The public and the private in gender roles

An anthropologist reports on one of the strange summer
rituals which happen in some pastoral English villages.

On long, hot summer days some of the men in Yorkshire villages are prone to engage in a ritual that involves standing in mown grassy fields, rubbing a leather clad projectile up and down their symbolic white trousers, or staggering to and fro between two sets of sticks placed in the ground, their passage inhibited by the heat, the batons of wood they carry, and the large fluted shields made of stuffed fabric that they have strapped to their legs.

An ethnographer, unfamiliar with this ritual, which is called cricket, might enquire why there are no women players. Such a question is unsatisfactorily answered by the indigenous players, who suggest that women choose not to play. However, when we asked the female members of the village, they refuted the men’s claim, and said that they were not allowed to be members of the team. If asked why this was the case, they answered that their role was to act as supporters to the men, and that the men’s enjoyment of the game would be impaired by their presence on the field as equals.

Upon detailed observation we were able to confirm their statements: for example, we found that during the afternoon of the game itself the women serve a ceremonial meal called ‘tea’ thereby acknowledging their exclusion from the visible aspect of the cricket ritual, but, nevertheless, playing a vital ‘invisible’ or ’private’ role in supporting the men. This traditional role was observed to take place in the background of the vast majority of ostensibly male rituals. It conformed to our division of the cultural space of this society to the ‘public’ sphere of the men, and the ‘private’ sphere of women.

Three members of the indigenous population taking part in a strictly male pastime.
Photo: Lennox Smillie, Camera Press

Because this ritual illustrates the high status that those who occupy the ‘public’ sphere hold in this culture, we decided to investigate it in some detail. Here, then is our report of a cricket ceremony in a Yorkshire village.

On a fine day when the cricket team is at home it seems as though the whole village turns out to watch. This may be because the cricket field is the best piece of public land in the village and does have access to the river. but the effect is of support for the cricket team. On these occasions, no woman is allowed to set foot on the pitch.

But in what is called the ‘private’ sphere, the women are engaged in what are seen as minor supportive roles. Besides being responsible for maintaining the whites of the team, there is a rota of women who provide teas for the cricketers. From early afternoon onwards, women may be seen arriving at the village hall, adjacent to the clubhouse, with plates of sandwiches and cakes which they carry into the kitchen. In the hall itself, they set up trestle tables onto which they load the food they have bought. We conclude that they are not seen, nor do they see, but they are as vital to the production of a cricket ritual as the players themselves.

When the men have been playing for a couple of hours, a woman emerges from the kitchen with a tray of drinks which she carries to the edge of the pitch where it is taken from her by a man who carries it to the square.

At five o’clock. the teams leave the field for the village hall where the women serve them the food they have prepared. And after the return of the men to the field, the women clear the tables, dismantle them, wash up and go home where eventually they will be handed the grass-stained whites to prepare for the next match.

At the end of the match, the two teams return to the clubhouse for showers. The corridor in which the men’s changing rooms are located is forbidden to women, even though this corridor leads from the bar to the kitchen. Women who want to enter the bar from the kitchen have to walk around the outside of the building. This exclusion, we concluded, served merely to underline women’s lack of status in relation to men. Furthermore, women are not usually seen in the bar after the match; having acted in such a way as to ensure that they have equipped their men for an all-male activity they call leisure, they are not welcome. Later in the evening, though, some wives do reappear, in order to drive home husbands who have had too much to drink.

If a woman should stay in the bar on such occasions, she is subjected to forms of ostracism which accord with the breaking of a taboo: she is either ignored and reclassified as ‘not there’ or subjected to the sort of joking which defines her solely in terms of the men’s predatory sexual desires. We perceived that such humour functions to control whoever ventures into the men’s space.

Once a year, however, women are allowed onto the square, on the occasion of the men versus women cricket march. The men select a young inexperienced team while the women’s team comprises the wives of young cricketers plus young girls from the village. They wear the traditional dress of short white skirts, flesh-coloured tights, men’s cricket sweaters – which reach almost to the hemline of their skirts and plimsolls. They are watched from the club verandah by established cricketers on the right and their wives on the left.

The play is accompanied throughout by a barrage of obscene comments on the play of male cricketers from their most experienced male colleagues on the balcony. The women, aware of the exposure of their legs, run awkwardly after the ball to the accompaniment of non-stop sexual banter from male spectators.

In this match, right-handed men have to play with their left hands and left-handers with their right, but the men still have enough control of the game to ensure, with instruction from the elders on the balcony, that the game comes to its ritual end whereby the women are permitted to win by a single point or run.

This event may be interpreted as an annual ritual which, by reversing the boundaries of the ‘public’ and ‘private’ spheres, serves to reaffirm that they exist. Members of the ‘private’ sphere are allowed onto the square and encouraged to flaunt their femininity while inexperienced cricketers are defined as ‘women’, being beaten by them. One spectator was heard to remark ‘Some of our younger cricketers are so wet, they’re only fit to play women. ‘But’ (he laughed) ‘it gives us a good show of legs.’

From this study, we would tentatively conclude that such ritual forms of male dominance and control offer an important insights into the nature of masculinity in this society. We are disturbed to find, however, that we may not be able to pursue our enquiries as the controlling members of the indigenous population insist that all further studies are carried out on women in the ‘private’ sphere. It is requested that we undertake no further investigations into male behaviour.

Much of this information given her comes from an article by Linda Imray and Audrey Middleton in ‘The Public and the Private’ edited by Eva Gamarnikow et al., Heinemann, 1983.

A code for men
So you are sympathetic and want to help? Here are
some guidelines for you to think about an act on.

1. Look out for ways in which you unintentionally threaten women when you’re in public places, for example, don’t walk behind a woman at night – cross the road, don’t loiter in a group of men or block the pavement.

2. Try and approach a man if you want to know directions, the time, or a light; particularly at night or in lonely places. A woman can’t be sure of your intentions

3. Do not comment on, stare at or whistle at a woman’s appearance; it’s sexual harassment

[image, unknown] 4. Share domestic tasks equally . Housework and childcare are not ‘woman’s work.’

5. Make sure that the woman you live with has the financial independent to spend the joint income as freely as you.

6. Try to express and respond to you own emotional needs; John Wayne style ‘real men’ often hide their feelings, which sometimes enables them to act in violent and cruel ways.

7. Confront sexism in other men; do not rely on women to do this for you.

8. Challenge sexism at work, and in your dealings with the State, through the welfare system, doctors or the police. Ask questions like, is there a crèche available? Are the questions on the job application forms going to be used to justify discrimination against women? Why do more women then men work part-time and in poorly paid jobs?

[image, unknown] 9. Try to counteract the effects of sexism in children; teach both boys and girls how to mend cars, play football, bake and sew.

10. Recognise that what you call ‘normality’ is based on male privilege, and should be questioned accordingly.

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