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Engels and Indigenous Feminism

Abbie Bakan

November 7, 2012

The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State, written by Frederick Engels in 1884, is one of the most important texts in classical Marxism. The text certainly has weaknesses as well as strengths, and has generated a great deal of contention. Indigenous feminists have a particularly important contribution to offer as we consider a volume written one and a quarter centuries ago.
Origins was restored as an important text for contemporary Marxist discussions largely through the contributions of feminist anthropology. A 1972 edition (International Publishers) of Origins included a new introduction by Eleanor Leacock, where Engels’ work was seen as a pathbreaking analysis. In the same year, another edition of the text was published with a similar introduction by another feminist anthropologist, Evelyn Reed (Pathfinder Press).
These interpretations of Engels’ work stressed that it was based on Marx’s notebooks, and indicated that Marx and Engels jointly shared an interest not only in studying the state and capital, but also women’s oppression.
A central argument of the book is about the origins of the family as an oppressive, hierarchical, and male-dominated (patriarchal) institution. The Origins shows that these founders of the Marxist tradition understood the family as a social construction that coincided historically, thousands of years before the rise of capitalism, with the emergence of class society and the state. And, as a social construction, the family could be imagined differently, as a space where women could be freed from the stifling oppression of Victorian common sense.
This is certainly a groundbreaking argument at a time that predated first wave feminism, when women were considered to be–by the laws of nature–economically, politically, physically and spiritually subordinate to men.
But there are other dimensions to the Origins text that deserve consideration. The study was a theoretical one, based on empirical data provided by the observations of one Lewis Henry Morgan–a prolific American settler residing in the colonized Aboriginal territory of upstate New York.
In her important study, Iroquoian Women: the Gantowisas, historian Barbara Alice Mann reminds us of the experiences that provided the subject matter for Morgan’s writings, and the context of his observations. She introduces non-Native readers to the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) term, gantowisas, in an effort to convey the egalitarian and respected role of women that Morgan observed in his work, Ancient Society, and that caught the interest of Marx and Engels:
“An Iroquoian equivalent of ‘woman’ is gantowisas, yet the term conveys more than woman. She is political woman, faithkeeping woman, mediating woman, leader, counselor, judge. Gantowisas indicates mother, grandmother, and even the Mother of Nations, as well as the Corn Mother, Herself, whose new shining face lies beneath the ground to rise again, each year. In the first decades of the twentieth century, the revered Cayuga Chief Deskaheh (1873-1925) of the Canadian Six Nations Council at Grand River, Canada, defined gantowisas as a mature woman acting in her official capacity. Her official capacity was public in every way. Her duties were frankly political, economic, judicial, and shamanic. Gantowisas, then, means Indispensable Woman.”
Mann is one of a number of contemporary feminist writers who are contributing to new–and reminding us of earlier but neglected–discussions regarding the distinct contributions of indigenous women to current critiques of capitalism and imperialism. Questions regarding issues like the origin of the family, private property and the state are central to issues of colonization, environmental destruction, and resistance.
Those who were the objects of fascination for Morgan, and through Morgan, for Marx and Engels, have continued to survive despite decades of ongoing colonization, and offer a set of rich lessons for those of us influenced by Engels’ Origins text.
The objects of this colonial history are the subjects of history in the present. For those of us in the Marxist tradition living in North America, the geographic region of Morgan’s study–Haudenosaunee territory–continues to be populated by indigenous communities, and continues to generate important lessons in the struggle for human emancipation.
Ely S. Parker
Indeed, Lewis Morgan was, at the time of his research and writing, assisted by a knowledgeable Haudenosaunee guide, Ely S. Parker. Morgan’s Ancient Society: or Researches in the Lines of Human Progress from Savagery through Barbarism to Civilization, was published in 1877. This was preceded, however, by Morgan’s League of the Ho-de-no-saunee or Iroquois, published in 1851. Morgan dedicated the book to the then 23-year-old Ely S. Parker, a missionary-educated member of the Seneca clan from the Tonawanda Reservation. Noting their ‘joint researches’ at the time, Morgan’s credit to Parker in fact merited more than a dedication. Parker is identified by Mann as the “ameliorating presence” serving as a “ghost-writer” for Morgan’s unusual understanding of indigenous practices in law, politics and social organization.
So, from the experiences of indigenous peoples in the late nineteenth century to the present, through a circuitous route–from Parker, to Morgan, to Marx, to Engels, to Leacock and Reed, to Mann and indigenous communities today–we come full circle to the indigenous peoples of Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory and the struggles of indigenous peoples on Turtle Island. The struggle against women’s oppression and colonization, then, continues.

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