[00:00:00] The charge that looking at gender in the past is somehow “politically correct” gets raised a lot. That accusation suggests that there’s an unnecessary quality to research on gender. And there are two different ways that we can respond to this. The first of these is the response from the negative end, which is that if we don’t explicitly ask questions about gender in the past, than we implicitly do. All of our explanations about archaeology are concerned with gender. It’s just that in some of them, there’s only one gender, and that gender, even when it’s not marked, is male. If we don’t actually ask questions about gender in the past, then our pasts are all populated by males, or maybe by neuters, but not by people.
Gendered archaeology is actually better archaeology, because it’s making very conscious the assumptions we have. Better explanations are the ones where we are conscious about the assumptions we’re making. Then there’s the more positive argument; once you start asking questions about gender you come up with better explanations that are more like real human life.
In the 1960s, in the New Archaeology, the argument was that archaeology was a science, and that science said that better explanations were the ones that used fewer factors to explain more. You reduce everything by throwing away particulars that you can’t explain and get a few major explanations. There’s a completely other way of thinking about better scientific explanations. And that is that better scientific explanations are those that come closer to what’s called “empirical adequacy,” meaning they look like the things they’re meant to explain. Instead of making reductive explanations where everything’s explained by a few very general factors, you make explanations that are more complex.
One of the major ways we make our explanations of the past in Mesoamerica more complex is by assuming that there were different kinds of people in the past. Asking the gender question, “What kinds of people in the past were there, what were men like, what were women like, what does it mean to ask the question?” automatically moves you to better, more complex, more empirically adequate descriptions of the way things used to be.
And so my other response to the “politically correct” charge is that if this is politically correct, it is also scientifically correct, because we’re doing a better job at what we’re trying to do—understand the past.
[02:32:00] So, you start off with a relatively simple question: “Where are the women in the Maya past, what are they doing?” To answer the question you say, “Well, there aren’t that many images of women in the monuments, for example.” Joyce Marcus, in her groundbreaking 1976 book [Emblem and the State in the Classic Maya Lowlands], pointed out that the images that monuments that depicted women were rare, and that the reason we saw them was because they were important to politically powerful men. A number of art historians have added to that kind of analysis that says, “OK, just because there are women in Classic Maya art doesn’t mean that that tells us much about women’s experience. Instead, we’re seeing women depicted for the interests of men.”
If we take the viewpoint that there is no such thing as men as a whole, or women as a whole, then we have to ask the question, “The interests of which men? And which kind of women?” And suddenly, the thing that hits you in the face is that we are all talking about a tiny segment of society. We are talking about the rulers and the nobles. And where are all the rest of the people, whether they’re male or female? Is the way that life was for a queen at Tikal actually telling us what life was like for a woman in a village? The question you start with is about gender. The place you end up is a more complex idea of differences in social position, differences in degree of association with urban centers versus villages, whether you labored with your own hands or lived off the labor of others.
[04:04:00] We have monuments that show us a few women, usually the mothers of rulers. They are shown in very state-like ways, participating in civic rituals. Is there any comparable source of information about what the experience of women elsewhere might be?
I began to look at figurines, which showed lots and lots of females as well as males. Extraordinary connections and differences began to arise. By actually looking at these two bodies of material, the monumental art and the figurines, as potentially showing me things about the differences [among] women, I began to see a completely different picture emerge where the figurines showed women working, women weaving, women grinding corn. The monumental art then suddenly went through a lens for me, and I was able to look at it and say, “That’s very interesting, the women in the monumental art aren’t doing any particularly distinctive things. Even though we know that women had all these different kinds of laboring roles, they’re not in the monumental art.” And then of course I made the most important leap, which was to realize that’s also true of the men, that monumental art actually erases work and presents us with a picture of society in which there is no laboring class and there are no laborers. And then the figurines become even more important because it’s not just the women grinding the corn and weaving that are there, it’s the men hunting deer and the men doing all of their work. Some figurines show groups of people. That in turn makes you think about the fact that the monumental art is always focusing your attention on one person at a time or a couple of people at a time.
So the gender question actually ends up not being a question that tells us something politically correct about how women were dominated or about how women were powerful among the ancient Maya, but tells us something about how people’s experiences differed in Maya society, according to whether they were part of the nobility or part of the laboring class.
When you start treating people as complex, there is no end to the kinds of questions you can actually ask. And all of those start, for me, with that apparently politically correct question about gender.