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Life Arts    H3'ed 5/21/09


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Originally posted:  http://bendench.blogspot.com/2009/05/gender.html


I was given an anthropology assignment in which I was asked to take one of the following positions:

Position #1:
Yes, male dominance is universal and therefore exists to some degree in all cultures. This is due to a combination of elements (biological, environmental, structural, and ideological).

Position #2:
No, male dominance is not universal. Gender equality does exist in some cultures. The tendency to this erroneous interpretation is based on traditional theoretical models whose presumptions define equality so that male dominance is inevitable.

I answered like this:

According to Wittgenstein, there are no philosophical problems, only language problems. While we may not agree with him about this in all instances, it seems clear that there is a definite language problem here—one that makes a coherent and accurate position either for or against the existence of gender equality impossible. That problem is this: what is meant by gender equality? Different people would use the phrase differently, would set different criteria. As Shanshan Du points out in the introduction to “Chopsticks Only Work in Pairs”, feminists do not even agree as to what the term “gender equality” entails. On the one hand you have feminists that want men and women to be the same and see differences as indicative of male superiority, and on the other you have feminists that believe that men and women are essentially different and see traditional attempts to make them the same as indicative of a devaluation of feminine qualities. Does difference mean inequality? Not necessarily. I like to eat the yellows of eggs and my brother likes to eat the whites. Who is better? On the other hand, however, is there really such a thing as masculine or feminine? Or is this not, as Wittgenstein would say, a linguistic game, a substantive illusion? In words more fitting an anthropology class, is this division not a cultural construction?

Du points out on page six that scholars use qualifiers such as “nearly” and “relatively” when describing societies that appear egalitarian, lamenting that “according to the academic double standard, inequality and hierarchy can be of any degree, but equality must be perfect” (6). There may very well be an academic double standard, but Du is wrong to rebuke the conclusion, because it is accurate. Inequality can be of any degree, and equality must be perfect. That is not an anthropological decision, it is a mathematical fact. There is, however, something telling about the use of these qualifiers: if there were a perfectly egalitarian culture, we would not necessarily be able to tell. It is always safer to say “just about.” But then again, Du has a point—because if we cannot say that things are equal, how can we really say that they are unequal? We have no standard measure. We have no objective criterion. There is no scale that we can pull out to weigh the culture and determine whether it is egalitarian. Why? Because there are too many factors. There are too many subtleties. What does egalitarian mean? Without a standard to apply, there is no way to honestly and accurately assess different cultures and answer the question “does gender egalitarianism exist?”

There are certain undeniable differences. Men are physically stronger than women (The word strength can mean a lot of things, but I mean it here in its most narrow sense. I mean it in the sense that the average man, within six months of weight training, can lift more than the average woman who has been weight training her entire life). Men have a higher threshold of pain than women, contrary to popular belief. Men can contribute to multiple zygotes within the gestation period of a child, whereas women can only contribute to a zygote once within the gestation period of a child (except in the case of twins, etc). At the same time, it would be easier for a woman to have intercourse with multiple men during one sitting than for a man to have intercourse with multiple women. Women can produce milk to nourish children and men cannot. Women have a menstrual cycle and men do not. Women become pregnant and give birth, whereas men do not.1

Men’s physical strength allows them the potential to physically dominate women—both on the individual level and collectively. In addition, the presence of male strength, the nature of insemination, and the fact that women bear children and lactate creates a situation where if a division of labor were to be established between fighters and nurturers—which may under certain circumstances require contradictory psychological conditioning—men would be better suited for fighting and women for nurturing. Because the number of women determines the number of children a group can produce, men are more expendable. Female infanticide allows a group to internally control the number of adult females it will produce, whereas an absence of female warriors allows women, as child producers, to be protected from external forces—though their value in this respect is as instruments and not as individuals. Because females are killed off at random through female infanticide and those that survive are practically guaranteed the opportunity to breed, while males are killed off through inability in battle and the best warriors are likely to be given the best opportunities to breed (with multiple partners), this encourages a physiological gender dimorphism involving male dominance to take root over generations.

Position # 1: Male dominance is inherent in all cultures.

It would seem that the tendency for men to dominate the public/macro sphere of society and for women to be relegated to the private/micro sphere of society is a real phenomena, even if we do not necessarily agree that the public and private spheres are as clear cut as once supposed. Our own culture stands as a testament that such a division does exist somewhere in the world. But not only does this pattern exist, it seems to be inherent. Giving examples of male dominance would be pointless, as we have already determined that male dominance exists. To argue that it is inherent, and either is or is not actualized to any given degree, we need only assert that otherwise we would expect to find matriarchies somewhere in the world, and we do not. Contrary to popular imagination, there is no evidence to suggest that there has ever been a truly matriarchal society at any point in the history of humanity. Where in the world do we find a situation in which men are relegated to the home and women rule the political and economic sphere? Where do women, on average, earn more than men? In that the burden of proof is on the side seeking to show female dominance or even female equality—since male dominance has already been shown and the claim to universality for male dominance is falsifiable whereas the claim to the potential for female dominance or equality is not—I see it only necessary to address examples that may be used to attempt to counter the claim of universal male dominance and show them to be insufficient to do so.

Agnes Estioko-Griffin and P. Bion Griffin’s article “Woman the Hunter: The Agata” on page 141 of Gender in Cross-Cultural Perspective presents a culture that seems to be egalitarian in nature. As the authors note “Assessment of an hypothesized egalitarian position of women may be more difficult, and rests on assertions and interpretations” (147). This applies equally to disqualifying the egalitarian claim as to making it, as so much rests on interpretations and we have no objective scale. The authors admit that “a modest sexual division of labor does exist” (144), however for all intents and purposes the contribution, authority, and value that women hold in the society seems to be equal to that of men’s. I am willing to grant this culture an egalitarian status. My concerns lie in the fact that such a status seems to require special conditions that limit its applicability. For within Agata society, “As is typical of hunting-gathering societies, no formal, institutionalized authority base exists” (143). If equality between men and women can only exist in hunter-gatherer societies, in the first type of society before any type of hierarchy exists, but deteriorates as societies expand in power and influence, with men always taking the superior position, this is indicative of an inherent condition of male dominance. Male dominance may or may not be actualized, but it is the “natural” (which is not to say good) division to occur. In order to prevent it we would have to force specific conditions that leveled the playing field and keep watch to prevent reversion. If this is the case, it is distressing.

Mary Weismantel describes a situation where women are economically and socially empowered in her article “Cities of Women” on page 120 of the same anthology. The Andean marketplace is ruled by women. “In my own research on markets in the Ecuadorian city of Cuenca, at least ninety percent of the vendors in the two central markets were women. Ownership of the prized interior stalls was almost 100% female. Similar patterns obtain throughout the highlands” (120). Yet how do these women obtain such freedom? By escaping from men. “The markets are flamboyantly female and unabashedly public, yet they exist within a larger world in which the public sphere is masculine” (120). “This surface appearance of the market as an independent city of women can mislead. Relationships with men and with masculine institutions set invisible boundaries everywhere” (123). Women have intimate friendships with other women and work to fulfill their own and one another’s needs and desires, yet such a situation is founded on their ability to escape from men: “while some women describe fleeing an abusive stepmother, most were escaping fathers and husbands. Inasmuch as it provides them with a source of income, the market clearly gives women some independence. Perhaps as importantly, it places them within a collectivity of other women” (124). “The market can offer temporary respite from the violent excesses of male violence, or a permanent escape from patriarchal domination” (125). If women have to escape men in order to gain power, this acts as evidence of male dominance.

On page 74 we are treated to images of powerful female figures in Stanley P. Guenter and David A. Freidel’s article “Warriors and Rulers: Royal Women of the Classic Maya.” The fact that women could achieve even the highest positions of power is impressive, but it is clear that this was the exception rather than the rule. As pointed out in endnote number five, “Maya scribes formed female titles by simply prefixing the female agentive ix to the title itself. Thus we read of ix b’akab’ (“Lady First-of-the-Earth”), ix ajaw (“Lady Ruler”) and ix kaloomte’ (Lady Supreme Warlord)” (79), these rulers were a special occurrence. “Although living in a patriarchal society, Classic Maya women could adroitly use the system to achieve success and positions of power” (77). Yet while powerful women may have come about, and may not even have been uncommon, men seem to have been the ideal rulers: “the polygamous marriages of Maya kings often lead to competition between their wives for the position of primary queen and the ability to place one of their children on the throne. Providing the king with children, especially sons, was one of the keys to success for his wives” (77). While a weak male ruler may be usurped by a female, like in the case of Lady Winikhaab’ Ajaw’s taking of the throne from her husband (77) and the placement of her daughter as her successor, male heirs and rulers were preferred. Consider the actions of Lady Sak K’uk’: “After three years as sole ruler she elevated her 12-year old son, Pakal I, as king and co-ruler. Lady Sak K’uk’ was undoubtedly the driving force in this royal duo throughout the early years of his reign and it is not until after her death that we really see Pakal emerging as a ruler in his own right” (78). Lady Sak K’uk’ was obviously a very powerful woman, and yet so important was it that a male rule that she put her 12-year old son in charge and hid behind him to wield her influence. Various accounts are given throughout of monuments built by rulers in honor of their mothers or wives, but where are the powerful female rulers who built monuments to the influential, yet for political reasons hidden, fathers and husbands behind the scenes? Men rule outright—powerful women are honored by the male rulers. A man’s affection for his wife of mother finds expression. This is indicative of women being valued, but it is clear that the public sphere belongs to men. Depictions of women portrayed as proud, divine warriors are impressive, but we must keep in mind that the Greco-Roman appreciation for Athena and Aphrodite did not necessarily translate into reverence for mortal women.

The Lahu people of Shanshan Du’s book “Chopsticks Only Work in Pairs” seem to me another example of an exception that proves the rule. The origin myths of the Lahu involve dyad male-female pairs: the creator and supreme god Xeul Sha (made up of the male and female twins Xeul Yad and Sha Yad—equal in all abilities and virtually indistinguishable, acting as one entity), the Senior Daughter and Son of the supreme god, and the first human couple. In their culture, husband and wife teams do everything together: work, lead, raise children, etc. But even if we were to grant an egalitarian status to this society, it seems obvious that this is accomplished through an artificial structure imposed to level the playing field. If women and men have to do everything together—in pairs as they do in the Lahu society—in order to remain equal, then it seems to admit that otherwise they would divide, with men rising to the top. Their being locked together may decrease their individual autonomy and mobility, though certainly there are positive trade offs and concern for such attributes are specifically Western in orientation. Still, regardless of what the people of the community think and what their mythology encodes, the necessity of such beliefs and ideals seems to speak of the reality of an inherent tendency towards male dominance in humanity when we consider how things play out in cultures that do not display such an ideology and such practices.

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Ben Dench graduated valedictorian of his class from The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey in the Spring Semester of 2007 with a B.A. in philosophy (his graduation speech, which received high praise, is available on YouTube). He is currently (more...)
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