Eleanor Leacock’s Depiction of the
The late Eleanor Leacock was an anthropologist and
feminist who published claims of societies that were supposedly
“egalitarian,” in regard both to wealth, and to sex. Her writings
display a strong Marxist bent. She wrote a long and admiring
introduction for her new edition of Engels’ The Origin of the
Family, Private Property, and the State, which was published by
International House Publishers (New York, 1972), the publishing arm of
the Communist Party of the USA.
Leacock’s essay “Women In Egalitarian Societies” was
published as chapter one of Becoming Visible,
a textbook used in Womens History classes (Bridenthal and
Koonz, eds). One of her principal examples of a supposedly
nonpatriarchal society (i.e., one where leadership does not
rest primarily with the male) was the Montagnais-Naskapi
Native Americans of the Labrador peninsula of Canada. Now,
the Montagnais-Naskapi of today (on whom she had done field
work) are clearly patriarchal, so she cites the 17th
century accounts of Jesuit missionaries to make a claim
that this society was once gender-equal, but was
subsequently “completely transformed” by their contact with
Western colonial powers. Leacock also cites the supposedly
nonpatriarchal 17th century Montagnais-Naskapi as one of
the principal proofs in her book, Myths of Male
Leacock gives the following quotes from Father Paul Le Jeune, one
of the first Jesuit missionaries to enter that region, without
providing any context for it:
Some observers said of Montagnais-Naskapi women, as they
said of other Native American women, that they were virtual
slaves. Their hard work and lack of ritualized formalities
surrounding them contrasted sharply with the ideals of
courtesy for women in the French and British bourgeois
family and were taken as evidence of low social status.
Those who knew the Indians well reported otherwise. “The
women have great power here,” Le Jeune wrote, and exhorted
the men to assert themselves. “I told him then that he was
the master, and that in France women do not rule their
husbands.” (Becoming Visible, page 22).
However, an examination of the reference Leacock cites shows that
the meaning of this incident is entirely different from what she
suggests. Le Jeune had asked an Indian man whether he has a son,
and whether he would give him that son to take away to be
educated as a Christian.
He replied that he would be very glad to give us his son,
but that his wife did not wish to do so. The women have
great power here. A man may promise you something, and, if
he does not keep his promise, he thinks he is sufficiently
excused when he tells you that his wife did not wish to do
it. I told him then that he was the master, and that in
France women do not rule their husbands. (Jesuit
Relations, Vol. 5 p. 181).
Note that the incident, when read in its context, does not in any
way support what Leacock would have us believe. The Jesuit is
asking this Indian to allow him to take his son away for an
extended period of time, to which the father quite understandably
objects. Seeking an excuse, the man replies that his wife will
not permit it. Le Jeune’s remark that “the women have great power
here” is seen to be wry irony, not actual description. When an
Indian man needed an excuse for breaking a promise, the favorite
excuse was that his wife would disapprove. Thus the “power” of
women to which Le Jeune refers was not actual authority in the
family, but rather the “power” to excuse a man from previous
commitments. Note also that Le Jeune did *not* “exhort the men to
assert themselves,” as Leacock claims; rather, he urged this one
man to be assertive, by way of countering his proffered excuse.
This incident aside, does the account of Le Jeune support the
claim of a gender-equal society that Leacock makes? Here are some
other statements by Le Jeune from the same work. They are such
blatant counter examples to Leacock’s claim of ‘gender-equality’
that she obviously needed to pretend that they do not exist:
Le Jeune, 1634 (Jesuit Relations, Vol. 7,
I observed in this place that the young women did not eat
from the same dish as their husbands. I asked the reason,
and the Renegade told me that the young unmarried women, and
the women who had no children, took no part in the
management of affairs, and were treated like children.
Thence it came that his own wife said to me one day, “Tell
my husband to give me plenty to eat, but do not tell him
that I asked you to do so.”
Le Jeune, 1634 (Jesuit Relations, Vol. 6,
the Savages prefer the meat of the Bear to all other kinds
of food; it seems to me that the young Beaver is in no way
inferior to it, but the Bear has more fat, and therefore the
Savages like it better. Second, the Bear being brought, all
the marriageable girls and young married women who have not
had children, as well as those of the Cabin where the Bear
is to be eaten, and of the neighboring cabins, go outside,
and do not return as long as there remains a piece of this
animal, which they do not taste. It snowed, and the weather
was very severe. It was almost night when this Bear was
brought to our Cabin; immediately the women and girls went
out and sought shelter elsewhere, the best they could find.
They do this not without much suffering; for they do not
always have bark at hand with which to make their house,
which in such cases they cover with branches of the Fir
In the third place, the dogs must be sent away, lest they
lick the blood, or eat the bones, or even the offal of this
beast, so greatly is it prized. The latter are buried under
the fireplace, and the former are thrown into the fire. The
preceding are observations which I made during the
performance of this superstition. Two banquets are made of
this Bear, as it is cooked in two kettles, although all at
the same time. The men and older women are invited to the
first feast, and, when it is finished, the women go out;
then the other kettle is taken down, and of this an eat-all
feast is made for the men only. This is done on the evening
of the capture; the next day toward nightfall, or the second
day, I do not exactly remember, the Bear having been all
eaten, the young women and girls return.
Thus, Father Le Jeune reports that these Indians prized bear meat
so greatly that when a bear was killed, the women and the dogs
were sent outside to stand in the snow while the men held an all-
night feast. Does this sound like a “gender-equal society”?
Professor Leacock somehow failed to mention this counter-evidence
as she wrote of her vanished feminist Utopia.
Le Jeune, 1637 (Jesuit Relations, Vol. 11,
Some Savages had arrived from Tadoussac on their way to war;
Father de Quen and I visited them in their cabin, and, after
some conversation, they told us that we should go to see the
preparations for a great feast which were being made in a
place that they named to us. But they advised us not to
remain there long, “Because,” said they, “as it is a war
feast, the women will serve there entirely naked.”
Attempting to demonstrate the supposed lack of feminine delicacy
of the Montagnais-Naskapi women before they developed a “feeling
of constraint when whites were around,” Leacock quotes the
following description of them from Father Le Jeune:
“They have neither gentleness nor courtesy in their
utterance,” he wrote, “and a Frenchman could not assume the
accent, the tone, and the sharpness of their voices without
becoming angry, which they do not.” (Becoming
It is extremely revealing to see the two sentences that
immediately precede this quote, sentences that Leacock obviously
needed to conceal from her feminist readers:
I have never heard the women complain because they were not
invited to the feasts, because the men ate the good pieces,
or because they had to work continually – going in search of
wood for the fire, making the Houses, dressing the skins,
and busying themselves in other very laborious work. Each
one does her own little tasks, gently and peacefully,
without any disputes. It is true, however, that they have
neither gentleness nor courtesy in their utterance, and a
Frenchman could not assume the accent, the tone, and the
sharpness of their voices without becoming angry, which they
do not (Le Jeune, Jesuit Relations,
Vol. 6 p. 235).
When Leacock, in claiming this society to be nonpatriarchal,
omits the sentences she does while quoting those immediately
following, I cannot imagine that this deception was unintentional.
It is now clear beyond any possibility of doubt that the supposed
‘gender-equal society of the Montagnais-Naskapi’, which is cited
in feminist circles as one of the best evidences of a supposed
“nonpatriarchal society”, has absolutely no basis in fact. It was
the deliberate deception of a Marxist feminist, created out of
selective quotation and misrepresentation, yet uncritically
accepted by her feminist readers. The fact remains that all
present and past human societies are patriarchal, in spite of the
many feminist lies and half-truths invented to obscure this.
Indeed, the ease with which academic feminists will resort to
deception to bolster claims such as this one about vanished
“nonpatriarchal societies” is perhaps the best reason to doubt
their claim that future societies will be nonpatriarchal.
Camille Paglia wrote that “Our best women students are
being force-fed an appalling diet of cant, drivel, and
malarkey” (Sex, Art, and American Culture,
p. 243). We can thank Eleanor Leacock for nicely
illustrating Paglia’s point.
Bridenthal, Renate and Koonz, Claudia: Becoming
Visible (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1977)
Paglia, Camille: Sex, Art, and American
Culture (New York: Vintage Books, 1992).
Thwaites, Reuben Gold (editor): The Jesuit
Relations and Allied Documents (New York: Pageant
Book Co., 1959).
Goldberg, Steven: The Inevitability of
Patriarchy (New York: William Morrow & Co., 1973).
Goldberg, Steven: Why Men Rule (Chicago:
Open Court Publishers, 1993).
Goldberg, Steven: “Response to Leacock and
Livingstone”: The American Anthropologist,
Volume 77, Number 1 (March, 1975).
Leacock, Eleanor (ed.): The Origins of the
Family, Private Property, and the State by Friedrich
Engels (New York: International House Publishers, 1972).
Leacock, Eleanor: Myths of Male Dominance
(New York: Monthly Review Press, 1981).
This page is copyright (c) Robert Sheaffer.
Robert Sheaffer has written articles for Scientific American, Astronomy magazine, The Skeptical Inquirer, Fate Magazine, and Spaceflight.
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