Uprisings led by women

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Women's march on Versailles during the French Revolution 1789

Women-led uprisings are mass protests that are initiated by women as an act of resistance or rebellion in defiance of an established government. A protest is a statement or action taken part to express disapproval of or object an authority; most commonly led in order to influence public opinion or government policy. They range from village food riots against imposed taxes to protests that initiated the Russian revolution.

Some of women-led mass protests deliberately set out to emphasise the gender (or gender role) of the organisers and participants: for example, the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo emphasised their common role as mothers by marching in white headscarves to symbolise the diapers of their lost children. In other settings, women may strip naked in order to draw attention to their cause, or to shame or intimidate those whom they are protesting.[1][2][3]

Joan of Arc[edit]

Joan of Arc was a teenage girl who led an uprising against English control over her country of France.

Food riots[edit]

E.P. Thompson's classic article "The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the 18th Century" emphasised women's role in many food riots. He argued that the rioters insisted on the idea of a moral community that was obliged to feed them and their families. As one contemporary commentator wrote: 'Women are more disposed to be mutinous ... [and] in all public tumults they are foremost in violence and ferocity.' [4]

John Bohstedt later argued that Thompson had exaggerated women's role in food riots. Thompson responded by forcefully rejecting Bohstedt's criticism.[5] We will never know the exact proportion of women's involvement in 18th Century food riots, but it appears that, at the very least, women led or initiated a significant minority of such riots and they participated in many more. Women had participated more fully in food riots than they had in earlier anti-impressment riots of 1747, in which they defended community interest and enforced community morality. These riots of revolution and resistance opened up opportunities for women to take political action as social and economic influencers, and not just as a republican's wife or a mother.[6] He indicates that women's new assertiveness had something to do with the weakening of the patriarchal control of women as feudalism declined and market relations expanded.

Men and women participated in food riots in Ireland, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany (where contemporary reports claimed that women initiated many riots). Dutch tax riots in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were more numerous often more violent with participants of both lower and lower-middle classes, whereas food riots drew only lower class participants. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, at last 26 riots and 50 demonstrations involved women with 10 being chiefly under their control. Women did the cooking and purchased foodstuffs for their families; therefore, they were the first parties to be confronted with scarcities of food and high prices. In doing so women generally controlled much of the household finances. Another reason for their participation is due to the fact that food riots typically started in market places near shops and mills, which is where women gathered the most. One of the most prominent tax riots in 1616 has even gone on record as "the Women's Revolt of Delft".[7] Women also conducted nearly a third of food riots during the American Revolution [8] despite the fact that women were excluded from the vote, unqualified to serve as jurors at courts and law, and were essentially politically disabled by their dependent status.[6] It made a difference that Americans knew that women figured prominently in food riots in England and Europe, and it made a difference that ideas of equity, neighborly dealing, and charity informed American women's daily lives in the colonial period. Roughly 100 women marched a "Female Riot" and took to the streets in July 1777 insisting on their right to enforce equitable exchange.[6]

Women made up most of the participants in (and organisers of) several food riots that broke out in North America during the early twentieth-century.[9] Women continue to play a prominent role in many food riots - for example, in 2008 over 1,000 women protested the Peruvian government's response to rising food prices.[9]

Uprisings to demand women's suffrage[edit]

During the early twentieth century, women's protests for the right to vote became particularly militant in Britain. Many of the core organisers of mass protests were women. Strategies used by protestors included mass demonstrations, arson, widespread window breaking and attempts to storm both Parliament and Buckingham Palace. After World War I broke out in 1914, the mainstream suffragette movement suspended its protests in order to focus on the war effort.[10]

French Revolutions[edit]

Women were especially prominent in food riots in French marketplaces (although men dominated those in the countryside).[11] The most momentous French food riot was The Women's March on Versailles. This occurred in October 1789, when the market women of Paris began calling the men 'cowards' and declaring: 'We will take over!' These women proceeded to march to Versailles with soldiers following them. This crowd then forced the King to return to Paris where, three years later, women were again major participants in the demonstrations that led to the abolition of the monarchy. As a police inspector said in 1793: 'It is mainly the women who are stirred up, women who in turn communicate all their frenzy to the men, heating them up with their seditious propositions and stimulating the most violent effervescence.'[12]

Meanwhile, women in the countryside initiated 'counter-revolutionary' protests against the new government's policies of the repression of the Church and the conscription of male peasants into the army.[13]

During the French Revolution, women lead the fight for religion. Their fight would lead the way for the feminization of religions. Women felt that they were one responsible for maintaining a spiritual balance within their family. They fought harder than their male counterparts, invoking violent and illegal actions sometimes to get their voices heard. If women were ever arrested, the males in their lives would downplay the damage they could do and were also seen as more hysterical and vulnerable as a whole, so society never thought much of their violent and illegal actions. But if a woman refused or avoided taking part in petitions or marches, she would be shamed until guilted into taking part.[14]

The women during the French Revolution also fought for their own rights. Aristocratic women were not as likely to partake in the activities that could ruin their family and/or their chance of inheriting the family fortune (or what she would receive), so they were reluctant to participate. Working class women also faced this dilemma, but because they were already the suppressed class, the good of what they could achieve outweighed the loss of family pride and/or fortune. Louis XVI had allowed all people who paid taxes to vote, but since women could not pay taxes, they could not vote. While the Third Estate made rules, women would present their opinions through pamphlets and petitions to let the Third Estate know what they wanted. Pétition des femmes du Tiers-Etat au Roi stated that women wanted education to go beyond French and Latin for Church, more jobs to be available to women, and to raise the max pay of 5-6 sous. Motion en Faveur du Sexe and Discours préliminaire de la pauvre Javotte focused on dowries and marriage. In the working class, finding a job was hard enough for men, harder for women, and saving enough money to get married was almost impossible. Women didn't want to have to pay a dowry to get married, this applied only in the Third Estate. The Rights of Woman by Olympe de Gou was a complete pamphlet that stated all the rights that women should have. It was copied almost word for word from the Declaration of the Rights of Man, but applied to women. A booklet "Griefs et plaintes des femmes mal mariées" placed criticism on marriage laws oppressing women into submission to their male counterpart and demanded the legalization of divorce. In the sector of Bourgeoises, Madame Etta Palm van Aelder was a leading figure in fighting to women's rights. She demanded for the equal right to an education, political freedom, divorce and legality of women of age 21 and over. While political freedom would not be gained until after the Revolution, all other demands would be meet in some way. In August 1792, women of the age of 21 and above were given legal freedom from their parents. In September 1792, women were granted the right to divorce and the Law of 1794 eased the divorce process. Educational programs were advanced and allowed women to be trained for careers in the work field, but they still did not obtain equality. Female teachers were paid less than males and primary school classes were divided by gender. By the end of the advancements and improvements in the educational system, the women weren't much better off than before.[15]

R. B. Rose argues that despite the efforts of women during the Revolution, little changed. The Revolution was a revolution for the men, and a place of chaos for the women. The French Revolutionary Constitution of 1791 allowed women to be labeled as citizens, but nothing else than that. They still didn't have voting rights or the ability to run for office. The Napoleonic Law of 1804 suppressed wives into submission to their husbands, reversing all equality demands made during the Revolution. Women still couldn't own land because they couldn't legally sign any contract, putting the land into the hands of her closest masculine relative figure.[16]

Later, during the Franco-Prussian War of 1871, women were prominent in preventing the army from moving their cannons from Paris, an event which helped spark the Paris Commune.[17]

World War I[edit]

Suffragette handbill

During World War I, women led large numbers of food riots in Germany, Russia, Italy and elsewhere.[18] Women workers also led the way in strike-waves in Berlin and Paris. The German authorities reported that union leaders were doing 'everything possible to prevent such disturbances and strikes over food provisions, but ... it is the countless female workers who constantly agitate and stir things up.' Women's prominence in these struggles helped delegitimize the war, and the regimes that were fighting it, paving the way for the huge strike-waves and revolutions at the end of the war.[19]

Aftermath of Berlin food riot, 1918

Women also led food riots in Japan and non-belligerent Spain. Women's protests against high food prices spread across Spain in both 1913 and 1918. In Barcelona, in 1918, women used the slogan: 'In the name of humanity, all women take to the streets!'. They organised repeated demonstrations and attacked shops, warehouses, government offices and music halls. Women also staged food riots during the Spanish Civil War.[20]

Russian Revolution[edit]

Karl Marx had recognized that "great social revolutions are impossible without the feminine ferment"[21] and, in 1917, it was Petrograd's (Saint Petersburg) female workers who spread the idea of a general strike on 8 March, International Women's Day. On that day, hundreds of women threw stones and snowballs at factory windows demanding for bread. Economic depression in 1917, particularly devastated the working-class women because price of daily necessities increases tremendously, but their low paid wages does not compensate for the increased in price of goods. After a long and tiring day of labor, women had to line up for hours just to get a loaf of bread. Sometimes after wasting hours waiting in line, the bread would run out. The protest were led by thousand of female workers and inspired male factory workers to join them and demand changes.[22] Women participated in the riots by attacking police stations and bakeries. However, many troops refused to shoot protesting women, who were often walking with their children. As Leon Trotsky later wrote, the women took hold of the soldiers' rifles and 'beseeched almost commanded: "put down your bayonets and join us"', and, within five days, the centuries-old Tsarist regime had collapsed.[23]

As Bolshevik took over Petrograd and Moscow in October 1917, tense relationship were discern between rulers and working-class women.[24] Scarcity and hunger made it very difficult for Russian workers to transform society themselves and women's participation did not continue at the same level as in February/March 1917. However, it was women's food protests, in May 1918, that sparked the first major wave of workers' unrest against the new Bolshevik authorities.[25] Then, later, during Joseph Stalin's program of breakneck industrialization and forced collectivization, women were again at the forefront of the workers' strikes and peasant protests that resisted this brutal policy.[26] Stalin's regime was, however, able to contain all resistance through starvation and repression.

Colonial revolts[edit]

Women were prominent in various revolts in the colonial and ex-colonial world. One of the most notable in Africa was the Igbo Women's War against British tax collection in Nigeria in 1929.[27] Women in southern Igboland believed that they were being wrongfully taxed for palm products by the British. This led to what the British called the Aba Riots, and the Igbo, the Women's War. This rebellion tested the political institutions of the Igbo women which have been established prior to colonization. Women took initiative by sending messages through the market and kinship networks connecting to other villages calling for a mikiri meeting. They also took advantage of strikes, boycotts, and force to project their opinions and retaliate against authority. Women of wealth and generosity who could speak well typically took leading roles in village wide mikiri gatherings, which had the largest influence on the rise of the Women's War. During mikiri, decisions were made on how to respond against being wronged by the Warrant Chief's corruption and by the taxes that they anticipated to be enforced upon them.[28]

During the late 1940s, the Abeokuta Women's Revolt protested the Nigerian colonial government's imposition of new taxes upon women. Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti led mass protests of women outside the palace of the local ruler.

The civil rights movement and feminism since the 1950s[edit]

It was a boycott of segregated buses by African-American women that sparked the civil rights movement in 1955. This case inspired activists across the world to make a change and fight oppressions.[29]

Young women's rejection of the patriarchal family and sexual repression was also a major factor in the rebellions of the 1960s.[30] Women started to defy the typical housewife characteristics and they also demanded equal pay for man and women who worked the same job. Sexual revolution was also transcending in the 1960s as women embraced their sexuality and nature more openly.[31] The revived feminist movement then helped transform gender roles in the following decades. Stormé DeLarverie, a Black/biracial butch lesbian, is credited with inciting the Stonewall uprising in New York City in 1969.[32] Stonewall was a major turning point in the gay liberation and LGBTQ rights movements.

Women were also at the forefront of many working class struggles in the 1970s and 1980s. (For example, in the British Isles, women's protests and leadership were significant during the 'troubles' in Northern Ireland, during the Grunwick strike and during the miners' strike.[33]) For a long time, Iranian women struggled with basic human rights and oppression due to traditional religious affiliations and political attributes. Their Islamic beliefs conceal the issues of gender inequalities and the domination of man towards Iranian women. On 1979, in the course of Islamic Revolution, women gathered and protested on the streets but the changes were nonexistent. It wasn't until 1990s where the impact of Islamic Revolution was seen as intolerant to women. This is when young women and activist started going against the Islamic ideologies, for instance, getting a divorce or wearing clothes that were revealing. Significant changes of basic human rights and the oppression of Iranian women has been perceived since 1990s and it has been progressing notably until today.[34]

Recently on January 20, 2017, the day after Donald Trump was inaugurated as the 45th US president, women, men, and children marched in protest of Trump and to promote solidarity with other women in order to resist women's oppression and mistreatment. Over 680 marches throughout the US and in more than 68 countries around the world were held as part of the Women's March. More than 1,000,000 people participated in the "flagship march" in Washington D.C.[35]

Kurdish Women and the Rojava Revolution[edit]

Northern Syria is what is referred to as the Rojava. The Rojava revolution, or Rojava conflict, is the political disaster, social revolution, and military battle that has taken place in recent years. The Rojava Revolution has been characterized by the prominent role women have had during these times of strife.

The YPG, Women's Protection Units

The novel Revolution in Rojava: Democratic Autonomy and Women's Liberation in Syrian Kurdistan documents the Kurdish women and how they were and still are oppressed. As Kurds, they were denied basic rights, in many cases even citizenship; and as women they were trapped in patriarchal domination.[36] The Kurdish women's movement seeks to overcome the alienation of Kurdish women. The fight for women's rights has always been a part of Kurdish history. One of the first signs of revolution in Rojava was the election of Hêvî Îbrahîm to the post of the prime minister in February 2014.[37]

Indeed, many women were assuming leadership positions. Asya Abdullah is regarded to be one of the most radical and effective revolutionaries in the world today. She has been the driving force in the battle for Kurdish freedom.[38] She wants women around the world to become more aware of their own fight.

With this transformation, women also began getting involved with security and military roles. In 2012, women from the PYD, the People's Protection Units, created a unit dedicated to the fight for women. The Women's fighting units, also known as YPJ, have played a role in the liberations of towns like Kobani and Manbij.[38] Since September 2014, Kurdish women have been playing a leading role in the fight against ISIS. The creation of the YPJ is a fascinating development in a region where women's rights are often repressed. But with the formation of these groups, has come with sexist media coverage. The media is more concerned with the fighters looks rather than what they are fighting for.

Women in the PKK guerrilla army have developed Jineoloji (also known as Jineology) which simply put, means women's science. The goal of jineology is to given women and society access to science and knowledge and to strengthen the connections of science and knowledge to society.[36] The Rojava Revolution has been characterized by a high level of women participation politics, safe houses for women dealing with sexual assault or violence, and women-run academies dedicated to the study of Jineology.

Out of the conflict of the popular uprising in Syria, Kurdish women took up arms alongside men and took control of Northern Syria, also known as Rojava. The women fight alongside men both in mixed units of the People's Protection Units (YPG) as well as in their own Women's Protection Units (YPJ). Women constitute an estimated 35 percent of the entire Kurdish forces.[37]

The creation of the first human societies[edit]

Studies of contemporary hunter-gatherers show that their strong sense of moral community is maintained by autonomous individuals who constantly resist any form of personal domination. In fact, many hunter-gatherers are so egalitarian and communistic that even a non-Marxist anthropologist like Christopher Boehm argues that hunter-gatherer societies - the first human societies - must have originated in uprisings against dominant males.[39]

Chris Knight, and other anthropologists influenced by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, have theorised that these uprisings were led by women looking for collective support to ease their childcare burdens.[40] They have used a wide range of evidence from anthropology, primatology, mythic narratives, evolutionary biology and archaeology. Some Marxists have dismissed these ideas.[41] However, although the idea of women-led uprisings creating the first societies is controversial, a number of highly respected anthropologists have taken the thesis seriously. (Mary Douglas, Robin Dunbar, David Lewis-Williams, Caroline Humphrey, Marilyn Strathern, Clive Gamble, Keith Hart and Chris Stringer have all made favourable comments about Knight's work.[42])

See also[edit]


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  2. ^ "Naked Power: Women and the Social Production of Water in Anglophone Cameroon", Gender, Water and Development, Bloomsbury Academic, 2005, doi:10.5040/9781474214834.ch-004, ISBN 9781845201241 (p. 21)
  3. ^ Tibbetts, Alexandra. Mamas fighting for freedom in Kenya. p. 11. OCLC 34537945.
  4. ^ E.P. Thompson, Customs in Common, p234.
  5. ^ E.P. Thompson, 'The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the 18th Century' and 'Moral Economy Reviewed' in Customs in Common, p185-335; Malcolm Thomis and Jennifer Grimmett, Women in Protest, 1800–1850, p28ff; John Bohstedt, 'The Myth of the Feminine Food Riot' in Harriet Applewhite and Darlene Levy, Women and Politics in the Age of Democratic Revolution.
  6. ^ a b c Smith, Barbara Clark. "Food Rioters and the American Revolution." The William and Mary Quarterly, vol. 51, no. 1, 1994, pp. 3–38. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2947003.
  7. ^ Dekker, Rudolf M. "Women in revolt." Theory and Society 16.3 (1987): 337-362
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  9. ^ a b Patel, Raj; McMichael, Philip (2014), "A Political Economy of the Food Riot", Riot, Unrest and Protest on the Global Stage, Palgrave Macmillan UK, pp. 237–261, doi:10.1007/978-1-137-30553-4_13, ISBN 9781137305527
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  11. ^ Cynthia Bouton, 'Gendered Behavior in Subsistence Riots', Journal of Social History, Vol.23, No.4; C. Bouton, The Flour War: Gender, Class and Community in Late Ancien Regime French Society.
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  13. ^ James Mcmillan, France and Women, 1789-1914, p25-6; Wikipedia: War in the Vendee.
  14. ^ Desan, Suzanne (Spring 1989). "The Role of Women in Religious Riots During the French Revolution". Eighteenth-Century Studies. 22 (3 Special Issue: The French Revolution in Culture): 451–468. doi:10.2307/2738896. JSTOR 2738896.
  15. ^ Racz, Elizabeth (Spring 1952). "The Women's Rights Movement in the French Revolution". Science and Society. Guilford Press. 16 (2): 151–174. JSTOR 40400125.
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  17. ^ Gay Gullickson, Unruly Women of Paris, p24ff.
  18. ^ Belinda Davis in K.Hagemann, Home/Front; the Military, War and Gender in Twentieth Century Germany, Ch.4; Keith Allen, 'Food and the German Home-Front' and Simonetta Ortaggi, 'Italian Women During the Great War' in Gail Braybon, Evidence, History and the Great War, p181, 190, 218-36; Beverley Engel, 'Subsistence Riots in Russia during World War One', Journal of Modern History, Vol.69; Temma Kaplan, 'Women and Communal Strikes in the Crisis of 1917-1922', in Renate Bridenthal, Becoming Visible: Women in European History (1987 Edition); Lynne Taylor, 'Food Riots Revisited', Journal of Social History, Vol.30, No.2; Manuel Castells, The City and the Grassroots, Ch.4.
  19. ^ Ute Daniel, The War from Within: German Women in the First World War, p293, 246-50; Laura Lee Downs, Manufacturing Inequality: Gender Division in the French and British Metalworking Industries, 1914-39, p119-144; Davis in Hagemann Home/Front ..., p131.
  20. ^ Michael Seidman, Republic of Egos, p102, 219.
  21. ^ Manfred Gailus in K.Hagemann, Civil Society and Gender, p178-80; Marx, Engels Collected Works, Vol.43, p184.
  22. ^ Faulkner, Neil (2017). A People's History Of The Russian Revolution. London: Pluto Press. pp. 111–132. ISBN 9781786800190.
  23. ^ Choi Chatterjee, Celebrating Women; Gender, Festival, Culture and Bolshevik Ideology, p43-54; Jane McDermid and Anna Hillyar, Midwives of the Revolution, 147-157; Kaplan in Bridenthal, Becoming Visible...,.
  24. ^ Clements, Barbara Evans (1982). "Working-Class and Peasant Women in the Russian Revolution, 1917-1923". Signs. 8 (2): 215–235. doi:10.1086/493960. JSTOR 3173897.
  25. ^ Alexander Rabinowitch, The Bolsheviks in Power, p229-30.
  26. ^ Lynne Viola, Peasant Rebels under Stalin, p176-84, 202-9, 237-8; Jeffrey Rossman, Worker Resistance under Stalin, p6-7, 206, 232.
  27. ^ Bonnie G.Smith, Oxford Encyclopedia of Women in World History, Vol.1, p540; M.J.Diamond, Women and Revolution; Global Expressions.
  28. ^ Judith Van Allen (1972) "Sitting on a Man": Colonialism and the Lost Political Institutions of Igbo Women, Canadian Journal of African Studies/La Revue canadienne des études africaines, 6:2, 165-181, DOI: 10.1080/00083968.1972.10803664
  29. ^ M. Bahati Kuumba, Gender and Social Movements (2001), AltaMira Press, U.S. p24, 33-4, 74, 80. ISBN 0759101884
  30. ^ 'Women '68ers, Marching on Alone', Lynne Segal,Radical Philosophy, No.149.
  31. ^ Evans, Sara Margaret (1979). Personal Politics: The Roots of Women's Liberation in the Civil Rights Movement and the New Left. Vintage Books. ISBN 9780394742281.
  32. ^ Robertson, Julia Diana (2017-06-05). "Remembering Stormé - The Woman Of Color Who Incited The Stonewall Revolution". Huffington Post. Retrieved 2017-07-12.
  33. ^ Fairweather, McDonough and McFadyean, Only the Rivers Run Free: Northern Ireland, the Women's War (1984), Pluto Press ISBN 0861046684; Wikipedia: Grunwick Dispute; Wikipedia: Women Against Pit Closures.
  34. ^ Mohammadi, Majid (2013-01-09). "Iranian Women and the Civil Rights Movement in Iran: Feminism Interacted". Journal of International Women's Studies. 9 (1): 1–21.
  35. ^ Chenoweth, Erica; Pressman, Jeremy (2017-02-07). "Analysis | This is what we learned by counting the women's marches". Washington Post. ISSN 0190-8286. Retrieved 2018-03-26.
  36. ^ a b Knapp, Michael (2016). Revolution in Rojava: Democratic Autonomy and Women's Liberation in Syrian Kurdistan. Pluto Press. p. 62.
  37. ^ a b Bengio, Ofra (Winter 2016). "Game Changers: Kurdish Women in Peace and War". Middle East Institute. 70: 38 – via ProQuest.
  38. ^ a b McKernan, Bethan (5 January 2017). "The Kurdish Woman Building Feminist a Democracy and Fighting ISIS at the Same Time". Independent.
  39. ^ Christopher Boehm, Hierarchy in the Forest; the Evolution of Egalitarian Behaviour, p1-10, 84-9, 172-3, 193-6, 249, 256.
  40. ^ Chris Knight, 'Sex and the Human Revolution' and 'Solidarity and Sex'; Chris Knight, Camilla Power, Ian Watts, 'The Human Symbolic Revolution', The Cambridge Archaeological Journal, Vol.5, p75ff; www.radicalanthropologygroup.org/publications.htm.
  41. ^ Chris Harman, International Socialism, No.54, p169-74. Some other Marxists have been more positive, e.g. Jack Conrad, 'Origins of Religion and the Human Revolution'.
  42. ^ Chris Knight, Blood Relations; Reviews of Blood Relation; Chris Stringer, The Origin of Our Species.

Further reading[edit]