History, Human Rights, Recommended, Social Science, Women

A Girl’s Place in the World

Worth mentioning here is the way in which the boy’s plight differs from the girl’s in almost every known society. Whatever the arrangements in regard to descent or ownership of property…the prestige values always attach to the occupations of men.
—Margaret Mead, Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies, 1935

It is no exaggeration to say that the greatest obsession in history is that of man with woman’s body.
—David D. Gilmore, Misogyny, 2001

In the volume Gender Rituals: Female Initiation in Melanesia, anthropologist Brigitta Hauser-Schäublin recounts meeting a woman who had undergone a male initiation among the Central Iatmul fisher-foragers of Papua New Guinea. One day years back, when the woman was a young, pre-pubescent girl visiting her mother’s village of Tigowi, she had climbed a Malay apple tree to get some fruit. At that moment, two men were blowing flutes in a fenced-off enclosure nearby and saw the girl in the tree. This was a serious matter, as the flutes were meant to be kept secret from the women and children, who were never supposed to see the men’s sacred instruments. The men dragged the young girl back to the men’s house, where she was gang-raped. She was then scarified and given a limited version of the men’s initiation ceremony, where she learned the secrets of the men’s house and their sacred musical instruments.

When she was finally allowed to leave, she was given a tiny loin covering instead of the grass skirt women were usually granted after going through their own initiation. “Her mother cried at her daughter’s state when she returned and immediately brought her back to Palimbei [a different village],” Hauser-Schäublin writes, adding that,

Although she had gained what was considered culturally important ritual knowledge, the woman nonetheless felt degraded, dishonored, derided, and incredibly shamed. Thereafter, she led a rather disorganized life, and the way she related her story to me, many decades after, mirrored the feelings she must have experienced and a suffering from which she never really had recovered. I recorded a similar instance in Aibom village. In both cases, the initiation was meant, and experienced, as a severe punishment and stigmatization. By retrospectively legitimating the discovery of male secrets, more-over, the practice seems to have been intended also to protect them. Were the girls not initiated, they would have passed what they had discovered on to others. Initiation, however, ensured that they would never do so.

Male cults where men would punish women with rape or execution for intruding on their rituals can be found across cultures all over the world, from hunter-gatherers to agricultural societies. Among the Arunta hunter-gatherers of Australia, anthropologist Walter Baldwin Spencer tells the story of a woman who, desperately thirsty, ventured near a water-hole to drink, and inadvertently saw the men’s sacred pool and ceremonial stone. The men decided to punish her with gang-rape, “a punishment which is not infrequently inflicted after the committal of some serious offence, as an alternative to that of being put to death. In consequence of this men of all classes had intercourse with her, and when this was over she was returned to her proper Unawa man [husband],” Spencer writes.

Of the Mundurucu horticulturalists of the Amazon, “the men consciously state that they use the penis to dominate their women,” write anthropologists Yolanda and Robert Murphy, noting again the practice of men punishing the women who witness their rituals or sacred objects with gang-rape (in this case flutes, similar to the Central Iatmul of Papua New Guinea). We see the same phenomenon with the Mehinaku fisher-horticulturalists, also of the Amazon.

Anthropologist Thomas Gregor’s first introduction to the men’s house was given to him by a Mehinaku man, who informed him that, “You are in the house of the spirit Kauka. Those are his sacred flutes. Women may not see anything in here. If a woman comes in, then all the men take her into the woods and she is raped. It has always been that way.” Itsanakwalu, a young Mehinaku woman in her early twenties later would tell Gregor personally that, “I don’t want to see the sacred flutes. The men would rape me. I would die. Do you know what happened to the Waura woman who saw it? All the men raped her. She died later.”

While the punishments enacted by these men’s cults are extreme, they reflect larger, cross-culturally common efforts—individually or collectively—by males to constrain female autonomy and control their sexuality.

In his work examining ethnographic evidence from 190 hunter-gatherer societies, evolutionary psychologist Menlaos Apostolou notes the prevalence of arranged marriages, writing that across these societies “the institution of marriage is regulated by parents and close kin. Parents are able to influence the mating decisions of both sons and daughters, but stronger control is exercised with regard to daughters; male parents have more say in selecting in-laws than their female counterparts.” As anthropologist Janice Stockard writes of !Kung hunter-gatherer populations in southern Africa, “Traditionally in the !Kung San, marriage is a relationship among a husband and wife and the wife’s father and is at the outset firmly based on compatibility between the two men.”

Apostolou further reports that female age at first marriage tends to be at the onset of puberty or earlier across the vast majority of the societies in his sample, and notes that these “Arranged marriages usually take the form of parents or close kin “giving away” their female relatives after negotiations with the male or his relatives. As such, males are allowed much more autonomy to exercise mate choice than females.” Anthropologist Lewis Binford’s 2001 volume Constructing Frames of Reference includes data on age at marriage across nearly 200 hunter-gatherer societies, and across these societies the average age at first marriage is recorded as 14 for girls, and 21 for boys. These patterns of male-biased marriage arrangements may also help explain the prevalence of polygyny across societies. Anthropologist Frank Marlowe writes:

Among all 186 societies in the SCCS [Standard Cross-Cultural Sample, a globally representative sample of human societies that includes hunter-gatherers, horticulturalists, pastoralists, farmers, etc], there is greater polygyny where female marriages are arranged but not where male marriages are arranged, suggesting that marriage arrangement is a form of male coercion and a way parents can benefit by supplying the most influential males with brides.

Anthropologist Robert S. Walker and his colleagues attempted to reconstruct ancestral patterns of marriage using modern hunter-gatherer data, and their results indicate that arranged marriages are likely to go back “at least to first modern human migrations out of Africa.” Even hunter-gatherer societies considered to practice courtship marriages still may have arranged marriages among them. For example, Walker et al. code the Mbuti of Central Africa as practicing courtship marriage, but in his ethnographic work The Forest People (1961), anthropologist Colin Turnbull describes a Mbuti girl being publicly beaten by her brother until she accepts her place in a “sister-exchange” marriage arrangement:

One morning the village camp was awakened to the sound of terrified screaming from the house directly opposite mine, where Yambabo was sleeping. I looked out of my window and saw Kenge dragging his sister out of the hut by one arm, pulling her over the ground and shouting to the camp that she was no good and should be killed. He pointed to her breasts and said that she had enough milk to feed a dozen children, why did she refuse to marry? Yambabo was as strong as a buffalo, he continued, so why did she refuse to work? He then gave what he considered could be the only reason, which was extremely personal and uncomplimentary. Yambabo tried to get to her feet to hit him, but every time she began struggling he simply thumped her on the back with his fist, still keeping a tight hold of her with his other hand. People came sleepily out of their huts to watch, all rather agreeing that Yambabo really should have married long ago and deserved a brotherly beating. Encouraged by this, Kenge began kicking her, and she responded by biting him in the leg. Moke tried to intervene, but it was no good. Kenge was ready for murder, and by the time he had finished with Yambabo she was a sorry sight, scratched and bleeding, with one eye swollen. And still she refused to marry Taphu. From that morning on, we all accepted the fact that Kenge was going to continue beating his sister until she gave in, and it was just a question of how long she could hold out.

Eventually, Yambabo’s own mother began publicly beating her as well, wanting her to accept the marriage so Kenge could get married to Taphu’s sister. “Her mother slapped her once more and asked her if she would marry Taphu or not. Yambabo, with a final wail of protest that everyone had treated her so badly that she would surely die, gave up the battle and said that she would marry Taphu, or anyone else for that matter,” Turnbull writes.

Men (and, less often, women as well) across societies all over the world have used violence in an attempt to control women’s reproductive outcomes and limit the choices available to them, and in many circumstances, men have benefited from doing so. As primatologist Barbara Smuts noted, “Male aggression against females in primates, including humans, often functions to control female sexuality to the male’s reproductive advantage.” Anthropologist Jonathan Stieglitz and his colleagues found that among the Tsimané forager-horticulturalists of Bolivia, “IPV [intimate partner violence] predicts higher fertility for both higher—and lower-status men…these findings indicate that Tsimané men across the status continuum strategically use IPV to achieve higher marital fertility.”

Looking at societies across the Standard Cross-Cultural Sample, Apostolou found examples of men across the majority of societies severely attacking their wives when they believed they were being cheated on. Apostolou writes that, “When the female is discovered to have committed adultery, she is usually punished by her husband (71% of the cases). Severe punishment, which may include the death of the female, is the most frequent form of punishment across societies, with no punishment or mild punishment being the rarest one.” Anthropologist Riana Minocher and her colleagues found that assault frequency is a predictor strongly associated with polygyny in the Standard Cross-Cultural Sample, illustrating the multiple ways men sometimes use coercion and violence to obtain more favorable mating and marriage arrangements.

These manifestation of male dominance in intersexual conflict can be found at all social scales throughout human history. In the volume Ancient Siege Warfare, Paul Bentley Kern writes that, “Perhaps the dominant theme in the representation of siege warfare in Greek literature is rape,” noting that it is a “constant theme of Homer and the tragic poets.” Similarly, the common pattern of warfare across small-scale societies is that while opposing adult male warriors tend be killed, women and children are often captured and incorporated into the group. I have previously discussed the widespread evidence of wife capture found across hunter-gatherer societies all over the world throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.

Anthropologist John J. Honigmann discusses an example among the Kaska foragers of British Columbia, writing that, “Women and children formed the bulk of the prisoners. Mostly the children were killed during the homeward journey… Women captives became wives who initially had to be carefully watched or tied lest they seek to escape.”

We can see another example in the Old Testament, where it is written that “The Israelites captured the Midianite women and children and took all the Midianite herds, flocks and goods as plunder,” and Moses himself demands of the commanders of the army: “Now kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man, but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man” (Numbers 31).

These patterns are further reflected in genetic data. In his 2016 book Who We Are and How We Got Here, geneticist David Reich discusses the phenomenon of sex-asymmetric population mixture during human history, noting that “the common thread is that males from populations with more power tend to pair with females from populations with less.” And, as Reich makes clear, these patterns were often the result of highly coercive pairings enforced by men, in contexts where women had limited ability to exercise choice. For example,

Comparison of Y-chromosome and mitochondrial DNA types that are highly different in frequency between African Americans and Europeans also shows that by far the majority of the European ancestry in these populations comes from males, the result of social inequality in which mixed-race couplings were primarily between free males and female slaves.

Understanding these trends that we see across human societies requires a careful consideration of our evolutionary history, and the constraints imposed by this history. Based on their analysis of intersexual dominance status and dimorphism across 79 primate species, anthropologist Rebecca Lewis and her colleagues conclude that “High [sexual] dimorphism probably characterized the catarrhine LCA [the Last Common Ancestor of Old World monkeys and apes], which constrained dominance relationships within this clade and helps explain why living catarrhines are primarily male dominant.” Similarly, in their review investigating obstacles and opportunities for female leadership across 76 nonhuman mammal species, evolutionary biologist Jennifer E. Smith and her colleagues write that, “The paucity of female-biased leadership across multiple domains is evident across the other primates, suggesting that male-biased leadership within the primate lineage has deep evolutionary roots and perhaps imposes a phylogenetic (historical) constraint on its evolution.”

We also share some important similarities with other closely related apes in the context of intersexual conflict. Primatologist Augustin Fuentes writes that his “overview of chimpanzee data suggests that we probably share with them the potential for severe aggression between groups and male coercion of females.” Even among bonobos, who are co-dominant and even relatively female-dominant in comparison with most other mammals, sexual coercion by males has been observed. Primatologist Klaree Boose described their findings studying a captive population of bonobos housed at Columbus Zoo, Ohio for about eight months, writing that,

We observed 56 attempts of direct sexual coercion performed by two males with a combined success rate of 71.4%. Of the two males who engaged in direct sexual coercion behaviors, the son of the alpha female (Gander) participated in direct sexual coercion events significantly more than any other male.

The generally high status that females are able to obtain among bonobos, as well as female coalitions that form to protect against male violence, may reduce the prevalence of sexual coercion, but males with high-status mothers seem to be able to get away with it against more subordinate females.

When it comes to the evolutionary factors that may have contributed to the sex bias in political leadership that we see across human societies, anthropologist Chris von Rueden and his colleagues write that;

Why women and men have differed in access to overt forms of political leadership across human societies may be due in part to sexual selection, on body size and on behaviors related to parenting, status competition, and coalition-building. The cross-cultural sexual division of labor emerges from (but is not justified by) such sex differences, affording men greater opportunity to compete for political leadership while restricting women’s opportunity.

Men tend to be bigger and stronger than women are. Males tend to benefit more from engaging in violence—both individually and in groups—and they can reap greater fitness benefits through mating with different partners than females do, as women’s reproductive output is more constrained by lactation and gestation time. Further, humans are a species with particularly helpless infants, who often require significant material investments from males to survive, unlike most other mammals. Across human societies, children often inherit material and nonmaterial traits or resources from parents and ancestors—like social status, lineage identity, and property—planting an even stronger importance for men to secure paternal certainty, otherwise they risk devoting substantial resources to unrelated children, which in many circumstances would hamper their own fitness interests. This has led to common domains of intersexual conflict found across the world, exhibited in phenomena like rape and bride capture, arranged child marriages and polygyny, and intimate partner violence.

Female Zulu virgins take part in a reed dance in South Africa for their king. Photo: Retlaw Snellac

Anthropologists have sometimes been insufficiently attentive to these patterns of sex inequality in many small-scale, and particularly hunter-gatherer, societies. For example, Anthropologist Richard B. Lee claims in a recent review that nomadic hunter-gatherers are characterized by “balanced gender relations,” yet in his own volume on the Ju/’hoansi hunter-gatherers of South Africa he notes that,

All first marriages are arranged by parents, and the girls have little say in the matter. If the choice is unpopular, the girls will show their displeasure by kicking and screaming, a way of asserting their independent voice in decision making against the alliance of parents and potential husband. If they protest long and hard enough, the marriage will be called off. The fact that close to half of all first marriages fail among the Ju/′hoansi is eloquent testimony to the independence of Ju women from both parents and husbands. In some cases girls have been known to attempt suicide rather than allow a marriage to be consummated. [emphasis added]

Similarly, anthropologist Catheryn Townsend discusses putatively ‘noncompetitive egalitarian societies’, which are purported to have “relatively equal social representation between different gender and age groups.” She includes, among others, the previously mentioned Mbuti and Ju/’hoansi as examples of these ‘noncompetitive egalitarian societies’, as well as the Hadza of East Africa. However, anthropologist James Woodburn writes that among the Hadza, “The most frequent occasion for the emergence of a rigidly segregated sexual group is the eating of epeme meat (manako ma epeme) by the men. Epeme meat usually consists of the most desirable portions of each game animal killed.” Woodburn describes the epeme feasts where, “The initiated men of the camp take a clay pot and go with the meat behind a large rock or a couple of hundred yards out of camp in order to be out of sight of the women and children.” Woodburn notes further that the men threaten the women with beatings and rape should they intrude on their secret feasts. Many of the men’s cults discussed at the beginning of this article would similarly monopolize access to valued resources and often require the women to contribute food to their secret rituals, claiming it was meant to feed spirit-gods and ancestors.

Despite these omissions from more recent anthropological accounts, many (particularly female) anthropologists wrote important theoretical work on the question of male dominance in human societies back in the 1970-1990s. Anthropologist Michelle Zimbalist Rosaldo, echoing and expanding on Mead’s remark in the epigraph of this article, wrote in 1973;

But what is perhaps most striking and surprising is the fact that male, as opposed to female, activities are always recognized as predominately important, and cultural systems give authority and value to the roles and activities of men. Contrary to some popular assumptions, there is little reason to believe that there are, or once were, societies of primitive matriarchs, societies in which women predominated in the same way that men predominate in the societies we actually know.

Similarly, anthropologist Sarah Hrdy criticized explanations for male dominance in human societies that focus primarily on socialization, or otherwise miss its evolutionary foundations, writing in her 1981 book The Woman That Never Evolved that such explanations,

cannot explain sexual asymmetry in even one other species. Yet male dominance characterizes the majority of several hundred other species that, like our own, belong to the order Primates. Save for a handful of highly informative exceptions, sexual asymmetries are nearly universal among primates. Logic alone should warn us against explaining such a widespread phenomenon with reference only to a specialized subset of human examples.

Having noted these evolutionary, historical, and cross-cultural patterns, perhaps we are left with the task of considering where that leaves us today, in our own societies.

In his 1973 work The Inevitability of Patriarchy, sociologist Steven Goldberg was, in my view, broadly on the right track in recognizing the ubiquity of male dominated power structures across societies historically. However, Goldberg also made a significant error. He noted that even the ‘post-industrial’ societies at the time had highly male dominated political structures, and argued that this was unlikely to change in the future. He made much of the fact that, for example, “In the United States there are no women senators,” and that women constituted only 3 percent of the members of the House of Representatives at the time. Yet in 2019 women make up 25% of senators and 23.4% of the members of the House of Representatives. Goldberg found a trend and turned it into a rule, believing it to be a law.

As we can see, some patterns have changed considerably in recent decades. As Hrdy recognizes, modern advances toward sex equality reside on a “unique foundation of historical conditions, values, economic opportunities, heroism on the part of women who fought for suffrage, and perhaps especially technological developments which led to birth control and labor-saving devices and hence minimized physical differences between the sexes.”

Having learned from Goldberg’s mistake, I would caution against attempting to predict what the future holds based on these historical patterns, or, conversely, overly extrapolating from the more recent changes identified by Hrdy. Our evolutionary history continues to leave its mark, yet the socioecological and cultural forces that contribute to human variation can act in unpredictable ways.”


William Buckner is a student of evolutionary anthropology at UC Davis. He can be followed on Twitter @Evolving_Moloch.