Dorothy A. Counts
University of Waterloo

Counts, Dorothy A. 1985 Sweeping Men and Harmless Women: Responsibility and Gender Identity in Later Life. Pp. 1-26. In Aging in the Third World: Part II, Publication No. 23. Jay Sokolovsky, ed. Studies in Third World Societies. Williamsburg, VA: College of William and Mary.

This manuscript differs slightly from the published version. Please cite from the published version


Although anthropologists often depend heavily on older consultants who have both the leisure to answer endless questions and the knowledge with which to satisfy the seemingly insatiable questioner, most ethnographic studies have devoted at most only a few pages to the roles, attitudes, and experiences of the elderly, or to the process of aging itself. This neglect is explained partially by the fact that in the societies anthropologists characteristically study, growing old is a luxury that most people cannot expect to enjoy. In the industrialized world, between 75 and 85 percent of us reach the age of 65, but only about 1 in 10 people born in a tribal society lives past the age of 60 (Weiss 1981: 55-56). Formerly, there seems to have been little perceived reason for anthropologists to devote much time and energy to studying a group that composed only about three percent of the population. The increase in the size and visibility of the aged minority in industrialized countries has changed this perception. Students of gerontology have turned to other cultures for comparative data and for insights into the aging experience. Cross cultural studies suggest that both contrasts and parallels exist between industrialized and non-industrialized societies. As Cool and McCabe observe, (1983:56):

The implicit challenge to anthropology in the area of gerontology is to question existing theories of aging by putting them to the cross-cultural test and to formulate cross-cultural models of aging as a universal phenomenon which transcends the immediate socio-political situations of industrialized nations.

In this paper I will attempt to evaluate models which have been offered to explain the sometimes dramatic changes in gender role behavior that occur in old age and to test these hypotheses against the experience of aging as it is understood by the Lusi-Kaliai people of West New Britain Province, Papua New Guinea.

It has been argued that cultural rules giving men dominance over women are widespread if not universal (Ortner 1974; Friedl 1975; Reiter 1975; Kessler 1976). The activities of women, especially those of child-bearing age, are curtailed and at least some of the functions, offices, and privileges available to their male peers are denied to these women. However, it is widely reported that women enjoy more authority, fewer restrictions, and more opportunity for achievement and recognition as they age past the child bearing years (Keith 1980; Brown 1982). Both women and men are said to undergo marked changes in their behavior and to find that society's expectations of them change as they grow old. There seems to be, as Keith observes, "...a universal shift among old men from more active to more passive orientations" while the "...loosening up of previous constraint is the compensation available especially to old women in many cultures" (Keith 1980:350-351). Gutmann calls this change the neutralization of gender differences, and suggests that it is a normal part of the aging process (Gutmann 1969; 1975; Gutmann, Grunes and Griffin 1980). His cross-cultural research leads him to conclude that behavioral dimorphism of the sexes is associated with, and may be a consequence of, parenthood. When parental responsibilities end, women and men move toward what he calls "...the normal androgyny of later life" (Gutmann, Grunes and Griffin 1980:122). It is not just role behavior, but the very qualities that lie at the heart of notions of gender, that are transformed by the process of aging.

Thus, neither sex is the final custodian of the qualities that we choose to call "masculine" and "feminine." These qualities tend to be distributed not only by sex but by life period. Men are not forever "masculine": rather, they can be defined as the sex that shows the trait arrangement that we call "masculine" before they show the arrangement that we call "feminine"; and the reverse is true for women (although older women do not by and large acquire the murderous aggression that is biologically available to young men). In sum, the particular constellations that we associate with maleness and femaleness do not pertain to biological sex as much as they pertain to parenthood; and they lose their distinctiveness and gender specificity as the psychic structures predicated on parenthood are phased out, with varying consequences for men and women (Gutmann 1975:181).

This is a fascinating notion, the idea that gender is a developmental process rather than a static category and that gender transformation may unfold as an aspect of the aging process. Cool and McCabe comment that although gerontological studies in the United States suggest that old age levels sex role differences because men and women grow more alike as they age, there is little cross-cultural data that specifically refers to this phenomenon (1983:60). In fact, recent research in Papua New Guinea provides a continuum of examples of the variety of ways in which gender transformation may occur as an individual moves through the life cycle. Examples of societies at one end of the continuum are the Asmat and the Kapauku. Here we find a transformation which brings an old woman relief from the domination of her husband and the freedom to speak her mind in public (Van Arsdale 1981; Pospisil 1964). Pospisil notes that gray hair brings to a Kapauku man "...an eclipse of his independent position, makes him a member of the son's household, and gradually decreases his status" (1964:59). In contrast, a woman becomes ever more emancipated from the powers of her husband and worthy of respect from the younger generation as she grows older. Beginning with menopause, she is released from the food taboos that are attached to her fertility and, "... in this respect [she] is even equal to a man" (Pospisil 1964:60). Pospisil charts the changing status of the sexes, illustrating that after a wide separation during the reproducive years, females and males become nearly equal in old age as they were in early childhood (Pospisil 1964; 60).

Other Papua New Guinea peoples, for example the Hua (Meigs 1976), the Etoro (Kelly 1976), the Bimin-Kuskusmin (Poole 1981, the Hagen (Strathern 1972), and the Sambia (Herdt 1981) view gender as transmittable and transmutable and expect transformations to occur at any time during the life cycle: it may happen in the womb; it may occur in childhood (as with the Sambia); or it may take place in old age. Strathern observes that Hagen men claim that women are incapable of the single- mindedness and reasoning powers that are required for political action, and say that a woman who shows exceptional ability obviously began life in the womb as a male, "...only happening to be born female" (1972:161). The Bimin-Kuskusmin claim that a fetus's genital sex changes repeatedly during the course of gestation, the sex at birth being determined by the last influence before delivery (Poole 1981). The arbitrariness of one's physiological sex is recognized when a man reminds his wife's brothers that they are behaving "like the women that they should have been," or when men comment, "We must treat our sisters well, for they might have been born our brothers" (Poole 1981:125).

Among the Bimin-Kuskusmin, a few women undergo a final transformation in old age. These women, who have during their lives embodied the ideals of virginal purity and maternal fertility, are chosen by men to be ritual leaders who preside during male initiations. Because the elderly woman is post-menopausal, she can neither bear children nor pollute. Her fertile fluids become as the semen from which they originated and she can, therefore, promote fertility and growth without pollution. During the initiation ceremony, the ritual leader is dressed as a transvestite representing the hermaphroditic ancestors, and after her death a hole is drilled in the soft spot at the front of her skull (considered by the Bimin-Kuskusmin to be the male navel) to allow knowledge to enter and to mark her skull as belonging to a woman. Then it is enshrined with other male sacrae (Poole 1981:154).

Gender categories may be defined by criteria other than -- or in addition to -- genital appearance and behavior. In discussing Hua notions of pollution and male pregnancy, Meigs notes that in addition to the criteria named above, gender classification may also be based on fluids that are associated with sexuality. These include menstrual blood, vaginal secretions, parturitional fluids, and sperm. Meigs (1976:405) says:

As these fluids are transferable between the two genitally different classes, this classification permits cross overs: where a genitally male person is classified as female through his contamination by female fluids, and a genitally female person as male by means of transfer of pollution out of her body.

As a result of their transfer of sexual effluvia and the cross over of classification, both men and women experience gender change. Old women become socially equivalent to males, for they may live in the men's house, they are privy to male secret knowledge, and they must observe rules that are normally limited to young men. Old men, on the other hand, take on some aspects of female social status. For example, at weddings they eat with women and children in a space that is segregated from the other men. They are placed in the category of polluting people that includes children, fertile women, and post-menopausal women with less than three children (Meigs 1976:402). Meigs clearly demonstrates that, for the Hua, gender is experienced and transmitted along with the sexual fluids that define it. She says:

A person's gender does not lie locked in his or her genitals but can flow and change with contact as substances seep into or out of his or her body. Gender is not an immutable state but a dynamic flow. Such a view permits most persons to experience both genders before they die (1976:406).

While these examples do not give an exhaustive coverage of the variety of gender concepts that may be found in Melanesian societies, they do suggest that notions of gender are conceptually separate from genital sex in these societies, and that such notions may be related in complex ways to the process of aging. The extreme male-female oppositions that are reported in some Melanesian societies seem to fade in old age as people enter gender categories that have no parallel in our own society.

There is, then, cross-cultural evidence that it is common for people to experience a change in gender role identity as they enter old age. There are at least two different models to explain the dynamics of this change. According to Gutmann's model, middle-age and the end of the ability (of women) to reproduce biologically signals the end of the years of parenthood during which people are responsible for dependent children. Then people are free to express the energies and aspects of personality that were previously bound to the service of parenthood. As a result, women and men become more alike as they develop toward a state of equality which Gutmann sees as being both androgynous and normal in later life (1975:170-71).

The model described by ethnographers who have worked with New Guinea societies is different. Some (for example Pospisil 1964), see a similarity in the gender roles of the very young and the very old. Others argue that gender is not necessarily either static or defined only in terms of genital sex. Instead it may be transmittable, transmutable, and subject to transformation. This change occurs, especially in old age, when the polluting effluvia of a woman has either dried up or been transmitted to her husband. These ethnographers attribute transformations in gender identity, behavior, status, and personality to changes that are rooted in biology and essence rather than to changes in social status such as occur, for example, with the end of responsible parenthood.

It is my intent in this essay to evaluate the usefulness of these models in understanding the process of aging as it is experienced by the Lusi speaking people of coastal Kaliai in West New Britain Province, Papua New Guinea, and to suggest an alternative model that more nearly explains the Lusi-Kaliai experience.


There are about 1000 Lusi speaking people who live along the Kaliai coast of northwest New Britain. They are normatively patrilineal and virilocal people whose initiated but unmarried young men, widowers, and very old men live in village men's houses. Most of the data for this paper were collected in Kandoka village, the largest Kaliai village and the second largest community in the Gloucester-Kandrian area of West New Britain Province.

The Aging Process.

The Lusi recognize a number of named stages in the development of the life cycle: maseknga 'new born'; kekele 'child'; iriao 'youth' and tamine vilala 'maiden'; tamine/tamone uainga 'married woman/man'; tanta pao 'new person' or 'parent of dependent child(ren)'; tamparonga/taparonga 'elder female/male; tanta taurai 'decrepit person' or 'dependent person'.(2) The simplest Lusi term that may be glossed as 'old' is moho. People as well as things become old and worn out, and occasionally a person will refer to his age in this way. Far more frequently the Lusi Kaliai describe their age/condition by the terms that are best glossed as 'elder' (taparonga/tamparonga) or 'decrepit' (taurai).

People are not classified as elders because of their absolute chronological age -- in fact, most older people do not know how old they(3). They are, however, acutely aware of their relative age and of the category and activities appropriate to their contemporaries, and to the progress through the life cycle of their kin in the adjacent generations. It is the changing status of these people -- parents and children -- that defines an individual as an elder, for this status is a relational one. Specifically, a person becomes an elder when his parents are dead or socially defunct and when his children marry and he becomes a tuvu 'grandparent' (this term may be glossed either ancestor or grandparent/grandchild). These changes are expected to occur coincidentally. My Kaliai consultants observed that by the time a person is a grandparent his own parents are likely either to be dead or decrepit and dependent.

The Lusi terms for elder, tamparonga for a woman and taparonga for a man, are terms of respect, and are commonly used by younger people as terms of address and reference. Although no one expects that the achievement of elder status is, in itself, enough to make a foolish person wise, elders are generally expected to be the stable, responsible members of the community. As long as elders are active they are ultimately accountable for the behavior of their children, even those who are married, and the other younger members of their kin group. A married woman may go home to her mother (this is how the Kaliai phrase it) and a man can look to his father to help him obtain a bride, initiate his children, and pay compensation if he is on the wrong side of a quarrel. These options are not available to an elder, for his/her parents are either dead or dependent: an elder has no one else to look to.

There is ambiguity in the status of elder. The Kaliai share with other New Guinea people (for example see Kelly 1976; Gell 1975; Goodale 1980 and 1981) the notion that the reproduction of human life and society has a cost. The waxing strength and knowledge of the younger generation is accomplished at the expense of the waning capability and mental acuity of their parents. People specifically attribute the weakness and senility of the very old to the fact that their vitality has been expended into their children. Older informants warn that if a man marries before he is old enough to grow a full beard his strength will be spent into his children and he will never achieve his own potential growth and abilities. They also say that if the first born child of a marriage is a girl, both parents will age prematurely.

Under normal circumstances the fact that little girls learn, grow, and mature faster than little boys does not mean that women age more rapidly than men. Instead, tall, skinny people are said to show the signs of old age sooner than do short, heavy-set people who retain the full-fleshed, plump liquidity that the Lusi associate with youth.

The birth of a person's first grandchild is especially significant, for grandparenthood marks the movement of the person into the status of elder and the beginning of the decline into old age. It is not long thereafter, people say, that a person's strength and keenness of thought begin to diminish.

The years spent as an elder are the prime years of life. Physical strength decreases, but this is offset by the norm that no elder should do a strenuous task if there is a younger person available. The elder years are a time of gavagu 'my ease' when a person can rest from hard labor but still be active, vital, and respected. Younger people are expected to honour elders, and both women and men readily make their opinions known in public meeting. These are the years when a woman is no longer burdened by pregnancy and the care of tiny infants. She directs her daughters and daughters-in-law in the preparation of feast foods, the care of pigs, and the production of pandanus mats which are the ceremonially distributed woman's wealth. However, embedded in the enjoyment of heightened authority, respect, and responsibility is the knowledge that one's prestige and faculties will soon decline and the fear that the knowledge possessed by the individual may be lost, not only to him but to his society as well. Therefore the elder has the duty to pass on knowledge, especially secret knowledge, to others so that it will not die with him. He is also obliged to begin deferring to the judgement of younger kin so that when the elder's strength and abilities are spent others will be trained to take his place or, as the Lusi would express it, to "take his bed." Our informants observed that persons who exercise authority invariably make enemies and risk being the victims of sorcery. This is the cost of leadership that must be paid by an elder , but when a person's grandchildren are born the risks of sorcery begin to seem oppressive and he starts to think with longing of a peaceful old age, and of the time when he can withdraw from those activities that are likely to offend others. So, it is when a person is an elder and at the peak of his powers and influence that he must also begin to prepare for his ultimate decline and death.

Once a person is classified as being an elder, people begin to look for and note the physical changes characteristic of old age. These include failing eyesight, dry slack skin, white hair, loss of teeth, and mental decline including forgetfulness, inability to concentrate for long periods of time, and the condition called vuovuo -- a term used to describe the mental processes of both the very young and the very old, and which incorporates concepts of childish lack of reason and of senility.

Although awareness of the inevitability of eventual decline is embedded in elder status, a person may continue as an elder for as long as he actively meets his responsibilities. A person may continue to be an active and responsible elder long after his spouse's death, for elder status is held without respect to gender, marital status, or the continued maintenance of a domestic household. The status depends upon the individual's ability and willingness to function as an independent, responsible person, and it may be lost by a person's failure to act. While most Lusi-Kaliai are sympathetic with persons who are incapacitated by chronic illness, they express impatience with people who retire from active life and become dependent solely because of their advanced years. Their attitude toward maintaining physical ability and independence is aptly summarized by the phrase "use it or lose it".

The decrepit elderly do not make up a high percentage of the population of a Kaliai community. Fewer than two percent of the people of Kandoka village (7 of 360) were decrepit. Of these, six of the seven were women, and five of these women were widows. There is little apparent difference in the life styles of widowed elders and widowed taurai. Widowers reside in their men's houses and are provided with cooked food by younger kinswomen and affines, while widows live with their children or other kin, often sleeping in the cook house which is attached to the family's sleeping house. The difference between elder and taurai lies in the independence and well-being associated with self-support. Elders continue, with the help of children and grandchildren, to garden for themselves. Widows provide most of their own food, water and firewood, while the widowed of both sexes participate in ceremonies, often direct their younger kin's activities, and are involved in community affairs. In contrast, decrepit people depend on younger kin to supply their needs and do not supervise their children or participate in community activities.

The treatment accorded a decrepit person depends largely on the relationship that exists between the old person and his caretaker. Some taurai are cared for lovingly by their children and grandchildren. Others complain that they are neglected, and younger relatives are especially impatient with older persons whose dependence is considered to be the result of voluntary inactivity. People are also more likely to resent demands on their resources by dependent elderly if there is no direct kin link between young and old. Villagers cite the tragic death of Mary in 1976 as an example of the fate awaiting the aged who do not have their own children to care for them.(4) (The following case studies of Mary and Karl are adapted from Counts and Counts n.d.) Mary, a widow who appeared to be in her seventies, was blind for the last ten years of her life. During these years, she required help in meeting her most basic needs. Someone had to lead her to toilet, to bring her water and firewood, and to provide and prepare her food. Mary's days were spent huddled in a little cooking house, near but separate from the household of her stepson, and she often could be heard crying that she had no water to drink, no food to eat, or no one to help rekindle her fire. Technically, Mary's care was the responsibility of her step-children, but both of them had large families of dependent children. Mary's stepchildren frequently gave their children the task of caring for her. However, because no one in the stepchildren's families was directly related to Mary, they resented the added burden of caring for her.

Although Karl's wife, Gretchen, is living, the two do not reside together. Karl sleeps in his men's house with the initiated but unmarried boys and young men of his kin group, while Gretchen lives in her own house with a widowed kinswoman. The children of both women live near-by, and their grandchildren take turns sleeping in the house with them and providing them with water, firewood, and food. Karl's daily round seldom hints of his former status as the leader of his village. He babysits his grandchildren and great-grandchildren, does household chores around his men's house -- including keeping the ground in front of it swept clear of debris -- and sits reminiscing with other old men.





Not only does Karl suffer from physical disability, but he is generally regarded as failing in mental acuity as well. On those occasions when he attempts to act as director of ritual events in which his sons are involved, he is gently pushed aside and ignored. During 1981, Karl's sons publicly acknowledged their father's disengagement from active life when they held the first stage of Karl's ololo 'mortuary ceremony'. With the completion of his final mortuary ceremonies in 1982, Karl is socially defunct and he sits, as my consultants say, "waiting for death." His sons have concluded the complex system of debts, obligations, credits and social ties that were begun for Karl by his father and grandfather and upon which he built his reputation as a bigman. He no longer has any business; it is finished. The final ololo marks the culmination of Karl's life; his physical death will be "something nothing" and will be followed by only minimal funerary rites. There will be no public mourning; only the private grief of his family.


There is a complex relationship that exists between Lusi notions of sexuality, physical health, and aging. As noted above, people attribute the disabilities of old age to the fact that a person's vitality has been given to his children. Parents pass on their vitality to their children in at least two ways. The physical strength of parents is expended in the labor required to bear, feed, and care for children. And the essence, aisuru, of adults is spent in the sexual activity which is necessary if there is to be a next generation.

The physical changes associated with aging -- especially increasingly dry, slack skin; a wrinkled, dessicated appearance; and loss of vitality -- are specifically considered to be the result of sexual activity. Sexual activity is potentially debilitating for both men and women. The sexual fluids and odors that result from sexual intercourse are polluting, mali, the same term used to describe the poisonous capacities of menstrual blood, and are potentially dangerous to newborn infants, newly initiated children, and the ill. Persons who have had intercourse should clean themselves before going near vulnerable persons lest illness, infection of ceremonially inflicted wounds, or death result from their carelessness.

Men are vulnerable to the contaminating power of menstrual blood; (a man who injests it is said to contract a wasting disease which has the symptoms of tuberculosis), and they are also weakened by sexual intercourse.(5) My elder male consultants recounted that their fathers had warned them to sleep in the men's house to avoid both contamination by menstrual blood and too frequent contact with their wives. It is thought that frequent sexual activity depletes a man's aisuru, vital essence or sperm, and results in a wrinkled, dessicated appearance, loss of vitality, and premature aging.

Women are also vulnerable to the contaminating power of menstrual blood and may, accidently, poison themselves if they are not careful to clean their hands before preparing food when they are menstruating. My consultants maintained that sexual activity does not cause women to age. However, consider the effects of sexual activity which are explicitly described in the Kaliai myth "Akro and Gagandewa". In the story, Gagandewa's mother suspects that her daughter is secretly married because of the physical changes in the girl. She says:

Gagandewa, the look that you have is not that of a virgin but that of a married woman. Your eyes have lost their lustre. Your skin is no longer bright and smooth with oils as it was. You have the dull eye, the long neck, and the dry, dirty skin of a married woman (Counts 1980:38).

Gagandewa is pregnant and, in fact, frequent sexual intercourse is said to be debilitating to women precisely because it is likely to lead to pregnancy. A woman who is too frequently pregnant is likely to be weak and sickly, and to age prematurely because of the physical strains of pregnancy and childbirth and the hard work involved in caring for several small children. On the other hand, a woman should not be childless, for the expulsion of the mixture of old blood and sexual fluids present in her abdomen and its replacement by new blood after childbirth is essential for her good health. Ideally a woman should achieve a balance between too many children and none at all, for either extreme renders her vulnerable to disease and premature aging.

Menopause and the end of reproductive life does not change the status of a Lusi woman. Although most female elders are near the end of their child-bearing years there is no special term for menopause and no special significance attached to it. The older women who were my consultants said that women generally welcomed the end of pregnancy and child bearing. However, neither change of status nor special privilege is associated with the end of fertility. Middle age brings an end neither to sexual activity nor to the responsibilities of parenthood. My consultants considered sexual behavior to be an intensely private and personal matter, and opined that some people remain sexually active until very old age. As one consultant said, "Some old people 'itch for sex'; others don't." Unlike the neighboring Kove (Chowning 1988), the Lusi speaking Kaliai do not consider it to be shameful for a grandmother to continue bearing children. It is assumed that people of both sexes and all ages have an intense interest in sexual activity and that adulterous affairs are common, but grandmothers are expected to choose partners their own age and to be circumspect if they commit adultery.

If people continue sexual activity into dependent old age they are, my consultants said, likely to be the subject of gossip and to be scolded by their younger kin who must provide for them. My Lusi consultants spoke with amusement of an elder (nearly dependent) man in a neighboring village who had married a young woman and fathered five children. One informant commented that the man was now bent, dessicated, and a taurai, 'decrepit old person', presumably as the result of his sexual activity. There was, however, no suggestion that the man was, because of his age, incapable of fathering children and, therefore, likely a cuckold, or that his sexual activity was shameful.

Women may continue to become mothers long after they can no longer bear children because, for the Lusi, the relationship of mother is established by her nurturing the child rather than by pregnancy and childbirth. The Lusi emphasize agnatic links. A man is father to his children because they are composed of aisuru 'his essence; his sperm'. Older consultants assured me that children are constructed entirely of paternal, not maternal substance, while younger villagers who have been to school and who know the European model of biological parenthood deny this. At any rate, Lusi seem to agree that food giving and sharing both establishes and expresses kin relationships, and men who are adoptive fathers become parents by nurturing children. A child may, therefore, call several people by parental terms, but he lives in the household of the person or couple who assumes primary responsibility for his care.

Adoption is very common in Kaliai. Most married couples give at least one of their children in adoption and most persons, either as individuals or as part of a couple, adopt at least one child during the course of a life-time. Children are desired. A house without them is said to be empty and lonely, and elderly people say that without children they would feel old and without purpose. Parenthood is also an investment in the future, for children are the major source of social security in Kaliai. Children, including those adopted by elders, are expected to provide labor and help as their parents become decrepit. It is for these reasons that middle-aged and elderly couples and widows continue adopting grandchildren or the children of young

relatives who have more offspring than they can easily care for, until they are in their sixties.


Two stages of advanced age are recognized by the Lusi-Kaliai: elder and dependent old person. The terms for elder tamparonga and taparonga distinguish between female and male. The term for dependent old person, taurai, does not. Elderhood is a status denoting social age rather than functional or chronological age, and is considered by the Lusi to be the prime of life. It is also the time of life when people begin to note the physical signs of aging and to plan for eventual retirement from active social life.

The Lusi perceive there to be a link between sexual activity, aging, and health, and comment that there is a positive connection between a preoccupation with sexual intercourse and premature aging. Menstrual blood is considered to be potentially contaminating, but a woman's status does not change because of menopause, and neither sexual activity nor responsible parenthood necessarily end with the cessation of fertility or with the achievement of elder status. People continue to adopt and care for young children until they themselves become dependent. Then, the children they have nurtured reciprocate and care for their needs.

The Lusi model, then, differs from the model offered by Gutmann and from those derived from the Melanesian societies in which gender is transmutable. The Lusi consider gender to be consistent with genital sex. It does not appear to be transmittable or transmutable, although as we shall see, the dependent old are, on occasion, released from the constraints of stereotyped gender role behavior and placed in a neutral gender category. These changes do not, however, significantly affect every-day life, as they do in the models offered by Meigs, Poole, and Gutmann.

Birth order and relative age are at least as significant as is gender in structuring the content of interpersonal relations. First-born children are the most important issue of a marriage, and older siblings have authority over younger ones, regardless of sex. I have seen a woman order her adult younger brother to get up and give her a desirable seat. When the man smilingly protested that he did not have to move because he was there first, his sister replied, "I'm older. You're younger. Move!" He did.

By the same token, younger people are expected to defer to their elders. Women are generally expected to be deferential and submissive to their fathers and husbands, but some women are out-spoken, ambitious, and fearless in defense of their own interests. Women who are outstanding for their assertive behavior are often the first-born daughters of village leaders, and people specifically attribute their uncharacteristic behavior to this fact. As she ages, an aggressive and ambitious woman may have considerable authority in her own right, especially if she is married to a bigman. A village leader's wife has a set of obligations that parallel those of her husband. For example, he is responsible for organizing the ceremonial exchange of valuables and pigs that is required when people marry, initiate their children, and honor the dead. When a leader announces his intention to sponsor a ceremony, his wife must collect for distribution a supply of pandanus mats equivalent to the shell money to be given by her husband, and she is also responsible for the preparation and distribution of huge amounts of feast food. All ceremonial guests (there may be several hundred) must be well fed for the duration of their visit, and there should be enough pork, fish, and vegetable dishes for visitors to carry some home after everyone has eaten. As a woman ages, she becomes more experienced in ceremonial procedure and she builds a network of women whom she has helped and who will reciprocate when she needs mats and cooked foods. Eventually the women who were her advisers die or become dependent and withdraw from active life and her daughters marry and call on her to help them meet their responsibilities. If her husband is the primary village leader, a maroni, she is increasingly obliged to provide the female wealth items and foods that he requires if he is to pursue his career successfully. Although she cannot make a name for herself as the female equivalent of a maroni, an elder woman may direct and organize economic exchange activity, both in her own right as a senior female and as the wife of an important man.


The character and lives of Lusi women and men do not change dramatically as they grow older. There is no transformation of gender identity or role behavior. Decrepit men do not become more passive than their female age-mates. Elder women do not, as a group, dominate elder men and it is unlikely that a shy, retiring young woman will suddenly become an assertive and aggressive taparonga, or that an aggressive, ambitious man will passively withdraw from village life as he moves into elder status.

Throughout their lives, Lusi women are, in a sense, silent partners. Their participation in and contribution to Kaliai life is critical to the maintenance of society, but it is a participation which seldom receives public acknowledgment. This generalization does not change significantly as women reach elder status. The autonomy and independence enjoyed by a tamparonga does not represent a radical departure from her way of life as a young woman. A post-menopausal woman continues to do the same kinds of things she did when she was younger, except that as she becomes a senior female she assumes increasing responsibility for the behavior of her juniors, and she assists her younger female kin to meet their obligations.

A post-reproductive woman is not perceived as being less feminine than one who is still fertile. As far as I am able to ascertain, the Kaliai consider gender and genital sex to be inseparable and have no categories for people whose behavior or gender identity does not conform to their physical appearance. The Lusi-Kaliai notion of gender, unlike that of some other New Guinea peoples, seems to be that it is a stable, non-transmittable attribute that is consistent with, and defined by, genital appearance, and that is fixed in the womb. There is, however, some anomaly. Post-menopausal women are like children and men in that they are not inherently mali: they do not produce menstrual blood. Although this does not change a woman's every-day life, consultants did say that this loss of mali makes it possible for men, on occasion, to invite a decrepit old woman to remain in the village when the spirits are abroad and, in an emergency, to enter the men's house and touch the sacred paraphernalia that men have hidden there. Conversely, old men frequently act as baby sitters and even take over the chore of sweeping the plaza in front of their men's house, a task usually reserved to women. These are, however, exceptional circumstances that do not define the set of rights and obligations that customarily obtain for old people.

The Lusi model of aging is quite different from that described for the Hua, the Bimin Kuskusmin, and other New Guinea groups who perceive gender as being a processual quality, defined in part by fertile fluids, which is potentially reversible in old age. It is more similar to the Kapauku model, as described by Pospisil, in which the "status curves" of people over the age of fifty-five and children under the age of seven are close together (1964:60). However, the differences between active and reproductive Lusi women and men are not as extreme as those described by Pospisil, and the childlike, androgynous aspects of old age do not appear until people become dependent. There are no certain birth dates for Kaliai born before 1949, when Kaliai Mission was established. However, if the birth dates estimated by the Kaliai priests for older people are close to being accurate, elders continue active participation in village life until the age of sixty-five or seventy. This is significantly older than the age of fifty-five years estimated by Pospisil as being the age when elderly Kapauku become like children and, presumably, become dependent members of the community.

The Lusi model, while different from that posited by Gutmann, is not entirely incompatible with his. Elder Lusi women do enjoy more authority than younger women. This is not because they become androgynous or undergo a change in personality and behavior that coincides with an end to the parenting of dependent children. Rather it is because they become adults who are responsible for themselves and for the younger members of their community as well. The Lusi-Kaliai model suggests that in societies where gender is conceived of as being stable throughout the life cycle, it is responsibility rather than parenting that should be stressed in a model that seeks to describe and explain the androgyny of extreme old age. For it is not until Lusi cease to be responsible, and become --like children -- dependent on others that they are seen as childlike, neutral, and socially irrelevant. Then their deaths, like those of infants, are mourned only by close kin and do not disturb the fabric of Lusi society.


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1. This is a substantially revised version of a paper entitled "Tamparonga": The 'Big Women' of Kaliai" that was presented at a symposium on middle-aged women organized by Dr. Judith K. Brown for the 1982 meetings of the American Anthropological Association. The research on which this paper is based was conducted in West New Britain Province, Papua New Guinea. In 1966-67 my research was supported by the U.S. National Science Foundation; in 1971 it was supported by the Wenner-Gren Foundation and the University of Waterloo; in 1975-76 it was supported by the Canada Council and University of Waterloo sabbatical leave; and in 1981 my research was supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and sabbatical leave from the University of Waterloo.

2. In 1981 there were 360 people in Kandoka village. Of these, 25 were nursing infants, 198 were children and teenagers, 11 were unmarried young adults. There were 3 newly married couples with no children, 39 parent couples and 3 single parents (1 man, 2 women), 33 elders (18 women, 15 men), and 7 decrepit elderly, 6 women and 1 man.

3. The elders' birth dates, which were estimated by Kaliai mission priest ranged from 1910 to 1937 for women and 1915 to 1933 for men. Of the people who were considered decrepit, only one was an age-mate or younger of the oldest elders.

4. Names have been Anglicized and changed to protect the privacy of individuals.

5. We should not overemphasize the dangers of menstrual contamination of women who live in a society which lacks effective means of birth control and in which women usually nurse their children for two or three years, as the Lusi do. These women do not spend a great deal of their reproductive life menstruating. Short (1976 cited in Lancaster and King 1982:6) estimates that for most of human history women, whose reproductive years were from the ages of 17 to 40 spent most of those years in lactational amenorrhea, 15 years lactating, and only 4 years each in pregnancy and menstrual cycling.

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