Is Gender Important? by Matthew Gutmann



[00:00:00] As to the question of whether gender is an important topic of discussion—it’s not important unless you happen to be interested in questions of inequality, and unless you happen to be interested in questions of differences between men and women that have what many scholars would call a gendered quality. Gender studies in anthropology have come about as a result of the feminist movement, particularly what is called the second wave of feminism, a militant political movement but also an intellectual movement to reanalyze a lot of things that were taken for granted before. Were it not for that, I would not be sitting here today talking about gender.

Gender is something that is incorporated throughout other studies more broadly. Or at least should be. Whether those studies have to do with demography (studies of population, migration, and families and fertility), whether those studies have to do with economic patterns of commerce and markets, whether they have to do with political relations at a large level, or whether they have to do with political relations in a household, it seems to me that gender is an essential component of understanding how people interpret what it means to be a man, what it means to be a woman.

The Division of Labor

[01:05:00] One of the things that anthropologists who study in Mexico and in Latin America have been focusing on has been differences with respect to divisions of labor in the household—who does what with the children, who does what in terms of all the mundane daily chores, and how these are different in different historical periods, how they’re different based on social class, how they’re different within different ethnic groups. It’s not good enough to say, for instance, that Mestizo people have one kind of cultural attribute, or one way of dividing up chores in the household, and the indigenous peoples of Latin America have another. Because within the grouping of indigenous peoples you will find tremendous differences. Even within people who speak the same indigenous language.

You find fathers spending a great deal of time in Zapotec-speaking coastal regions holding their children, playing with their children, feeding them, bathing them. And in mountain regions you find hardly any men [who] would be caught dead carrying a baby. These are cultural differences, these do not stem from some testosterone-driven difference based on male attributes that are inherited at birth because you are born with a certain male body. They are cultural differences. And what’s more, they change over time.

If there is a division of labor in a household, it is not automatically true that these are unequal simply because one person cooks and one person chops the wood. It has a lot to do with questions of decision making, with overall responsibility, and it has a lot to do with the attitudes of the people involved, how they regard their own situation.


[02:40:00] One of the interesting things about the study of Mexico is the reputation that Mexican men have as being typically macho. Machismo is regarded as something especially Mexican. And it’s been fascinating to me to try and understand what the history of machismo is, both the word but also the concept.

Machismo for many decades now has been attributed to the Andalusian soldiers who brought these kinds of relations and ideas over in the Conquest of Latin America. It has also been attributed by others to the Indians. The word will not be found in any songs, poems, or any other written or oral tradition, prior to the 1930s or 40s. This is not to imply that machismo in the sense of sexism, in terms of notions of male superiority and practices, did not exist prior to this. But something new has come into being this century in Mexico. I think it’s very much tied to notions of Mexican nationalism and notions of what it means to be a Mexican. Starting in the 1930s and 1940s, to be Mexican has been associated with certain notions of courage and bravado, and has been synonymous with being a Mexican male.

Machismo in anybody’s definition is not something unique to Mexico. Some of the most macho images in the world today, whether this be the Marlborough Man or Rambo, I associate more with the United States. George Bush, when he was bombing Iraq, accused Saddam Hussein of being a macho. In all my days I have never heard any leader of state in Latin America accuse another head of state of being a macho.

The terms “macho” and “machismo” are actually used far more in the United States popularly than they are in Mexico. In Mexico these terms are far more associated with social science and journalistic vocabulary. In the United States, they are uniformly equated with sexism, and people will casually talk about somebody being a “macho” as a way to insult somebody who merits the label of being a sexist.

In Mexico, to be macho historically comes from the term meaning masculine, or, going back to the Latin and Portuguese meaning, mule. It is interesting that older men and women often mean something positive if they call a man a macho. They mean that he has supported his family financially. He has always been responsible, as a man should be.

Because of the pejorative sense that the terms macho and machismo have in the social sciences and in journalistic circles in Mexico, younger men will reject this kind of label. There’s a popular expression: “Ni macho, ni mandilón”—“I’m not a macho, but I’m also not a mandilón.” Mandilón comes from “mandil,” which means “apron.” And basically it means “I don’t boss my woman around, and my woman doesn’t boss me around.” In his wife’s opinion, he might be a big macho. But he doesn’t want to call himself that.

Essentially Gendered?

[05:22:00] I was asked once by an archaeologist what I thought might be some of the continuities between Precolumbian and contemporary Mexican society with respect to gender relations. My comment then, and I think I would still argue this, is that there are certainly similarities in terms of some gender relations, beliefs, identities, and whatnot, between Aztec society, for instance, and contemporary Mexican society. But we would also find similarities if we looked at Medieval Germany or Tokugawa Japan. In other words, you will find similarities if you look at relations between men and women at any particular historical period and compare that to another historical period. But fundamentally, I think it would be a mistake to argue that there is some essential Mexican, Mesoamerican, much less Latin, essence to being a man or being a woman. And I think that indeed we have gotten into many difficulties because of certain stereotypes: [e.g. that] all Mexican men are machos, all Mexican women are “abnegadas,” self-abnegating, submissive, “sumísas.”

There is no doubt that I have many neighbors and friends in Mexico whom I would call, either to their faces or perhaps not, macho or submissive. But likewise I have many North American neighbors and friends whom I could also label in a similar fashion, which isn’t to say that we are all just individuals, and who knows, and it is relative. But it is to say that broad generalizations for tens, much less hundreds of millions of people, for all time and place, end up not helping us understand questions of motivation, questions of activity, why people do what they do, and what they are indeed doing. And it really obscures the mechanisms of change that are occurring.

In Mexico and Latin America women have played a very important role in struggles for social services within their communities, for indigenous rights, for environmental rights. This is not to say that social relations have been transformed entirely. On the contrary, in many respects things have gotten worse. There is good evidence to show that domestic violence in the cities is more of a problem today than it was before. Nonetheless, my work and that of other scholars who study gender in Mexico would point to some dramatic changes that are similar to—but also distinct from—changes that we may be more familiar with in the United States, for instance.

Bridging the Past with the Present

[07:41:00] There are some attempts to show that gender relations among indigenous communities are similar to gender relations hundreds or even thousands of years ago. The archaeological evidence is too weak to start to make this argument. There are stronger arguments, but I have problems with many of them that would argue, for instance, that the Zapatista uprising on January 1st, 1994, in the southern state of Chiapas was a form of millennial uprising that the Maya undergo every thousand years or so. And people pull out glyphs and whatnot to try and make this point.

I think the uprising in Chiapas was precipitated by more immediate factors—the free trade agreement [NAFTA] between the United States, Canada, and Mexico, which went into effect January 1st, 1994; the fact that indigenous communities throughout Mesoamerica have continued to be Fourth World nations, exploited and kept in a subjugated position to a much larger extent than any other population group; economic factors of the rising cost of production and the lowering sales of everything from coffee to maize. I would not put as much credence as some might in the notion that the Maya are an unchanging people over the millennia, and we modern white folks (I think is often the implicit idea) are not used to such continuity of thinking and behavior because we’re more accustomed to rapid change. As a famous anthropologist once put it, some people just look at things cyclically and some people look at things in a more linear fashion.

My own feeling is that universally there are notions of linear time and cyclical time. And I think that individuals and social groups tend to share an appreciation of both linear and cyclical time, in the sense of yearly cycles, life cycles, but also history. Yet there are those more prone to make the divisions between different cultural groups so absolute as to imply the impossibility of mutual understanding. I tend to think that nobody is without a history, and nobody lives in a society that has been changeless and timeless for any period of time. But I tend to be more of what they call a lumper than a splitter on some of these issues.