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The Complexity of Gender A Caribbean Perspective

July 6, 1998 by Administrator in July/August 1998

by Wanda I. Mills

Community building and development efforts need to take into account differences among groups within communities. I propose a model that looks at how class, race, ethnicity, nationality, colonial status, sexuality and gender produce diverse relationships among women and men. This model examines gender differences by using storytelling, life and group histories, and popular art forms to complement more traditional research methods, such as surveying and quantitative techniques.

The rigid indicators used in traditional research and planning often fail to reveal the true quality of life as defined by diverse value systems and intangible ways of being. Even many feminist discussions about lower income minority women and women from the South have characterized such women as being uniformly poor, powerless and vulnerable, quite often oppressed because of their gender. However, women from the South, and Caribbean women in particular, have diverse experiences and understandings of gender. The strong willed desire by women to assert productive, consistent and reasonable lifestyles, often in the most adverse of circumstances, is often downplayed in such analyses.

The Diverse and Multiple Identities of the Caribbean

The Caribbean, with its diverse and complex socio-cultural conditions, is a laboratory for challenging the dualistic ways in which gender differences are commonly understood. Cultural traditions and gendered histories of transplanted global cultures, including the Amerindian, African, European, and Asiatic, converge in ways that are unique to each island and place. Barbadian scholar Eudine Barriteau describes this condition as a complex, shifting interaction between gendered relations, race, class, and sexual identity. Multiple identities overlap and interact, changing at different times, based on variations in social circumstances and conditions.

Power relations among men and women in the Caribbean are part of a double paradox in which patriarchal and matriarchal structures exist simultaneously. Feminist geographer Janet Momsen proposes that, “within the Caribbean regional diversity of ethnicity, class, language and religion, there is an ideological unity of patriarchy, of female subordination and dependence. Yet, there is also a vibrant living tradition of female economic autonomy, of female headed households, and family structures in which men are often marginal.”

To further illustrate this complexity, I will introduce two Antillean metaphors: “kalalloo” and “el mogoyón.” Kalalloo is a regional dish (similar to Cajun “gumbo”) including assorted greens, meats, seafood, and savory seasonings. The origins of the dish are uncertain. It has been traced by different people to Africa, Europe and the Pre-Colombian Carib peoples. Although the variations and differences are many, most Caribbean peoples identify the dish as kallaloo (there are variations in spelling). Just as there are “place specific” variations in what constitutes kalallo, there are variations in the local, historical influences under which Caribbean “female” and “male” identities are constructed.

The other term, “el mogoyón,” is suggestively of African origins, and often appears in Spanish Caribbean discourse. Simply put, the term suggests chaotic complexity, or random disorder. A deeper interpretation of the term implies an entangled, intertwined state of being. Gendered complexity can be defined in a similar manner. Instead of perceiving relations as orderly, which encourages stereotyping, it could be more advantageous to consider the complexity and unpredictability of gendered relations. This approach requires entering from a perspective of “not knowing,” and then working through the entangled strands that make up “el mogoyón,” or gendered differences.

A Postmodern Model

In contrast, Eudine Barriteau proposes a postmodern feminist model that distances itself from the universalizing tendencies of other theories on women and development. Both women and men are considered as equally gendered. What is understood as “female” and “male” are equally learned behaviors. Therefore, both women and men are equally embroiled in gender constructions. Women, as well as men, can resist male dominated relations by refusing to accept stereotypes on women’s roles. Barriteau argues that, for the most part, previous literature has defined women as both non-male, and as a subset of man. She instead proposes a framework where women are defined by a social construction of gender, which is not associated with being non-male, but based on the various ways in which society interacts with women. Women’s agency, therefore, is viewed as the vehicle to social advancement.

This model has three important components: recognizing difference; organizing political action based on differences and commonalities; and acknowledging the gendered nature of all social relations. It distinguishes differences among women of the same race with differing historical experiences; division along ethnic lines; and distinctions among women of similar racial, historical and cultural experiences but with different class backgrounds. Interactive issues such as racism, colonialism, and perceptions of inferiority also figure prominently.

San Antón and Piñones, Puerto Rico

My experiences with gender relationships in the communities of San Antón and Piñones, Puerto Rico show the relevance of this approach. San Antón and Piñones are located approximately 70 miles apart. The populations are predominately black (by United States and Puerto Rican standards). Socio-economic characteristics are statistically similar, and the communities share patterns of cultural, economic, political, social and spatial marginality.

In San Antón, community leadership and spatial practices center around women. After the abolition of slavery in 1873, freed women and men migrated from surrounding areas and settled in the San Antón barrio. Eventually, San Antón contained the largest concentration of freed blacks in southern Puerto Rico. In many cases, women established multiple generations of female headed households, and established their economic independence by working as seamstresses, embroiderers, market women, laundresses, and maids. The women exhibited sexual and economic autonomy by pooling their resources with other women. The transfer of property often passed through female lineages. Often, husbands and male partners from outside the community were expected to move into the spouse’s property in San Antón.

By contrast, the origins of Piñones are traced to its transition from an Amerindian to an Afro-Puerto Rican settlement during the 16th century. In subsequent centuries, the community’s isolation allowed its residents to live autonomously under male-centered leadership. Piñones residents actively resisted slavery and sharecropping during the 19th century, and developers and the state apparatus during the 20th century. Male domination and leadership remains, for the most part, unquestioned. Most women accept male authority along with their male dependent roles. Historically, the female role of housewife ama de casa is considered an ideal.

At the risk of oversimplification, the contrast in gender roles, along with the historical factors that influenced those differences, is readily apparent. The communities’ relative proximity to each other, the similarities in economic, household and racial characteristics, and their common national identity, contrast with the unmistakable disparities in the gendered relationships among both communities.

History and Memory

Scholars are increasingly examining how historical processes affect the lives of women, and how memory can serve as an essential medium for defining the past. Oral sources and methods are particularly instrumental in providing substantive insights on inferred meanings and values. Through this communicative process, individuals can then frame their ideas about the present and the future.

There are several caveats, however, according to historian Mary Chamberlain. Female life histories present dilemmas in terms of collection, content, style and the interpretation of data, oftentimes due to the strongly male bias of social science methods. In addition, social scientists trained in the Western tradition find it difficult to describe women as autonomous personalities and as selves in their own right.

There needs to be more research on how community building and development can use new methods to examine issues of meaning. Oral histories can be a prime or supportive source for understanding the histories of social groups who, by reason of gender, class, race, education or culture, are denied other conventional sources.


Suggested Reading:

Frances Aparicio, “ASI SON': Salsa Music, Female Narratives and Gender (De)Construction in Puerto Rico,” in Daughters of Caliban: Caribbean Women in The Twentieth Century. Edited by Consuelo Lopez Springfield. Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1997.

Eudine Barriteau, “Postmodernist Feminist Theorizing and Development Policy and Practice in the Anglophone Caribbean: The Barbados Case,” in Feminism / Postmodernism / Development. Edited by Marianne Marchand and Jane Plupart. London: Routledge, 1995.

Mary Chamberlain, “Gender & Memory: Oral History and Women’s History,” inEngendering History: Caribbean Women in Historical Perspective. Edited by Verene Shepherd, Bridget Brereton, and Barbara Bailey. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995.

Janet Momsen, Editor 1993. Women and Change in the Caribbean. London: James Curry, 1993.


* Patterns of single motherhood are documented by the Municipality of Ponce’s slave registry (1872), where enslaved mothers are classified as single. Ponce’s plantation economy emerged during the 19th century when the majority of enslaved arrivals came from the African Congo region. Patterns defining the transfer of property through female lineages are also found in this area.

Wanda I. Mills is a doctoral candidate at Rutgers University’s Department of Urban Planning and Policy Development in New Brunswick, NJ, and a 1997-98 graduate fellow at the Rutgers Center for Historical Analysis, “Black Atlantic Project.” She is particularly interested in investigating issues of identity politics, spatial practices and hybrid conditions within development practice.

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