Review of “Woman the Hunter” by Mary Zeiss Stange

woman the hunterWoman the Hunter

Mary Zeiss Stange

Boston:  Beacon Press

1997

I first heard murmurs of Woman the Hunter several months ago.  A friend of mine who I hold in high regard was quoted by another as saying that this book was “everything Paul Shepard left out or got wrong.”  Being the neo-shepardian anarchist that I am, it’s an understatement to say that my ears perked up.  And yet, this book continued to elude my grasp for a long time thereafter.

The wait is over.  I am genuinely surprised that this book is not more well-known in eco-anarchist, or even just deep ecologist, circles.  I suppose I could chalk it up, at least partially, to the fact that it’s often the best stuff that is left unsung.

It is a long-term goal of mine in reading through the deep ecological literature, and more specifically, in illuminating the contours of human ecology as theorized by the likes of Shepard, to excavate from it all that is vital to the anarchist perspective while simultaneously critiquing its shortcomings.  It became clear at the outset that one of the main topics at which this critique would have to be leveled is that of gender and sexuality.  Where to begin in this huge task?  My own ideas about gender and sexuality, even as someone firmly against patriarchy for years, are ever evolving, nuanced, and at times confusing even to myself.  Furthermore, my command of the body of theory dealing with these topics is tenuous at best.  Suffice to say that with Woman the Hunter, Mary Zeiss Stange at the very least has provided a leg up for anyone concerned with a task such as mine.  Stange has provided something of a starting point.

Woman the Hunter is basically a double-edged critique, skewering entrenched sexist attitudes and fallacies in the anthropological, hunting, and deep ecological literature on the one hand, and the false opposition to this tendency found within eco-feminism on the other, which, as Stange argues, merely inverts the scale of values but retains the spurious gender essentialism found in the former.  What’s more is that this is all done from a staunchly pro-hunting position which nonetheless never fails to distinguish itself from the discredited aspects of the “Hunting Hypothesis.”  A slew of assertions about gender and sexuality made by Paul Shepard and his ilk flitted through my mind as I read the many examples employed by Stange.  One that immediately jumps to mind is a passage from Shepard’s The Tender Carnivore and the Sacred Game wherein he attributes to the male and female sexes capacities and physiology supposedly so different as to be almost indicative of two different species.   The difference was accounted for by the shaping influence of allegedly strict differences in essential subsistence activity over the course of evolution.  I was more than a little skeptical at this proposition, but also quite curious as to the reasons for this deduction.  Enter Stange with one of the more striking revelations for this reader, in which she reveals that in traditional anthropology what has been represented as a Man the Hunter/Woman the Gatherer dichotomy rests on a dual falsehood.  Not only have those classified as men always engaged in gathering, but conversely, a whole array of subsistence activity that when done by men or by non-human hunters is considered predation, when done by those seen as women are classified as gathering.  These include procuring shellfish, fishing and the hunting and trapping of small and medium game.  Women have also been repeatedly noted to take part in the hunting of large game, and even prominently in some hunting cultures.  Stange clarifies that the sexual division of labor often found in hunter/gatherer societies is not absolute, but porous, and very potentially devoid of the ascription of values that modern people assume.  She also says it arose out of a sort of practical consideration:  most women bear children and nurse, which for long periods of time precludes them from specific tasks associated with hunting large game.  In mainstream culture, the figure “woman the hunter” elicits a deep anxiety, and Stange presciently illuminates the many reasons for it.  She even discusses the disruptive resonance evoked by the prospect of women possessing the “tools of men” in ways that could have implications for transgenderism, although this is most likely unintentional and represents a vastly under explored aspect of the literature with which Stange deals.

This is only one small part of the sprawling vision of this book.  Stange goes on to describe the alienated and faulty conceptions of non-human nature engendered by societies in which hunting plays a small part or no part, and which rely predominantly upon domestication of other species for sustenance.  The status of animals both wild and domesticated is degraded to enemies or stock, whereas formerly there were intellectual entities encountered more or less as equals with whom to share the world.  This aspect of the book forms one of the most neat corollaries to the works of Paul Shepard, most of whose catalog deals with what a satisfactory human relationship to other wild animals might consists of.  She also explains how the subjugation of the wild world to the culture of farming has largely been synonymous with the subjugation of women to men.  She undertakes a sort of archeology of the myth of Artemis, the she-hunter, to underscore many of her major points, tracing the fascinating if predictable way that this mythological figure herself was twisted from an original hunting, robust, feminine-yet-gender-bending entity (and most certainly a non-human entity before that) into one that was none of these things.  Stange completely debunks the idea that war and rape are phenomena at all consistent with the essence of hunting.

Certainly, the net effect of this book is a complete demolition job against the idea that men are necessarily alienated from nature, destroying it out of some inborn drive, while women are the non-violent-by-nature, dainty counterpart.  From now on, when I recommend the works of Paul Shepard or other deep ecologists concerned with hunting, I will never fail to also recommend Woman the Hunter by Mary Zeiss Stange.  This is a prelude to a badly needed corrective in terms of gender in the world of letters and the world of the hunt.

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