popped out at you during summer reading, or any reading that you want other people to discuss. KidsForShe is here to explore all of those short, interesting ideas about gender equality you run into everyday and feel like you want to talk to someone about. So please share and comment below so we can foster debates and become the educated leaders of tomorrow.
Brinkley, Alan. American History: Connecting With The Past. 15th ed., New York, McGraw-Hill Education, 2015, p. 21.
By Magdalena Del Valle