The Debate on the Origins of Gender Stratification

{Note: This is unedited from a class paper submitted 1998. My views have evolved from this.}

Earl A. Daniels – March 13, 1998 – Anthropology 201

The debate on the origins of gender stratification is one that will never be completely settled. It is, however, a debate that should be continued. The understanding of the origins of the oppression of women, and the search for that understanding, will help in eliminating some of the remaining social structures that perpetuate inequality.

During the 1970’s, the debate heated up between followers of Marx and Engels who link the oppression of women with the rise of state societies and those who contend that the oppression of women is universal and linked to conditions that existed prior to the rise of the state. During the 1980’s the debate shifted to include a look at how anthropology has denied its subjects their own place in history (Silverblatt 1991).

Anthropology is being reshaped by the increasing entry of women into the field. The view of women in shaping questions and interpreting data is, in many ways, quite foreign to the perspective of men. (Slocum 1975).

Trying to understand the social relationship between men and women is complicated by many factors. Early anthropological studies were conducted by Eurocentric men who clearly underestimated the importance of women’s roles in the cultures that were studied. Expectations of male dominance colored the observations and interpretations. The Eurocentric view also determined what factors were considered in determining equality. Measures of wealth and political power are not useful in determining relative equality between men and women in early cultures, since concepts of personal property and political power were significantly different in these cultures. Better measures of autonomy in these cultures would include a woman’s involvement in community decision making, freedom from coercion and physical abuse, and the ability to leave a marriage without undue sanctions.

Evidence on the origins of gender differentiation can come from non-human primate studies, archaeological investigations, and studies of existing pre-state cultures. Each of theses areas are receiving a fresh look from feminist anthropologists. Much of the earlier research done by men, such as the studies of native American cultures performed in the early days of European colonization, cannot be totally freed from the “white European Christian male” bias of the time. While much of the bias and moralizing is obvious, we cannot go back and redo these observations of these now changed societies without the biased perspective.

A new look from a woman’s perspective is being taken at the relationships among non-human primates. Especially under fire is the contention that human behavior in gender relationships can be understood by observing characteristics of baboon troops (Sperling 1991). Dominant male baboons, or allied males in “alpha groups”, provide protection to the female and young baboons. Some groups were even characterized as “harem” groups, where one male herded or guided several females and their young. Such observations led to comparisons with human nuclear families, supporting the idea that male-female roles are innate and related to physical gender differences. Closer observation with less bias reveals that among baboons, it is the female that generally chooses her sexual consorts, and in many cases, it is an older female that chooses the direction of daily movement. In cases of imminent danger, it was often the males, unencumbered by young, that made it into the safety of the trees first. Also, in a single generation of an artificially-created baboon colony, an older female took over the herding roles when all the older wild-born males died off and no colony-reared male stepped forward (Leibowitz 1975).

In addition to these stark differences between baboon behavior and stereotypical human gender roles, there is the consideration that baboons are not as genetically close to humans as other non-human primates, such as the chimpanzee. As our closest genetic kin, chimpanzees offer a glimpse of what gender traits may be considered biologically innate. Male chimpanzees are slightly larger than females, at about 150 pounds versus 130 pounds average for females. There are smaller males and larger females that both weigh in at around 140 pounds. A female that stops growing at puberty would divert less energy to her own growth, giving her a reproductive advantage, while a male that continues to grow after puberty would be able to forage more widely, which would give more reproductive opportunities. Neither of these considerations has anything to do with the domination of males over females. While males have larger canine teeth and females develop perineal sexual skins, there is little marked differences in secondary sexual characteristics. Chimpanzees have adapted to a variety of habitats, and form themselves into a various fluid social groups. While fluid, these groups are stable, showing little friction or competition, and females mate freely with multiple male partners (Leibowitz 1975).

We do share some similarities with living non-human primates, such as living in social groups, close mother-infant bond, and a large capacity for learned behavior. But many of the gender differences considered to be biologically ascribed are not clearly demonstrated by non-human primates. Leadership among chimpanzee groups is temporary and not necessarily by the largest male. No member of the group has special access to food or mating. Males do not choose their mates, and competition or fights over mating access are not the norm. In short, the theories on the evolution of human sex-role differences cannot be confirmed by observation of non-human primates (ibid.). The theories that are now being discredited more likely arose to justify why we have so much gender inequality now, rather than to fit objective observations into a coherent scheme.

What similarities we do share with non-human primates would need to survive the evolutionary changes that we see evidence of in the archaeological record.

Archaeology has also shown either a sexist view of prehistoric cultures, or at best a gendered “androcentric” view. Much of the archaeological research was centered around “man-the-hunter”, limiting the discussions of the primacy of women’s roles. The evidence gathered provides very little conclusive data, so what we “know” involves a large amount of speculation and inference (Conkey 1991). Research into human origins uses social characteristics that exist today to give meaning to artifacts from prehistory. If the researcher interpreting these artifacts considers female subordination to be “natural”, inherited genetically from our non-human primate ancestors, then the interpretation is very likely to reinforce and explain present social conditions. The ability to imagine other gender relationships has been limited, and only recently have long-held “truths” been placed under new scrutiny. Conkey believes that emergent research in archaeology on women and gender will alter the basic notions of gender relationships that underlie all of anthropology and other social sciences.

The study of artifacts would possibly mislead one to conclude an early importance to hunting. The scraper to remove the tough skin of a foraged tuber might be assumed to be a scraper to process animal hides. Also, the items that were certainly developed very early to support foraging, the baby sling and the food carrying bag, would not have been as likely to survive in the fossil record as would a spear head (Slocum 1975).

The fossil record does show a progression of changes toward modern humans. From this record we can infer certain characteristics about posture, tool-making ability, diet, and the use of fire. There is evidence of cultural creation in the form of artifacts, and we can make reasonable assumptions about the development of language. It is speculated that erect bipedalism freed our hands for more manipulation of the environment and the making of more tools. It is, however, a large logical gap to conclude that natural selection forces that were driving increased brain size and a longer time of immaturity of infants also caused males to become hunters to compensate for females being more burdened by their increasingly helpless infants (ibid.).

The logical extension to this conclusion would have incest prohibitions, marriage and the nuclear family all growing out of the need for males to cooperate in hunting, so that he could bring meat back home to his dependent females and young. So, while the men were busy providing the food, advancing their technical skills, inventing politics, art, and war, their poor helpless women were home having one baby after another. This theory would have you believe that all those “manly” skills are carried on the Y chromosome, an idea that doesn’t hold up to any scrutiny.

The more logical conclusion would be that women increased their gathering activities to match the increased dependence of their young. The social relationship between mother and child would deepen, and the first sharing of food would be between mother and child, not between man and woman. (Slocum 1975).

Modern-day hunter-gatherer societies support this idea to a great degree. In the study of existing cultures, the spectrum of gender relationships seems to indicate that no one particular culture accurately represents a stop along the path taken by what became industrialized societies. Existing hunter-gatherer cultures, and the gender relationships within, continued to change and adapt, even if it was not to “more advanced” forms of sustenance, such as horticulture or agriculture.

The hunter-gatherer societies that have been studied generally live in marginal or even harsh areas that are to some degree unsuited to cultivation. The technologies employed are similar to those that were known in the Mesolithic period, some 15,000 to 10,000 years ago, after end of the last Ice Age (Gough 1975). Even in less than ideal environments, using old technology, hunter-gatherers are able to obtain an ample diet, primarily from foraging, with work that amounts to about 20 hours per week. Even after time for other housekeeping activities, there was time available to concentrate on family relationships, social activities, and spiritual development (Haviland 1993, p.154).

One of the best-documented hunter-gatherer cultures is the !Kung San Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert in Botswana, Africa. The !Kung society contradicts gender-role stereotypes in that it is one of the least sexist societies known (Draper 1975). The traditional !Kung live in bands with extremely flexible composition and use simple hunting and gathering technologies.

!Kung women are generally self-confident and have a high sense of self-esteem. They are highly skilled in finding, recognizing and collecting a variety of foods throughout the year, providing 60 to 80 percent of the daily food intake by weight. In addition to foraging, they also use their skill to provide information to the men about the movement of potential game. The food that the women collect remains in their control (Draper 1975).

!Kung men, on the other hand, have little say in the distribution of the meat from their hunting, as they practice a form of generalized reciprocity (Haviland 1993, p. 187). The inconsistency of the success of the hunt means that the group would often go hungry if it were not for the more consistent supply of food provided by foraging. While there is division of labor by gender, adults of either gender are willing to do the work of the opposite gender. For example, while building huts is generally considered women’s work, a man would not be embarrassed or harassed by others when he is seen building a hut. Women do not hunt or carry meat, but would willingly collect water in a situation where it would normally be a man’s job.

!Kung children are raised with few experiences that separate the roles of boys and girls. Mothers are the primary disciplinarians, but adults of both genders avoid aggressive or authoritarian behavior. It is common to see !Kung fathers playing with children and sharing in many child care duties. Social interaction among members of the group is relaxed, with the close living conditions of the camps showing no signs of divisions or tensions that would be expected in a stratified society. Egalitarianism seems to extend into family decision making, with no clear signs of men exerting superordinate influence over women (Draper 1975). Skilled !Kung hunters do not seem to gain any special status.

Ernestine Friedl (1978) argues that male power among hunter-gatherers was derived from their control of scarce meat. The meat becomes a gift to the other members of the group. By distributing meat to others in the community, the man gains power and prestige in the eyes of others. Women, on the other hand, do not distribute much, if any, of their foraged food to anyone outside the members of the immediate household. This would limit the power of the women in the society at large, since the lack of others receiving food from the women would result in no others being indebted to the woman. Freidl contends that the greater the amount of food that a hunter brings in, the greater his power is, giving the example of the North American Inuit societies to confirm this claim. Men are the source of almost all food, with inland dwellers hunting caribou, and coastal dwellers fishing and whaling. The women provide only ancillary functions, such as cooking, processing hides. Inuit women are treated as objects, completely under the control of the men, who have little restraint on their dominion of their wives.

Friedl continues the argument by contrasting the Hadza of Tanzania on the other end of the spectrum, claiming that their near-equality is due to the fact that each person provides their own food, with little exchange except to feed children under the age of ten. Men generally gather food only for themselves, and women will only collect enough food over what she eats in the field for a light family meal in the evening. What occasional small game that is killed by the men is generally eaten on the spot. A man might supply some meat to his wife and mother-in-law, in the interest of maintaining the marriage. On the rare occasion that a large animal is killed by a poisoned arrow, it is carried back to the camp and shared with the rest of the group. Friedl concludes that Hadza men’s status is only slightly higher than that of women, since they distribute so little meat.

Friedl’s views are not particularly refuted in studies of the !Kung, but examples of other egalitarian societies show that her ideas do not hold up for all cultures. One such example is the Montagnais-Naskapi of the eastern Labrador Peninsula, on the eastern shore of present-day Canada. A Jesuit missionary, Le Jeune, lived with a Montagnais band in the winter of 1663-1664. His writings provide a picture of the life of, in his words, “the Savages”, and also provides a good example of a biased, Eurocentric viewpoint. Despite the value-judgement laden nature of his writings, an image of an egalitarian society is clear. The Montagnais-Naskapi lived primarily on hunted and trapped wild game, with fishing and foraging providing only a small portion of their diet. They were nomadic, polygynous, and quite gentle and peaceful. While Le Jeune’s view that the women had “great power” was probably a bit exaggerated, judging from Montagnais life today, virtually all decisions in their simple society were probably made jointly as family decisions. (Leacock 1981, 1993)

Despite the fact that Montagnais-Naskapi women of the seventeenth century provided less food than in most hunter-gatherer societies, their autonomy and lack of special deference is clear. Women could become shamans. They conducted their own ritual feasts, and even held their own councils to impose sanctions on a men for their conduct (ibid.).

It would seem that the division of labor by gender is not necessarily the cause of stratification. In those cases where division of labor became more pronounced at the same time that stratification occurred, it could be argued that the increase in inequality is the cause of the greater division of labor, not the other way around.

The argument might be made that the Montagnais-Naskapi and !Kung San societies are egalitarian because of the natural peacefulness of those within the groups. This is refuted by studies of the changes within !Kung groups that became sedentary. Gender egalitarianism seen in the bush has been undermined in the villages after only 15 to 20 years after the move to the villages. Women still contribute to food production with some foraging and small garden plots. The women also perform work for women in nearby villages, receiving milk or a portion of the harvested crops as payment for their work. However, gender roles have become more rigidly defined, and women’s work is now seen as “unworthy” of men. Women unhappy in marriage are pressured by others in the village to stay with her husband. In the bush, unhappy wives had the autonomy to either stand up to her husband, who would keep his complaints to himself, or she would leave her husband’s camp and go to another camp to live with other relatives (Draper 1975). While basic cultural practices are seen to change in a relatively short period of time, it does not seem as likely that the basic human temperament, especially a biologically-acquired temperament, could be changed so quickly. This indicates just how culturally-based the inequality is.

Obviously, there are hunter-gatherer societies that are not egalitarian by any measure, and there are examples of sedentary societies where women do have some degree of equality, or even as a part of a upper or ruling class in a few cases. One could also argue that among non-human primates, that females spending their entire adult lives either pregnant or nursing young is not their idea of egalitarianism. But there is enough evidence to cast serious doubt on the notion that the subordination of women is innate and “natural” and that we are only now becoming “civilized” enough to overcome this “animal” behavior. Even though Engels advanced the debate by pointing out that much of the degradation of women occurred in the changes in the Western world, his notion that biology determines the activities of women and men is being challenged. It is encouraging to see successful egalitarian cultures, and to see that anthropological research is removing the Eurocentric male blinders.

Hopefully, by looking around and back realistically, the future for gender equality will be brighter.


Conkey, Margaret W. 1991. “Original Narratives: The Political Economy of Gender in Archaeology.” Pp. 102-139 in  Gender at the Crossroads of Knowledge, edited by M. di Leonardo. Berkley, CA: University of California Press.

Draper, Patrica. 1975. “!Kung Women: Contrasts in Sexual Egalitarianism in Foraging and Sedentary Contexts.” Pp. 33-48 in  Family Patterns, Gender Relations,  edited by B. Fox. Toronto, OT: Oxford University Press.

Friedl, Ernestine. 1978. “Society and Sex Roles.” Pp. 136-141 in  Anthropology 95/96,  edited by E. Angeloni. Guilford, CT: Dushkin Publishing Group.

Gough, Kathleen. 1975. “The Origin of the Family.” Pp. 51-76 in  Toward an Anthropology of Women,  edited by R. Reiter. New York, NY: Monthly Review Press.

Haviland, William. 1993.  Cultural Anthropology, 7th  ed.  Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace College Publishers.

Leacock, Eleanor. 1981. “Original Study: Men and Women in Egalitarian Societies.” Pp. 160-163 in  Cultural Anthropology, 7th  ed.  Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace College Publishers.

_______. 1993. “Women in an Egalitarian Society: The Montagnais-Naskapi of Canada.” Pp. 49-57 in  Family Patterns, Gender Relations,  edited by B. Fox. Toronto, OT: Oxford University Press.

Leibowitz, Lila. 1975. “Perspectives on the Evolution of Sex Differences.” Pp. 20-35 in  Toward an Anthropology of Women,  edited by R. Reiter. New York, NY: Monthly Review Press.

Silverblatt, Irene. 1991. “Interpreting Women in States, New Feminist Ethnohistories.” Pp. 140-171 in  Gender at the Crossroads of Knowledge, edited by M. di Leonardo. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Slocum, Sally. 1975. “Woman the Gatherer.” Pp. 36-50 in  Toward an Anthropology of Women,  edited by R. Reiter. New York, NY: Monthly Review Press.

Sperling, Susan. 1991. “Baboons with Briefcases vs. Languar in Lipstick: Feminism and Functionalism in Primate Studies.” Pp. 204-234 in  Gender at the Crossroads of Knowledge, edited by M. di Leonardo. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.