I recently started reading a new survey of Southeast Asian history by a well-known historian when I was surprised to come across this paragraph about women in traditional Southeast Asia in the introduction:
“Southeast Asia’s gender pattern was strikingly different from that of its neighbors and trade partners in China, India, and the Middle East. Up until the nineteenth century, Southeast Asian women played economic roles equivalent to though different from those of men, and therefore had more latitude and agency than their European, Chinese, Indian, or Arab counterparts. They monopolized textile and ceramic production, shared agricultural tasks (dominating planting, harvesting, and foraging), and most importantly did most of the marketing and business. The status concerns of Southeast Asian men made them particularly inept in managing money and marketing. European and Chinese male traders dealt largely with local women, and found their own local sexual partners extremely helpful in their business.”
What surprised me about this paragraph were a couple of things. First, I was surprised to see this trope about the special position of women in Southeast Asia still getting repeated in 2015. My sense was that by now this concept had been challenged and deconstructed enough that it could no longer be held up as a defining feature of the Southeast Asian past, but apparently I was wrong in thinking that way.
The other thing that surprised me was the “slipperiness” of the language that was used to talk about this topic. If women engage in certain work because men are so concerned with status that they become “inept” at doing such work, then how can we call that work “equivalent though different” to the work of men? Who thinks that it is “equivalent”? Surely not the men who don’t want to engage in that work. . .
In thinking about these issues, I tried to imagine what this same paragraph, with a few slight modifications, would look like if we used it to describe America in the late 1940s:
“America’s gender pattern was strikingly different from that of its neighbors and trade partners in Mexico, China, India, and the Middle East. In the mid-twentieth century, American women played economic roles equivalent to though different from those of men, and therefore had more latitude and agency than their Mexican, Chinese, Indian, or Arab counterparts. They monopolized the secretarial and telephone operator professions, shared factory work (dominating routine repetitive tasks) and most importantly did most of the grocery shopping and managed the household budget. The status concerns of American men made them particularly inept in typing letters and dialing telephones. European male traders dealt largely with local women, and found their own local sexual partners extremely helpful in their business.”
And to give a visual sense to this point, consider the following:
In other words, if we exchange “America in the mid-twentieth century” for “Southeast Asia,” this paragraph becomes (for multiple reasons) ridiculous. So what makes it believable when we talk about premodern Southeast Asia?