In all kinds of societies-foraging bands, horticultural tribes, peasant villages, and industrial cities-women have always had primary responsibility for preparing food and giving it to others (D' Andrade 1974, 18). Particularly in preindustrial societies, women contribute heavily to producing, processing, and distributing food as well. The predominant role of women in feeding is a cultural universal, a major component of female identity, and an important source of female connections to and influence over others. Hence, although there are other components of female identity and other sources of their authority, the power of women has often derived from the power of food.Carole M. Counihan, Routledge, 1999.
I am concerned here with two kinds of power. The first, coercion, is attained through control of might and essential resources that can be denied to others. This is the power of provincial Italian prefects who can raise the price of bread and of the U.S. government that sent food to the Nicaraguan Contras but denied it to Chileans after Allende's election (Burbach and Flynn 1980, 70). The second form of power is influence. It accrues not through force and the ability to deny but through giving, through the obligations created by giving, and through the influence wielded in the act of giving. This is the power Mauss described in his masterpiece The Gift (1967). It is the power of the tribal big man who distributes enormous piles of yams at feasts and "leads because the people wish to be led;" it is also the power of women who feed, who satisfy hunger, who are viscerally needed, and who influence others through manipulation of the symbolic language of food.
True coercion is typical of class societies where resources are concentrated in the hands of the few, who are usually male. The power of the gift, on the other hand, predominates in egalitarian societies where women's relatively high status comes from their full participation in the giving that creates obligations and from their control of a particularly powerful channel, food (see Brown 1975). Interestingly, although control of food can be the strongest weapon of coercion, for women it is not. In no culture is it acceptable for women to deny food to their families, whereas it is acceptable for politicians - mostly male - to deny food to entire populations for political ends (Lappe and Collins 1978). Like women in stratified societies, individuals and groups in tribal societies do not permit groups to starve others as a path to power; rather they achieve power by shaming other groups with their magnanimity (Young 1971). Food is a special substance that follows exceptionally strong rules of sharing and generosity (Sahlins 1972,215-19). It would be unthinkable for Italian women to starve husbands and children to force them to do certain things. Rather, individuals in tribal societies and women in stratified societies have the culturally sanctioned ability to manipulate the giving of food and thus to attain influence through means other than coercion. Women in stratified, market-oriented, agro-industrial societies like Italy and the United States are often defined as subordinate to men because, although they control feeding, as a group they lack the coercive ability to withhold grain shipments or control corn futures. Gender equality involves, then, an effort by women to gain public political and economic power, and with it the ability not just to influence, but to coerce as well.