Cherokee Women by Theda Perdue
Theda Perdue’s Cherokee Women is a great example of ethnohistory. Perdue’s mastery of the historical and anthropological techniques – such as up streaming – necessary to recovery the mostly lost voices of the 18th century Cherokee is impressive. But what sets Perdue’s work apart from similar ethnohistory is her focus on the gendered nature of Cherokee society.
Perdue’s breakdown of the polar nature of gender in Cherokee society is fascinating. Perdue highlights the separate but complimentary roles of men and women among the Cherokee, with men acting as hunters and warriors and women as agricultural workers. The most fascinating aspect of Perdue’s argument is how much social and, perhaps, political power this gave Cherokee women. Through the first half of the eighteenth century, agriculture had far more importance in the everyday life of the Cherokee than warfare, hunting, or external trade. Since women had almost absolute control over agricultural work and produce this gave them a high level of power within the society. That insight taken along side the fact that the Cherokee family was organized along matrilocal lines, Perdue comes close to arguing that before they had significant contact with Europeans the Cherokee were almost a matriarchal society.
It is interesting how these norms were reshaped as the Cherokee had more and more contact with the European powers in America and were drawn into global networks of trade. The new enterprises that these changes involved the Cherokee in – large-scale warfare, the fur trade, and the slave trade – were external to the town or village, making them mostly masculine pursuits. Here is one of the great ironies of Cherokee history, a social order that gave women a large amount of power later denied women that power as external economic forces shifted. While there was significant cultural change in the wake of interaction with Europeans, basic ideas about gender did not change. But this continuity did not preserve women’s social power but led to its decline. As Europeans provided Cherokee was trade goods and warfare destroyed Cherokee towns and villages, the importance of agriculture declined while the importance of warfare and trade grew exponentially. Thus men’s power within Cherokee society rose at the expense of women’s power.
The insight Perdue provides into this change is in many ways in tension with her earlier argument about the matriarchal nature of early Cherokee society. In the wake of the later changes to Cherokee gender relations; I would argue that it is clear, perhaps, that Perdue oversells the earlier power of women. If early Cherokee society wasn’t patriarchal, it at least had the potential to be so – as later shifts show. Politics within Cherokee society are largely missing from the first part of Perdue’s book. Discussion of politics within her argue only emerges in the second third of the book, to show how much relative power women have lost. Thus the reader is left with no real sense of how early Cherokee village politics worked. This leaves me with the impression that, perhaps, Cherokee political life was not as matriarchal as Perdue would have it.
This brings me to a broader critique of Perdue’s book. Some of her insights into the power of women within Cherokee society feel context free. This may be a result of her sources and the nature of ethnohistory. An example may be helpful in understanding what I am getting at. If 1000 years from the other evidence a researcher had for the role of women in Catholicism was Marian statuary, the Hail Mary prayer, and the ruins of convents, one could easily get an inflated view of the institutional power of women in the twenty-first century Catholic Church. The same sort of error could have been made by Perdue in her analysis of eighteenth century Cherokee. That is not to say that her conclusions are entirely incorrect but one cannot help but wary that she may have oversold her case.
Finally, Perdue’s analysis bares the burden of her politics. It is pretty clear at times that she is using the supposed communitarian and female centric nature of Cherokee society to criticize modern American gender relations and society. This is an immensely dangerous tact to take in Native American history for it can lead to an “Avatarization” of Native peoples – which is to say an idealization of Native culture to score points against European culture. The recovery of Native experience and voice is vitally important but it is equally as important to recover that voice in a way that represents Native life as historically accurately as possible. I am all for politically active scholarship but only when such scholarship does not engage in idealization. This is a danger especially prevalent in Native American history and it seems that Perdue fell into that trap on occasion in this book.
Criticisms aside, however, Cherokee Women is a powerful and useful book. By centering her analysis on gender, Perdue provides insights that would be missed in different studies. That alone makes her book worthwhile.