Thursday, June 25, 2015

Female Power and Male Dominance: On the Origins of Sexual Inequality

Book Review: Female Power and Male Dominance: On the Origins of Sexual Inequality – by Peggy Reeves Sanday (Cambridge University Press 1981)

This is a great anthropological study that compares creation stories, sex roles, division of labor, and gender dynamics across many cultures. Tribal symbolism derived from creation myths was found to strongly influence gender roles. Quite a variety of gender relationships were found among the many societies studied. Changes in tribal environment, availability of food and resources, migration, war and conquest, and colonialism were found to strongly affect gender roles. The author cites many anthropological studies including those of Ruth Benedict, Margaret Mead, Mary Douglas, Sherry Ortner, and Clifford Geertz.

Sanday utilizes Ortner’s inner orientation to refer to female power and outer orientation to refer to men who pursue power that is out in the world. Women, by nature, are those who give birth and grow children while men often pursue power through hunting game and warring, displaying and fetishizing their kills much as a woman does her children. Women have the power to give life. Is it that men compensate for this by displaying their power to take away life through hunting and warring? Perhaps.

Tribal creation myths often shape expected behavior. Changes in social codes often are accompanied by changes in sex roles. Creations stories often depict the origin of creative power. Tribes that have a creative mother or a unified male-female creator often have integrated sex roles while those with a creative father often have segregated sex roles. The author describes the creation stories and subsequent sex roles of a number of societies, ancient and modern. The work is quite scientific and statistical with clear definitions of how gender relationships were determined and quite a few charts comparing several variables to gender roles, creation myths, and environmental factors. There are also several appendices which give more information about methodology and background in anthropology. In several societies female power is associated with a ritual orientation to plants, the earth, and fertility. In contrast to the Judeo-Christian notion that women are the origin of evil, there are several tribal myths where men originate evil.

She mentions one society, the Hausa of northern Nigeria, who were conquered and converted to Islam in 1804-1810. Women who once were tribally powerful became subjugated. However, the female power went underground and became part of their new creation myth were Eve hid half her children from Allah and this became ordained by Allah (as a punishment) that they would remain hidden so they became the Bori spirits. The Bori cult became powerful among women and was indeed a means for them to keep some of their traditional power.

Fear, conflict, strife, and scarcity of resources can lead to situations where males become dominant and in some cases more violent. Males may do this to seek to control the magical forces causing these stresses. There are different ways this occurs in different tribes, some more extreme than others.
In exploring the metaphors for sexual identities Sanday draws on Margaret Mead’s Sex and Temperament and Ruth Benedict’s Patterns of Culture. Mead argued that once a gender temperament (based on slight biological differences between the sexes) was determined by a group, that temperament was reinforced in social rituals. There were often clues as well embedded in creation myths. Gender symbolism in creation myths tends to confirm the inward focus of females and the outward focus of males through female and male creative agents.

“Female creators originate from within something – such as earth or water – and create from their bodies. Male, animal, and supreme being creators originate from without – such as the sky or another land – and produce people magically. Couple creators, on the other hand, produce from within and without but they tend to produce by natural reproductive processes.”

Sanday suggests that conception of creators indicates the source of power within that tribal worldview.

“Culture-hero and ancestor creative agents are portrayed in more human terms. Usually the latter are described as having migrated from another place.”

Female creators tend to create naturally from the body while male, animal, or god creators tend to create magically from beyond the body. Both female and male creators are well represented in the societies noted but there are more male creators. This may have to do with re-orientations toward male-centric views during times of hardship like famine, war, and migration. In modern times the issue of rape in conflict is very important around the world and there are far too many instances of this. It is perhaps similar to the subjugation of women during times of stress and conflict that has been well documented in histories of various tribal peoples. Gang rape has been used as a punishment to women among many tribes and for varying reasons. 

Statistics here show that fathers spend more time with infants in societies that have female creation symbolism. Male-female cooperation and general egalitarianism is also higher in societies with feminine origin symbolism. The evidence also shows that fathers in societies with predominantly male creation symbolism are more distant from infants and tend to be more controlling. Such societies can exhibit suspicion, competition, sexual antagonism, and most often rigid sexual segregation. Competition among males in societies where hunting and warfare are most emphasized often keeps them too busy to care for children. 

Next the question is pondered as to why different groups choose female origin symbolism as opposed to male or couple origin symbolism. The author suggests that the environment plays a key role. If there is abundance of food and resources, particularly plant food from the earth, then female or couple symbolism tends to prevail. When there is competition for resources, food, and protein, and hunting is an important activity, then male symbolism is more prevalent. Fathers in tribes who hunt large game, which is more dangerous, tend to be more distant to their children than those who hunt small or varied game. Statistics also make clear that female origin symbolism correlates well to plant subsistence economies through gathering. In later adoption of technological agriculture the trend may be different – if male symbolism was prevalent before it may remain as males take over farming or if female symbolism was more prevalent it may remain as women continue as the purveyors of plant foods. But there are variations. Origin symbolism may change due to circumstances – new origin stories may appear. Origin stories may be adopted by conquered peoples or adopted by conquerers. Older origin stories may also be updated due to changes in circumstances. The author gives various examples. 

An ongoing argument in anthropology is whether sexual division of labor is due mainly to culture or biology. While there are biological advantages for men or women to do certain work it seems that most of the division of labor is cultural. Women of necessity have to be pregnant and provide nursing and childcare. The upper body strength of males lends them to more strenuous tasks. Gender roles define gender identity and so there is a self-reinforcing of action and expectation. Females are necessarily suited to childbirth, nurturing, growth, and fertility roles. Male roles can be a reaction to female roles, a way of trying to balance the female role so male roles may be associated with infertility and death. Activities are means of displaying gender identity. The female role is well-defined by biology but the male role is less biologically clear so it is often posited as opposite of the female role, say anthropologists. There are variations as in some societies there is great female-male integration and overlapping of roles and in others there is much segregation, opposition, and division of labor. Margaret Mead studied gender differences extensively and so her work is cited. The author notes that sexual segregation is more common (up to 73%) in the tribal societies studied than integration (up to 35%). There tend to be more taboos in sexually segregated societies and the more sexually integrated societies seem to be more psychologically healthy as there is often more cooperation and less violence and male-female conflict. Dual-sex origin ideologies manifest in various ways. Several can be found in West Africa. These are cultures which, though segregated, venerate the complementary roles of men and women and so there is often little conflict and much cooperation between the two. One reason females are not often warriors is that women are life-givers and so as a balanced opposing force men tend to be the life-takers. Women are also less expendable as life-givers for they are the future growth of the tribe. 

Tribal taboos abound around menstruation and sexual intercourse but there is much variation in intensity and number of taboos. Sometimes menstruation and/or sexual activity are thought to sap male strength, weaken nursing children, or endanger the society. Here she invokes the work of Mary Douglas about pollution beliefs where bodily emissions can be seen as ritual pollution. Douglas suggested that the pollution dangers mirror the dangers of men who wander beyond the boundaries of the tribal world. By observing the taboos around menstrual blood and sex it is thought that success in hunting, warfare, and other quests for power could be gained. Thus outer danger is projected onto the female body. Blood is the source of life but also the signal of death. The author notes that segregation and taboo may be more pronounced in concentrated settlements where the smell of menstrual blood would be more noticeable. Hunting men associate blood with life and death so it is possible, she says, that a female’s blood is associated with life and danger to balance that out.

“The more people experience death in nature, the more likely they are to view menstrual blood as dangerous.”

Some cultures like the African Ashanti impose warrior and hunter symbolism on the female reproductive process and apparatus. The Arapesh of New Guinea incise the penis of males at puberty to achieve a symmetry to menstruation. Douglas argues that pollution beliefs, including menstrual taboos, handling of the dead, and avoiding certain foods “prevent threatened disturbances of the social order.” They help to regulate the cosmos by enforcing social conformity. In some groups menstrual segregation was done to separate the blood of life from the blood of death. Of 156 societies studied, only 8 (or 7%) had no menstrual taboos. Most had one or two and some up to five. Men may assert their superiority through menstrual restrictions. Where there is frequent warfare or where men take wives from other tribes there tend to more menstrual taboos. Fear of pollution may also be a form of birth control where  societies with scarce food need to reproduce less to be able to survive. Sexual separation and inequality make two separate worlds where men do men things and women do women things. Sexual separation and male control has been enhanced in societies as they came in contact with technology and the “male-oriented Western world.”

Early anthropologists thought that male dominance was universal. However, through time many have argued for significant female power in several societies and modern feminists have noted long-ancient societies that seem to indicate strong female power. 

“Females achieve economic and political power or authority when environmental or historical circumstances grant them economic autonomy and make men dependent on female activities.”

When maternity and soil fertility are venerated there tends to be an association of social good with female power. Women bear and nurse children and so are less expendable than men and thus less involved in warfare. Men are more expendable and need motivation to hunt and war. Social power and prestige provides such incentive, says Sanday. Stats show that, as expected, women attain more secular power in plant economies rather than animal economies, with the exception of technological plant economies in more modern and Western-influenced times. Introduction of intensive agriculture and cash crops tended to undermine traditional female farming in many societies and often men then came to control farming. Also as expected, female origin symbolism was more correlated with female secular power and migration with male secular power. 

There are many examples where colonialism negatively affected traditional female power. Oddly, what many people see as traditional cultures, including those within them, have been altered by colonialism and the introduction of new ideas like Christianity and Islam. One example is that some Native American beliefs seen as traditional are actually reactions to and adoptions of Christianity. European education also had an effect. The story of some Native American “prophets” like the Seneca, Handsome Lake, is exemplary. He had “visions” that happened to correlate strongly with the influence of the local Quaker missionary population after the Indian wars with the U.S. What once was a matrifocal agricultural society among all the Iroquois Federation tribes became sexually segregated among the Seneca due to his influence. Women were marginalized, many executed for witchcraft. Though Handsome Lake had practiced the traditional male role his doctrine changed the sex roles of the tribe, mostly taking away female power. The introduction of the horse and guns to Native American tribes that migrated westward also disrupted traditional female power. The horse aided warfare and hunting (as it had done wherever it was introduced) and became a prestige item traded for wives. Before its introduction the tribes were more agricultural and sedentary. Gradual encroachment of white European settlers also caused the tribes to compete for less resources and so inter-tribal warfare was enhanced and due to the stress of migration and war, traditional female power was reduced. The Cheyenne story is a bit different. They migrated west from the Lake Superior region and first encountered matrilineal sedentary agricultural tribes (Mandan, Hidatsa). They first adopted these ways but after horses were introduced the focus was more on hunting and warfare. Some natives like the Shavante avoided European contact by migrating into inhospitable territory and developing the arts of aggression and warfare to a high degree so that they were left alone. Ritual gang rape of women by men was a part of that orientation as it was among the Cheyenne who otherwise had good male-female relations. Prolonged contact with Europeans often gradually wore away traditional female power.

“Though in some cases Westernization opened opportunities for women, in most instances contact with the male-dominated European society had a deleterious effect.”

Sanday goes on to note that 63% of societies described before 1925 were noted to have female political power while 60% of the societies where there is no female political power were described later. Migration and subsequent food shortage also exacerbated the loss of female power. Reactions to these stresses are often the assertion of male domination.

“Sex-role plans are part of the system of meanings by which a people explain their success, come to terms with their fears, enshrine their past, and stamp themselves with a sense of “peoplehood.”

She define male dominance for this study as two general types of behaviors: 1) exclusion of women from economic and political decision making, and 2) male aggression against women. This aggression is measured by five traits: “expectation that males should be tough, brave, and aggressive; the presence of men’s houses or specific places where only men may congregate; frequent quarreling, fighting, or wife beating; the institutionalization or regular occurrence of rape; and raiding other groups for wives.” In some groups male dominance is accepted but in others they don’t accept it. Where female economic and political power coexists with male aggression the term “mythical male dominance” is used. Here there is a balance between formal male authority and informal female power. This idea derives from that of Susan Carol Rogers who argued that a nonhierarchical power relationship between male and female is maintained by “the acting out of a ‘myth’ of male dominance,” where public deference towards men is practiced and their authority and prestige respected. In these cases males do not actually dominate and females do not actually believe males to be dominant. Where males display aggression towards women and exclude them from politics and economics the relationship is said to be “unequal.” Where there is no aggression against women and they exercise power the relationship is said to be “equal.” Out of 139 societies measured by these criteria 32% were classified as equal, 28% as unequal, and 40% as expressive of mythical male dominance.

The question is asked: Why does male dominance occur in response to stress? Anthropologist Marvin Harris suggested that it was due to imbalance between protein sources and population density. In areas with protein deficiencies female infanticide was practiced more due to the need for more hunters to acquire protein sources. The resulting shortage of available women also required men to take wives from competing tribes. Such competition encourages a cycle of violence. Thus, he argued that warfare was a response to reproductive and ecological pressures. Ernestine Friedl argued that war was the domain of males because they were more expendable and not busy with childcare. Sherry Ornter argues that males must assert their creativity externally and artificially, possibly as a response to the inherent creativity of females, through culture and the prestige functions of hunting and warfare. The author here along with Susan Carol Rogers criticizes Ortner’s analysis, noting that many societies do not distinguish nature and culture and women are not always exclusively associated with nature. Martin and Voorhies noted that “while matrilineal structures are accommodating and integrative, patrilineal ones are acquisitive and internally divisive.” They also noted that patrilineal and patrilocal societies promoted stable political systems in situations where competition for scarce resources was the means for survival and expansion. Sexual equality is more common in matrilineal societies but patrilineal societies are more common than matrilineal ones. In some societies where there is male dominance there are mythical stories noting that females once were prominent but men had to take control for various reasons. Some of these are responses to contact with Europeans. Real male dominance as opposed to mythical male dominance has occurred where male skills were required for survival due to migration and competition for resources. John and Beatrice Whiting thought that envy of female power was a factor in the rise of male dominance although the underlying causes may have been resource competition and danger. The author here acknowledges the importance of these ideas but prefers a different approach based on the work of Mary Douglas and Margaret Mead. She notes that there is much variation in different peoples’ responses to similar stresses and that variation can be attributed to the cultural configuration of the various peoples. Response to stress does not always involve the subjugation of women. Mead noted that every society had two problems: how to beget enough progeny and how not to beget too much. How a society will react to control fertility to balance its needs will be based on the cultural configuration derived from the creation myths as source of power. How a group responds to stress might depend on their traditional concept of power, how they define adversity, and how endangered is their group identity. She suggests that men and women may respond differently to stress. Men often respond with aggression. Woman may be more conciliatory, yielding some power as in cases where mythical male dominance develops. Men in many cases have faced death as a group – more so than women as a group, she notes – which may help explain the prevalence of male dominance. In literate societies it may be organized religion rather than tribal beliefs which lead to male dominance when tribal groups are conquered and/or converted. Note the following quote from the Quran: “Men stand superior to women in that God hath preferred the one over the other … Those whose perverseness ye fear, admonish them and remove them into bed-chambers and beat them; but if they submit to you then do not seek a way against them.” Christianity and Judaism have similar admonishments and historical contexts for women to submit to men, though perhaps a bit less harsh.

The epilogue discusses the male dominance in the literary traditions of the early Hebrews and the early Christians and so addresses the “guiding symbols” of Western male dominance. These guiding symbols are “the patriarchal, decidedly masculine God and the sexual, inferior female who tempts the male from the path of righteousness.” The second one is not only a Western archetype but one seen all over, in India, for example. Sanday states that secular society has not liberated us from these concepts and notes the work of feminist theologian Carol P. Christ who reminds us that symbols of a male God and subordinate female affect us in rites of birth, marriage, and death. Religious symbols are a blueprint for social forms. The author notes her own daughter asking about the quote of God creating man in his own image, but what about women? The stamping out of Canaanite goddess cults by the Hebrew Yahweh cults is addressed. The Hebrew tribes entered Canaan as animal pastoralists, entering an area of agriculturalists. Initially, the Judeans were the only tribe to adopt Yahweh but as the tribes were threatened by the Philistines, the Judeans came to dominate the Hebrew tribes and so the Yahweh cult advanced. Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden can be seen as a revised creation story of the new Yahweh intertribal cult where animal pastoralists conquered and assimilated goddess-centered agriculturists and so a new doctrine was needed to define sex roles. Basically the Yahwists recast Cannanite goddess religion into Mosaic terms (Moses being the most famous Yahwist religious and political leader). Since the Canaanites practiced ritualized sex and fertility rites, this was forbidden among the new Yahwists and so the status of women in the now mixed Hebrew-Canaanite society was greatly reduced. Perhaps Eve, as the cause of the “fall from grace” was symbolic of a Canaanite woman. At first, a balance was struck so that women and Canaanites could have some power but as time wore on the Hebrew prophets suppressed the old female-centered rites even more, especially in response to war threats from without. When Hebrew priests were exiled to Babylon they adopted some parts of the Babylonian creation epic where humans arose from divine parents Apsu and Tiamat. Their son Mammu was the first human. In this version there is a sense that male and female were created in the image of the parents while in the more monotheistic Yahwist account men were created in God’s image and women as Eve were created from Adam’s rib.   
Early Christianity included so-called Gnostic sects where variable ideas about divinity and humans’ relation to divinity were expressed. The Gnostics tended to accept the Babylonian-influenced version of genesis where the sexes were more equal and to work with feminine symbolism. Orthodox Christianity snuffed out such views and declared them heretical. Thus Christianity became an authoritarian staunchly monotheistic patriarchy. Male dominance was sanctioned by the gospels. Here is quote from Letter to Timothy: 

“Let a woman learn in silence with full submissiveness. I do not allow any woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; she is to remain silent, for Adam was formed first, then Eve and furthermore, Adam was not deceived, but the woman was utterly seduced and came into sin …” (2 Timothy 2:11-14)

The banned Gnostic texts often showed quite different orientations toward women and veneration of female deities and teachers. Many of the Gnostic communities were egalitarian in structure. The new orthodoxy, however, was strictly hierarchical. Scholar Elaine Pagels noted that:

“Orthodox Christians came to accept the domination of men over women as the proper, God-given order – not only for the human race, but also for the Christian churches.”

Thus female power inherent in Early Near Eastern goddess worship and Gnosticism was stripped from the orthodox movements that emerged from the chaos of war and persecution. Nowadays things are changing in certain circles as we embrace religious freedom as secular societies but the scars and habits are still very powerful. 

Finally, the six appendices go through methodology as well as anthropological techniques. This is a great book and should be more widely read and studied. It is quite apparent to me that gender roles and relations are a big problem in the modern world and until we can do better in these relationships we will find it harder to solve other problems.

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