MicSem Publications

Women’s Role in Micronesia: Then and Now

by Francis X. Hezel S.J.

March 08, 1994 Cultural Government Social Issues

Women's Traditional Roles

The topic addressed in this discussion was on women's roles, not women's rights. Mention of this brought a murmur of disapproval through the conference hall, but the moderator explained that he felt it was important to address the issue through concepts that could be as relevant to the past as to the present. Individual rights, he insisted, is a relatively modern concept that had no resonance in traditional Micronesian society. Even today, mention of the word "rights" often arouses suspicion among older people in the islands. The moderator also emphasized that we would be looking at traditional female roles, not just modern ones. Any legitimate discussion of women in Micronesia today must be rooted in an understanding of their past, although it need not be circumscribed by this.

The FSM National Women's Interest Officer, who introduced the topic, pointed out that despite the variations in culture, we can make some generalizations on women's roles in the past. Micronesian societies were matrilineal; this meant, among other things, that clan membership and land were passed down through women. Men were generally associated with the sea and the cultivation of trees (coconut and breadfruit, among others). Women, on the other hand, usually were entrusted with the cultivation of the land and the production of staple food crops. Women, in many places, also did inshore fishing and gathered sea food. In addition, women also manufactured traditional valuables such as loom-woven lavalavas, pandanus mats, medicine and ornaments. These valuables were used to purchase canoes and were given as gifts at weddings, funerals and other significant community events.

The traditional roles of women were many and important. Women bore children and were entrusted with the care of these children for the decisive early years of their life. Women, therefore, were the primary teachers of the young. In addition, they were looked upon as the protectors of the land and had a great say in determining who would or would not be given land in the kin group. Women often initiated planning in the community, even if it was left to men to ratify these decisions and announce them publicly. Women also served in the key role of peace-makers. Hence, women did much more than bear babies and keep the house clean in traditional times. Their roles were clearly defined and permitted them to make a vital contribution to the family and the community.

Another way of seeing women's traditional roles, one of the discussants volunteered, was to group them into the three-fold division: reproduction (bearing children), production (their contribution to the economic life of the family), and their community role (including a political role on the sidelines).

The participants were divided on the importance they accorded to these various traditional roles of women. Some thought that women were mainly valued for their child-bearing potential. Others preferred to stress their economic role in the family. One person thought that women could be seen as the preservers of the home, while men were principally engaged in acquiring prestige (although this is not an accurate reflection of at least Palauan society, where women traded their services to acquire shell and bead money to advance the rank of their village).

In a traditional Micronesian society, no matter what the island group, gender roles were complementary to one another and they involved power-sharing between males and females. Since this seemed to be a fine summary of the organizing principles of gender roles, we explored each of the two points at greater length.

Complementary. In former times there was a great divide between men's roles and women's roles; what work one did, the other would not do, and vice versa. If men fished, women worked on the land. If men put up the house, women might weave the thatch. Women might, in some islands, do certain kinds of fishing, but men would always refrain from doing those same kinds of fishing. Men and women never did the same thing. Each did a separate kind of work, but each was regarded as integral to the welfare of the whole community. Furthermore, it was essential to coordinate the work done by each gender. Men in the outer islands, for instance, were expected to let the women know what sort of fishing they intended to do so that the women could prepare the right kind of cooked food to accompany the fish at the community celebration when the men returned.

Power-sharing. It is a mistake to think that because men always assumed the more dominant position, women were relatively powerless in traditional Micronesian societies. Women shared in the exercise of power, although it's a fact that much of this power was subtly exercised. Women had a strong say over the disposal of family land, and in some places had the power to disinherit members of the family. Women's peace-making role meant that they could do much more than plead that warfare or other hostilities be stopped. They had the power of forcing men to make peace, especially on certain occasions or when certain women were involved. Women from both sides often met together to arrange the terms of peace, later informing the males of their family what these terms would be. The senior woman in a Pohnpeian lineage had considerable authority over the lineage group; she enjoyed a parallel title to that of the senior male member of the lineage. Even today she has the authority to intervene when a man is beating one of his children and order him to stop. Older women in the lineage might even determine when and for how long a man in the family should refrain from sleeping with his wife, particularly after childbirth. In some places women also imposed the taboos on the use of land and sea following the death of a member of the lineage. Women in the family and community met to discuss matters of importance and communicated their consensus to the men of the family, who were expected to act upon the women's feelings.

Changes in Women's Roles

It is clear that women's roles have changed greatly in recent years. Women have lost some of the control over small children that they formerly enjoyed as the "primary teacher," for they are now competing with school teachers and the TV set, among other forces. Women have also suffered a loss in their traditional economic role. The food crops women once produced have been replaced with imported food in many parts of Micronesia today. Locally grown taro, breadfruit and bananas have been replaced by rice, bread, ramen and other foreign-bought foodstuffs.

Men, of course, have suffered a similar fate. In fact, when the moderator called for a vote on whether male or female roles had changed more in recent years, most felt that men had suffered even greater changes than women. Men, for instance, are not required to go fishing as often as they once did since the store offers a selection of frozen and canned protein items from abroad. They too seem to have found their teaching roles attenuated.

The difference, as one participant put it, is this. If men's traditional roles have eroded over time, new roles have taken the place of the old. When women's roles were lost in the course of change, however, they were never replaced. Women, who were once seen as contributors to their society on a par with men, are now becoming ever more economically marginalized. They are seen primarily as housewives dependent upon male bread-winners, in the words of one person. Men have been generally given access to new roles in the modern society, while women have not.

Why haven't women had access to these roles? One important reason is, of course, the principle of complementary roles that has ruled in old Micronesian societies: "If the men are doing it, the women shouldn't be doing it." The great divide that separates men's work from women's is still honored today by many. This is compounded by the old "separation of powers" that bars women from taking public offices and acting as spokespersons in the community. Men got into the modern sector early and staked out their ground before women had a chance to mark out their turf. There were several explanations proposed for why this should have happened. Men got into school faster and in far greater numbers than women, who were still maintaining their old roles in the home. Even today, some suggested, women are still too busy having children to get a toehold in the modern economy. Witness, they contend, the number of girls who drop out of school because of pregnancy. Whatever the reasons might be, men arrived first. Men now seem to fear women's encroachment on what have come to be seen as male roles, and consequently resentment often builds up against women's intrusions.

The ground rules for the new society that is evolving today may be changing, as someone observed, but attitudes remain much the same as they always were. Attitudes are always the last thing to change. Open access of women to the complete spectrum of roles offered in the modern society presupposes a cosmic change of attitude in Micronesia. It presupposes the readiness of people to tear down the great divide between gender roles, something that has been a longstanding premise of Micronesian societies.

In the meantime, women are expected to do more in the family than they had to do formerly, and to do this with less support from the men of the family. Men, after all, are primarily involved in the workaday world and are expected to be the major economic contributors to their family's welfare. All the while, women take on a greater share of the domestic work than formerly. Yet their contribution may not be valued as highly as it was in traditional times because it does not easily translate into monetary terms.

Signs of Hope

All is not lost for women, however. Women have established a toehold in modern society, as is obvious from the many who have found good wage employment. The number of women employed may not be on a par with male employees, but

This should not distract us from the fact that women enjoy more power than is often recognized. There are, for instance, a growing number of female doctors and other professionals in the islands. We might reasonably expect that their number will grow in time. One person suggested that it might be a mistake to use as our yardstick of success the number of women in highly visible government jobs. The private sector offers so many opportunities for advancement to women that, according to her, "the sky is the limit."

Are we possibly exaggerating the importance of employment opportunities as a measure of social advancement for women? Some participants thought so. By placing so much emphasis on prestige and power positions, we may be devaluing the critical role of child care and nurturing that women everywhere in the world have borne for so long. Women's Liberation has succeeded in the US over the past two decades, but they are now coming full circle. With women's share of employment steadily rising, they must now ask who's taking care of the kids. A generation of American children is suffering from lack of basic child care. There is a generation of "lost children" today. While encouraging new opportunities for women, we must be careful not to appear to underrate the enormous contribution that Micronesian women have been making in the past and will be called upon to continue making in the difficult days ahead.